Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Let's Talk Or Not

This morning The Madville Times made the following observation about the Madison school board's budget decisions.  
Note also that there was no public discussion of these cuts prior to Monday night’s meeting.. . .

We just drop the bomb, then tell the paper the board “will review other budget reductions in the future,” with no indication of what those cuts might be.
This morning the Yankton Press and Dakotan made the following observation about the Yankton School Board's Monday meeting that cut 22 teaching and 39 extracurricular positions.
During the meeting, the board adopted the personnel cuts and other budget strategies that were unveiled late last week. It was a harrowing evening for all involved, from the school officials on the YMS auditorium stage to the large crowd on hand (not to mentions the teachers whose names were read aloud as they were officially placed on the chopping block).

But one thing that was missing was input from the public. School officials explained the reasons why they did what they felt they had to do, meticulously going over the numbers and the projections. But then publicly elected officials took no questions or comments from the public that elected them. One person did try to address the board, but he was told that there would be time to ask questions later. Some audience members probably assumed this meant there would be an opportunity for public comment later, but this did not happen. Instead, the school board adjourned into an executive session and did not reconvene.
It seems both governing bodies want to avoid confrontation.  Perhaps both boards believe that a utilitarian calculus or pragmatic reasoning works best.  In short do the best for the most in the most efficient way possible.  That strategy probably won't work in stressful times, especially times that include job cuts.  These times demand both actual fair treatment and the perception of fairness.

Therefore, it seems necessary that someone practice philosophy without a license and introduce both to a portion of Jurgen Habermas's Discourse Ethics as explained by Robert Cavalier.
As David Ingram puts it, community members' participation in discourse will be "unobstructed by ideological prejudices, temporal limitations, and external domination - be it cultural, social, political, or economic" (Ingram, 1990, 148).     To circumscribe such discourse more carefully, Habermas takes up rules first proposed by Robert Alexy as "the Rules of Reason" (1990, 165-167). In Habermas's formulation in "Discourse Ethics," these are:
     1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.
     2a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.
     2b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.
     2c. Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires, and needs.
     3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights.
Such rules are seen to circumscribe the ideal speech situation, one which stresses equality and freedom for each participant - especially
freedom to participate in the discourse in critical ways so as to express one's own attitudes, desires, and needs, and
freedom from coercion of several sorts.
School boards have to make difficult decisions.  It makes sense to want to make them quickly and cleanly.  Habermas's method may be messy, but in the long run allowing people the "freedom to participate in the discourse in critical ways so as to express one's own attitudes, desires, and needs" will allay the fears of the people who are anxious and confused.

The P&D editorial concludes.
These are six weeks before the opt-out referendum, and school officials and their allies will be working hard to sell the need of this move. But along the way, they also need to take the time to listen, to answer questions and to reassure the public that this is the right approach. A little empathy would go a long way on this issue right about now. 
 Being a little philosophical might be the most practical thing for all concerned right now.

1 comment:

caheidelberger said...

When only 15% to 19% of the electorate will show up for a simple school board election where all they have to do is mark a bubble or two, getting them to participate in a meaningful public discussion of a complicated multi-million dollar budget is a daunting challenge. It's still a challenege worth tackling.