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Walking fine line on finance, citizen input
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Published: 4/26/2008 7:42 PM

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In the past, the St. Charles Unit District 303 school board has felt the laser heat of community backlash. By deciding recently to allow the citizen groups that make up its Summit 303 to determine where $3 million can best be spent in the district, it appears the board is hoping to deflect some of that heat.

There is a fine line that can be crossed when a school board literally passes the bucks -- and seemingly its financial responsibility -- to citizens whose original purpose was simply to provide input into district issues.

Last fall, we applauded Superintendent Donald Schlomann and the new board for its creation of a new committee structure and the planned first Summit 303 meeting. From the standpoint that Summit 303 was advertised as a way for citizens to get involved in district processes, it makes sense that the board would show the group truly has a voice by earmarking $3 million for summit participants, who will decide how it should be spent. But we fear that public perception could be that the board has simply figured out a way to deflect the negative rhetoric that has always created stress for board members and the community as a whole.

The Summit 303 concept -- a series of public meetings to openly discuss the issues facing the district, and to give school board members a solid grasp of what district residents want out of their schools -- was a sorely needed fix in a district known better for its ongoing school board battles than the fine education it was providing. This extra layer of communication and, now, decision-making could be Schlomann's legacy if it resolves second-guessing and brings the school community together.

But the board should proceed cautiously to assure district residents that it is still in control of the purse strings -- while also making sure the responsibility it has handed to Summit 303 participants is not just lip service. The last thing the district needs is for residents to feel its board has no interest in making tough decisions.

The board has made it clear that it has the power to turn down Summit 303 recommendations if other budgetary matters surface, or the district faces an unforeseen emergency. So that raises some new questions. Does Summit 303 truly have a voice? And if so, what happens when board members don't agree with recommendations? And does this new plan somehow make it easier for the district to explain to residents why it is paying a public relations firm $11,000 a month to orchestrate Summit 303, even though we would be among those who would say it is money well spent if it brings the district some harmony?

With all of our reservations, we remain cautiously optimistic that St. Charles schools could be onto a concept that other districts will embrace. But if it's perceived that the school board is passing the buck, or if citizens involved in Summit 303 get the impression that this newfound authority is just lip service, the district will be farther back than square one.