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Same old approach isn’t working

“By changing nothing, nothing changes.” — Tony Robbins

Since its inception, public school education has always been very slow to change. And in the ConVal region, this continues to be as true today as it was several years ago when the first voices were heard regarding the changes needed within the Articles of Agreement so that we might effectively and responsibly deal with an ever-increasing school budget for a steadily decreasing student population. We have gone on ad infinitum about the reasons for our decreasing population and increasing budget, but the fact remains that virtually nothing has changed despite the reality of an overburdened tax base, which is declining as quickly as our student enrollment.

In May, the School Board decided to table the discussion on consolidation until 2017; and, in all honesty, I find myself shaking my head and asking why, especially in light of the fact that in 2013 the budget barely passed, and last March the school budget was voted down. But despite this trend, whereby fewer and fewer people are voting to pass the budget, the School Board appears to be ignoring the fact that this past March, a majority of those who actually cared enough to vote, voted to give the green light for the board to put together a plan for consolidation on which we would ultimately vote next year. Each time it appears we are ready to move forward, those in charge take two steps back. And, I can’t help but wonder why this is, when so much time and effort has been put into presenting models as alternatives to an infrastructure and financial model which is clearly not working.

We have heard that residents in our nine district towns want nothing to do with consolidation, and yet the voting record shows otherwise. When the initial proposal to consolidate our two middle schools was placed as a warrant article to get a pulse of how the voters felt about this issue, a majority thought it was worth consideration — despite being given a “thumbs down” on the ballot because it was believed the proponents of the warrant article had jumped the gun without permission from the majority of representatives. Fast forward to 2014, two warrant articles regarding consolidation are defeated. One, i.e. middle school consolidation, being defeated overwhelmingly due to a grassroots campaign spearheaded by one of Antrim’s School Board representatives. And the second, giving the School Board permission to put together a consolidation plan, getting a majority “thumbs up” but not the two-thirds majority required.

If analyzed objectively, each example from the past two years provides valid and statistical information which suggests that momentum is building and voters are interested in looking at alternative options to the status quo.

The majority of us have virtually no say in what will be placed on the March ballot any more than we have a say in choosing who will become our next superintendent, and/or how much our top administrator will be paid. But, if indeed those who do decide truly want a different financial or infrastructure model, or to remove the stigma of spending far more money than the district can afford or needs to pay, then given the information at hand, one might assume they were invested in changing nothing by the choices made. Another case in point being the selection of a superintendent with no consolidation experience versus one who was a fiscal conservative with consolidation experience of a district similar in size and scope to the ConVal region.

Each year, we have had the opportunity to build on the hard won momentum gained. But sadly, it appears that decisions have been made by those who have the power to do so, not to take advantage of these opportunities. And once again, I ask why not? If indeed transparency, inclusion of all stakeholders, and communication are priorities, then why is it that most are left in the dark until just prior to voting on these matters in March? Change is a process, and when attempting to change both the financial and infrastructure models of our district schools, it can be a very lengthy process. If this process does not include all stakeholders from the beginning, no effective change will ever happen.

Why do some on our board and SAU speak of “growing the district” when it is beyond the realm of their ability and/or their job description? Why is it that we continually “throw out the baby with the bathwater” each and every time there are new people on the board? Why does the squeaky wheel take priority time and again? Why is it that those who are skilled at community action or communication have yet to use their gifts for the betterment of the whole district? Why is it that those who question the priorities or decisions made are automatically accused of not caring about education? Why is it that valid and sound educational criteria are not being used to decide how our limited resources should best be spent, as opposed to false and emotive allegations that consolidation will destroy our communities, our values, our traditions, our economy, our values and our children?

It is way beyond time, for the School Board to begin establishing goals above and beyond unanimously endorsing the budget and Contoocook Valley Education Association contract. Is this honestly the best way for the board to guide the educational community, or achieve its goal of becoming a high performing district? And is this worthy goal the sole variable keeping us from growing our district? If this is truly the rationale behind choosing not to address the issue of consolidation until 2017, then it would appear that not enough attention is being paid to the major stakeholders nor the variables impacting the demographics within our district and throughout the state.

Education is not about where our kids are educated, but about how they are educated. The School Board and SAU’s job is not to figure out how to grow the district economically, nor about how a school subsidizes a particular town’s economy. It is all about how best to educate each of our students in a fiscally responsible manner. For far too long, both have cried “wolf” and shared horror stories of what will happen if the budget isn’t passed — and each time the budget fails, the money needed for “priorities” falls like manna from heaven.

If we are not willing to address our weaknesses as honestly and publicly as we applaud our strengths, while continuing with a “field of dreams” mentality we can ill afford, we will never be open to new possibilities to move us forward. And until we honestly evaluate our motives for maintaining buildings, staff and all other variables which do nothing to achieve our goal of becoming a high performing district, while neglecting to define what that is and how it will look, we will continue to stagnate as opposed to moving towards what could be.

The ConVal District could easily become the educational institution parents would choose even if they have the resources and means to do otherwise, but only if we invest wisely on that which makes it an excellent education for all. Until we choose to make education the priority as opposed to geography, we are denying all of an equitable, public and excellent educational opportunity we are proud to call the ConVal School District. Those of us who value public schools, do not want it to become the default institution for those who have neither the money nor means to choose otherwise. Instead we want our public schools to be the school of choice because it provides an excellent education for all who choose to walk through its doors. And we can’t do this if we continue with the status quo because it’s not fiscally sustainable given the characteristics which define our region.

“By changing nothing, nothing changes.

If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” — Tony Robbins

Deb McGrath lives in Francestown.

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