Guest Commentary

September 16, 2010


By Graham Gillette


No lecture required


Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS) Superintendent Nancy Sebring sounded off here recently. In a piece oddly laced with gun references (statistics are like dueling pistols, returning fire, rifling through documents, etc.), she said Cityview had insulted teachers, diminished the considerable accomplishments of thousands of students and provided a disservice to the readers of this paper. Stinging words all. As a former school board member and father of three DMPS students, I want to join in her defense of our district. Great things happen here. However, Dr. Sebring missed Cityview’s point and an opportunity to strengthen public support for our schools.

Dr. Sebring was responding to the Aug. 12 opinion piece, Save our Schools (from Microsoft). The techno-geeks at Cityview argued DMPS could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by replacing expensive Microsoft operating systems on DMPS computers with free Linux systems. Made sense to me, but I tend to tune-out when I hear “operating system.”

Dr. Sebring tuned out for another reason — she got angry. Cityview had asserted the DMPS budget uses “arcane language.” Sorry, Doctor, it does. Federal and state constraints sometimes require a certain structure, but there is more. DMPS resists a simpler budget. Such a document would make it easier for those not versed in school budget nuance to deconstruct it and, in turn, influence policy. There, I said it. A budget easy enough for Cityview to understand would mean more could comment on it and, dare I suggest it, make recommendations about how things might be done differently.

Dr. Sebring said Citview’s comments about the budget indicate, “1) that you don’t understand it, in which case you might have come to us for some explanation and 2) that we are deliberately obfuscating.” I love this bit of wordplay, for if the DMPS budget is so complicated it has to be explained, it is by definition something that obfuscates. (Obfuscate: to make something obscure or unclear, especially by making it unnecessarily complicated.)

The administrator in Dr. Sebring said the budget is “complex and every year’s final result is a jigsaw puzzle pieced together from an assortment of sources. That’s why we hold public forums and meetings with employee groups and create opportunities for explanation and input throughout the process.” I wish the teacher in Dr. Sebring would realize that if the community has to be taught every year how to read the budget, the problem may not be that the community cannot learn, but that there is something wrong with the way the budget is written.

I have reviewed many a DMPS budget. Funding sources for public education come with restrictions. One tax levy can only be used for instruction. The Physical Plant and Equipment Levy voters are considering renewing as this paper is printed is exclusively used for building repairs and equipment. Yet another is dedicated to playgrounds, community education and middle school athletics. Sales tax revenue is dedicated solely to construction costs. The funding sources are too numerous to mention, but Cityview’s point should not be lost. While DMPS revenues come from diverse sources, its expenditures are focused on a few things, most involving education.

If DMPS made the budget easier to understand, taxpayers might see more clearly the noble efforts made to protect and improve our schools and the superintendent may never again have to rap the Cityview troublemakers on the knuckles for mouthing off after class.

Dr. Sebring rightfully points out that DMPS has pioneered excellent programs that inspire and educate students across the academic spectrum. I share her pride. But, things are far from perfect.

I can imagine it is difficult for Dr. Sebring and her colleagues to hear criticism about what isn’t working. However, I caution them to not jump to the conclusion that all those who criticize are out to get them. Every so often an idea like switching computer operating systems makes sense. The superintendent should invite discussion instead of chastising those who raise their hands. She never addressed the Linux idea, but defensively invited Cityview to visit DMPS schoolhouses so they could learn a thing or two about what goes on there. The Microsoft vs. Linux question does not require a lecture, just an answer.


Graham Gillette lives in Des Moines with his wife and three great kids. He runs a public affairs/communications consulting firm and is a past board member of DMPS.


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