Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 20, 2006

Puh-lease: Conflict, conversations, congressional districts

It’s been quite a while since I rolled my eyes, shook my head or uttered a dramatic, two-syllable puh-lease about local news. I’m definitely overdue.

***

I’m not sure why or how it got to be this way, but I’m frustrated that so much of public schools’ time and energy is spent negotiating process-laden, adversarial relationships. It makes me shake my head whenever I think about it.

Gilroy has an example in the fallout from the school board’s recent decision to extend its middle school day in an effort to increase math instruction time. Given the district’s abysmal math scores, this seems to me to be a decision that’s in the best interests of the students.

But now that the decision’s been made, the Gilroy Teachers Association and the Gilroy Unified School District are engaged in “bitter debate” in their negotiations amid hints of unfair labor practice charges.

It’s not so different than what special education parents experience when trying to secure services for their learning disabled or handicapped children. Ask any parent of a special education student – from any public school district, I’d bet, because I’ve talked to parents from all over the Bay Area – and you’ll get an earful of horror stories about an adversarial, process-laden system.

I understand that teachers want fair compensation, that parents must advocate for their children, and that administrators have to distribute scarce resources. Still, when it comes to teaching our kids, we need to deemphasize process and emphasize what’s the best for students.

Call me a Pollyanna, but I’ll just roll my eyes and then I’ll ask you again: What’s best for students?

***

When I heard that Morgan Hill City Council members will spend $70,000 for more community conversations ($50,000 on meetings, $20,000 on newsletters), well, you can guess what happened.

At the conclusion of the first round of community conversations, a fellow columnist put pencil to paper and figured that Morgan Hill heard from less than 1 percent of the city’s residents.

The topic of those conversations? How to close a $1.5-million budget deficit.

The cost of those conversations? Roughly $110,000 in consultant fees, city staff time, and other costs.

Stop rolling your eyes. I’m not making this up. Really, City Council spent 7.3 percent of the budget gap to hear from less than 1 percent of residents. In poker, these are not good pot odds.

With those high costs and dismal results, I cannot fathom spending more scarce taxpayer dollars on an expensive, unnecessary process that so clearly failed.

Council members don’t need to spend lots of money to garner residents’ input. They just need to listen to residents at local restaurants and coffee shops, a school and church events, at the local library and gas stations, and at City Council and commission meetings. They just need read residents’ letters and email messages addressed to council members and peruse news articles, columns and letters to the editor.

Then council members need to make the tough decisions they were elected to make – without the expensive, illusory community conversations security blanket that this community doesn’t need or want and cannot afford. Puh-lease.

***

I’m frustrated by our continued failure to reform the redistricting process in this state. A redistricting reform measure put forth last year, which would have taken the responsibility for drawing legislative districts away from state legislators and given it to a panel of retired judges, failed at the polls.

The current system is flawed by an inherent conflict of interest. It’s clear that state legislators cannot put aside their own self interest in drawing politically safe seats. The 11th Congressional District is a Exhibit A. Communities as diverse as Morgan Hill, Manteca, Lodi and Danville are all in the district currently represented by Congressman Richard Pombo (R-Tracy).

Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy – communities with common interests and concerns – do not share representation in the House of Representatives, the state Assembly and the state Senate.

Instead, on issues as diverse as perchlorate and public transportation, flood control and health care, property rights and immigration reform, our political voice and clout are diffuse and diluted.

Take a look at the election results for District 11 Republican primary race. In District 11’s Santa Clara County communities, moderate Republican Pete McCloskey defeated the far-right incumbent, Pombo. McCloskey garnered 1,591 votes to Pombo’s 1,401 votes. But in the ridiculously drawn, gerrymandered-within-an-inch-of-its-political-life district as a whole, Pombo easily defeated McCloskey.

Is the current system good for democracy? Of course not. Nevertheless, voters rejected a reform that’s working well in several other states. Puh-lease.

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