Letter to the Editor: The deliberative process

Published 6:08 pm Friday, March 17, 2023

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A hallmark of democracy is the deliberative process. Elected officials are presented an issue for consideration, often with important information presented by an expert. What follows is a presentation of the pros and cons surrounding the proposal, a robust discussion of its key points, amendments or additions to the issue being discussed and, finally, a vote that reflects the wishes of the voters. Political scientists often view the public school board as the most deliberative democratic institution in America because it effectively steers policy on a local level and directly reflects the wishes of the voting public.

Few of those deliberative-process attributes were present during the March 13 Austin School Board meeting. The issue under consideration was the Hormel company’s proposal to seek a 15-year tax abatement from the district for construction of a $5 million daycare facility in Austin. Discussion began with one board member voicing a concern that “a precedent” might be created where non-residential abatement requests might become more numerous in the future. Another board member cited an ill-fated abatement that went down to defeat several years back. Finally, a question arose about the length of the daycare abatement, 15 years, which is allowed by statute for the benefit of the district. The district’s share of the tax abatement would have been $23,000 annually (out of a $80 million budget). Two board members made no comments during the discussion.

In February, two company representatives had made a comprehensive presentation to the board about the plan. During the meeting, board members’ questions and comments seemed to suggest an underling approval of the project. That apparent approval, however, did not translate into the necessary “yes,” votes Monday night, and the proposal was defeated on a 5 to 2 vote. Previously, both the City of Austin and Mower County boards approved the day care initiative.

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Why the “no” vote? More importantly, why the lack of full-throated discussion on what, in my opinion, was one of the most consequential votes I have taken in my 11 years on the Austin School Board? If we are truly a deliberative board, then we need to demonstrate that differences of opinion matter and that they should be voiced (and accepted) in as transparent manner as possible.

Anything less is an affront to those who elected us to office.

Don Leathers

Austin Public Schools Board