Column: Some final considerations before March 12 vote

As Voting Day approaches both the dialogue and the rhetoric regarding how best to address the continuing trend of declining enrollment throughout our school district are heating up. As a result, it comes as no surprise that those in favor of one warrant article over another are accusing the opposition of spewing misinformation, or even worse of knowingly manipulating it to support some malevolent hidden agenda. In far too many cases these misguided and irresponsible personal attacks cloud the true reason why the issue of changing the Articles of Agreement is up for discussion at all. And sadly, although these types of discussion are all too human, they do nothing to help those of us who will vote on these warrant articles on March 12.

It is at this point that the skills we utilize to critically evaluate information, and which we hope are still being taught in our district schools, are put to the test. I often find it to be quite helpful to read the minutes of the School Board meetings posted on the ConVal website to better understand the issues. Reading these minutes provide the context of the discussions as well including the studies and reports the board uses in its decision making process.

On Jan. 22, the School Board voted 9-3 not to recommend Warrant Article No. 8, which proposes a change in the Articles of Agreement to close Great Brook Middle School. Prior to the final vote, some important questions were raised, answers given, and points made which helped dispel some misinformation.

Sharon representative Matt Craig made a clarification which I believe bears repeating. During this School Board meeting, Craig stated he does not believe that the petitioned warrant article authored by Gail Cromwell and Mark Fernald and the School Board’s proposal are “mutually exclusive of each other.” He also stated that although he believes “the Board should have the authority to open and close schools; he also thinks the petitioned warrant article provides a path supported by other voters. In recommending it he does not see an inconsistency.”

On the other hand, Peterborough representative Erik Thibault’s contention that the voters are confused as to which warrant article is proposed and supported by the School Board and which is not seems to suggest that those who may fall into this category have not been paying attention. And if this is indeed true, shame on them, especially if they don’t read the articles thoroughly when in the voting booth.

Board members Linda Quintanilha of Bennington and Stewart Brock of Francestown asked Superintendent Bergeron if it was even feasible to place the student population of both middle schools into South Meadow if Great Brook is closed. To which Bergeron responded that given the projected enrollments for the 2014-2015 school year “the numbers fit” in the SMS building. When Quintanilha also asked about the availability of space for special education, Bergeron stated that, “We would have the same amount of space as we have now and there would also be space for the EH Program.”

Brock then asked Bergeron if there was a model out there to help us understand how this consolidation will work if passed. Bergeron responded that, “Multiple buildings coming into one will require transition. The numbers fit but it doesn’t mean that all the issues would be resolved. There are political and emotional questions.”

SMS Principal Richard Dunning addressed some of these issues when he stated, “We can put these numbers in SMS and function; but 500 students is an ideal size middle school as it allows students to participate and continue with what is done now in terms of athletic teams. It also allows the continuation of professional learning opportunities.” Dunning also stated that, “I understand the emotional piece; it’s always there. Time is the cure all. The kids become part of a new community and they mold very well. The first year is the most difficult and they transition well after that.” I agree that there is an optimum number of students which should be placed on middle school teams with four core subject teachers- in my experience as a middle school teacher that number is between 80 to 120 students per team. This does not mean you can’t teach students well if the number is a bit larger, but there is no doubt it does require more work. I also agree that the first year in any new school is the most difficult transition to make; but with a caring group of administrators, teachers, and staff with the shared goal of making the transition into this new learning environment successful each and every day, it’s absolutely doable. As for the continuation of professional learning opportunities, it has always been my experience that these are done outside the school day. Therefore I’m not entirely sure why it would be impacted by the size of the student population in our middle schools.

As for the others who weighed in on this issue, most of their opinions have been shared numerous times in multiple venues so I don’t believe they need to be repeated ­— but please note that all of this information is available and easily accessed on the ConVal website. I understand that the mechanics of how and what to do with a school once closed is a detail that someone needs to address but as far as I can see it is entirely separate from the issue of how best to educate our students.

Some other issues which are being raised as we move into the final stretch have more to do with reasons to vote ‘Yes’ on the proposed budget; and it appears that in some cases the squeaky wheels become the approved budget items. When asked what I would have done if I was in the position of choosing between subsidizing the food service program and hiring a school nurse to “address the ever-growing medically fragile student population in our elementary schools,” hands down I would choose to add an elementary school nurse. Should someone care what I thought about instituting a full-day kindergarten in lieu of funding curriculum development and the programs sitting on the shelf for the past few years, I would choose to fund curriculum development and the programs sitting on the shelf to move us forward in the direction of a high performing district. And as much as I believe in educating the whole child, Art Enhancement is just that ­— enhancement. It’s not that the arts aren’t important because they absolutely are. But it appears that when decisions are made as to what to keep and what needs to be cut, the vocal special interest groups are favored as opposed to choosing what is best for the district as a whole. I also believe that high ticket items like health insurance need to be made a priority and not merely categorized as an “ongoing assessment.” I must have misunderstood when the last contract was negotiated that the ability to choose a cost effective health plan was an option. And lastly, as for the rhetoric regarding staying true to the culture of our district, please allow me to quote Elizabeth Hindle who expresses better than I ever could my feelings on this topic.

“School culture is not a static entity. It is constantly being shaped through interactions with others and through reflections on life and the world in general. School culture is a pervasive element of schools, yet it is illusive and difficult to define. Understanding school culture is an essential factor in any reform initiative. Any type of change introduced to schools is often met with resistance and is doomed to failure as a result of this nebulous, yet all-encompassing facet known as school culture.”

I’d hate to believe that our school district, which is in need of change if we are to educate our children well without bankrupting our constituents, is doomed to failure because of this nebulous thing called “school culture.” So please take some time to understand the issues and to wade through the rhetoric in order to make an informed decision which will best serve our students. If we educate ourselves and exercise our right to vote on March 12, we will have done right by our children.

Deb McGrath lives in Francestown.

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