A complicated question of trust

Published 10:02 pm Monday, April 22, 2013

Something doesn’t feel right about the public hearing on the city budget. There’s a shadow of personal animus hovering over the discussion. Folks are talking, but are they talking to each other?

There are times when the Suffolk City Council seems to be saying one thing, and the School Board seems to say something quite different. At this stage it’s obvious council does not have the “political will” to raise taxes more than six cents this year. Unfortunately, at times the issue doesn’t appear to be about education at all.

At Wednesday night’s public hearing, councilmen Curtis Milteer and Mike Duman did a spot demographic breakdown of speaker concerns. Of the 36 people who spoke, 22 backed full school funding, the extra $9 million and all.

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But roughly half that group (maybe 11 speakers) sent mixed signals. I couldn’t tell whether the real concern was schools or the city manager’s pay raise. Their mixed agenda weakens and undercuts the school system’s broader argument.

School funding has nothing to do with how well the city manager is paid. Compared to other places I’ve lived, salaries here for high-level public employees are quite reasonable. Isn’t it about time folks got over that? I wonder whether some other issue is at play.

Such discussions are distracting and irrelevant. The real problem is more personal. Both sides appear to distrust each other — not because they’re bad people but because they are hardly speaking the same language.

City Council by nature is a bottom-line, results-oriented body. It likes simple, clear answers to simple, clear questions. The School Board, by nature, is more process-oriented.

Is this dynamic any different than the average marriage, in which, for instance, the wife is right brain-oriented and the husband leans left? One is pragmatic, the other more creative. One is practical about the money coming in, the other determined to get the children what they need at any cost.

Isn’t the genius of marriage in how both people mold and shape each other, how they develop a shared vision, in spite of opposite natures? It stands to reason that one partner would be wise not to stay in a constant state of rebellion. The other might want to avoid temptations to pull rank when frustration sets in.

If both were to give a little, things could get interesting. Harmony could evolve over the realization that, right now, money lost from outside sources can’t be recovered through recession-strapped local revenues and that cost-cutting measures could help cover funding deficits. An acknowledgement of the special needs inherent to modern education would also be helpful.

Mostly, both sides need to get and trust clear answers to straight questions.

City Council has sent clear signals it wants a negotiated solution. But it can’t wait forever. The School Board must realize its own responsibilities in this relationship.

It’s time for this bickering couple to kiss and make up.