Saturday, November 6, 2010

A question about what government should be

After a week in which voters sent a message about what government shouldn’t be, here’s a story – and a question – about what government can do.

It begins with Anthony Shaheen, who is 23 years old and a Charlotte native. Last year, the Appalachian State grad took a job as an environmental educator for the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department. Last fall, he helped start an outdoor club at McClintock Middle School.

McClintock is a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Title 1 school, with at least three-quarters of its population qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. Each of the 25 boys and girls who joined Shaheen’s club were considered “at-risk” by the school system.

The idea behind the outdoor club was simple: Give the kids an appreciation of nature. In the first year, club members built and tended a school garden with plants native to North Carolina. They went on four field trips to the McDowell Nature Center, where Shaheen works.

On their first hike, a middle-schooler reached down for an acorn, then held it up. “What is this?” he asked.

“They were unaware,” Shaheen says. “I figured in Charlotte, there’s a lot of green space and they’d get a chance to stumble on those things. But they hadn’t had that opportunity.”

So the kids learned. Eagerly. They picked up salamanders and identified trees and fished. They felt wonder in their hands, breathed awe in the cool air of a campsite. And the more they learned, the more they wanted to.

Shaheen also saw bigger changes, measurable changes. Members of his club had a 5 percent decrease in documented misbehavior at McClintock. They had 40 percent fewer unexcused absences.

In part, the improvement came from kids knowing if they messed up, they’d lose participation in the club. But the behavior ran deeper than that. Shaheen remembers that at the beginning of the year, it took club members about 15 minutes to start losing focus. “By the end, you could put a fishing pole in their hand, and they would spend an entire hour content to cast,” he says.

The changes have been so transformative that Shaheen and his colleagues want to expand the club’s concept. Their idea: Take the land at Copperhead Island on Lake Wylie and turn it into a camp for at-risk kids. The county leases the property for $1 a year from Duke Energy. The park department would need, however, to build cabins and a mess hall; the cost could be about $200,000.

And this is the point where some of you say: Whoa.

Is it government’s role to build a camp for disadvantaged children, no matter how worthy the effort might be?

It’s the kind of debate we’ll be having often now, as lawmakers from Washington to Mecklenburg not only confront dire budget shortfalls, but quake at the thought of angering the already angry voter.

Make no mistake: The wave we saw on election night was not merely a tea party phenomenon. It was sustained by moderate voters who reacted to policies that felt less like short-term solutions to crisis than philosophical shifts on the role of government. A lot of Americans felt rightly squeamish about that. And so, we had Tuesday.

But the danger following any election is the pendulum swings too far. The Wild West recklessness of the Bush years resulted in the regulatory overreaching of the Obama administration. Now, it’s fashionable to want to go on a crash government diet.

In that climate, Shaheen and his colleagues have done a smart thing. With budgets getting slashed, they’ve solicited grants from the private sector to help fund programs, including the second year of McClintock’s outdoor club. Shaheen also has asked foundations and others about helping develop the Copperhead Island camp.

It would be a fine way to build a fine program – and not at all unprecedented. Our city and county are full of such public-private partnerships.

But, yes, they do include government. The reality is that sometimes, government has the best resources and willingness to serve us. The challenge, however, is not to lazily assume that’s always so.

Anthony Shaheen doesn’t really think in those terms. He was much more interested this week in talking about kids, not budgets. He defines his work by the impact it has and the successes he sees, not whom he works for.

When we look at his program, and others in this new era, we should judge them the same way.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps Mr. Shaheen should first try to raise funds privately for this camp.

You see, Peter, it didn't even occur to you that there was another method for getting this camp built than government intervention. That's a blind spot that most liberals have.

pstonge said...

Anon, 9:14 a.m.: As I wrote and you may have missed, Mr. Shaheen is raising money from private sources to fund the buildings in the camp. And, as I wrote, I think that's a fine idea.

If you think I'm calling for more government intervention, I think you might be misinterpreting the column. As I mentioned, I think voters were justifiably squeamish about policies we've seen the past couple of years.


Anonymous said...

You see Peter, we live in a society where "lowest bid" gets the job. We rarely care about "best". We do not think about the long term. That isn't sexy. Sexy is paying the least. Of course we all know that later on, sexy sags and the bridge falls.

Both sides are guilty in this at an equal percentage. Republicans think any tax is a bad tax and magically think money will fall from the capitalist trees to fund infrastructure for the same corporations that are off-shoring taxpayer's jobs that allow the infrastructure to exist, not to mention the fact that Fortune 100 corporations are hiding profits offshore as well. Heaven forbid anyone actually pay for the nation we all live in to actually prosper.

