Originally posted April 30, 2010, on KVOE.com “What’s On My Plate.”

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“I believe…that everything’s gonna be all right.”

                — Moon Dog Mane

 

There was an interesting combination of emotions at Reading School as the school held its annual talent show for its eighth-grade class April 16.

I had the benefit of playing onstage, where Old Skool and area performers entertained close to 100 people. Aside from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which we as band members had never played before, J.T. Crawford, Tammy Patterson and I were fairly confident in playing the music correctly. Bill Brinkman filled in for Dan Wooge and did well, and with his experience level we instinctively knew we’d fit together onstage.

Our main task as an established band was to relay calm, fun and confidence to the performers. Backstage and offstage, it was fairly nervous at times as the entertainers saw the crowd on the Reading Fieldhouse floor. Those nerves settled as each individual performance moved along. By the end of the night, it was clear that everybody had a great time.

With the music.

About midway through the event, I hopped offstage and chatted briefly with a few people I knew. It didn’t take very long to reference the major changes taking place in USD 251. That portion of our conversations generally went as follows:

Me: “It must be tough to see these changes.”

Friend: “Yeah. (Pause. Loooong pause.) It’ll be all right.”

The phrase, “It’ll be all right,” can mean several things, but two interpretations come to mind here.

The first basically says things will work themselves out for the best, by and large without much more worry or effort.

The second essentially says you have to make things all right, even though you have to adapt. Change. Worry. Suffer.

Without fail, the second interpretation is what I heard at Reading School.

It is also exactly what I heard at Admire Elementary right before we covered the 2010 Lyon County Spelling Bee. The body language was the same, too. The same slumped shoulders, the same shrug, the same forced smiles followed by the same facial combination of worry and frustration.

It has been two months since the North Lyon County School District made the painful choice to close Admire Elementary and close grades 6-8 at Reading as part of a major, budget-driven reorganization of the district.

The fight between school districts and the Legislature has been, um, unhappy to say the least since the late 1990s. You’ve heard the arguments, so I won’t recount them here.

Say what you want about the school finance situation of the last 10-plus years. School finance involved or not, the recent fact of the matter is that Topeka relied on short-term, shortsighted choices to balance its budget: Shift money around, rob Peter to save Paul, take the one-time stimulus shot in the arm and hope for the best. Hope that things will be all right soon.

Hope is not a financial strategy. Not when you’re in the black a few dollars. Not when you’re staring at a $510 million shortfall.

Lawmakers chose. The executive branch chose. As a result, school patrons in Admire, Reading and other places statewide have lost a huge choice for their childrens’ future.

It’s fair to say the North Lyon County District may have ultimately lost those choices down the road. The district has seen declining enrollment for several years. Reading School had just five eighth-graders this school year. Five. And Admire Elementary is showing its age in a lot of ways.

However, what’s maddening about the USD 251 situation is this is only one of the latest examples of politicians absolutely unable to make tough decisions that will benefit Kansans in the long run.

Not being a politician, I can only guess how hard it is to get over 100 people to reach general agreement on anything. I also understand the financial situation is unlike any the state has seen in decades.

But lawmakers knew the good times couldn’t last. They knew. And several recent plans to do what you and I have to do every day to prepare for darker days — set aside reserve money — was either shot down or barely saw the light of day.

Things change. I get that. As an example, House GOP leaders proposed a budget with $300 million in reserves in mid-March. That effort, which included a $50 million transfer out of the state highway fund, slammed to a halt as sales tax revenues continued their woeful trends.

Look back over the last seven or eight years, though, and this looks more and more like lawmakers either ignoring the situation, being far more concerned with their political futures than their constituents’ well-being or simply being too fractured as a body to act.

It is officially an election year, but this trend now happens annually. It seems like there is a never-ending election cycle, and the vote is now far more important than the voter.

Unfortunately, K-12 education is not the only factor of our lives affected by this mentality. Higher education, social services and transportation have all been hacked to the bone. City and county governments now cringe when the state offers financial support for projects, knowing full well the promise may get reversed before completion – leaving local government high and dry while the state touts its fiscal “responsibility” in tough times.

I understand the state has to make cuts to keep the budget balanced, and I understand the concept that every entity should feel some pain. But how does this whole process make for a better Kansas next year? In five years? Twenty?

It didn’t have to be this way. We didn’t have to be in this position – at least not to this extent.

But it will be all right. Regardless of the pain in place now, regardless of the suffering to come, it has to be all right.

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