AUGUST, NORMALLY A SLEEPY MONTH FOR POLITICS, is sizzling with political heat all across America. Elected representatives are holding town hall meetings and getting an earful from the normally somnambulant populace, which has apparently beginning to awake to Washington's perfidy. It's about time.
As a resident of the most conservative state, I have lamented the lack of political excitement in my own backyard, but then I went to the Board of Education meeting inaugurating a new school district which was carved out of the largest school district in Utah. Salt Lake valley is divided economically east and west. The east side is established; the west is growing. While schools are aging on the east side, new multi-million dollar state-of-the-art schools are springing up on the west side. Thus, property taxes in the Jordan School District have been high and going higher, yet most east side tax money goes to construction on the west side. East side denizens didn't like paying for schools ten miles away from the run-down schools in their own neighborhood, so last November the Canyons School District was born.
My own taxes took a jump, even as my home fell in value by almost 15%. To find out why, I attended the first Canyons school board meeting. It was interesting, and like all government-sponsored programs, expanded from the planned two hours to four. Why? Because scores of my neighbors, who appeared relaxed and agreeable before the meeting, burst into angry outbursts and shouts at the utterly stunned board members sitting before us.
The issue was simple: the Board, repeatedly patting itself on the back for its boldness and creativity, showed us an almost unintelligible PowerPoint presentation designed to inform us as to the mechanics of the new tax scheme, all of which resulted in what they proudly pointed out several times was a zero-increase budget. Oh, what a good boy am I!
Following the presentation, taxpayers each got three minutes to express their opinions. And here's where democracy fell apart. People asked, quite rightly, how the Board could be considering a tax scheme identical to the previous year when everyone in the audience was making do with less this year. The diminishing value of our properties aside, many people used their three minutes to talk of jobs lost, increasing utility expenses, and across-the-board belt tightening. They were often interrupted by applause from the sympathetic and increasingly angry crowd.
During these diatribes, the Board members sat stone-faced and unresponsive. Not a word was uttered in defense of the proposed budget and no question put to them by a taxpayer was answered. Many of them simply worked on their personal computers. Some took notes. But not one of them engaged with the petitioners or responded directly to their concerns.
At the end of more than a hour of public outrage, the time was turned over to the Board. Though they addressed some of our concerns, they spoke among themselves, not to us. It became clear that they had already made up their minds before the meeting ever began; public opinion had not swayed them in the least. At the end of their internal discussion they voted unanimously to approve the tax scheme as proposed.
In disgust, half the audience got up and left.
Then the surreal process was repeated. The CFO spoke in vague terms about budget particulars, this time sparing us his pointless PowerPoint. Public response was again allowed. I got up and asked how is it that the Board refused to respond to questions put to them in real time, by real people? They simply stared at me, saying nothing. Not even the simple, irrefutable logic of "when the pie is smaller, you cannot have the same sized piece as before," seemed to penetrate their closed minds. I closed my remarks by noting that one of the Board members had stated that 85% of their budget was tied to district salaries and benefits. Had they considered the unfortunate but clearly responsive option of reducing salaries and costs across the board or cutting administrative positions? My question was answered with silence.
In the Board discussion that followed public comment, a Board member revealed that salaries and benefits of District employees were set by state law; the Board had no power to change or alter them. So, in a school district with a budget of $200 million, the Board has the power of the purse over just $30 million.
I shook my head. What, then, were we doing there? More to the point: what was the Board doing there? What impact could they possibly have on the District other than rubber-stamping the administration's proposed budget? It seemed like high school all over again: people running for meaningless offices for no other purpose than to advance their own popularity. The budget of the Canyons School District was unanimously approved by the Board.
That's when the rest of us left.
On the way home, I reflected on what democracy has devolved to. All the elements of possible success are there: engaged people with opposing interests striving toward important goals. Yet not a single moment of true dialogue occurred during the entire four hour enterprise. People made presentations, people commented on the presentation, Board members talked among themselves and then voted as they had planned to vote all along.
This new "democracy" is no doubt designed to avoid the messiness of traditional democracy: heated discussions and angry accusations, which can result -- if people's minds are open -- in solutions to problems. So there we sat, two hundred people in the same room, and not a minute of real person-to-person communication in four hours. But from the Board's perspective, the evening had been a success: they got the budget they proposed, they heard from their constituents (though they apparently didn't listen), and the pressure in the boiling tea kettle of public anger was reduced. Success, right?
Not to the almost two hundred tax payers who attended, their taxes raised, their usable income reduced, and their opinions ignored.
One good thing came out of the evening for me: a growing feeling that democracy in America is undergoing a painful rebirth. As more and more of us attend these public gatherings and we see how ridiculous the process became while we were busy living our lives and leaving politics to politicos, we are forming new opinions about what's wrong with our country and how to fix it. We of the silent majority, who routinely solve problems in our own lives and live within our own budgets, are beginning to demand the same from our elected officials. And if the stunned, disbelieving looks on the Canyons School Board's faces are any indication, then a sleeping giant may be awakening.
You may diminish this sort of grass-roots awakening as mere Astroturf and decry it as staged and unimportant. But from what I saw last Tuesday night in Sandy, Utah, you do so at your growing peril.
P.S. The next day, a local television station quoted a District spokesman on the Board's unanimous approval of the proposed budget: "We believe it is responsible fiscal policy for Canyons constituents in a very difficult budget year. We wanted to be responsive to the needs of our public."
I kid you not.