Friday, May 17, 2002
CCHS budget process needs fixing
Even before the current CCHS budget mess, it was obvious that the system of arriving at a budget for our regional high school doesn't work. It doesn't work for the Concord and Carlisle FinComs that have spent endless hours developing FY03 budgets; it doesn't work for the regional school committee (RSC); and it especially doesn't work for the Concord-Carlisle High School administration which cannot hire personnel or plan next year's programs. This year it is unlikely that CCHS will have a budget before the start of the next fiscal year in July.
Currently each town has its own budget cycle and spending priorities. Although a joint meeting of the two FinComs with the regional school committee is held early in the budget year, apparently little real dialog occurs. In addition, the regional school committee has not been able to channel the towns' different budget guidelines, issues and limitations into a coherent joint proposal that both Concord and Carlisle citizens can support.
In last week's issue of the Mosquito candidates for the board of selectmen and the school committee were asked how the budget process could be improved. All suggested that there needs to be more communication between the two towns. This certainly must be the starting point. This year and last the potential for a budget mismatch has been clearly recognized in Carlisle, generating many hours of discussion between the FinCom and Carlisle's RSC representatives. The Mosquito has devoted many inches of text to this issue for months.
It is surprising that the same level of concern was not evident in Concord. Except for one short article in early April, the Concord Journal has been silent on this brewing mismatch. Apparently neither the RSC, nor the Concord FinCom, nor the Concord selectmen informed Concord voters that Carlisle would not and could not follow Concord's lead to another large budget increase. Until this week, most Concord voters were unaware that this problem exists. A joint process must start with an understanding of issues on both sides.
In addition, our current experience suggests that a more formal joint process needs to be defined. Perhaps the answer is a joint budget committee with representation from the RSC and both FinComs. Our high school is our treasure. We need to find a process that works.
Town Meeting: an appreciation
The change in scale from New York City to Carlisle has changed my life in many obvious ways, but one unanticipated area of major difference is my relationship to local government. In New York, I may have shaken the hands of a few parading politicians, but my involvement in city government was limited to voting in hotly contested mayoral elections. This is quite different from Carlisle, where I am welcome to speak and actually vote at Town Meeting on the allocation of the town's scarce resources, financial and otherwise.
Today, with on average every 655,000 of us having one representative in Congress (compared to 30,000 to 1 in 1790) and special interests creating a greater gulf between each citizen and the decisions of our government, one can understand the feeling that one vote doesn't matter. With this perspective, living in a small New England town and therefore getting to directly represent myself at Town Meeting seems extraordinarily special.
Granted, Town Meeting isn't about "global" conflicts like trade imbalance with Chelmsford, illegal immigration from Acton, or war with Billerica. It does, however, address issues which shape the future of our town, for better or worse. Decisions we make today will determine the quality of the schools, the diversity of the citizenry, the extent and condition of recreational facilities, and the amount of open space protected from development for our (or someone else's) children and grandchildren. What kind of town do we want Carlisle to be 10, 50, even 100 years hence? To my mind, this is a daunting responsibility, one not to be taken lightly.
While this year saw an unusually large turnout for the first night of Town Meeting, fewer than 1 in 6 registered voters attended. Though it is said you lose your right to complain about decisions made if you don't attend, the loss may run deeper.
According to Joseph Harrington, Jr., a leading Massachusetts town moderator, the right of citizens of towns like Carlisle to speak at town meeting derives from tribal councils beyond the sway of the Roman Empire. In the absence of a monarch, these illiterate tribesmen somehow originated a set of principles to solve problems in councils wherein all who wished to speak would be heard, and all agreed to abide by majority vote. This role of the citizenry in their local government was affirmed by William the Conqueror to counterbalance the potential threat to his rule posed by the military might of the barons. The customs of village assemblies that developed over the next 500 years were brought to New England by the Pilgrims, who held a town meeting before stepping off the Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock.
The custom of offering everyone the opportunity to speak makes for long town meetings. It is terribly inefficient. It would be much easier to have a few enlightened, intelligent people (like those in Washington DC!) figure out what's best and save us all the tedium of listening to one ill-informed, self-serving (or thoughtful and considerate) speaker after another.
But this is precisely the challenge of town meeting and the essence of its beauty. Only by recognizing the right of all to speak, and being present to honor that right, do we properly honor the freedom our democracy provides. Yes, it also provides us the freedom to stay home and leave it to others. For me however, there is a glorious wonder in the fact that our gatherings in the school auditorium are such a rare example of a form of democratic self-government dating back over 1500 years. It's great to be a part of it.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito