Where does ConVal go from here?
RESTARTING THE CONVERSATION
On March 12, Articles 6 and 8 were defeated, and for some this might suggest that school consolidation, whether it was proposed by our School Board or by two concerned citizens, is not going to happen in the ConVal School District at this point in time. So where do we go from here? First and foremost I believe we need to understand the reasons why both attempts at school consolidation failed; as well as why it is that fewer and fewer people are voting to pass the operating budget.
In the past few years, the people have been asked to support a budget that is spiraling despite a severe downturn in our economy and despite the fact that our student population continues to decline. But what we have proven again and again is that when these requests have been reasonable, a majority have stepped up to the plate and passed both the operating budget and those warrant articles necessary to provide an excellent and equitable education for each of our students. Seldom have I heard anyone questioning the hard work, good intentions, or integrity of our educators, School Board members or SAU administrators. What I have heard people question, and ultimately agree to disagree about, is how much money should be spent, and where this money might best be allocated in order to better educate each and every child in the ConVal District.
The multitude of issues surrounding the public school debate and its funding are many — so many in fact that it becomes quite difficult to digest which budget items are necessary to improve the quality of education in our school district, and which are not. There was little disagreement that it was imperative to address the Americans with Disabilities Act issues of noncompliance at our high school; nor was there much debate regarding the much needed and long overdue renovations to improve its air quality and energy efficiency. I also doubt that many question the need to update and improve the technology infrastructure and education in each school throughout our district. And no one I know disagreed with, or refused to pass a budget that would ensure our curricular offerings and programs would be updated and revamped to meet the state standards by which the progress of our students could be evaluated.
But what some have questioned over the years was the need for a $1.2 million dollar proposal for a new Alternative Education building at a time when our enrollment was declining in our elementary schools; or a new contract for the CVEA that didn’t require its members to pay their fair share of health costs or allow the board the right to negotiate for quality and affordable health plans; or that the food service program be evaluated and resolved in order to turn a profit as opposed to costing the district thousands upon thousands of dollars.
We have been told ad infinitum that we must understand that health costs are soaring and thus is a major reason our budget is increasing. We are told that the state no longer pays its fair share — or that the cost of energy and maintenance are escalating. Seriously? I can assure you we “get” this because these fixed costs are piggy backed on to “our” fixed costs. We know on a personal level what it costs to heat and maintain our homes. We get that the cost for healthcare insurance is astronomical — especially given the fact that most of us pay far more than the 9 percent contribution the CVEA members will pay at the end of their 4-year contract. And last but not least, we absolutely understand that our taxes are increasing year after year because of a school budget that continues to go up as enrollment goes down and that incomes for many, fixed or otherwise, remain the same.
An example from Francestown
A few years ago the enrollment here in Francestown went down to 39 students. As a result grades were combined and the number of classroom teachers went down to three — one of whom was a teaching principal. At its lowest point, class sizes averaged about 10 students or fewer with a projected kindergarten class enrollment of four students. These four students were combined with the students in the first grade — this combination K/1 classroom created the first full day kindergarten program in the district. In time, and as result of the continued decline of enrollment, the smallest schools throughout our district followed suit.
Initially many parents were very much concerned about the effects of a combined classroom on their children’s education. There was also much concern about the developmental repercussions of five year olds being in school for a full day. But most parents in those schools which necessitated a full day kindergarten program and/or combined classrooms soon became acclimated to both. Both became the norm in our smaller schools although neither was based on a philosophical initiative or because the overwhelming majority of studies suggest either is the best case scenario for our students — especially when these “accommodations” are solely driven by a declining population. Today this “solution” to the declining enrollment in our under enrolled elementary schools is still in place despite the fact that its impact on a students’ education or developmental needs continues to be up for debate, especially in a public school setting where the diversity of abilities and/or individual learning issues and challenges are present.
Over time many parents at FES assumed there would always be a full-day kindergarten program, so much so that when it was dropped because FES no longer met the criteria for a full-day program, parents became quite vocal that it was being withdrawn. Despite the tears and the carefully stated arguments, the full-day program was cut because to disregard the criteria and make an exception for FES would not be fair and equitable for all students in our district. This thoughtful rationale was gently explained to those in attendance at a School Board meeting about this subject. Although disappointed, a group from FES began to think outside the box and started an extended day enrichment program at our school for our kindergarten students. And yet despite this successful initiative that costs our district virtually nothing, full-day kindergarten district wide became a costly item in the operational budget for this upcoming school year. Thus, if one were to disagree with this budget item, one had to vote down the entire operational budget. Like the salary of our new superintendent, in essence the public had no say.
Squeaky wheel syndrome?
The Art Enhancement program is another example of flip-flopping in our district. Initially this program was cut from the 2013/2014 operating budget to meet the request by the board to reduce the overall budget by 2.5 percent. This particular program is a favorite among many because its positive effects are so visible to the ConVal community as a whole. The result? You guessed it; enter another group of irate people who became quite vocal, made emotional and quite poignant pleas at a School Board meeting to have this program reinstated and, voilá, it was.
At this point you might be asking yourself if these two decisions are examples of the “squeaky wheel syndrome” or sound academic reasoning. In all honesty, I can’t answer for our district administration or School Board representatives; and I know one can find valid and reliable studies to support either position. But regardless of the rationale behind these two examples of decision making in our district, there comes a breaking point at which time the majority of the taxpayers in our district may begin to say, “No more.” Hopefully those proposing these ever increasing budgets will consider the consequences of “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul” before the constituents of the ConVal District come to this point.
Beyond the blame
Which brings us to the issue of school consolidation as a means to provide an equitable and economically feasible solution to the spiraling cost of educating our continually declining population of students. There is no doubt that school consolidation is an emotional issue, and this was quite evident during the weeks and months prior to the vote on the various school district warrant articles. But did the emotion cloud the real issues we face? The people spoke loud and clear at the Deliberative Session and again at the polls. Closing any of our district schools would not be decided by the School Board and the SAU. Therefore in essence we are back to square one. It will take a two-thirds majority vote to do so. Why is the public unwilling to give the board this power? I don’t have the answer but it is one which it might be very important to discern if we are to move forward as a district.
The statement made by outgoing School Board member and chair of the Model Study Committee, George Kidd, suggests that getting “rid of deflectors that refuse to recognize the entirety of the problem” would help move us forward towards consolidation. But those of us who voted on March 12 knew we had options, because as School Board member Matt Craig stated, the two articles for consolidation weren’t mutually exclusive. And as I’m sure those on the School Board remember, last year when the board decided not to put forth a warrant article about school consolidation but Gail Cromwell did, the warrant article she proposed to close Great Brook School won a majority of votes. Granted it was deemed “advisory only” but it faired about as well as the School Board’s proposal this year even after being amended. It appears that it was not necessarily the “deflectors” who didn’t recognize the entirety of the problem; because as we all know, the option taken when the votes were counted was to pass neither one by the illusive two-thirds majority needed. Therefore, if we can’t blame the “deflectors” why didn’t Articles 6 and 8 pass?
Some might suggest the School Board itself might be responsible for the failure of Article 6 because they didn’t rally their troops as well as the leaders in Antrim. Or maybe even more fatal, it was assumed there was no need to rally the troops at all because Article 6 had been amended to include the troops in the decision-making process. But as we all know, blaming is divisive and totally unproductive and one can only hope we can all move on from the “Blame Game” to finding the answers to address the issues of declining enrollment and escalating costs, if for no other reason than to reduce our carbon footprint.
Besides, the “Blame Game” is also a bit too simplistic because as we all recognize there are multiple factors at play here. If we look solely at the final tally in Antrim for both Articles 6 and 8, what we discover is that the votes against Warrant Article 8 may have more to do with the fact that a specific school was targeted, and in this specific case it was a middle school that would have far reaching consequences for all middle schoolers across the entire district. But it is also within the realm of possibility that Article 8 was so overwhelmingly defeated in Antrim because it was not endorsed by the SAU, CVEA, and the School Board. Could it be in part that the historical rivalry between North and South came into play when Great Brook was targeted instead of South Meadow, or was it merely because it was in Antrim’s own backyard? I honestly don’t know but I do believe it would be foolhardy to discount any one of these variables without further conversation.
Striving for excellence
At this point, all we do know for sure is that voters in Antrim came out in record numbers to cast their ballots with only 57 in favor of closing GBS and 808 against. But when that same population voted on Article 6, 472 voted in favor of school consolidation while only 345 were against it. One might infer from these numbers that closing any one of our district schools has a much better chance of passing by a two-thirds majority if it is one of the smaller elementary schools in towns with fewer numbers of voters and due to the lesser impact it has on the district as a whole, especially if the sound educational and economic reasons to recommend closure come from those whose job and responsibility it is to make these decisions. Like the other variables discussed, we won’t know unless the conversation of school consolidation is renewed with the goal of finding out why both proposals failed.
