Wednesday, January 30, 2013

In defense of the protest vote

As I wrote yesterday, I’m voting for the RPS (our school district’s revenue-enabling ballot measure). But I don’t get as exasperated with the people opposing it as Jason Lewis does. Government is supposed to be a negotiation, not a take-it-or-leave-it enterprise. Many people reasonably think the district is not responsive enough to the community—as reflected in many of the seventy-nine pages of comments here, for example, or my selection from them here. When the district then wants those same people to step up and approve tax revenues, it’s hard to blame them for concluding that their dollars are the only thing the district listens to—the only effective bargaining chip they have in this particular negotiation.

When an employer and its employees can’t agree on a contract, and the employees go out on strike, you can’t just automatically blame one side or the other. The negotiation failed, and you can’t assess blame without examining how reasonable each side’s positions were. I don’t think all of those commenters in the Synesi report were selfish prima donnas. Many of their criticisms are perfectly reasonable, and it’s the district’s failure to address them that is unreasonable.

In this particular instance, I think that voting for the RPS will do more good than voting against it. But I’m sympathetic to the logic of the protest vote. Sometimes casting a protest vote is the least-likely-to-be-futile way of trying to get elected officials to change the way they interact with the public. It’s a big part of why I voted against our county’s new jail proposal this past November.

There will never be perfect harmony in a community where people’s values differ. But the best way to get the school board and district administrators back in sync with the voters is to have them start working for us, instead of for Governor Branstad and Arne Duncan. If you’re frustrated with the level of tension between community members and the school system, it’s worth thinking about how much the lack of local control is at the root of it. (Related post here.)

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