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News Section: Opinion

School District Politics Make Their Own Case for More Civics Classes

Published Sunday, June 29, 2014 12:10 am

To say that the Manatee County School District has faced a complicated array of challenges over the past couple of years would be a criminal understatement. From multimillion dollar budget errors to misusing bond revenue and other funding sources, the district has dug itself into a hole that has left taxpayers scratching their head.

Board members and administrators often vent frustration as to the public's inability to understand the issues they are enraged over, but if they want to impact the dynamic, there would be no better way than a heavy dose of local government civics in the curriculum.

Across the nation, civics classes have been cut in recent decades, though even at their peak they contained precious little instruction on matters of local government. As a result, even good students usually matriculate without gaining a solid understanding of the local government process to carry into adulthood.

Without a solid understanding of how the system works, it's no surprise that most adults either ignore local government altogether or retreat to a very fundamental ideology full of playbook responses that lack the sort of pragmatism required of the political process. More and more we hear calls for “small” or “less” government without any sort of coherent plan to achieve desired service levels with less resources.

The reality is that in our modern world, governance is by necessity more complicated than ever. There's more development, more infrastructure, more people and less resources than ever before. Things seemed simpler in the past because they were – especially in Florida. Only a few decades ago, undeveloped land was everywhere and for most communities, the thought of running out of it or overburdening the environment and our natural resources was nearly unfathomable.

Today, we are stuck dealing with a litany of challenges which have resulted from irresponsibly developing our land, ignoring ways to make that development more energy efficient in the age of cheap fossil fuels, wasting precious water resources and subsidizing inefficient or long-term unsustainable practices in everything, from the housing market to mining and agriculture.

We've learned that pumping waste into waterways or the ocean comes back to haunt you later, that you cannot just dig as many wells as you please and that Mother Nature designed some pretty effective defenses – like barrier islands – that not only helped to keep our ecosystem in balance, but protected us from the native weather catastrophes, and that rising sea levels do matter.

We've also learned that contrary to capitalist wives' tails, the market does not self-correct all of these problems. Combating such challenges requires thoughtful regulation through a complicated structure of governance. But if that administration is getting more complicated, while citizen understanding is not only failing to keep up, but getting more watered down, then it is a recipe for disaster.

Our everyday quality of life is impacted immensely by the decisions made by boards like the county commission, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the school board, fire districts, city councils and community development district boards. When the already-thin civics curriculum is mostly focused on our federal government, it is no wonder that a majority of local citizens don't involve themselves in the local government process.

The best government, however, almost always comes about when there is significant public input, dialog and debate. When only the bureaucrats and special interests know how the sausage is made, it is far too easy for a self-interested crowd of local political elites to run roughshod over the masses, who themselves become all too vulnerable to deceptive politicking  – when they're paying attention at all. Money matters so much in politics, precisely because a little can go such a long way when the polls are dominated by low-information voters.

The Manatee County School District could learn from its current mess by leading the way in designing and implementing a model program of local government civics classes that would endow future voters with a much better understanding of how local governments work. In just a couple of decades, we'd have a voting public that is much more educated on the matters that are decided by their vote. If nothing else, that sort of return on investment would give taxpayers frustrated by the current mess a much-needed benefit to look forward to.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.

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