News Column

St. Joseph News-Press, Mo., Newton's Law column

June 24, 2014

By Ken Newton, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.

June 24--Indulge a few paragraphs of personal history, a tale of faithfulness dissolving into caution.

We go back 15 years. In April 1999, the St. Joseph Board of Education put a bond issue of almost $35 million before local voters.

The audacity of this seemed profound. Just two years prior, voters had rejected a bond issue of less than half that amount.

In this column, on Jan. 24, 1999, I praised the school board for taking a bold stand.

"They sucked it up and let a sense of duty take over," I wrote. "The tougher call is to do the job, not just part of it."

Despite the broad reach of this logic, the issue failed. But I constructed another argument for the approval of bonds before the balloting in April 2000, when voters gave their OK.

In the week prior to a February 2003 election, in which the school district proposed a 55-cent tax levy increase, I sided with the school board and against a spreading sentiment that teachers would get too cushy a pay schedule.

"It is a stance oddly self-loathing," I wrote at the time, "that those who form the foundation of our community's learning concurrently bamboozle us in doing so."

Of course, that measure got beat, too, only to be passed the following year, again with my written endorsement shortly before the April 2004 voting.

Not to pile upon this point, but I wrote a column on Oct. 27, 2009, in favor of the renewal of that levy, burdened as it was with a sunset clause. "It's a poor way to do business, but set that aside," I wrote of sunsets on operating funds. "This levy needs to pass."

In March 2012, my commentary supported a bond issue for the building of new St. Joseph schools, fending off the argument that such a move would push a financial burden onto our grandchildren.

"We are the generation the grandparents of an earlier day didn't want to burden with debt," I wrote. "Instead, we are burdened with aging buildings."

I offer these reminisces as ammunition to critics, who might rightly contend I never met a school issue I didn't like, and as proof of fidelity to a certain belief.

This belief: That public education makes for a better society, serves as a building block of prosperity, persists as a leveler of socioeconomic disparity.

My faith does not extend to the idea that more money automatically creates better schools. But I have yet to be lured by the argument that adequately paid teachers and nonancient facilities somehow pave a path to fiscal waste.

With all this as prelude, I fear that my philosophical reflexes have dulled, that my past steadfastness to money issues has gone wobbly where it concerns the St. Joseph School District.

I still cling in the promise of public education, but a district trapped in an investigative vortex and fostering a vibe of mismanagement suggests even the true believers should go agnostic.

We stand 55 days removed from the opening of two new St. Joseph schools, a time rightfully worth a civic celebration.

Yet a cloud hangs around, an uncertainty about decisions made and money spent, a general unease that all that smoke must mean a fire.

Needs of the future will go on a ballot.

The "no" votes will be there, always.

Now, though, those dependable souls with "yes" votes ready for casting, including me, will need some wooing.

Ken Newton's column runs on Tuesday and

Sunday. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.


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