Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Defending Families in the Omaha Metro: Douglas County Commissioners Meeting

By: Stephanie Morgan and Ann Summers

The Difference Your Story Makes

Yesterday, at a public hearing before county officials and press, the voices of mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and other concerned taxpaying citizens were heard. The hearing on the signing of this so-called Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) followed a lengthy discussion on the difficulties the commissioners face in balancing the Douglas County budget. During the discussion, many questions were asked of local administrators of county health and correctional facilities regarding how the county budget is being spent and what evidence and factual research supports its policies and expenditures. In our county commission, we saw a firm intention to keep taxes down, and to be accountable for the budget.

As discussion shifted to the MOU, Judge Crnkovich took the podium and opened with the statement that she was glad she “wasn’t up there to discuss the budget,” and with that she proceeded to advocate for the MOU and the GOALS Initiative. I thought how ironic it was that the GOALS Initiative and the Boards acceptance of the MOU was certainly about the budget, and require the spending of taxpayer money on a policy that is driven by dangerous assumptions.

Judge Crnkovich said that many families have been helped by the new focus on reducing truancy, though she shared no specific examples. She said that the GOALS Initiative is simply about getting services to families who need them and it is completely voluntary. A statement that Stephanie Morgan countered in the opening statement for the opposition by saying, "This program is not voluntary! Changes to the state statute in 2010 added broad prosecutorial powers that allow the County Attorney to become involved at any stage in the process to address excessive absenteeism. Judge Crnkovich told parents at a truancy meeting in Millard that this was a needed "hammer" to compel parents to cooperate." At the same meeting last spring Judge Crnkovich hinted at the formation of the GOALS Initiative which was already in the planning stages.

The public hearing opened up to citizen comments, and again and again, the point was made that these policies have little support, make little sense, and indeed, create more problems for families than they solve. The testimonies in opposition began with Stephanie Morgan who introduced the Nebraska Family Policy Forum and our goals to amend Nebraska's truancy law that lead to the GOAL Initiative. Brenda Vosik, took the stand to counter one of the guiding principles of GOALS and said, "the statement that, 'school attendance is the single most important element to the student’s ability to learn and be successful in school and life' is simply not true." Melanie Smotherman, the director of Family Advocacy Movement, and James L. Holt a licenced social worker spoke to the reality that all parents struggle occasionally to meet their children's needs but this Initiative is not the way to go about helping families. Ann Summers challenged the idea that correlation is causation and countered the idea that there is "a strong correlation between early truancy, continued academic and behavioral problems, eventual school dropout and delinquent behavior development."

Perhaps Judge Liz Crnkovich was surprised at the overwhelming opposition to the "plan" present at the meeting. Parent after parent took the podium in opposition of the GOALS Initiative, the memo that supports it, and the law that created it. After public testimony, Commissioner Chris Rodgers, chair of juvenile court, defended the MOU. He seemed reluctant to drive home his support because he wanted all of the parents present (including those that brought their small children and waited two hours to speak) to know that he understood their concerns.

Commissioner Rodgers likened a child's school attendance to an adult showing up for work on time, taking only the granted vacations days and sick days and said the his father never missed a day of work in his life. He also said that at the heart of the issue is one of control, he then proceeded to explain that schools have control of kids when they are at school and said that he personally "submits" his "kids to the control of the school district between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m." daily. He made it clear that he personally would not take his child out of school for an extra day to accompany his family on a vacation or other trip that might provide a learning experience. He said it just comes down to the fact that kids need to be in school. This clearly echoes the governor’s statement that, “If children aren’t in school, they aren’t learning.”

Mr. Rodgers is falling into the trap that so many people do... he is deciding that what is best for him and his family must be best for everyone's family. The difference between the normal and natural inclination to think that way for all of us, and Mr. Rodgers, is that he has the power to force his "paradigm" as you called it on the rest of us through the nature of his position of power. So while we might sometimes think our way superior we generally accept that we can do nothing to force others to do it our way and move on.
Those in positions of power are often tempted to use that power to "correct" what they believe to be irresponsible or inappropriate behavior in others through policy.

