An impediment to progress

Published 9:39 pm Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ten months after the establishment of a joint City Council-School Board committee charged with finding ways the two bodies could collaborate to save taxpayers money, not a single penny has been saved, and not a single strategy has been adopted.

City Council member Mike Duman, one of two council members on the City School Advisory Committee on Collaborative Fiscal Concerns, speaking at a meeting of that committee on Monday, described the group’s work as moving “at a snail’s pace.” His description, though apt, actually denigrates snails, which move with the speed of Usain Bolt compared to this committee.

When members of Suffolk City Council suggested forming the committee last year, there was a feeling the city might finally break through the logjam of mistrust and bitterness that had come to define the relationship between the two elected bodies. Perhaps elected officials from both sides could finally put their heads together and work toward solutions reflecting a spirit of compromise without compromising the values or needs of either.

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But it soon became apparent that differing expectations would hobble the whole process. During the committee’s first meeting, School Board member Judith Brooks-Buck bristled at the idea of having members of the school system’s administrative staff attend the meetings, as doing so, she said, could seem to subvert the chain of command.

Subsequent meetings have included at least three city staffers apiece, but most have occurred without a single School Board staff member. Seeking to remedy that situation, Duman moved Monday that the School Board begin requesting a staff member to attend each committee meeting. Brooks-Buck again objected to the idea and cast the lone dissenting vote on the motion, which ultimately passed.

Attendance issues aside, a proposal to study an energy-saving program also has languished since November. The energy performance contracting program would allow government entities to contract with one of several state-approved providers to perform energy-saving capital improvements. The contractors guarantee energy savings will pay for the loans used to pay for the improvements. If that doesn’t happen, the contractor strokes a check for the difference.

The committee’s School Board members demanded their full board vote on whether to study the program, but that vote didn’t happen until May. And then on Monday, Brooks-Buck exasperatingly asserted that the school system was waiting for City Council to take the lead on the study. Meanwhile, Suffolk has lost at least one budget cycle’s worth of potential savings while the committee has been spinning its wheels.

There may be more than personality differences and turf-guarding at the root of this committee’s ineffectiveness, but it’s glaringly clear now that no real progress can be made toward the goal of collaborative government in Suffolk until those two issues are addressed.

Considering the positions Brooks-Buck has taken since November, it’s obvious she is the intractable force keeping the joint committee from beginning to make real progress toward its objectives. It’s time — past time, in fact — for the School Board to remove her from this committee and replace her with someone who is committed to doing more than protecting her turf.

Failing to do so will ensure that taxpayers conclude the School Board is interested only in blaming City Council for its money problems, not actually doing the hard work to solve them.