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Picnics and Preschools, Or, What does a budget crisis have to do with my life?

I'm the Vice President of our local Down Syndrome Association, and we have a picnic in the spring. This year, our typical venue was booked. I volunteered the park up the hill from my home. Called the number on the sign. Went into the Parks and Recreation Office to book the event. Filled out the form. Was told I'd need to get the Clerk's Office to approve it. Went to the Clerk's Office. Was told I would need the Police Department, Engineering Department, Fire Department, Health Department and Parks and Recreation (yes, I started there) to sign off on it.

We're talking about a picnic here, people. Fifteen to twenty families who have kids with Down syndrome gathering in a park. Using the playground. Eating some hot dogs. Maybe we'll get wild and crazy and have an egg toss.

So I marched around to the various departments. Picked up my very own 7-page copy of the noise ordinances (having told them we wouldn't have speakers or music of any kind) from the Police Department. Got a signature from Engineering. Talked through safe grilling with the Fire Department. Paid $90 to the Health Department because they will come and do an inspection of our food before we cook it. Received a one-page document that was an amended version of the 52-page document of the requirements for cooking food in the park. Requirements include a three bin "wash rinse sanitize" system for cooking utensils.

"You know," she said, "If a spatula falls on the ground."


Should we need to cancel due to rain, I can get my money back, but only if I write a letter that will then be read at the Town Council meeting, sometime. Maybe. Went back to Parks and Recreation. Paid $25. Back to the Clerk's Office and we're approved.

Under any circumstances, it's absurd. The need for six different individuals in six different offices to approve my application for 50 people to gather in a public park and cook hot dogs screams bureaucracy at its worst. But I happen to live in a state where hundreds of millions of dollars are being cut from the education budget. I respect the need for a balanced budget. I don't respect the fact that there are kids who need early intervention services, kids who could be learning more in after-school programs, teachers who are losing aids in classrooms, and it takes SIX offices and SIX people to tell me we can have a picnic.

It is always a temptation to put programs ahead of people. People are messy and unpredictable. Kids fail tests. Teachers sometimes do a bad job. Programs–regulations about picnics, for instance–can be controlled. School budget votes are scheduled for April 20. The state has proposed cuts across the board, including 12 million dollars worth of cuts from the Early Intervention Program. I know first hand the benefits of Early Intervention. I believe that wealthy citizens within the system should pay a part, even a substantial part, of the cost. But I know that shelling out $100/hour for services is burdensome to any family, particularly people within the middle-class who are working hard and trying to care well for their kids.

I know I'm not comparing apples to apples when I consider a state education budget in light of a local township office, but I have to believe that there are other places to cut the budget. Take care of our kids and our schools. We can take care of the picnics just fine on our own.

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