EDITORIAL: Change of heart’s not weakness

EDITORIAL WRITERS have always depended on an endless supply of unapologetically bad behavior and poor judgment by public officials. But the last few days have yielded what feels like a torrent of official apologies and changes of heart acknowledging failures. That’s a welcome development, unless it becomes a trend. After all, too much good behavior threatens the need for editorials like this one. Should I be worried?

The outcome of the school budget votes in Hudson and the Ichabod Crane central school districts prompted the most significant examples. In both districts the people who bothered to go out and vote rejected their district’s spending proposals. In Hudson the reason seems straightforward. Even with drastic cuts in staffing, a majority of the board backed a budget that would have raised the property tax levy by nearly 10%.

To make matters worse, after the votes were counted last week, the board hastily adopted the budget that the voters had just defeated. State law permits this as long as the increase in school spending does not exceed the annual rise in the cost of living. The Hudson board’s decision to thumb its collective nose at voters, not to mention the sudden, unanticipated way the board went about taking its post-election vote, made school officials look like petulant kindergarteners in need of a time out.

But then, at a special meeting this week, something extraordinary happened. The board listened to complaints from the public, including people who clearly felt betrayed by the decision to ignore the will of the voters. And a majority of the board voted to rescind the newly approved budget and look once more for cuts to lower the tax levy.

The board members know their choices are grim. More cuts will only compound the impact on students as the district begins a second year with far fewer teachers. State and federal government are a big part of the problem. By so rapidly withdrawing large amounts of funding, Washington and Albany have forced local boards like Hudson’s to reinvent public education on the fly.

But for all the hurdles the district faces and with no guarantee that a revised budget will improve support among taxpayers, the Hudson City School District Board of Education has done the right thing. In the process it may have taught students an important lesson in real-life democracy. One of the greatest strengths of democratic institutions, including school boards, lies in their ability to change in response to the will of the people — to acknowledge a problem and fix it or to step aside peacefully when voters decide someone else should try.

The Hudson board’s decision to voluntarily rescind its budget vote should help build trust in whatever new plan emerges. The board didn’t have to take this route, and those on the board who voted to rethink the budget deserve praise. But they are only halfway there. Now they have to come up with a smaller tax levy without gutting the basic education they were elected to provide. And part of that task requires persuading voters that their new plan is the best of all the rotten options available.

In the ICC district, the situation was different. Board members who have looked at an exit poll believe that the proposed 4% tax levy increase — high by local standards — was far easier for voters to swallow than the dismay over the board’s decision at the last budget meeting to include funding for a football program previously supported with private donations. That single, financially insignificant line item unraveled a consensus that had emerged over months of planning  for drastic cuts.

Unlike Hudson, the ICC board waited a week for the dust to settle before reacting to the outcome of the election. Then the board met with the public and explained the options. The board agreed to drop the football program as a school expense, make a few other, minor spending reductions and, to save the district the cost of another election, adopted the slightly revised plan as the official budget for the next school year. There has been no outcry.

Everybody makes mistakes, including school boards. Maybe some critics will call the actions of the two boards “flip-flops” or signs of weakness. Don’t buy that. It distorts our view of the democratic process, which depends on officials willing to take responsibility for their actions. What these boards showed was not weakness. It was strength.

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