Don't get excited, Democrats. You are just as bad. You have never seen a social program you couldn't sink your teeth in to...with our tax money. Health care...what a joke. It would have been cheaper to simply call up Blue Cross Blue Shield and get the uninsured a policy. Now, you have given insurance carriers carte blanche to raise rates on EVERYONE. You see, you do not get something for nothing. It is basic economics. Add in every Democrats basic desire to social engineer the ills of society and you have people loose with our money.

Like it or not, "government" is here to protect us from ourselves. It is here to keep us safe from religion, like when the crazy folks think flying planes in to buildings or getting on planes with bombs in your undies is a good idea.

It is here to stop the nation's economy from crumbling when bankers decided to be Vegas gamblers and lied to everyone that would buy their garbage, then realized they essentially wrote checks with money they didn't have.

Government is here to make sure corporations pay when they decide using the cheapest method to extract oil is the best, except when it coats the most beautiful coastline in crude.

Government is not here to tell us who we can have in our bedroom, or what gods to worship...or not worship. Government is not here to say "You are entitled to..." but if handled properly, it is here to help those who need help.

DL said...

Mr. Shaheen has exposed what is wrong with our educational system. If teachers made learning more interesting, the students would behave better and maybe learn something. Re-vamp the system.

komodoman said...

In light of the the very specific need, gov'ts role should be to support and not impede the ability of the people to solve a problem. However, the anti-govt folks will soon lay claim that private enterprise is best suited to solve every problem. I wish Mr. Shaheen good luck on his efforts to find private funding for his admirable project.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 9:14pm - Do you even have the courtesy to offer an apology to Mr. St. Onge?

You were quick to blame and point fingers and yet you were utterly wrong.

wiley said...

McClintock is a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Title 1 school, with at least three-quarters of its population qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.

The above statement of "fact" is where you lose many for the rest of the column.

There is no doubt many kids in the County need some government assistance, but according to CMS, approximately 60% of that "three quarters of the population" do NOT qualify for FRL.

Also, I think you might want to revisit your "Bush years Wild West" comment that according to you, led to White Knight Obama riding in to save everyone with government interference in all of our lives. You seem to forget that Cuomo and Clinton pushed for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to give loans to people to buy houses who couldn't afford them and to have Barney Frank state for years that there was nothing wrong with FM&FM.

Bush tried as well as other Republicans from 2003 to 2005, to reign in FM&FM but were unsuccessful.

Until CMS can show where it intends to cut $100 million out of their budget and finally make the call to cut out all extracurricular activities, I'll save my tears for this program.

Michael Jordon and the Bobcats donated $250,000 to CMS for sports programs that most likely now will be cut. Maybe he can fund this program.

pstonge said...

Yes, McClintock is a Title 1 school, which CMS defines as I wrote - and statistics from the school confirm. CMS has never said that 60 percent of McClintock's or anyone's students don't qualify. CMS surveys showed that 60, then 68 percent of respondents in a small, targeted FRL survey either didn't respond or sent in a response that resulted in reduced or revoked benefits. Your taking quite a leap, and regardless, it doesn't change the point - that McClintock is a school that draws mostly low-income students.

The Wild West recklessness of the Bush years goes beyond housing and FM/FM. But you are absolutely correct about the Clinton administration planted the seeds that led to our housing crisis. Both administrations promoted more people realizing the dream of homeownership, and that has contributed to where we are today.

Did I say Obama was a white knight?

Mr. Shaheen's program is not a CMS program.



wiley said...

I found this article very informative regarding fraud in the FRL program:
Some ineligible households, however, still receive meal benefits, according to verification summaries from four school districts obtained by CJ.

The documents show that two out of three households verified during the 2007-2008 school year had their school lunch benefits reduced or revoked because they reported incorrect income or refused to substantiate their income claims.

Too bad the Observer doesn't have the guts to do an in-depth report on this problem and why the USDA threatened to yank $30 million in funds if CMS continued to do audits.

Also, I wouldn't give a plug nickel for any "facts" coming out of CMS regarding anything. All one has to do is look at the current state of affairs to understand why.

By the way, since the "club" is at a CMS school, it falls under CMS rules for clubs and extracurricular activities, right?

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved changes to Policy JJJ, Extracurricular Activity Eligibility, at its meeting on April 14. The policy covers eligibility requirements for middle and high school students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports and clubs.
Since 1993, CMS students have been required to have a grade-point average (GPA) of at least 2.0 to be eligible to participate. The amendments change when GPA is calculated for eligibility purposes. Under the new policy, it will be calculated at the end of the first semester and the end of the school year, instead of quarterly. CMS is one of the few districts in North Carolina to require the 2.0 GPA; that requirement has not changed.

