Education Committee Asks the Hard Questions

Education Committee Asks the Hard Questions

Participatory Budgeting update from Jason Boutin of the Education Committee:

It's probably safe to say the delegates of the Education committee got more than they bargained for out of the Participatory Budget process. This is said from the perspective of the effort undertaken as well as from the rewarding nature of the work. It's been a tremendously interesting journey so far, but probably not the one anyone expected.

From the first meeting it became clear that this committee's process was going to be unique. We had clients, not just a list of ideas. Each submission needed to be vetted with their respective school administrators simply to assess if the idea presented at the assembly was the right one for the school. The delegates could not be the primary arbiter of a proposal's worthiness.

The feasibility and applicability of any idea then had to be assessed against not only the Participatory Budget guidelines, but the School Construction Authority's detailed requirements as well.

The committee work started with a sizable wish list of proposals to investigate. But halfway through our second meeting, delegate Mellen O'Keefe remarked that only a handful of the 17 schools in the 39th District had submitted ideas. Additionally, many of the schools missing from the list were the ones that were potentially the neediest (gauged by the number of kids receiving free lunch).

A lively discussion ensued about our responsibilities to solicit new proposals from these schools. Doing so would represent an expansion of the scope of our work and one we weren't sure we had the mandate to carry out. However, collecting needs from every school seemed more equitable, and would greatly enhance our ability to evaluate two of the key directives of the participatory budget process: need and benefit.

What resulted was an agreement to reach out to the schools with the highest need to ask if there were any issues administrators felt would qualify for consideration in this process. A number of schools responded, and members of the committee contacted and visited them to research the feasibility of the projects they had in mind. When we met last week, for the third time, we had assembled a sizable list of environmental and facility needs for many of the public schools in the district.

There were a couple of things that were striking about this list. One was the commonality of the need. With few exceptions, schools were asking for more technology, some form of air conditioning and/or more power to accommodate both. The other was the impressive job school principals and their administrations were doing to squeeze the most out of the amenities they did have. The dedication to their students was universal and inspiring.

Smart-boards, laptops and AC units may not sound like glamorous projects. However, in today's ever more connected and tech driven world, the need is real. And, used properly, these tech tools can open up new ways of learning. At PS 160, one of the third grade classes is currently collaborating with schools in Scotland and China on a bridge design project through virtual conferencing and other digital means. It's exciting to contemplate the potential for cross pollination of ideas and educational methods.

Not all projects were related to technology, power or AC. One of our later investigations revealed a dire need for a bathroom renovation at PS 124. And adding some sound absorbing panels in the cafeteria at PS 39 would make lunchtime much more enjoyable for all.

So here we are just a few months away from the vote. In our last meeting we were able to narrow down our list to 10 projects for further reviews and consideration by the SCA and Brad's office. We will eventually have to narrow that list down to a handle full of projects to submit for the final vote. While I'm sure we wish all could be funded, we're thrilled at the possibility of being able to assist even one of these worthy schools. It's been an interesting process and rewarding experience. We're motivated to put the best possible proposals forward and we have high hopes for this engaging tool of democracy.