Sunday, November 13, 2005

Talk Talk

Yesterday I spent the day at the Voices and Choices Townhall meeting. The BJ fronts a story that covers most of the factual background and accurately describes the day's events and the atmosphere in the JAR (you read that right; we were serenaded by rappers). If you've seen the front page photo, that's me, 23rd from the left.

Civic disengagement troubles me. After trying in vain to recruit volunteers to help with the levy campaign on election day, after working for a dismal turnout at a school board candidates night, after a number of disappointments and frustrations, this day gave me hope. Seeing the floor of the JAR crammed with regular folk who were spending the last nice Saturday of the season (no really, that was it) talking about how to make our corner of the world a better place.

Not that I have great hope for the enterprise itself. The focus of the effort is promoting economic growth. I share with my conservative friends a deep scepticism about grand schemes to encourage economic activity. They too often turn into boondoggles for taxpayers and bonanzas for select corporations. See also, Steelyard Commons.

The participants did an admirable job of identifying challenges facing NEO. I was particularly glad to see that education topped the list in each of the problem areas we were instructed to discuss. (A sidebar to the BJ story listing the challenges and solutions doesn't appear online.)

Of course, finding solutions is another matter. One problem was that, because the meeting had a regional focus, the solutions had to have a regional focus. But most of the problems are city problems, or at best county problems. The regional structures people are casting about for just don't exist.

What's more, the region is so diverse that its hard to imagine much getting accomplished region-wide. Northeast Ohio, as defined in the conference, stretches from Lorain County, south to Ashland, west to Columbiana (inexplicably picking up Carroll and omitting Tuscarawas along the way), then up to Ashtabula. When talk turns to topics like consolidation of school districts and taxing entities, the discussion has left this planet. Summit County couldn't agree on a sales tax to build new schools because everyone was suspicious Akron would take more than its share. Who really expects Carrolton to throw it's lot in with East Cleveland?

A second problem with finding solutions is that the easy ones have already been agreed on and implemented. The problems that remain are the subject of rancorous debate. To take the subject of education as an example, no one questions its importance. But we are unable to reach anything like a consensus as to how to improve the school system. In fact, if consensus means, say 80%, I don't think we have a consensus in this state that there should be a public school system.

For another example, these were two actual challenges about education that made the consolidated list flashed on the big screen (these are paraphrased):

-Teaching to the test instead of encouraging creativity.
-Need regional standards and requirements that students meet them.

Good luck sorting that out.

Which leads me to a third problem -- people just don't know what they are talking about. When discussion turned to "unfair, cumbersome business taxes" I wanted to jump on a table and scream. We have an entirely new business tax structure in this state. In the last budget cycle the Corporate Franchise Tax was burned down and the shiny new Corporate Activities Tax erected in its place. We have no idea how it will work, but here it is. Yet townhall participants were fundamentally without clue and the participant materials we had made no mention of the change.

Finally, there is that whole problem of "encouraging economic growth." We live in an area that grew because of its place along shipping routes for raw materials. From that happenstance, a manufacturing base grew, then moved elsewhere. No one can know what the next industry will be or what series of happy accidents will determine where physically it will grow. How, then, does Voices seek to steer our economic future? I only hope it's not more of the Milo-Minderbinderism like that in Issue 1.


Bill said...

I started out for Akron Saturday morning, but around Brecksville I realized that the sky was blue, the sun was shining and the inside of Rhodes was the last place I wanted to be. So I turned around, went home and replaced a couple of storm windows. Can't say I regret my choice. Great post!

Dave Abbott said...

As one of the people responsible for the Voices & Choices initiative, I want to respond to both the original post and to Bill's comment.

First, Voices & Choices is predicated on a fundamental fact of economic life: the global economy treats our region like an economic unit and, therefore, we have to compete as a region. This is inconvenient and challenging for us in Northeast Ohio because our political boundaries and related behavior derive from a long-ago history that is now nearly part of our regional DNA. But the fact remains that our fragmentation hurts our ability to compete against places that have their act together. It is simply not true that these are problems of cities or counties. Those jurisdictions are meaningless to the global economy except insofar as they either get in the way or contribute to our collective competitiveness.

Second, it's a step forward to understand that we are, because of forces beyond our control, essentially on the same economic competitiveness team. But it is really hard figuring out how to act like we are. We in the foundation community surely do not have the answers. And even if we did, any effort on our part to impose them would fail. Indeed, there is no sector or company or individual with the intelligence and power to do what needs to be done. So, we launched Voices & Choices in the hope that the collective wisdom of the region's people would show us all the way forward. Yes, we are certainly swimming against a tide of civic disengagement, but what's the alternative? Waving goodbye to all of our children? Regional hara-kari?

