Seven Essays: Of FACTS and Fantasy
Some thoughts on the ongoing tension between the Geneva TaxFACTS group and the Geneva School Board.
On some level, I think that most folks in Geneva are aware of the ongoing battles between the School Board and the Geneva TaxFACTS citizens group.
There have been enough headlines and enough reporting and enough strong rhetoric for readers to get the impression that there's some kind of confrontation happening that goes beyond the intellectual exchange of ideas or contrary fiscal management philosophies.
But I also think that most Genevans probably aren't aware of how emotional—and personal—the struggles have become, for people on both sides.
I've talked off the record with School Board members and friends of School Board members who feel as if they've been yelled at, insulted, castigated and even threatened, relentlessly, in public and private settings. And I've talked off the record with TaxFACTS members who feel much the same way—that they've been ignored, looked down at, and publicly and privately mistreated for simply disagreeing or questioning the status quo.
The point of that last paragraph isn't to accuse one side or the other of a specific behavior or incident. It's to show how people on both sides feel, and that they are hurting.
If you've ever attended a School Board meeting, you probably noticed right away the distance between the School Board members and District 304 staff and the audience. That seating configuration is probably the best anyone can do in the old Coultrap cafeteria, but it's also symbolic of the distance between the two groups—because often, the majority of the audience members are the core membership of Geneva TaxFACTS.
As this is written, more than a week before I go on vacation, there are a few, subtle signals that each side is moving a little closer together.
Mark Grosso has taken over as board chair and already made some adjustments, including establishing a Finance Committee that's held in public session and taking time at the meetings to listen to public comment. TaxFACTS members might say those are token moves or baby steps, but they are steps nontheless.
TaxFACTS co-founder Bob McQuillan wrote what I thought was a well-reasoned and civil blog post on Geneva Patch, and the comments that followed were, for the most part, complimentary.
One of those commenters was former School Board member Rodney Nelson—who himself might have proudly owned the title of gadfly as a frequent contributor to the letters to the editor section The Geneva Republican, lo those many years ago when I was a young editor learning a trade. Maybe I'm getting curmudgeonly as I get longer in the tooth, but I find myself agreeing quite often these days with Dr. Nelson's point of view.
To paraphrase Dr. Nelson's comments:
Geneva benefits by having smart, passionate, caring School Board members and school administrators.
Geneva benefits by having active, astute citizen watchdogs.
And to stray a little off point, Geneva even benefits from pot-stirring opinion columnists like Jeff Ward, who bring up topics that might otherwise be lost from the conversation. Journalists don't function as local-government watchdogs nearly enough anymore, Dr. Nelson notes, and so the mantle is pushed on citizens.
The danger is that the combination of the three elements mentioned above can be incendiary, and raw emotions can lead to dysfunctional communication, dysfunctional activism and even dysfunctional government. But there is no doubt in my mind that the most functional Geneva involves and embraces all of its citizens and differing points of view.
In the distance of time between this writing and its publication, anything can happen. I'd be lying if I didn't think there's at least the possibility of a tinderbox explosion. But I am heartened by some of the dialogue I've heard in the past few days.
Probably it's Pollyanna, maybe it's sheer fantasy, but for the sake of the community, I hope both sides can move their chairs a little closer together.