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Jeff Ward: Geneva School Board, City Taking Steps in Right Direction

Foolish consistency is a tragic flaw, so it's good to see the City Council and School Board marking fiscal progress.

As it is with anything in this life, our best trait, if not administered with the appropriate foresight, can quickly become our tragic flaw and eventual downfall. As the Zen folks like to point out, the Universe demands balance.

Even a prized characteristic like consistency can quickly turn into one of those double-edged swords.

Most of us value leaders who remain consistent to a specific set of values and ideals. When Mitt Romney proclaims he’s “severely conservative” in one breath and then the pundits play a clip where he calls himself “progressive,” that lack of consistency will doom his presidential aspirations.

The moral is, it pays to be consistent when cameras follow you everywhere.

But then there’s the kind of constancy that can get you into trouble. Emerson described it well when he said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” He was warning us about the folks who, by always carrying a sledgehammer, see everything as a spike and relentlessly pound that spike even thought it’s already been driven 10 feet into the ground.

The Tea Party and current batch of Republicans are prime examples of this phenomenon. They don’t want to work with the president, nor do they care about good government, they simply want to be the ones who call the shots.

If President Obama fixed the economy, eliminated the deficit and did away with every last tax yesterday, they’d still find a way to call him a socialist. Short of his stepping down, there’s no way to satisfy these folks. They’ll just warp or create the facts to fit their narrow world view.

This is why I often say that, while it’s good to see folks get involved, not all citizen activism is a good thing. And it’s when they fall prey to this “foolish consistency” that they become just another part of the problem.

Take Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for example. MADD leaders started off with the best of intentions, but after they accomplished much of what they set out to do, rather than back off and assume a necessary watchdog role, they started pressing their agenda beyond reasonability.

And when an activist group takes on a survival instinct, watch out!

On the other hand, the Citizens Utility Board is prime example of an entity that had some success and then gracefully transitioned into that watchdog role. Their capacity to work with utilities, politicians and the public isn’t imitated often enough.

Of course, the antithesis of a foolish consistency is the ability to accept and consider new evidence that might alter your point of view and thus, any future course of action.

After all, isn’t life the journey and not the destination? Doesn’t progress always come in steps?

And the good news in that regard is, we’ve just seen two significant blows against foolish consistency right here in Geneva. 

The first occurred when the City Council held the property tax levy line last December. It may only mean a $10 per household savings, but the fact that they bucked the status quo to do it meant so much more than that sawbuck. That act said their mindset is shifting. It showed they’re beginning to understand that the taxpayer is tapped out.

And the fact that I complimented them on that stand doesn’t mean I’m not watching. But whenever a government entity does do the right thing, the prudent thing to do is to back off and give them an opportunity to follow in those fiscally conservative footsteps.

The second blow for common sense came at the hands of our District 304 School Board, which dipped into financial reserves to lessen the imminent property tax blow by $100. Is it something that should be shouted from the rooftops? Maybe not, but it’s a step! And it’s certainly a step worth noting.

Again, there’s much more to it than the money involved. It’s evidence that the board is acknowledging those taxpayers who are having a tough time making ends meet.

But instead of applauding this step and taking a step back, the local activist group that relentlessly hammers the School Board only paid brief lip service to this tax reduction and immediately issued demands for more far-reaching steps.

As it is with the tea partiers, there is nothing the School Board can do short of turning the reins over to these “activists” that will make them happy. Even if the board brought taxes down to zero, then they’d want control of curriculum. And they want to be the ones in charge without having to win election.

Who of us, while essentially volunteering for a high-profile, non-paying role, when faced with this kind of damned-if-you-do rhetoric, wouldn’t want to push back a little bit?

This is how a foolish consistency consistently can work against you.

Rome wasn’t built in day, there’s a reason 12-year-old scotch is far more expensive, some things take time, and, as the Zen folks also like to say, “you can’t make the grass grow by pulling on it.”

Especially when you consider the economic challenges facing both bodies, I think they’re moving in the right direction. Will there be bumps in the road? Bet on it! Will it be enough? I don't know. But the bottom line is this is progress.

And that’s something we can take to the bank.