Finally, while it is true that the lack of economic growth fueled our desire to create the Fund for Our Economic Future and to launch Voices & Choices, we don't anticipate any "grand schemes" for promoting economic growth per se. Rather, big and complex issues that affect our competitiveness -- like education and taxation and governance, etc. -- ought to be where the Voices & Choices process ends up. Exactly where and how remains to be seen. But it will only happen if people really commit to it and to the need for action. So, Bill, next time, please join in. Our region needs to have "storm windows" replaced too.

John Galt said...

Brilliant summary and analysis. This sounds similar to Connection capers; REI chats; Red Room asides, and such. These events have been the bane of the area. In the most positive sense, they are well meant but naive efforts. In the most cynical sense, they are an exercise to keep well-meaning people busy and create a false sense of momentum. If such things are to be held at all, the best use of time is for real or "civic leaders" to place 2 or 3 proposals on the table and have people debate them, modify them, etc..rather than mass brainstorms, flip charts with ideas, summaries..lets hope the new leaders in town can do something different.

Chris Thompson said...

We are a region and the world treats us as such.

It is time we acted as such.

If Voices and Choices enables more of the region's residents to think and act regionally (or globally) it will be successful.

I don't think it's goal is a regional economic development master plan. But rather a regionwide recognition that we live in global economy that treats us a region, not as the balkanized communities we now live in.

I share Pho's concern that the quality of the "education" process of Voices & Choices may be lacking if rants about tax reform don't address recent changes.

What is the outcome of this effort?

I have high hopes. A more informed populace that will not tolerate narrow minded parochial behavior that deters the region's ability to succeed.

John Galt said...

Chris - It may be useful, first, to validate the idea that the world thinks of the region. Having been away from there, I am not sure the world does. "Cleveland" rather than "NEO" may be cued more easily,

But, if the idea is to get people - as in corporations/businesses - to think or act as a region, a case study or two of how and why this works may help, rather than these group exercises...You've seen them for many years now...Not a bit of value..

john galt said...

Pho: I missed your reference to Milo Minderbender (the more we allow ourself to be bombed, the more money we'll make ...). Brilliant connection.

Ragnar Danneskjold's excoriation of modern day Robin Hoods from Atlas Shrugged may also resonate with the context..

Pho said...

First off, thanks to everyone who commented. My humble little blog has never seen such activity. I'm honored by the attention.

Dave, thanks especially to you. You could easily have raged at me, Bill and the other NEO bloggers that picked up this post. Inviting us to remain engaged in the process is an impressive display of even temperment. I likely wouldn't have been so diplomatic if someone had shat on my project.

I feel that between the original post, Dave's and Chris's comments and some of the rebuttal, this has been a useful discussion about what V&C can and can't do. I haven't moved much off my original position, but I have a larger glimmer of hope than before. I would love my pessimism to be proven wrong.

Piet van Lier said...

If it's not too late....

I was part of an earlier round of Voices and Choices meetings, but couldn't make Saturday in Akron.

I have my doubts about the process, but think it could be meaningful -- we do have to start acting differently, and working regionally, to the extent possible, seems like a no-brainer.

However, I wonder if we don't sometimes get too wrapped up in big ideas. For example, people are talking about combining suburban and urban school districts. Big idea, probably impossible.

But research shows that economically integrated schools do work. So what if we start small, with one or two public schools or charters (as long as they're free) that can use local/regional assets (Cleveland's universities or hospitals) to intentionally draw across district boundaries and from different socioeconomic groups? This idea is starting to work elsewhere, why not here?

I'm sure there are other "small" regional ideas like this. You've got to start somewhere.

Pat Blochowiak said...

The problem I have with the Voices & Choices project is that there are so many good ideas that I am frustrated by the need to talk about them.
Improvement of education in East Cleveland and vicinity is an example of a major need. Everything needs improvement - financing, morale, educational achievement, student behavior, etc. I would like to start by instituting proven effective programs such as the Committee for Children's Second Step (for early grades only) and Dr. Jeremy Shapiro's Peacemakers Program, augmented by the computer game, The Coolien Challenge. The improvement in behavior would increase student achievement, attendance, and teacher morale, just for starters. I'd like to make more use of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's Science Resource Center and of math and problem-solving games, such as Wff 'N Proof, chess, and Smath.
Just these few small changes would, I think, increase the chances that surrounding school districts would be willing to collaborate with us.
The process, though probably useful in the long run, seems incredibly slow and cumbersome.

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