Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fat Tuesday

In the run up to Mardi Gras the urge for cajun cooking gets extreme. I was craving red beans and rice. You don't make small quantities of red beans at home. Good beans require you add at least one smoked ham hock to the pot. That means you gonna cook up a mess. This is a good example of deferring to an institution to do the cooking unless you intend to feed a mob or eat red beans for a week. ran a column on the places to get the best red beans and rice in New Orleans. Popeyes made the top 5. It wasn't the first time someone had recommended them. So Monday, red bean day, we drove the 25 miles to the only Popeyes in the state of Maine. What was I thinking? What are the so-called experts thinking? For those who don't know, one is handed a covered foam cup in which two tablespoons of rice are placed over a red paste of something. I'll stop there.

By the time any chain opens the third store, I don't care what the product, it is not going to warrant the drive. Subway proudly announces it has more units than MickyD. That doesn't say a thing about the quality of the sandwich. And none can compare with the hands on, one off, of say this piece of work at the Num Pang Sandwich Shop.
To say that bigger is not better is to state the obvious. Why then the insatiable urge to grow? In business terms the enterprise trades off quality for profit. In the public sphere the world is far more complex. You will concur, after you read this, that it is obvious to say that the entrepreneurial spirit invades the bureaucracy. Unless you experience it however, you can't appreciate the scale of the behavior. Government agency heads read their budget projections with sweating palms. They fear a cut-back, celebrate an increase, and these numbers have little to do with the delivery of the service they are charged to perform. Bigger is just better. They sit at the cabinet table in ranked order of whose agency is bigger, how large the budget, how huge the staff. They often fund projects with an eye to "continuation of effort", the opportunity to continue the project, not with successful completion. It is how we got where we are.

The behavior of bureaucrats at the local level is no less insidious. Given that the school allocation is always the largest item in any municipal budget it is no wonder that here is where the heat is rising as we contemplate cutbacks. Teachers are front and center of this discussion; fire them, cut their pensions, curtail their ability to bargain. Very little attention is paid to a real budget buster, the building program. School buildings are mortgaged and thus amortized over the life of the instrument. A thirty year building bond appears on the budget in increments. It doesn't feel, or look so bad. Fact is, it is an enormous contributor to your total tax bill. And that bill is brought to you by the same gangsters that brought you the end of the world as you know it.

When we were in Virginia we lived through this way up close and personal. The arguments for shutting down the neighborhood school that had worked well for the previous 70 some years came down to consolidation is a good thing, it will improve the delivery of services because the new bigger school can deliver more, fill in the blanks. There was no empirical evidence to support those claims. It was accepted, not without a fight. The protesters lost. Ground was acquired from a friend of the board at a price that set a record for a land sale at that time. Architects and builders went at it and a shiny new school rose in a farm field and the old time school was abandoned.
Closer to home the same process has just repeated itself. This is what we lost:

After the memorial for the old school, the weeping grads that came back to praise it, and testify as to how they will miss it, blithely accepted the new reality.
This is what we got. Plus a bill for 14+ million dollars.

• A prominent principal’s office with large windows overlooking the front entrance, which will be the only public entrance. It will have a closed vestibule with a key-card system for staff members and a two-way communication window to screen visitors.
• Classrooms clustered around four open, carpeted areas with skylights, where teachers can work with students one-on-one or in small groups. Classrooms are in two, two-story wings, with lower grades at ground level.
• Several single-user bathrooms in each classroom wing, meant to increase privacy, decrease the distance from classrooms and reduce the potential for students to misbehave in “gang” bathrooms.
• Various energy-saving and environmentally friendly features, including a roof drainage system planted with greenery, solar-powered hot water and a dual-fired heating system that will allow the school to burn oil or gas, whichever is cheaper.
• A teachers’ lounge and workroom – something Clifford lacks – and a health clinic with a bathroom that’s larger than the nurse’s room at Clifford.

The following is excerpted from an article In The Portland Press Herald:

A tour of the school reveals more features.Each hallway is lined with an occasional grooved tile that reflects the theme of the wing. For instance, the ocean wing has tiles with embedded fish scale patterns.Jenifer Richard, an interior designer from WBRC Architects, said children enjoy running their hands along walls, which is why each wing has special hand tiles.Richard said the other wings' themes are agriculture, forest and mountains.The floors also reflect wing themes. The Ocean Wing floor tiles resemble rippling water. Forest wing floors look like bark with spots of leaves on them.
Another article re the school budget process in rural Maine, contained the following:

If the transition goes smoothly, it will bode well for future building projects, school officials said. They're working on plans to replace or renovate several of Portland's 10 elementary schools, depending on availability of state funding.
They're also preparing to tackle the controversial subject of redistricting within the next few years, which could force residents to reconsider their definition of neighborhood schools.
"We need to communicate with parents and students to make sure this transition goes well," said Jaimey Caron, chairman of the School Committee's facilities subcommittee.
The article provoked the "humble farmer" to write the following letter to the editor:

Robert Karl Skoglund 02/28/2011 06:24 AM
Fifty or so years ago the people in St. George, Maine voted to go into a school administrative district with Thomaston. This is like sending a weekly check to a man who lives with your wife and raises your children.
You might well ask how intelligent Maine people could be suckered into such a con game.
The basic premise is something for nothing. It is absolutely impossible to fleece people unless they are convinced that they can get something for nothing.
Here’s how the school con works.
You, the taxpayer in Maine, give the State and Federal Government your tax dollars. Then, if you do exactly what the government tells you to do, they will give back to your school some of your money.
You smile and feel pretty good that you got all that free money from the government.
Here’s how the school con started.
Building contractors convince top officials in the education business that it’s cheaper to educate children in large central schools. For years Maine people have raised chickens in large, centrally located henhouses. The more chickens you can jam into your henhouse, the more money you can make. The grain bin is right by the door. It’s efficient. So folks very quickly bought the argument that it would be cheaper to educate kids in consolidated schools.
It was a good argument, but there was one hitch. No chicken farmer in his right mind would vote to spend the amount of money it was going to take to build those expensive gyms and playing fields. Because most anyone would ask, “What’s gymnasiums and football fields got to do with education?”
But the wonderful part about the whole deal was that the towns wouldn’t have to pay. The state was going to pick up the tab. So even the most frugal chicken farmer jumped right in. He was suckered, you see, with the promise of something for nothing.
His town sent his tax dollars to Augusta to pay for all the schools in Maine. But there wasn’t enough money to build and run schools in all the towns. Who would believe it?

Maine people who were very frugal, Maine people who would never in their right minds vote to replace their present excellent local school, voted to go into school administrative districts. They might attend church in a building that was built in 1850, but thought that their children couldn’t be properly educated unless it they were housed in a shiny new building. And they wanted to get their share of that money out of that big money barrel in Augusta before their sticky fingered neighbors in the next county got it.
It was cleverly done, wasn’t it? But like any con game, it had to work because most taxpayers can be convinced that you can get something for nothing. Forty years ago we had communities in Maine. When you lose your school, you lose your community. And when you farm out your child’s education by getting into a school administrative district that will “save you money” don’t be surprised to discover that you might be paying for that education twice.

The humble Farmer

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