Charrette or charade?

Here’s some hopeful news about the school-funding “charrette” Thursday night at Bloomington High School North: The 40 people who took part clearly had a wide range of priorities, but everyone seemed open to the idea that other people’s priorities are important too.

At least that’s how it seemed to me, based on the clicker-augmented survey that started the evening and the later small-group discussion that I took part in.

With real-time results available from the initial survey, it seemed most people were giving a rating of “most important” or “important” to virtually all aspects of education in the Monroe County Community School Corp. Sure, class size, music, art and librarians were rated as important. But so were alternative education, adult education, early childhood education and career and technical education.

Ninety percent of us said current and future funding cuts threaten the quality of education in the MCCSC. Altogether, it seemed like a group that was ready for some give-and-take but likely to support a broad-based referendum to increase property taxes to offset state funding cuts for local schools.

The charrette was the last of four conducted by MGT of America as part of its “community engagement” contract with the MCCSC. An online version of the priorities survey is posted on the MCCSC website. MGT project director Bill Carnes has also been conducting outreach activities, including a meeting last week with members of the pro-referendum group Support Our Schools.

The good news from Thursday’s charrette is tempered, of course, by the fact that we were a self-selected group, not representative of the electorate who will vote in a school-funding referendum this fall. We were there, most of us, because we’re interested in MCCSC schools and looking for ways to support them. A majority had children attending local public schools; a number of others work for the MCCSC.

As for the charrette itself, my main complaint was that it went by too quickly. After the large-group survey in the North auditorium, we split into three groups of 13-14 people for about 45 minutes of discussion. That’s a lot of people to try to involve in an in-depth conversation. And JoAnn Cox, the MGT facilitator for my group, understandably kept things moving, trying to cover a full range of issues in the time allotted, while taking notes and asking the occasional clarifying question.

The result was maybe two or three citizen comments on each topic, and not a lot of back-and-forth. Are there equity issues in the MCCSC? How important is (fill in the blank)? What’s the most important factor in designing a referendum? We could have spent 45 minutes on any one of those topics.

Some people have suggested that there was a chilling effect because school board members were present as non-participants. Board members Jim Muehling and Keith Klein were in my group, but they kept quiet and didn’t react to anything that was said. I suspect most of the people in the room didn’t know who they were. I kept forgetting they were there.

The real question is whether the charrettes and the follow-up online survey will produce meaningful information that will increase the likelihood of passing a school-funding referendum. If they do, then MGT’s contract – which pays “a total amount not to exceed $ $35,865” – can be justified. If not? Maybe there’s some value that a handful of us feel better and more “engaged” for having been asked our opinions. But it’s not clear how much that is worth.

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