I would like to see results of how Mr. Shaheen's program translates into these kids learning core curriculum subjects.

My apologies for attributing white knighthood to Obama. That was my mistake interpreting your comment incorrectly.

Anonymous said...

Hey Peter. I both understand and can appreciate the dilemma that is presented in your real life, right now, example. Part of the issue that most Politicians (with a capital P) on both sides of the political spectrum seem to have a massive problem with is grasping or understanding a basic principal of funding on an initial and ongoing basis. Even in your well worded article, a basic 'infrastructure' expenditure was listed at 200,000.00, however, there was no mention of the future need for funds to cover maintenance, staffing, utilities, necessary or desired improvements following the basic investment in the infrastructure.
BEFORE a road or a library or any other ‘public’ infrastructure project is planned, funded and eventually completed, there needs to be some future forward thinking and honest appraisal of the ongoing costs that will be necessary to fully implement and maintain that project. It is this basic thought process that seemingly has escaped so many of our politicians and special interest advocates.
If we were to take your example, let’s start with the basic understanding that any good or well deserving project is going to see a cost overrun of between 50 to 100%. This takes the initial 200k to 300k. Then let’s look at the ‘basic’ infrastructure that will be required before any structures are put into place. Things like roads, sewer, water, electricity, phone etc. This adds another 100 to 500k to the initial costs, most of which is funded by public (taxes) funds or fees (taxes of a different color). Net, we are now at an estimated 400 to 900k just to start. Next, what about first year staffing, maintenance, necessary ‘fixes’ and ongoing expenses such as paying for that water, sewer, electricity and other required items, including something as little as stamps or as big as oversight and administrative costs? Next let’s look 3, 5, 10 years down the road. Repairs, improvements (regulatory or otherwise) and the inevitable lawsuit because somebody’s child did not get to participate in the program.
Honest, I am not trying to criticize this effort or the hard work that has already gone into this program. All I am asking is the simple question … what is the TRUE cost now and into the future going to be. It’s a question that is not asked nearly enough by each of us as individuals, industry leaders and most importantly, our public leaders.
I see the results every day, up close and personal in my work, in my neighborhood, in this city and county as well as in this country. Short sighted thinking, with the only goal being the ‘next new shiny whatever’ is all around us these days. I see it in the foreclosed homes, the closed or cutback hours for our libraries, the potholes on our roads, the lease and lose way we all are told to finance things these days.
The program sounds worthy. The first steps have been taken and show promise. The full critical path of thinking and projects is needed before an honest decision can be made on a cost / benefit basis.
Thanks for allowing me to express a bit of my frustration this evening.
Just a taxpayer.

pstonge said...

Anon, 11:33: Excellent comment. I think you overestimate startup costs on this one, but the type of analysis you describe - not a reflexive not-for-government-to-tackle -is what needs to be weighed versus impact on programs like Copperhead Island.

Wiley: The article you cite contains the facts I referenced on FRL.

Yes, the outdoor club falls under CMS rules, but it is not paid for by CMS.

Thanks to both of you,


Anonymous said...

I read it all differently.

When I was a kid, our schools confirmed what our parents had already taught us, specifically what an acorn was by the time we were in middle school.

You see my mom and dad, and all of our friends parents took the time to explain the word to us, including oaks and acorns. They did not leave parenting to the school system.

A noble expenditure of effort time and money such a "camp" would be.

At some point in time, if we are to remain a recognizable America, the tide of attention will have to shift from nurturing 'under privileged' kids to creating an environment where such kids are not such a burden to their parents, that these "parents" in term, pawn them off to the state.
I mean what causes such a massive proliferation of 'under privileged kids" in the first place? To paraphrase obama it's not that we want to keep you from procreating, it's just that at some point it's enough. Irresponsible reproduction by a few is now every tax payers problem.

"When we look at his program, and others in this new era, we should judge them the same way."

We need to start judging why we need such programs in the first place.

Anonymous said...