Fred Cregier February 15, 2012 at 03:06 PM
Jeff, you unfairly heap ridiculous assumptions on people you refer to as "activists", who keep challenging our School Board to do a much more significant job of reducing costs. The unneccessarily high tax levies for years now mask the Board's unwillingness to date to truly attack the unsustainable size of total non-teaching jobs, which is a large part of overall costs in operating our District. The overbuilding of School facilities has become a major factor also, but we cannot layoff buildings....those construction bonds are something we taxpayers are all stuck with now. However, the next bigger item is people costs. For an example, do we really need a superintendent at a salary of well over $200,000, and 4 assistant superintendents each at salaries of well over $100,000 each! Oh for the days when one hardworking superintendent could get the job down without most of his work being delegated to 4 assistants! I am getting over my limit on words, so I will continue in a minute. Fred Cregier
Fred Cregier February 15, 2012 at 03:17 PM
Jeff, I believe the Board is unhappy with activists who constantly nag them to do more cost reductions than moving a relatively small amount of their reserve funds to only moderately minimize the continuing tax increases which will still go up even after the reserves are applied. Activists want to challenge the Board to truly analyze non-teaching staffing and reduce it to the basic essentials which would save millions if done honestly and courageously, as it needs be. Don't expect us to melt away just because some relatively minor reductions are made in what is still a net significant tax increase again this year. Activism created this nation in the 18th century. We need to be professional, but the last thing we need is to applaud the Board for not doing enough. Your remarks about activists not being satisfied until they control the curriculum are insulting to those who simply want to see common sense applied. Fred Cregier
Paul Bryant February 15, 2012 at 03:20 PM
Less of an increase is still an increase, not a savings, and one act to the positive does not establish a pattern. The lack of community involvement with the board lead to their "municipal mindset" - your words - and now you want a further lack of involvement by a community group? Unbelievable!
Alberto Principe February 15, 2012 at 03:48 PM
In reading this article, I cannot help but feel as if have a personal grudge against a small group of Geneva citizens. While it is possible that your intent was to use the Patch to vent your frustrations, I do not think it is fair to use your published essays to try and influence public opinion. I have enjoyed many of your previous essays. While your views may appear to be a bit radical at times and you seem to love the attention you get out of writing those articles(i.e. cheerleading, predictions of presidential elections, etc.), this time I am disappointed to read what seems like an essay that is meant to bully a few residents that cannot understand the reasoning behind the decisions of the School Board. I could be mistaken, but I believe that it is the responibility of all public officials to be clear and concise regarding the use of taxpayes' monies. Rome may not have been built in a day, but the road to Hades is paved with good intentions. Your opinion is important, and it always feels good to let others know how you feel, but please note that while I may not agree with your thoughts, I respect your opinion. Maybe it is time you started respecting others'.
Jeff Ward February 15, 2012 at 04:01 PM
Paul, First, as I pointed out, the mindset is, thankfully, changing. And second when activist involvement actually makes the situation worse - and then leads to less community involvement, then yes, I want less of it. It's not rocket science. Paul, your "consistency" is exactly what I was writing about in this piece. Jeff
Jeff Ward February 15, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Alberto, I appreciate your kind words! But I am an opinion columnist and it is the very essence of my job to influence public opinion. And it is my opinion that this group has ulterior motives which is making things much worse and not better. I'm sure not everyone shares that opinion and you have every right to come to Patch and say I'm wrong. Jeff
Lance Mitchell February 15, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Face FACTS, pun intended, the only reason the school board took the action they did was because the were pressured into it.
Rod Nelson February 15, 2012 at 04:10 PM
We should not forget that the bonded indebtedness of the school district was approved by the community by referendum. Right now our collective decisions do look a bit suspect. In seven or eight years when our mortgage payment hits ~$25mil/year a few variables, such as interest rates, inflation rates and the Geneva census, will help us judge our collective performance.
Alberto Principe February 15, 2012 at 04:18 PM
Jeff, what are those ulterior motives? Take over the School Board? Unlikely. Are we perhaps doing a little conspiracy theory in Geneva? It is the lack of trust between public figures and residents that result in indiference from the public. I am not sure I am ready to accept we have a militant group in Geneva trying to save my tax investments. I am sure there can be strongly opinionated characters, like yourself, in that group of residents but to call them activists, seems a bit exagerated, bordering on the extreme. In my humble opinion.
Jeff Ward February 15, 2012 at 04:23 PM
Rod, Excellent point, as usual. Jeff
Jeff Ward February 15, 2012 at 04:26 PM
Lance, Absolutely untrue. FACTS has hammered the school board so relentlessly, they're now resistant to doing anything that would encourage them further. This dipping into reserves happened in spite of FACTS not because of it. Jeff
Jeff Ward February 15, 2012 at 04:29 PM
