Democracy is Coming

Planning a near-daily routine is all very well, but when the second week of that routine involves daily rehearsals that add a good four to five hours to your day, it does not work that well. I’m happy to say that the play went off splendidly, but, much as I love it, I am glad to have my evenings back. . . except that I don’t quite have my evenings back.

Last night I attended, in its entirety, a nearly four-hour special school board meeting to which the public was invited and encouraged to give feedback. The public showed up, in force. Our official town population is 342; our town plus the outlying areas that make up our school district brings us up to perhaps 600, and there were, I would guess, fifty or so people at last night’s meeting.

Our school, which is a K-12 school that is also its own school district (and thus we have, for our 109 students, a superintendent, a principal, a business secretary, and three other secretarial staff, which seems somewhat insane but which is apparently not the cause of the current problems), is in the same uncomfortable position as a lot of other entities in the country these days. They either have to spend $374,000 out of their reserve fund or cut 4.17 positions — or some combination of those — in order to keep going next year.

The school, like the state of Wyoming, is of course much more fortunate than many other entities. The school has a reserve fund, which many places do not. People are tearing their hair out over the idea of the University of Wyoming raising tuition this year, the first in-state tuition increase the state has seen in some time (I’d look for the numbers, but I have to head back to the school shortly for, believe it or not, another meeting). During the five years I lived in Iowa after I finished college, tuition went up by double digits every year. In many ways, I am tempted, for perhaps the first time in my life, to quote my fathers most obnoxious line: “I understand, but I don’t sympathize.”

But what I want to talk about here is not the rightness or wrongness of any particular plan of action. What I want to talk about is democracy.

Last night’s meeting was full of misunderstandings, of ancient grudges, of personal agendas — of all sorts of things that tend to derail our political discourse. But it was, for all that, remarkably free of what we now refer to, disparagingly, as rhetoric. In actuality, of course, there was lots of rhetoric, but it was rhetoric in the non-derogatory sense: it was speech that was both considered and impassioned, both personal and political. It was speech that, on more than one occasion, resulted in applause.

One of the teachers in attendance told me today that her husband said, “Gee, I’m glad we got rid of cable — this is way more entertaining!” I’m not sure that he really wants to do this sort of thing every night, but in it was entertaining. And it was important. And despite being kind of sick of four hour extensions to my 8.5 hour work day, I am glad I went.

I’ve been attending meetings of various sorts for almost twenty years now, and I am almost as fascinated by the process and organization of meetings as I am by the content of the meetings themselves. One thing I like about living here in my insanely small town is how personal a view I get of the meetings I attend here, and the way they end up emphasizing just how much I am an insider as well as just how much I am an outsider. I can’t say much more specifically about that without impugning people’s privacy in a way I don’t want to do, and so perhaps this won’t mean much at all to the people reading this. But I am, in some weird way, looking forward to heading out to tonight’s meeting, because it’s not very often that you get to see the cogs of democracy quite this close, and even though they’re a tremendous mess, they’re also, to me, an irresistible puzzle.