DL's implication that teachers' lessons are "what's wrong with the system" misplaces the burden. As a life-long resident and taxpayer in this county, I've often considered my role in the education of our community's children. Certainly the "system" should provide more opportunities for genuine interest and wonder that Mr. Shaheen generously provides to our children at McClintock. Granted, some teachers are not interesting - perhaps even burned-out - but most I know are passionate about providing our students with meaningful education. All teachers, however, are under pressure to prepare students to pass end of grade tests and other "uninteresting" state-mandated curricula so that those same students can advance to the next grade. Either turn the state's curriculum on its side and rewrite it or provide extra-curricular activities as Shaheen does to give all students the rounded education that our children crave. (Can you really be expected to care about science without knowing what an acorn is?)
Our thanks are due to Mr. Shaheen and all the private donors for the camp, who have done more for our community and our children than those of us sitting in our Southeast Charlotte homes with full refrigerators and degrees on the wall taken for granted.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the piece, Peter. It's been my experience that comment sections generally bring out the worst (in) people. Amazingly, you've been able to bring us a story AND monitor the comments that follow.

There have been far too many writers choosing inflamatory headlines then allowing comments to get so far off subject you have to re-read the piece just to remember what you WERE talking about.

I appreciate your piece, and further appreciate your monitoring of the story. The result has been a cerebral discussion from multiple points of view. Maybe that's what the comment section was actually designed to do?! Kudos

Oh, and thank you to the poster who pointed out we're living in a 'lowest-bid' sickens me to think where we'll be when everything we just built starts to decay.

Anonymous said...

I not have an comment per se but I just want to thank Peter for taking the time to respond to the posts. I wish all of the CO's writers did that.

Anonymous said...

My personal opinion is that government should only provide for the protection and defense of individual liberty. When government forcefully takes from one individual his or her hard earned wealth to give to another, that government is then abusive and should be abolished. The recent election is an example of how our Founders intended the system to work peacefully. I know there will be some detractors of my comments. I would ask you: When a government expands in size and power, does that mean more or less individual liberty for the citizen?

Anonymous said...

I too appreciate this well written, non-inflammatory commentary and I agree with posters at 6:26 and 7:54--it is good to read a civil discussion of the issues and to have the blogger respond so thoughtfully to his readers. Unfortunately that does not happen often enough.

I was especially fascinated by the revelation that these kids did not know what an acorn is. There has been such a push in this community to urbanize, urbanize, urbanize, and a tendency in some quarters to criticize those who prefer to live in a less urban environment (the suburbs). The 'burbs' are often painted as being to blame for loss of green space and of being a very sterile environment. However, in Charlotte many of the suburbs are beautifully wooded and provide lots of opportunities for kids to see the natural world right outside their doors. Yes, parks and nature preserves are wonderful, but obviously the kids who would benefit from them the most have not been exposed to them. Perhaps we need to tone down the urban versus suburban rhetoric and instead concentrate on introducing our urban kids to a less urban environment.

Anonymous said...

A noble cause indeed. However, when the Observer is also running a story on the front page of how a group formed to aid "mental health patients" has squandered the money donated.....and we all know about the United Way (insert several other "programs" here), it becomes a big stretch to think people can continue to be emotionally stoked to donate to anything. Especially when a lot of people in this town are looking for jobs, and/or are concerned whether their current job will still be here in 2011. As far as government coming up with money. Pleeease. Read any/all other articles about CMS, city, county, state, federal governments. When times are good, and wallets are flush with cash...this guy can drum up 200 grand in a day. Now, look around, smell the coffee. Government's job is to take care of schools, fire, safety, etc. After a LONG list, if there is anything leftover, money can be donated. The current state of our nation which was brought on by, and accurately commented on by Peter and a reader, government attempting to assure that more lower income people attained the "dream" or "right" ((as opposed to "privilege")) of homeownership. A noble cause.....but, we see where that got us and have learned from it. Everyone has learned, and unfortunately most people are low on cash. And no, it is not government's job to fund this camp.

Anonymous said...

One critical element left unexamined by Peter is the role the Park plays to the community in it's current capacity. One would assume that the creation of the camp would be a defacto loss of Copperhead Island to the public who currently use it.

The County has leased hundreds of acres of land adjoining the park. Why tie-up the one piece of prime real estate for a single use? The Island is used by hundreds of County residents and is regularly rented (yes, one can rent the whole island) by the Boy Scouts, church groups, for company socials and for weddings. And this proposal would deny access to local residents who regularly use the park to fish, walk their dogs, picnic, bird watch, etc.

I applaud what Mr. Shaheen is trying to do, and wish him success in fund raising. He just needs to find a location which doesn't negatively impact far more people than he could potentially help.

Anonymous said...

just a quick response to this comment: My apologies for attributing white knighthood to Obama. That was my mistake interpreting your comment incorrectly.

It's great that you apologized for that, and I'm sure the other person is grateful. But it wasn't your mistake because you incorrectly interpreted anything --- to me, it simply shows which "side" you're on and, unfortunately, how most of us have lost our ability to look at issues objectively without first personifying it and finding an 'evil' face to apply to anything we want to label as wrong.

