Note: Go here for the DCPS budget information page.
Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals is a consensus builder. For better or worse, he tends to walk softly and carry a big welcoming mat.
He spread that mat a little further Tuesday at Ed White High School during his second of four scheduled Budget Community Meetings.
While less people showed up and it was much more subdued than Thursday’s Sandalwood High meeting, the crowd of just over 700 was no less concerned about what they heard.
The message was basically the same: The budget deficit is so drastic that unless something is done immediately, no part of DCPS – from instruction and personnel to basic services – will be safe from cuts.
There was, however, one significant content change Tuesday from what he has been saying: The state revenue reduction figure might now be “only” $10 million rather than the $60 million originally projected.
This could bring the overall shortfall down from $125 million to $75 million.
The superintendent reiterated that, even with the improved scenario, significant cuts are still likely.
It’s not an easy trick to stand in front of hundreds of people and tell them that their jobs and their children’s future are at dire risk without causing a riot.
It’s a particularly difficult thing to do when you – the leader of the organization and the one whose duty it is to protect their welfare – offer no real solutions beyond asking the state to stabilize funding and loosen restrictions on how money can be spent.
But so far, Pratt-Dannals has managed to pull it off.
Crowds at the first two events have been polite, attentive and have kept their questions on topic and civil. There’s been no challenge to the superintendent’s basic premise that lack of funding is the problem and the state is the source.
Part of the reason for this might be that Pratt-Dannals has been very much in control.
Aside from his calm and friendly demeanor, questions are delivered via written cards, which allows for screening and also minimizes the emotional element that may arise if people engaged him directly.
Furthermore, he is in a good position in that he can validly respond in one of four ways that render most questions harmless: we’ve already made those cuts, but we’ll keep looking; we simply can’t cut more in that area; it’s out of our control; or, no final decisions have been made, so the government urges you to remain calm.
The superintendent has honed his argument, stays on point, and frequently acknowledges questions as “good” or expresses sympathy and a shared sense of frustration. “We don’t want to make cuts in this area. I think it’s important, too. But we may not have a choice,” is a common refrain throughout his presentation.
It also helps that the superintendent has “stacked” his audience by strongly encouraging his principals, teachers and staff to attend the meetings.
The good news is that many have followed their leader, as educators have easily made up half in attendance at both meetings. But that also means that he may not be getting a true measure of the pulse of his most important stakeholders, the parents.
With each meeting it becomes clear that Pratt-Dannals’ main goal is to do what he does best: build consensus. He’s doing this by providing factual information, honestly presenting the challenges and openly appealing for community participation.
The question is will this be enough to make a difference? Or are the budget concerns so large or so beyond the district’s locus of control that the battle is already lost?
Only time will tell. But until then, Pratt-Dannals seems determined to make sure that he is not in this alone.
The next Budget Community Meeting is scheduled for Thursday at Ribault High School. The final one is Tuesday at Mandarin High School. Both begin at 6 p.m.
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