It wasn’t ACT scores, teacher salaries or the future of high school buildings that attracted a crowd to last Monday night’s St. Joseph Board of Education meeting.
It was masks. Across the country, masks are one of those issues that can turn normally tame school board meetings into a new front in the culture wars. People have strong feelings on masks, but here’s the thing to remember amid all this chatter about a piece of fabric that hangs from your ears. Someday, they will come off. The school board will change course or the coronavirus will burn itself out. It’s just a matter of how long it takes and how much damage there is between now and then.
When they do come off, St. Joseph will be left with the same schools, the same challenges walking through the door and the same paradox: You need money to fix the schools, but you need public trust to get the money. The cycle repeats, with or without masks.
At the same meeting, board members discussed another agenda item that will prove of more lasting significance. The St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce and Mosaic Life Care are pooling $100,000 to bring in a consulting firm, Creative Entourage, to conduct community engagement on behalf of the school district.
This may sound similar to the PACT process of about a decade ago, which ended in voter approval of a bond issue for two new elementary schools. In fact, Creative Entourage merged with the former PACT facilitator, Unicom.ARC.
This latest process will involve surveys and meetings with a cross-section of parents, business people and retirees to determine not just what the schools need, but what the citizens of St. Joseph want from public education. At some point, possibly more than a year from now, a plan would be submitted to the Board of Education, which would make the final determination on any type of school improvement plan or funding issue.
Remember that in the original PACT process, the school board whittled a $230 million proposal to a $42 million bond issue.
This time around, Mosaic and the chamber launched the program but vow to take a hands-off approach so that a grassroots plan can unfold. But their initial involvement shows how much is at stake for the business community, which views the perception and reality of the SJSD as an obstacle in recruiting employees and attracting new businesses.
In a city with a declining population, something has to change. This starts with building a broad consensus on the future of public schools.