That's what your comment suggested to me when I first read it.

vegy said...

Remember friends: Measure twice cut once. Read, think, walk away, think, then respond, not react. Re lowest bid: In the 60's we were taught that most bldgs have a 30 year life span. To what end build except to anticipate profits...So, build on sound principles with "old world" quality and the results are greater respect for tangibles...perhaps even amongst children.

Anonymous said...

>> government has the best resources

Here, Mr. St. Onge, is your fatal flaw. Government in reality has NO resources. It does not sell a desired product, it does not competitively offer a service in the open market.

Its "resources" are obtained in only three ways:

1. Taxation, which punishes labor and true wealth via confiscation.

2. Borrowing, which punishes future generations via debt.

3. Printing (i.e. "quantitative easing"), which punishes savers and consumers via inflation.

Note that the common thread is that bankers are the only class who profit from all three.

Anonymous said...

Hands down one of the finest bloggers featured on the Observer. Thought provoking piece and author who sticks around to participate in the discussion.

Really, I swear I'm not St. Onge's mother! I just think it's so rare to see a quality product by the Observer (whether I agree with the subject or not) that I felt compelled to comment.

pstonge said...

Anon, 1:09: Yes, those are ways that resources are gathered, and if we wiped the slate clean, then your premise of "no resources" would be true. But we have to make decisions from where we are, not where we wish we could be.


JAT said...

To stretch the wisdom of John Fox to its breaking point -- Government is what it is.

It is not infinitely malleable and certainly prone to clumsy, unintended consequences that often rival the harms govt targets.

Me, I think government is a fire axe hanging on the wall. You better make d@mn sure you need it before you get it down and start swinging it around. Hitler? Good call. Happy Meals? Not so much.

We can more productively approach the rather large gray area between Hitler and Happy Meals by understanding that there is difference between civil society and govt and that all societal action need not be governmental action.

Anthony Shaheen said...

I speak as a native to this city and a person who has grown up within the school system and seen firsthand what these kids go through. Maybe I have too many dogs in this fight but I must say that all the discussion about one program has left some of the facts about our community out, and focused on bigger national agendas that cannot be addressed by educating children about nature. I feel that Mr. St Onge is simply stating that programs like this one provide a valuable resource and has done it by using monies effectively to impact the community it serves. This program is not a cure to all social ills by any means. But, if we wish to talk about total cost, the expansion of this program will curb the cost of judicial intervention that will far surpass the impact it will have on one life.
This program in its current state provides an opportunity to give kids a "well rounded education" but it also supplements the core curriculum that is being covered in every middle school science class across the state according to the NC standard course of study. It provides literary supplements that teach kids how to better write and convey their thoughts which for some individuals surround around surviving the “Hood” for another night. These topics cannot even be covered in some classrooms with similar issues as McClintock because teachers are still trying to educate students on how to read and count (our community, our middle schools).
An increase in community population in Charlotte has brought with it an exponential growth of inner city issues… i.e. Gangs, high school dropout rates, etc. According to a 2008 study published by CMS & Gang of one, our community reached a 400% increase in gang activity in 5 years. The club effectively uses county assets, as well as assists in projects unable to be continued due to budget cuts to battle the growth of gangs, violence and childhood delinquency within our inner city. It breaks down the barriers caused by social issues and allowing these kids to be kids (not surrogate mothers and fathers for their younger siblings).
Creativity is what our government lacks and when we are using resources effectively to creatively curb social issues that cost tax payers more money (Gangs & Childhood obesity) in the end everyone wins. We have better educated members of our community, the use of county resources that would otherwise lay dormant (due to Jennifer Roberts and the BOCC massacre of Park & Rec as so adequately named by Michael Cozza in his Observer article), as well as beautifying the community that we enjoy so much. Thank you Mr. St Onge for your interest in our program, and lastly thank you to the many people who have made this program possible in the last year & a half.
Anthony Shaheen

Anonymous said...

The fact that so many percent of the children receive free or reduced lunch means nothing. The system has been prohibited from auditing need and there is much abuse. Watch the number of free lunch folks that are picked up every day by folks driving new cars. GovCo has no business being in the "camp" business.

Anonymous said...


You ask "a question about what government should be", and when someone points out a flaw in your argument, you state "we have to make decisions from where we are, not where we wish we could be".

Which is it?

pstonge said...

Anon, 7:52: You're correct. I answered the question too quickly and not very well. The point I was trying to make is that we have a government with resources, and we always will. There is no wiping the slate clean. Doesn't mean we can't strive toward a government with fewer resources, which I imagine is the point the commenter would ultimately want to make.