Friday, April 12, 2024

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ABSS and the Keystone Cops

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More than a 100 years ago, as the new genre of “moving pictures” began to unroll, one of the first categories of popular “movies” were a series of silent films starring so-called Keystone Cops (circa 1912-1917).

The Keystone characters usually exhibited a flurry of activity, with chase and action scenes often seemingly moving faster than the regular frames of the motion picture.  But both the main characters and the supporting ones generally got few substantive results, like arrests, and they usually bungled whatever mission they were on.

Alamance County’s own 2024 version of the Keystone Cops is being played by Superintendent Dain Butler and his administration of the Alamance-Burlington school system – and, by extension, the school board.  Its members are largely props in the narrative, although they are occasionally bit players in the Keystone-esque escapades of the school system.

Like with the actors of the Keystone era, there’s a lot of energy with an illusion of much activity.

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But much of that energy is characterized by bumbling incompetence, misunderstandings, and miscommunication.  These characteristics contribute to each episode being unproductive or even counterproductive to their ostensible objective in each film’s plot.

However, unlike the Keystone era, Butler’s version is rarely humorous, except in a bemusing, perplexing sort of way. But the clumsy, inept performances are somewhat hilarious as they continue week after week – if one can look past the seriousness of not being able to keep track of millions of tax dollars.

Unfortunately, also like the Keystone Cops, we don’t think that school officials actually realize their contributions to the incompetence displayed.

The latest ABSS/Keystone episodes involve the school system’s budget.

The comedy takes place at two levels: first, trying to follow the  discombobulated budget numbers, which have been almost laughable, except for their impact on real people – ABSS employees, students, and parents, as well as county commissioners and taxpayers.

The second, lesser dimension of the school system’s farcial episodes is who is the “villain” – the rhetoric  seems to shift on who’s to blame for the school system’s budget problems. (Ah, how in this case we wish the school system speakers were silent, as in the original Keystone films.)

Let’s highlight just the past few weeks.

On Friday, February 2, the school superintendent, in a panic, sends out a notice to all personnel, laying out the fact that, because of a budgetary shortfall, 24 employees would need to be laid off, while another 30 were to have their salaries cut (mostly from going from a 12-month pay schedule to a 10-month pay schedule).

The budget shortfall prompting such a “reduction in force” is later defined to be $3.2 million.

In one of Butler’s earlier Keystone fiascos (in June 2023), the superintendent had assured county commissioners that if they just gave him $897,930 more in local county funding for the current budget year, all would be well.

They gave the money, but it hasn’t be so copacetic since.

In a school board work session since Butler’s announcement, to hear how the $3.2 million shortfall would be handled, the statement is made that the cuts being proposed wouldn’t actually have any impact in the current fiscal year – which is where the deficit allegedly is. So what’s the point of all the draconian cuts in the first place?

But not to worry, a few weeks later, on Thursday, February 22, the superintendent puts out a new, much happier notice: in essence, he’s found $4.6 million.   “This will put an estimated $4.6 million back in state and local funds, avoiding a reduction in force and sustaining us through June 30. In other words, everyone will remain employed and be fully paid,” Butler said.

Hooray, budget crisis over.  So might read the intertitle, or caption, flashed up on the screen in between action.

But. . .wait for it. . . there’s always another shoe to drop when it comes to the Keystone school system.

A weekend later, at the Monday, February 26 school board meeting, the amount of “found” money had changed, yet again. . . now down to about $2.7 million.

What became of the other almost $2 million go (that had been “found” last week)? Oh, they forgot to see whether certain money could be “redefined” from the past – whether it could be allocated for  “only one year” or several (they’d counted on several until the state Department of Public Instruction told them only one).

It seems to us it might have been more prudent for the superintendent not to make such broad and definitive pronouncements   – neither so dire in early February, nor so joyous in late February – without being certain of the facts and knowing the actual amounts available county, state, and federal funds.

But then, lack of prudence is what contributes to the situation being worthy of the Keystone Cops genre.

Who knows what next week’s financial situation will be, or even tomorrow’s?

With Butler in charge of the school system, a crisis could recur at any moment.

Frankly, we’ve begun to wonder whether he is up to handling the job.

 

So, who’s to blame, who’s the villain?

But an almost equally slapstick comedy goes with the territory of who is to blame for the school system’s financial problems. (Although, you can be sure, it’s never the Keystone administrators themselves.)

Back in November, school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves joined the clown car – apologies for mixing comedic metaphors – to assert that the commissioners have consistently short-changed the school system.

Those supposedly tightfisted county commissioners are the favorite villain in most of the Keystone school episodes.

In January, the school system tried to blame the commissioners for leaky roofs at several schools after a major rainstorm had passed through the county on January 9, claiming that years of “inadequate funding” had contributed to the number of schools with leaky roofs.

Commissioners, tiring of their involuntary role as the villains in the school system’s Keystone escapades, decided to put out the actual record of the millions of dollars contributed for roof projects.  As it turned out, the commissioners had appropriated $15.6 million, but the school system had spent only $4.3 million, or about 28 percent. ABSS ignored that report.

Caught in their . . . misrepresentation (to put it mildly), the Keystones rapidly transitioned to a new foil: why, it’s the Department of Public Instruction, itself.

Somehow DPI is now the cause of years of delay in ABSS getting roof work done.

Keep in mind that ABSS Keystones never seem to have or accept any responsibility for the messy situations they face.

Continuing that trend, it’s DPI that is now also blamed by the school system for the shrunken amount of “found” money available to cover the budget deficit for the year.

How the school system will plug that remaining shortage will, undoubtedly, be a future episode in the ongoing Keystone school system saga.

Like watching the silent Keystone Cops of old, it’s often hard to keep straight the plot lines of the action.

But there are unmistakable common elements: bumbling, fumbling, actions that lead to ill-advised and misguided plot lines.

The results are typically ludicrous, absurd, even preposterous.

One key difference is that the producers and directors of the silent film Keystone Cops were intentionally trying to be humorous and provide entertainment for their viewers.

ABSS’ Keystone administrators aren’t trying to be humorous – indeed, they play-act as though they’re serious educators – but the results, so far, are nothing less than nonsensical, and we sense the Alamance County audience is finding the hijinks increasingly tiresome.

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