Separating school facts from opinion critical for ConVal

Brian Pickering’s article, “Things I wish I had said to voters at ConVal’s deliberative session,” brought to light many of the positive strides and accomplishments made by the ConVal District — and this is as it should be. As principal of ConVal High School, Mr. Pickering has a right to be proud of, and to applaud these accomplishments. But to suggest that we maintain the status quo based on the “what ifs” of his “one last perspective to ponder” is a point on which we will have to agree to disagree.

We know for a fact that in both our district and our state we have a large group of aging Baby Boomers born between the years of 1946 to 1964. They were a major factor in our steady rise in school enrollment until 2000 and are the major factor in our declining enrollment since that point in time. For over a decade fewer and fewer young families with children are moving into our state and/or our district — in large part due to the lack of lucrative job, career, and/or business opportunities available throughout the state. If one adds into the mix the rising property taxes, one begins to understand why young people are dissuaded from considering the nine communities of the ConVal District as a place to work, reside, and raise their families. Simply put, many young people cannot afford to live here — and thus their decision has much less to do with the quality of our school system and much more to do with the lack of economic opportunities.

It is also a fact that the infrastructure in our towns is deteriorating, the price for addressing these issues is escalating, and state and federal aid are diminishing. As with the decreased financial aid to our public schools and the fixed costs which continue to escalate, property owners are saddled with this increased tax burden because the primary, if not sole source of revenue, is residential property taxes. Ironically, the vast open spaces, beauty, culture, and quality of life in our rural communities, which drew us to this region in the first place, also happen to be the major reasons our property taxes and the cost of equitably educating our children are so high. Therefore, although I absolutely agree with Mr. Pickering that becoming one of the high performing school districts in New Hampshire will be a feather in our cap, and something for which we should strive, I do not agree that it is the most important variable when young people decide whether or not to reside in one of our nine subscriber towns. Nor do I agree that the immediate and/or long-term effects of these accomplishments in the ConVal District are the cure-all for what ails our district. This type of thinking is at best simplistic — especially if one chooses to trust the valid and reliable studies and statistics available on this specific issue rather than anecdotal evidence or conjecture.

Pickering states, “If we look only at the future, have hesitations based on past experiences, rely solely on NESDEC numbers, cut staff and programs, say that student numbers will be low and our schools empty, then we will be right, that will come true.” Even though I can absolutely relate to Mr. Pickering’s, “I think I can, I think I can” attitude while encouraging students in the classroom to actualize their potential — as well as agreeing that the Pygmalion Effect can be a powerful force — I find myself shaking my head when this type of logic is utilized to support his position. Simply saying that our student enrollment is declining, and will continue to do so for a number of years, does not make it so. Negative thinking is not the cause of declining student enrollment in our region, but our failure to address the issue of declining enrollment adequately and fully is absolutely the reason programs will be cut. Given our finite resources, and if we continue to approach this problem piece meal, programs will need to be cut if all of the students in each of our 11 district schools are to receive an equitable education.

I also have difficulty buying into Mr. Pickering’s opinion that, “If we live in the present, do not make decisions based on the past or too far into the future, we will become something very different than a graph of projections. We will become a district and community of choice. Our schools will become the cornerstone of an improved economy. Our property values and housing opportunities might improve and our businesses will benefit. We are not there yet, but we are much closer than most know.”

I agree that education is the cornerstone to an improved economy; and I try each day to appreciate and value the present. But I cannot — nor do I believe any of us should — make decisions without considering the lessons learned from the past as well as having a vision as to how these decisions will impact the future. To discount our past from what is happening in the here and now is a major disconnect and one we should be very wary of. Part of what differentiates humans from many other living beings is our ability to learn from the past, while appreciating the present, in order to create a better future. And isn’t this what education is all about? So, although there have been times in my life when I have thought, “Man I wish I had said this or that…” there are many more times when I think, “Phew. Thank goodness I didn’t!”

Sooooo … how about we all take a deep breath and ask those involved in the process of studying ConVal’s small school dilemma to explain the reasons why school consolidation might be the better solution for the district as a whole. Many constituents in our district would very much appreciate having a representative of the Model Study Committee, the School Board, and/or Superintendent Bergeron explain the rationale behind the proposed warrant article.

Bottom line, and no matter who ultimately gets to vote on it, the purpose of the School Board’s proposed warrant article is about the option of closing schools as needed. And it is this fact alone which frightens many constituents who don’t have a clear understanding of what our students may gain from school consolidation. At this point, it appears most people only see what they will lose. Whenever the topic of school consolidation arises, I read and hear statements about its impact on “my child,” “my school,” and “my town”- —and although I know that this is nothing new and is a very human response to change, this is in part the reason for the situation we find ourselves in. Therefore, who better to explain the reasons for this proposal than those charged with the mission of reviewing our current educational structure given our “ongoing, declining enrollment trends, its budgetary impact, the difficult economic times, and the growing challenges to offering comparable educational experiences for ConVal students in grades K-8.”

If those in the know would be willing to succinctly explain and publish their rationale in the Monadnock Ledger- Transcript as to how the above mentioned existing conditions impact the educational programming and planning of ConVal’s district schools; as well as describing what our district would “look like” when under-enrolled schools are closed, it would go a long way to dispelling fact from fiction and help the voters make an educated decision when they go to the polls in March.

Deb McGrath lives in Francestown.

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