Commissioner Rodgers said that he follows the blog and could not support repeal of the law and yet the NFPF has not called for repeal for outright repeal of the law. Not one citizen who spoke in opposition of the memo supported truancy. Some protested the abuse of the term “truant” which has been redefined to include excused absences, and Commissioner Rodgers stated that he agreed this was a problem and that the law might need to be “tweaked” for these cases, since it allows no exception for them.

Some commenters asserted that learning did not have to take place in school, and again, we saw how this law affects conscientious parents who care for and tend their children’s education both in and out of the classroom, but these policies allow no exception for them. A few speakers avowed that these truancy policies are based on a basic misuse of statistical data that shows a correlation or relationship between truancy and poor academic performance (and the reverse) but no clear causation, and that policy should not be based on the suggestion of causation, but on real data to back it up.

Commissioner Rodgers stated that if we were to go down to the juvenile detention we could “see a correlation,” which merely reinforces the fact that he still misunderstands. Showing that some children who are absent also have juvenile records in no way proves that absences cause poor academic performance. But the policy allows no exception for these facts.

‎Mary Ann Stock Borgeson, was a real champion for freedom, common sense and families. She stated that she believed this memo represents “a case of government overreaching” its boundaries, and that these policies went too far. She paused proceedings several times to acknowledge the school groups of children who came to see their government in action, and she asked at the end of the hearing, “Why are school-sanctioned trips okay, but parents cannot get the same permission to take trips with their own children?” She was clearly referring not only to the memo, but to LB800.

There were several people who tried to separate the MOU under discussion from the law, including County Attorney Don Kleine, who came in toward the end of public testimonies. But Chairman Borgeson challenged them and rightly so, saying that the law and the MOU cannot be separated because one begat the other. I have been impressed with Commissioner Borgeson throughout the months we have been fighting to restore parental authority, but yesterday she received applause from the audience several times!

From listening to the comments of the commissioners it became clear that they are following the NFPF blog and reading the stories and open letters published here. These stories are having an impact. Arguments against the research or foundation of the policies were important but even more crucial were all the citizens with simply worded stories about how this law is hurting their families.

Members of our forum have been told often that the most powerful thing we are doing right now is sharing these personal stories. I have been told this by those officials who support an amendment to the law. I know that the Governor and his advisers are aware of what we are saying here. I am grateful to all those who have put their personal stories and thoughts on the website for everyone to see, and I am grateful for everyone who came and shared them at the meeting. The fight has only begun and we need to keep up the pressure on public officials.

It is important to note that every public official that has been asked to add their support to the mission and goals of the GOAL Initiative has signed the MOU except for the Douglas County Board of Commissioners and the Elkhorn Police Department. We need to send letters to everyone who signed this document and express our disappointment and letters to those who have not yet signed it expressing our support.

County Attorney, Don Kleine, who put his signature to the MOU in October, agreed that the law needed to be "tweaked" but mentioned only the need for "documented illness" to be more clearly defined as excused. He did approach our group, however, and clearly stated that he wanted to help. In testimony, he spoke to the difficult spot the legislature has put him in by dumping 3400 truancy cases into his office last year with an unfunded mandate. He assured parents that "No one is being prosecuted", but instead are being handled by the "truancy task force".

I believe that at this time he supports the GOALS Initiative not only because of his clear support for the MOU, but because he believes that the GOALS team will prevent cases from hitting the 20 day threshold, which would keep them out of his court house. He stayed after the meeting in the hall to talk to as many parents as he could, and expressed his desire to meet with our group and answer our questions.

What we saw at this hearing was very hopeful, and indicates strongly that doing the work we are doing is getting the notice and consideration of officials. But we must not stop. We must continue to keep communications open, bring forth our stories and share them, and inundate the legislators and government officials at all levels with the firm belief that this legislation and its offshoots are bad for school-policies, bad for Nebraska, and very bad for its families.

1 comment:

  1. I watched the meeting on Cox Cable. It was gratifying to hear Board members speak common sense! Commissioner Mike Boyle, who spoke of his five children and eighteen grandchildren, said it well. "My children and their spouses are fully capable of deciding when their children need to be out of school. THEY are responsible, not the State!" Thanks, to Mike Boyle