Seventy-six trombones led the big parade
With a hundred and ten coronets close at hand.
They were followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuosos,
the dream of ev’ry famous band.
– “Professor” Harold Hill, The Music Man
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners would never say “I told you so” when it comes to the striking and upsetting new revelations from the Say Yes program – namely, that many kids who were counting on Say Yes to help fund their college education will never see those funds – but now, in light of what’s happened, it’s instructive to look back to Monday afternoon, August 31, 2015, when the commissioners came under fierce criticism merely for trying to get some answers about the program.
At that time, the ubiquitous impression of community leaders and school officials was that the county commissioners should just be quiet and thankful and not ask questions since Say Yes was, out of its immense generosity and the goodness of its heart, bestowing upon Guilford County a transformative program that would help county kids who wanted to go to college.
After that meeting – at which the commissioners just wanted some answers, some hard numbers and a few details – News & Record columnist Susan Ladd began her column condemning the commissioners by writing, “They didn’t just look a gift horse in the mouth. They kicked it in the teeth.”
However, as citizens of ancient Troy will tell you, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to look inside a gift horse.
In summer 2015, when school officials brought Say Yes to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners so the county could vote to approve it, it was a jam-packed meeting held in the Blue Room in the Old Guilford County Court House. That day, the room was packed with school officials, business leaders, press and Say Yes representatives.
Say Yes was deciding whether to “choose” Guilford County and there was a great deal of pressure on the Guilford County commissioners to vote to support the organization. And most of the community leaders, school officials and others in the room were worried the Board of Commissioners would ask hard questions rather than give an easy stamp of approval. They didn’t want the commissioners to mess up this fantastic blessing, this gift horse filled with gold.
After that meeting, I wrote that “Guilford County Schools officials ran into a buzz saw – or maybe it was a hornets nest.” Every one of the commissioners – Democrats and Republicans – had questions for Say Yes, and many commissioners said that, for months, they had been trying to get answers but hadn’t gotten any. How much will it cost the county’s taxpayers? What are “wrap around” services the county is expected to provide? Will the county schools have to divert some of their resources to help Say Yes achieve its goals? Will some other students be affected negatively by those changes? Why weren’t charter schools included? How much extra would it cost to include them in the program? Why can’t Say Yes or school officials tell the county how much that would cost? Why did the group not have the numbers one would expect?”
Trust me when I say that some school officials and community leaders were actually cringing as the commissioners asked their questions, one after another – because you’re never supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth. The commissioners were just trying to make sure it actually was a gift and not something else. Mo Green, who at the time was superintendent of schools, other school officials and community leaders looked horrified at times as the commissioners threw out questions rather than rolling out the red carpet.
Back then, Commissioner Hank Henning was chairman of the board and he spoke about his dissatisfaction with the opaque process and the complete lack of details. Henning talked about how little information the commissioners had been given and he said there obviously had been a great deal of discussion between other parties – and the process had clearly advanced very far along – however, he said, no one had bothered to inform the commissioners.
Henning asked, “Why wasn’t the county included? Here we are in the ninth inning and you’re just now getting to us.”
He added that information requested months ago had never been given to commissioners and that he was astonished that, for instance, no one had even brought an estimate of what it would cost to include charter schools in the program. (It turns out, in hindsight that that number may not have been a very good estimate anyway, because, as we found out this week, the dollar estimate that they did have available in 2015 – the amount of money needed to establish an endowment for the Say Yes program – was off by nearly a half billion dollars.)
Henning told school officials and Say Yes officials at that meeting, “I was almost begging for information months ago and now we are here at the last minute trying to negotiate.”
When one community leader said the commissioners had been given a presentation on Say Yes, Henning shot back quickly and pointedly: “I was there – that wasn’t a presentation to the county commissioners.”
During the August 2015 meeting, Green and other school officials all jumped in from time to time like a tag team to make points in favor of Say Yes. They said that what the program needed now was simply a resolution from the commissioners showing the county’s support – and the details, they said, could all be worked out later.
Henning then said that the Board of Commissioners represents 100 percent of the people in Guilford County but the Say Yes program clearly wouldn’t apply equally to everyone. At that time, Henning was talking about charter schools being left out of the mix, but it turns out that, now, in 2017, there may be zero dollars going to charter school students and also zero dollars going to a vast swath of Guilford County school system students who’ll be left off because their family lives above the poverty line.
Henning wasn’t alone at that time – it was all the commissioners. Many said they’d never been asked to make such a big decision with so little information. Commissioner Kay Cashion, for instance, said at that meeting that this was all brand new to her.
“I have quite a few questions because I haven’t heard a conversation about this,” Cashion said. “I really question if the communication level has been what it should have been.”
Commissioner Alan Branson said the county’s school officials had obviously done a good job promoting the Say Yes program to the business community, but he added that the communication to the commissioners had been “very poor.”
Commissioner Jeff Phillips, who’s now chairman of the Board of Commissioners, and Commissioner Alan Perdue, had plenty of questions as well – as did Justin Conrad, who said, “There’s clearly a disconnect.”
Commissioners Carolyn Coleman, Ray Trapp, and Carlvena Foster – also with a lot of questions – actually voted against the resolution of support for Say Yes in the end.
“I don’t want to vote yes on something that isn’t necessarily in the spirit of collaboration,” Trapp said at that time.
Like the commissioners, I’d never seen a giant request with such a lack of numbers, details and previous information meetings. After the meeting ended and the Blue Room had cleared out, I was hanging around with a few of the commissioners and they asked me what I thought about it.
I thought a minute about what we had just all seen and I said, “It kind of reminds me of The Music Man. And they nodded and they were all like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what it feels like: Too good to be true.
One of the things Susan Ladd wrote in her column blistering the commissioners was, “Many of the questions commissioners asked Monday could have been answered by spending an hour on the Guilford Say Yes website or reading through the press kit.”
Of course, the website she mentioned was a feel good site for the program with pictures of very happy school kids and glowing commentary about the program. It’s like saying one can learn the true nature of a political candidate by reading through his or her campaign pamphlets. The website only said things like, “Say Yes Communities enjoy a significant, positive economic impact – a more educated labor force, incentives for businesses to start or relocate into a community, a stronger tax base, increased property values and more. Say Yes revitalizes communities while helping students and families achieve their dreams of achieving post-secondary education.”
OK, that’s extremely helpful – now, about those details …
So the Board of Commissioners was right to ask a lot of questions in 2015 and, though they didn’t get answers to their questions, they were told they would be revealed in the future.
Now, a year and nine months later, those answers are all still forthcoming.