Intellectually most people understand that this “Status Quo plus Enhancements Model” that the ConVal District has adopted is not economically feasible in the long term if we are to continue to strive towards our goal of becoming a High Performing District. But what I think many may not understand is that it is also not educationally sound to continue to operate schools with too few students. As a result, and even though I was not surprised that the educational community did not get involved in the discussion to speak of the direct and true impact on our students’ educational experience as this trend of declining enrollment continues, I have to admit I was very disappointed. It was up to the leaders in our educational community to explain not only why consolidation is necessary but also how it might be better for our kids. I understand that those in danger of losing their jobs might not want to dispel the myth that consolidation is horrid for all concerned and just about the money; but there is no excuse why those on the School Board or the SAU didn’t once again present the pros and cons discussed.
What I did find surprising, and disheartening as well, is that some of those opposed to Article 8 felt they had the right to spin the facts to support their position, or worse, felt they had the right to demean, attack, and ridicule those who offered an alternative solution. And yet to the best of my knowledge, not one person from the opposition stepped up to the plate, took the moral high ground, and publicly demanded it be stopped. Instead more people began to jump on the bandwagon and continued to make personal attacks or caustic remarks. So even though Article 8 may not have won the vote, in my book its authors and proponents should absolutely be commended for handling themselves professionally.
A hope for discussion
Hopefully as we all move forward to resolve the challenges our school district still faces as a result of the impact declining enrollment continues to have on every aspect of our children’s educational experience, we can learn from this and understand that it is possible to agree to disagree much more civilly. Because after the votes were in and all was said and done, each side was saying much the same thing when their proposals for school consolidation were voted down: that neither one expected their proposed article to pass; but both hoped it would begin a conversation of how best to provide an equitable education in light of our declining enrollment and limited resources.
And maybe, just maybe there’s hope for the district after all if in the future people consider the true purpose of public education; place becoming a high performing district above an individual school building; realize that this growing sense of entitlement is not only expensive but in all honesty not in our students’ best interest; and understand that the “Status quo Plus Enhancements” is not only fiscally unsustainable but also that it is not academically sound. Then and only then might we begin to put the educational and fiscal needs of the entire district above our own individual wants. Because it is not that one school is better than another. Nor that its staff, teachers, administrators, and more importantly its students deserve more or less than those in any other town or building. It’s that every child in our district deserves the same excellent education regardless of where he or she lives, and that the district cannot continue to provide all with the same educational, social, cultural, and extracurricular options and opportunities unless we do consolidate.
If we don’t begin to address and move beyond the beliefs: that more and more money will address all the issues associated with declining enrollment; that it’s okay to make personal attacks against those who disagree with one’s point of view; that it’s perfectly acceptable to use the logic that if one has the ability to spend more on a pair of boots than what it would cost each household to maintain an under enrolled school is a sound reason to continue doing so; that larger classes aren’t necessarily large classes; and that school consolidation is the end of the world as we know it; is to disregard the reality that every student in our district is in the purest sense of the term “entitled” to the same excellent and equitable education without anyone being put in the position of choosing between paying more for less, and maintaining buildings and/or repetitive services we no longer need. To suggest that those who are for consolidation think only of finances is as wrong as thinking that those who are against consolidation are only thinking of education, because as we all know being fiscally responsible and providing an excellent educational experience for every student in our district, is not now, nor has it ever been, mutually exclusive.
And if we continue to be entrenched in this either-or ideology, then we put ourselves in a position of being perceived as a district whose understanding of being fiscally responsible is no more mature than the little girl in the AT&T commercial who answered the question: “Who thinks more is better than less?”
She responded, “More is better than less because if there is more, less stuff, then you might want to have some more. But your parents just don’t let you because there is only a little. We want more because if you really like something, you’ll want more of it. We want more, we want more!”
Although this little girl’s response is amusing and perfectly in line with her age, level of maturity, and life experience — and let us not forget that it is part of a multi million dollar marketing campaign — even the creators understood that there are times in our lives when the adults we admire step up to the plate to teach us the invaluable life lesson that sometimes less truly is more.
Possibly the best place to start this renewed discussion on school consolidation is by gathering the data and answering the specific questions as to its impact on those schools under consideration. Those who attended the Model Study Committee’s Traveling Road Show asked specific questions for very specific reasons, in essence, how will this impact my child; and in many cases it may very well be that this unknown was much more frightening than the reality of consolidated schools. At the two meetings I attended in Francestown and Antrim, I did not hear one person ask for more than what was currently being provided, but I did hear disappointment and much grumbling when the answers weren’t complete and/or specific to their schools. Therefore addressing these concerns using real case scenarios just might be the best place to start our renewed discussion about, “Where do we go from here?”
Deb McGrath lives in Francestown.