Getting your life in order is like Winter; it’s a time consuming thing, and you don’t get out much. So, after a long hiatus from sticking my nose into public business, I celebrated spring by attending the March 19th Bloomfield Board of Education meeting.
Now I confess to being a bit dibble-brained when it comes to district budgetary matters; whether I’m being hoodwinked and railroaded or whether folks are telling it to me straight. Frankly, I’ve always been satisfied with letting the vocal armchair-math-whizzes of the community duke it out at these meetings. I’m more of a ‘broad strokes’ kinda guy, myself. PowerPoint slides give me a splitting headache.
But the other day I was sitting in the cramped cement-block office of Mr. Dave Tiene, my son’s earnest, hard-working case manager, and he brought to my attention that the District was proposing to privatize the whole Child-Study Team, as well as slashing all those after-school and sports and arts programs that form the very foundation of the lives of most Bloomfield students, the mortar between the bricks of their scholastic experience, binding together the raw necessities of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. All this of course, to stave off the imminent layoff of dozens of teachers.
(Didn’t they use to call this kind of thing an Austerity Budget when we were kids? Strange that at a time when we see ‘economic collapse’ in every other headline, a time of Great Recessions and Sequestrations, people should be so timid to call something what it really is. Austerity measures. As if they don’t want to scare or scandalize anyone.)
Boning up for the meeting, I troll through the local news and Facebook postings and find these onerous headlines: Privatization! Slashing Layoffs! Fiscal Irresponsibility! Pay-to-Play! (I’ll get to that one later.) Thus armed and determined, I get home early-ish from work, walk up Liberty Street in the new almost-spring air, and hang a right to the High School auditorium, seeing all the familiar faces from School Board meetings past; my neighbors, vocal or silent, informed or ignorant like myself. But all concerned enough to “Get To The Bottom Of This.”
I’ve attended School Board meetings in conference rooms and classrooms and gymnasiums. The auditorium by comparison seemed a bit immense and daunting for this kind of thing (although I did finally get to see the recent theatre-space improvements I’d heard so much about!) despite the healthy crowd that showed up to represent. Off-putting too, the whole business of the stage up there and the audience-seats out here creating more of a separation between the Boardmembers and the constituents than either party had wanted or intended.
It was, however, a sort of perfect venue for Superintendent Bing’s presentation on the budget. The PowerPoint thing I spoke of; the kind that gives me headaches.
Which is why I was happy to get a seat next to my friend. This friend has gotten a lot done locally in her own way, especially in the Downtown area, from what I hear. Now there are people who get a lot done by opening their mouths as wide as humanly possible, alerting you to an issue the way a siren tells you there’s a fire or a whistle-hoot tells you to get off the tracks because a train’s a-comin’, but injecting a sharp pain between your ears nonetheless, so that you can never express 100% gratitude for their efforts because your ears are ringing so much. Other people get things accomplished by doing the exact opposite; by making a comfortable forum for the discussion of ideas, and then quietly shaping those ideas into a consensus to be taken seriously.
That is my friend. She is, in a word, a clarifier, and I value that. So as the lineup of public opinion and emotion and inquiry took its turn at the microphone, touching on all the expected points about tax breaks and levees and ratables, privatization and pay-to-play (again, I’ll talk about that in a bit), taking aim with questions and accusations and heartfelt pleas on behalf of the services in danger and the students at risk, (I would’ve gladly joined them, but talking about my son… well, that wouldn’t have worked out very well) my friend quietly ‘clarified,’ leveling the playing-field of information for me, rendering it understandable to my stupid, well-intentioned ears.
Privatization? Take a drive down the Parkway far enough and you’ll see an exit sign for what used to be the NJ State Aquarium. Evidently no one ever used to get off at that exit to visit, because a few years ago some private development firm came in, took the darned thing over and replaced it with a beautiful new state-of-the-art educational school-trip destination in the heart of that crime-ridden lunar landscape called Camden.
I have to say, from my observation and experience this has got to be the ONLY example of privatization actually improving anything. Prisons? The Lottery? Toll collectors? Not so much. And our more seasoned readers know what happened with the Department of Motor Vehicles, don’t we? In speaking about prison privatization efforts specifically, former co-director of the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center Russ Van Vleet effectively labelled the entire concept of privatization in saying, “There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly. But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct.”
Look, I really don’t like speaking or writing about things I don’t know personally to be true. But this I personally know to be true: most of my professional life has been spent as a private contractor, essentially a freelancer, and I know the difference. You punch in and punch out, and between those bookends you do your job professionally, but there’s no reason for you to ever feel a kinship for the ones who employ you or the ones you serve. Because you’re not really working for them at all, are you, but for some third-party outfit that placed you there, and could just as easily rescind that placement. Because the very nature of a ‘contract’ is that one day it’ll be over, replaced by one more expedient or cost effective or some-such.
I never really realized this all until recently, when one of my freelance clients decided that it would be in our mutual best interest for me to come on full-time. And having a more mature set of life-circumstances to deal with these days, more in line with security than adventure, I had to agree with him.
In no time at all I knew what I’d been missing, what the difference was; when I could see all around me the rise and fall of the company’s future, and therefore my future, was in these two hands on a daily basis. And the men and women I worked side-by-side with every day, their lives and livelihoods were in my hands too, as mine was in theirs. At any point in time any one of us, or all of us working together, could be, as they say, the ‘rising tide’ that lifts a whole lotta boats.
