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Dialogue is long overdue

Public is largely uninformed about local governments and school systems

by Rodney Berry

As the city-county government unification task force prepares its March 20 final report, some members are perplexed that the public has shown little interest in its work. Only a handful of non-members attended any of the bi-weekly open meetings since the group was named more than a year ago.

Meanwhile, Owensboro and Daviess County school boards charge ahead with projects, programs and priorities with no apparent interest in discussing a consolidated system that some analysts say is inevitable, considering the landlocked nature of the city school district and its increasing reliance on shrinking federal education dollars.

Is there any need to proceed with public dialogue on these issues? Is it worth the time and effort?

One thing is for sure: There is a correlation between information and engagement. If citizens were aware of how we currently do things – and pay for things – they would insist on a better way. (See “What about fairness?” page 10.)

In community forums conducted by our foundation, we have been surprised how many participants – including longtime local residents – are unfamiliar with how their governments and school systems are structured and the funding inequities that characterize them.
This must change.

The apparent lack of interest in the work of the city-county unification task force and the indifference of the school boards should not be a deterrent. These forums can be successful through a well-crafted plan. We respectfully offer the following suggestions:

Make it a collaborative effort.

Forums should be designed and coordinated by a cross-section of interested, credible community groups. Our foundation would welcome the opportunity to be involved, but the Owensboro Neighborhood Alliance, Community Conversations, Citizens Committee on Education, school councils and PTO’s, local colleges-universities, Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Owensboro, foundations, civic organizations and others could have leadership roles and attract members and those on their mailing lists to the forums.

Take it to the people.

There should be many convenient opportunities for citizens to participate: dozens of forums, in every neighborhood, at different days and times, involving and welcoming people from all walks of life. We should use schools, churches, community centers, volunteer fire departments and other meeting facilities throughout the city, suburbs and rural areas. Sessions should be promoted aggressively through advertising, news releases, church bulletins, posters and handbills, utility bill inserts, school-to-parent newsletters, e- and standard mail…any and every creative technique leaders can devise.

Prepare a solid basis of information.

Every participant should receive the same information using printed dialogue guides, handouts, Power Point presentation and display charts. Information should be accurate, balanced, clear and concise enough so that people from all walks of life can understand the material and trust in its objectivity.

Structure forums to maximize participation.

Forums should be structured carefully using trained moderators and recorders. Consistent formats should include small group discussions so all participants will be comfortable and contribute. Ground rules should ensure a climate of mutual respect and civility.

Capture views and themes.

Participants should be reminded to keep an open mind and postpone judgment until they have heard from all points of view. Toward the end of the discussion period, participants should either complete questionnaires or reach common ground on principles or action steps.

This exercise in community dialogue will not only educate participants about these issues, it will bring forth a critical mass of concerned citizens who want to be involved in follow-up actions.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not their own set of facts.” It is time to face the fact that the structure of local governments and school systems represent a fundamental community shortcoming.

Our community will be well-served by reviewing the facts and engaging in honest and civil dialogue around these issues. We can only make progress when our institutions are more efficient, fair and positioned for a competitive future. We can only make progress when we are guided by the collective wisdom of a well-informed public.

Let the process begin.

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