I’ve reviewed the recorded public comments on the Lee County 2011-2012 budget, held last Monday night. Here are my observations and conclusions.
1. Seating capacity for this public comment session was in the neighborhood of 280 people. That number was exceeded with some people departing early and others being allowed into the room as they left. All totaled, it appears as if about 300 individuals eventually sat in on all or part of the proceedings.
2. There was sufficient time for 40 speakers to participate. However, only 28 speakers signed in to speak and two more were added towards the end of the meeting at Chairwoman Shook’s invitation, bringing the total to 30 speakers.
3. Of the 30 speakers, 21 were there to speak as advocates for stablized or increased spending for public schools, for protecting teachers and their teachers’ assistants, or for preserving some other aspect of the schools’ budget. Of these 21 public school advocates, 6 were school principals, 9 were current teachers or other school employees, 2 were retired teachers, 2 were parents and 2 were students.
4. Four people spoke in opposition to increased funding or to highlight mis-management in the school system. One was a teacher and the other three were parents with children in the school system. (Note that more parents spoke against increased funding in the schools than spoke as advocates.)
5. Two speakers defended the need for sustained funding for senior services at the county’s Enrichment Center (one was backed up by a dozen advocates who stood in support). Three speakers spoke eloquently about keeping all of the county’s library servces at present levels.
6. Of the 25 speakers who presented information about the schools, none advocated sharply increased spending, a surprise to many in the hall. The great majority of them articulated a need to be creative in finding ways to sustain teachers and teachers’ assistants at current levels. No one discussed funding school support personnel or administrators at or above current levels. Three hinted at reducing management while sustaining teachers. Even four of the six school principals were focused on preserving teachers and high-value technology initiatives that are vital to after-school and distance learning programs.
7. Principal Bonnie Almond from Southern Lee High School was a bit over the top with her comments about North Carolina needing to advertise itself as being the cheapest education in the country. Teacher Patricia Coldren (with her “SOS” metaphorical message) and Bill Carter (who regaled with his poetry) were barely coherent in their points. Otherwise, the presentations were professional and convincing.
In the end, the evening was less emotive than expected. Despite hundreds of email messages and prompts from senior school officials, there wasn’t a public outcry or a wave of sentiment to compel the county to deviate from the County Manager’s recommended budget.