That’s what I think of when I think of the sincere energy, concern and creativity people like Dave Tiene and Kelly Reer throw at their work every day on the Child Study Team. It’s the passion of people who can walk into cramped offices with cement-block walls and and caseload-piles every working morning and nevertheless be able to say, not “I work for the XYZ Placement Agency until my contract is up or I can get something better”, but “I work for the parents and children and community of Bloomfield. Period.”
And then someone steps up to the microphone and mentions “Pay-to-Play.” How “my kid is a budding artist with no interest in sports” and the like. And “if your kid is interested in sports, then you should pay for it, not me” and the like. And I feel my blood boiling upward while at the same time my heart is sinking downward.
Because putting aside the fact that people I spoke to who know a hell of a lot more than me say that Bloomfield’s status as a Title 1 district precludes Pay-to-Play as an option, it simply saddens me no end to hear the heartfelt rhetoric about “we and our kids” replaced by shrill exhortations about “me and my kids” versus “you and your kids.” Now I could be all curt and glib here, saying “ask not for whom the bell tolls”and such, spouting dire warnings like “enact Pay-to-Play for their kids” sports programs today, and next thing, there’ll be Pay-to-Play for your kid’s theater program, or Pay-to-Play for your kid’s art supplies, and on and on. I could say that after spending my life as both an arts professional and a fitness professional, I know for a fact that it’s ALL equally important to a child’s proper development.
But the plain truth is, once a community starts down that divisive, mercenary road, neighbor against neighbor for the sake of a buck, it just swallows you whole, swallows all sound and light itself down a black spiraling maw until any brilliant celebratory song and image of Bloomfield as a community of lasting heritage reveals itself as tin-eared, dim and bleached of all color, like studying a two-hundred year-old photograph of a town that no longer exists.
I talk a lot about the town far from here where I grew up, how it wasn’t really a town at all but something called a hamlet, with no central government or services of its own. We had heart though, in our neighborhoods and in our schools, and we got things done together, probably out of knowing that we had no one else to turn to except each other.
But if this fearful business of “me caring about my kids, not yours,”and “you caring about your kids but not mine” takes hold of our minds and freezes our hearts towards one another, then Bloomfield, after two-hundred years in existence, is no longer a town. Just fifty-thousand households worth of people stuck in the same zip code, trying to stay out of each other’s way and unable to look one another in the eye while passing in the street.
And that’s what I think of when I hear that a mere thirty-three dollars per household could turn this whole thing into a non-issue; although the sensible friend sitting beside me says that it would be more like sixty-six dollars. Heck, people; that’s the difference between eating out at Mario’s Pizza and eating out at the Parkside just one Saturday night; again, no big thing.
But a similar deal struck with the people of Bloomfield a couple of years ago netted us a brand new Foley Field, didn’t it? Not all at once, but some great groundwork was laid. And because together, as a town, we proved how much we wanted it and were willing to sacrifice together to get it, the great charitable donors of our community like UNICO, the FFRC, the Tripuka family, the Education Association and the Crecco Foundation were willing to carried the ball to the finish line.
Surely we can see our way through this current business as well, together. With all of our households, all of our donors and charities, all of our home-and-schools, all of our officials (whether elected or hoping to be elected), all of our businesses, all of our teams and squads and arts groups with their cake sales and Saturday morning car washes and traffic-light donation buckets, all of us together can knock this out of the park, to every child’s benefit.
Huffing and puffing at Foley with my early-morning students reminds me, “We can do this. Look at this beautiful field; we’ve ALREADY done this!”
And I remember one other thing. You remember it too, I’m sure, when nearly a year ago the High School graduating class was in danger of being denied the opportunity to graduate on the field that they themselves had worked so hard to create. Oh, was I ever getting ready to pour my own personal indignation into a blog post just like this one. In fact it had one of the best titles I’d ever dreamed up: “A Field of No Dreams.”
Well you know what happened next, right? Never did get to write that story or use that great title. Because like in the final reel of the movie of their lives, the people of this town rose up on their hind legs, spread their wings, opened their mouths and roared with one voice “This is wrong. fix it.” and it got fixed. It got fixed because we stopped for a moment behaving like individual people with individual issues and needs and problems… and behaved as if we belonged to a town.
In the high school lobby as Tuesday night’s BOE meeting wound down, I spoke to a mom who said “This is gonna be important!” To which I said, “It’s ALL important. Every one of these BOE or Town Council meetings where some crisis or another comes up for us to speak to, it’s important. It’s our chance to act as if we belong to a Town.”
With our Bicentennial Celebration coming to a close, it’s easy to picture a big deep-red curtain descending on this special year. But I think it’s more important to imagine, right at this moment, the curtain coming UP on the future of the Township of Bloomfield. To imagine with certainty that it HAS a future worth believing in and fighting for. We are that future, we are those fighters. This Town exists for as long as we behave not as individuals stuck together in the same zip code, but as townspeople and neighbors, looking out for one another’s interests as well as our own.
To act, yes indeed, as if we belong to a town; with all the activism, all the involvement, all the mutual care and concern that entails. In our hearts, is that what we want? Is that how we want to behave? Is that how we want to be known, as the “Township of Bloomfield?” Does that still have a nice a ring to it to you?
On the cusp of our next two-hundred years living, working and playing together in this zip code, those may not be all the questions worth asking, but they certainly seem to be an excellent start.