Horton hears a hope?!?

Regarding the ConVal School District ballot results from last Tuesday’s election

During the month of March, and in many school districts throughout our nation, the works of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss, are celebrated. Although the majority of his books were written for children, the messages within contain many universal truths from which we can all learn.

“This,” cried the Mayor, “is your town’s darkest hour!

The time for all Whos who have blood that is red

To come to the aid of their country!” he said.

“We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts!

So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!”

“That one small, extra Yopp put it over!

Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover.

Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.

And the elephant smiled. “Do you see what I mean?”…

They’ve proved they are persons, no matter how small.

And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!”

—Dr. Seuss, “Horton Hears a Who!”

Given the voter turnout on March 11, the smaller towns throughout the ConVal District may be likened to those, “Small extra Yopps whose voices rang out clear and clean.” While I can certainly understand the disappointment expressed by Supt. Brendan Minnihan due to the failure of the budget and multiple warrant articles to pass, I cannot understand anyone’s surprise. And although it might be unusual for the district to have to adjust to a default budget, had those in control of the proposal been paying attention to the issues the district towns have had to face for several years running, they would have understood just how far the “Common Wealth” could be stretched before it could be stretched no more.

What I do find surprising — as well as appalling — is that few measures have been taken to truly control unnecessary spending, especially given that over the past few years the proposed budget has come closer and closer to failing to pass at the polls. This fact alone should have sent a “clear and clean” message. And I can’t help but ask why it is that this year’s district school budget evolved without the input from the Budget and Property Committee. Or for that matter, why once again our SAU refused to acknowledge the suggestions of the SAC when the purpose of both committees is to be a resource to the administration and the school board when developing a budget.

For far too long information which might have been garnered from the ballot results, the SAC, and some members of the Budget & Property Committee have been virtually ignored and/or underutilized. To do so once again this year was not only a failure to acknowledge the “Yopps” whose vote sent the message loud and clear that the district budget and most of the warrant articles as proposed were way over the top; but is also a sign that the ConVal SAU is completely out of touch with, or blatantly ignoring the issues facing its constituents and our district.

The resounding mantra from those who refuse to acknowledge that the town budgets face the same issues our school district faces is to impose guilt. We are told that if we don’t approve more money for the ConVal district each year that we are denying our students an excellent education — and nothing could be further from the truth. No matter how much we might wish it weren’t so, difficult decisions need to be made to address the issue of a declining student population and an escalating budget by those who are employed and paid to do so.

Many of us don’t understand why these hard choices have not been made thus far. It certainly can’t be that those whose job it is to do so don’t recognize these issues, because they have been brought to their attention again and again. Is it possible that this was unanticipated? I think not, and instead believe that there is a certain sense of entitlement to which our district has become accustomed and now believes it can no longer live without. It may also be that no one wants to be the heavy, step up to the plate, and make the difficult decisions that come with the territory. In essence this failure to do so, has forced the voters to do it for them.

I am not suggesting that it is not horrible when good people lose their jobs through no fault of their own. But what I am suggesting is that the results this year might serve as a wake-up call for all parties who have had a hand in making decisions to spend more money than the district taxpayers can afford — and this includes the ConVal Education Association from whom we hear nothing until it is time for a new contract. The last go around certainly shows that this body is not willing to forego a smaller raise or pay a higher percentage towards their benefit packages in order to protect more staff from losing their positions. Instead, when it becomes necessary to reduce staff due to budget cuts and declining enrollment, it is the voters who are blamed for not supporting the proposed budget, or of not valuing teachers and education in general.

Unless one has limitless funds, we all know that each and every expenditure cannot be termed a priority and/or a necessity — and as with our own personal finances, there are times when expenses need to be cut. Sometimes those budget decisions are painful. But we do what is necessary to pay our bills because we are fiscally responsible — and because as adults we know we can’t always get what we want. But, for whatever reasons, this same logic has not been applied to the school budget. In many cases, those who suggest that there are items that can be cut or reduced are told they don’t understand the budget process. Or we are told to accept it without complaint or question despite evidence to the contrary. Or we are told that every item brings us closer to our goal of becoming a high-performing district — even when what that means or looks like has never been operationally defined.

So where do we go from here?

How about we take a new approach? And maybe listen to the advice of a man who spent much of his life writing books which have helped, and continue to help, our nation’s children become literate. Because as Seuss once said, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” This does not mean that the process of how to achieve a solution to the issue of declining enrollment and escalating budgets will be easy. But at the same time, I don’t think the approach of “doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result” is working for the ConVal District anymore. Nor do I believe that the approach taken this past year by our failure to continue working on ways to change the Articles of Agreement was the right path.

What message is being sent to those we are attempting to educate when what we do is in direct opposition to what we say they should do when presented with a challenge? How many times have we told our kids that just because something is difficult, it does not mean it is insurmountable? We suggest they find different ways to approach this challenging task — and maybe even more importantly to look to others for help. We tell our children that there is no I in TEAM. And those of us who teach and parent, never ever tell our kids to just give up. Instead we help them look at this as a challenge they can achieve if they are willing to accept help and be open to new ideas from others. There are also times when we need to modify our perceptions, methods, goals and the timeline necessary to achieve them because they are not realistic — the art of compromise and a reality check now and again are essential life lessons we all need to learn.

As educators, we know that a successful lesson plan includes: goals and learning outcomes, methods/activities to be utilized, curriculum alignment, a timeline, essential materials, technological resources, assessments/evaluations, modifications, alternative assessments and reevaluations. Why is this approach not being applied to the major issues facing the ConVal district? If we operationally define our goal, design methods to achieve this goal, set a realistic timeline, decide what materials/resources are essential, assess/evaluate, modify, reassess and reevaluate, we have a much better chance of achieving our goal of becoming a high-performing district.

So instead of looking at the defeat of the proposed budget as a slap in the face to the hard work applied while creating this budget, why not practice what we preach, walk our talk, and look at this as an opportunity to rethink what is required to deliver an excellent and equitable education in a fiscally responsible manner. And instead of leaving alternative options off the table, might I suggest that all representatives old and new, instead leave their individual and town biases at the door as they enter into any new deliberations. Because in essence to do otherwise suggests that:

“This mess is so big

And so deep and so tall,

We cannot pick it up.

There is no way at all!”

—Dr. Seuss, “The Cat in the Hat”

Deb McGrath lives in Francestown.

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