I can hear it now, “its for the children!” or “you had your education, what about the kids today?” will be the majority of the hate mail I receive shortly after this piece runs. The Upper Valley/Westside Coalition meeting was held last Saturday at C-Senor’s Restaurants on the Westside of town. Luis Mata and EPISD Board Member, Dr. Lorraine O’Donnell made the case for the EPISD Bond Election slated for voter approval on October 4, 2003. I must say that when I first met Superintendent Tafoya at the same meeting a few months earlier, I left impressed with a feeling that things were now changing in the school district for the better. Much to my horror, things haven’t change; they are just wrapped around a shiny new package.
The mantra emanating from the EPISD Bond committee and from the majority of the bond supporters is that the children of the community desperately need this bond issue. There is no doubt that the children of the community need schools, infrastructure and equipment in order to make our community more vibrant. There is also no doubt that voting this bond opportunity down will ultimately affect the children of the community. The issue is not the need or the community’s responsibility for the children. The issue is accountability.
The proponents of the bond have demonstrated their acknowledgment that the community in general is distrustful of both the administration and the board of EPISD by their colorful advertisements and attempts at forming strategic alliances in order to alleviate this distrust. Tafoya at an earlier meeting acknowledged that “trust” was the stumbling block for the bond election. The public information disseminated by the proponents of the bond proudly proclaim we have cut from our budget 3/4 of a million dollars, as if 3/4 of million dollars is quite a feat when compared to the current budget of $329 million dollars! “Accountability and trust”, is the key according to Dr. O’Donnell as if to acknowledge that this is the issue facing the community. Unfortunately both Luis Mata and O’Donnell still don’t get what the public is really demanding – action, not words.
When asked who comprised the Oversight Committee tasked with overseeing the accountability of the money, neither O’Donnell nor Mata were able to identify the members. The Bond Committee has 22 members, according to both Mata and O’Donnell, yet neither could tell us who the members are. This best face forward asking for support and yet neither could deliver the information. Unfortunately former principal Paul Strelzin continues to create havoc and could possible be the single element that will ultimately derail the bond effort and in effect continue to hurt the children of the community.
What is now publicly known about the now infamous letter mailed to vendors of EPISD by Paul Strelzin is that Paul Strelzin met with someone from EPISD, got a list of vendors from someone “high up” at EPISD and that EPISD has stated that it had nothing to do with the letter. According to O’Donnell, the EPISD Board “was not involved” with the letter. O’Donnell added that it is her understanding that “Paul Strelzin went to visit the superintendent and that the superintendent thought Paul Strelzin was looking for a job.” “That was not the case”, added O’Donnell, the meeting, in fact was “Paul Strelzin stating that he wanted to help with the Bond Election.” She added, “Paul Strelzin then went to the public’s affairs office and got the list.” When challenged on why the EPISD Board had not started an investigation over this issue, both Mata and O’Donnell said that it wasn’t their responsibility. Jerry Jarvis, a private citizen ultimately filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission against Paul Strelzin that seems to be still under investigation. Both Mata and O’Donnell just couldn’t comprehend what the hoopla over the letter is. In their minds, it seems that the letter is a non-issue and as such not something they need to spend time on. And this is the problem with the “trust” factor, when it comes to the bond issue – no one at EPISD is willing to take responsibility.
The issue is not Paul Strelzin, or even his letter – the true issue is accountability. Both EPISD, the board and the Bond Committee have acknowledged that there is a negative public perception on accountability in the community. Yet the handling of the letter further indicates that “public perception” is a buzzword used by EPISD in hopes, it seems, that the negative publicity would eventually just go away. Accountability requires that those responsible step forward and take responsibility for actions undertaken on their behalf whether sanctioned or not. Accountability demands that the concerns of the community are addressed decisively and effectively regardless of where the blame lies. Accountability means getting up and resolutely stating to the community, “this is where the buck stops!” Yet, the response we get from EPISD is silence, stonewalling and its not our responsibility rhetoric we are all now accustomed to.
A letter, which will probably ultimately prove to be nothing more than one man’s attempt to intervene in the election is the impetus for further distrust instead of the opportunity to prove accountability. The handling of the letter just demonstrates, at best that EPISD still doesn’t understand the community’s distrust or, at worst further demonstrates why EPISD is still not worthy of the voter’s trust. Instead of the community discussing the need or lack of, a rifle range or a new baseball field, the community is left to wonder who in fact knew or did not know about the letter. Instead of talking about the needs of the children, the community is asking who is on the infamous list used by Strelzin. When given an opportunity to excel in accountability, the administration and the school board have failed miserably, and continue to do so.
Ultimately the bond’s future is in the hands of those who vote. The turnout is expected to be light and this may be the strategy being invoked by the proponents of the Bond Election. With a low turn out, the only voters who will most likely vote on this issue, will be those voting to benefiting directly from the passage of the bond as most of the other voters are just too disfranchised to give a damn. The bond may eventually pass; after all the rhetoric of the “children” is thick – but will this really serve the children in the end? Probably not, as EPISD continues to fumble along completely oblivious to the needs of the community or even more insidiously not really caring what the community thinks. And this is the fundamental reason that EPISD cannot be trusted to manage the community’s monies on behalf of the children, one letter just shows that accountability is just not that important to the district. If EPISD can’t even account for one letter, a piece of paper, what makes anyone think they can account for $207,435,000 of taxpayer monies!