Alberto, Yes! Exactly! Taking over the school board, but not directly. FACTS wants the power to create policy without having to win and election or make the effort it takes to be good leaders. No matter what the school board does, they will continue to hammer them because their proposition is power and self-aggrandizement, not good government. And I only use the word "activist" as a noun and not an adjective. Militant and activist are not the same things. There is no ulterior meaning behind the use of that word. Jeff
Alberto Principe February 15, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Thank you Jeff. I am not well informed about FACTS, but I would be lying if I said this article did not make me want to learn more. Things like the why, how, where, and who, of FACTS sounds like an insteresting read! Thank you again for taking the time to break it down even further for me.
Steven Sheehan February 15, 2012 at 04:57 PM
Thanks for starting the discussion. I have a rather lengthy view on the topic and it would require multiple and probably out of sequence reply boxes.I just signed on to Geneva Tax Facts and posted it in its entirety at http://www.genevataxfacts.org/forum/4-geneva-school-district-304/65-my-long-comments-on-jeff-ward-geneva-school-board There was no need to join or sign on to read the Forum and I hope you will read my thoughts and consider my personal invitation at the bottom. Regards, Steve Sheehan http://www.genevataxfacts.org/forum/4-geneva-school-district-304/65-my-long-comments-on-jeff-ward-geneva-school-board
Fred Cregier February 15, 2012 at 05:06 PM
Alberto, if you would like to learn more about FACTS and their efforts on holding taxes in check, go to their website at GenevataxFACTS.com. You will see many explanatory links therein that will inform you, and perhaps even encourage you to join with citizens of a like mind. The group sincerely wants to hold our public officials to commonsense levels of cost controls, to avoid ever-increasing tax burdens that are literally forcing some Genevans to look for ways to sell and move out of a City that they can no longer afford. Just as simple as that. It is not a hate group, but a group of very concerned citizens. The school District's budget is nearly 70% of your total tax bill, so no wonder people are getting deeply concerned about where we are heading and why we aren't more pro-active in cutting costs when it can be done! Fred Cregier
Jeff Ward February 15, 2012 at 05:20 PM
Alberto, You're welcome. But please remember, this is just my opinion! Jeff
Paul Bryant February 15, 2012 at 06:07 PM
One small step that should have been much larger does not establish a pattern of change, except in Ward's World. Your use of Patch to continue your ongoing battle with Bob is tiring. But at least you're consistent. You said you would switch your stance simply based on how Bob reacted to the school board. Congratulations to you and your hobgoblins.
Political PR Machine February 15, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Jeff...thanks for presenting a reasonable article and focusing on the productive changes taking place. Large ships do not turn on a dime, nor do established communities. The Forefathers of the countryplanned that way with intention. I appreciate the article's focus.
Scott Lang February 15, 2012 at 06:43 PM
You are correct that participation has been reduced by the current atmosphere - I won't attend a board meeting because of the current lack of civility. Jeff, why not write an It's a Wonderful Life style column about how great things would be if the referenda hadn't passed - the mobile classrooms, overcrowding, canceled programs, and low, low taxes...
Jeff Ward February 15, 2012 at 06:46 PM
Ken, Thank you for getting it and for better explaining to Paul what I've been trying to explain to he and FACTS all along. You're my favorite reader! Jeff
Jeff Ward February 15, 2012 at 06:48 PM
Scott, Don't tempt me. Though you have a point I don't think it would be that bad. Remember, Geneva is a mature city and the housing market has at least another 8 years of decline and stagnation. We did not and do not need Fabyan school. I, for one, did not vote in favor of that referendum and I wish more voters had done the same. Jeff
Alberto Principe February 15, 2012 at 07:15 PM
What about "demoncronomics"? Does it apply to this article?
Paul Bryant February 15, 2012 at 09:55 PM
So, the entire community should applaude the school board for only costing us a $200+ increase in taxes instead of a $300+ increase? How rediculous is that? This might have been a baby step in the right direction, only time and additional steps will tell. Certainly not worthy of shouting from roof tops. "Hey everybody! My taxes just went up, but at least it didn't go up as much as they said! Go Team!" Real reform and savings come from making tough choices, not dipping into reserves that we the community built up.
Jeff Ward February 15, 2012 at 10:09 PM
Paul, You drive me crazier than my wife and that's a real accomplishment! Did you not read this part of the column, "Is it something that should be shouted from the rooftops? Maybe not, but it’s a step! And it’s certainly a step worth noting." True reform, like Rome, isn't built in a day. Now a wise person would back off from the school board a bit and wait for that next step. It's too bad FACTS doesn't understand that dynamic. And Paul, you could always run for school board! Jeff
Paul Bryant February 15, 2012 at 10:47 PM
I was actually agreeing with you that it was not worthy of shouting from the roof tops. Congratulations! We agreed! You, however, want to turn this one very small step into something it was not - proof of change. I'll say it again, one step doesn't prove a pattern. Show me more and something significant that isn't taking more from me. I don't recall seeing your name on the ballot either.
Steven Sheehan February 17, 2012 at 04:26 PM
Hello Mr. Ward, I was hoping you might join us last evening per my invitation, as I respect your point of view. I did recap the discussion here for you, and for anyone else interested. http://www.genevataxfacts.org/forum/4-geneva-school-district-304/65-my-long-comments-on-jeff-ward-geneva-school-board (scroll down) Regards, Steve Sheehan

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