September 3, 2009
“Action and reaction, ebb and flow, trial and error, change - this is the rhythm of living. Out of our over-confidence, fear; out of our fear, clearer vision, fresh hope. And out of hope, progress.” These words by Bruce Barton neatly summarize the issues we now face as a community and school district. Most people don’t like change unless they can easily see the benefits to themselves and don’t have to change their lives. Even under the best of circumstances, we hesitate to embrace change because of the unknown. We often find ourselves questioning our most deeply held beliefs, as interacting with colleagues and friends who hold a different opinion becomes more difficult and contentious.
I am reminded of these basic tenets as we explore the possible consolidation of Gateway elementary schools, but also in watching the Town of Russell struggle with their Biomass decision, the difficulties faced by other school districts in changing established protocols, and most recently in the decision of the Springfield Diocese to close and consolidate churches throughout the area. These are all decisions that have great impact on individuals and communities and as such are laced with multiple issues that make many people anxious and concerned—to the point that common sense and reason take a back seat to emotional reactions. The interesting aspect of this is that it happens to everyone at some point and it makes little difference which side of the issue an individual supports.
As the school committee moves through the process of reviewing choices, collecting information, holding public hearings and collecting questions and concerns regarding the potential consolidation of our elementary schools, a wide range of issues is being raised. These need to be addressed at multiple levels so that the most comprehensive overview can be created and reviewed. The subject of consolidation has both proponents and opponents, each looking to verify the information being presented—a safe and cautious procedure under all circumstances.
While I welcome the opportunity to review all information, and the Elementary Advisory
Committee and School Committee have freely shared all the information with the public through the district’s website, I do have a concern that not everyone understands the basic reasons we’re going through this exercise. This concern was brought to the forefront at the Worthington Public Hearing when the school committee was admonished to immediately vote to curtail the consolidation research, because they were squandering their creditability and breaking trust with the communities.
The reason the school committee elected to move forward with this research can be simplified into two basic areas—finances and student opportunities. In the financial arena, several member towns requested that we take a hard look at reining in our costs due to the towns’ financial difficulties and the limits of Proposition 2½. The growth in our school budgets over the past 10 years has been modest (averaging less than the growth in town budgets excluding education) but the increases in town assessments have been much higher due to a decrease in the amount of state funding. At one time, the state paid nearly 60% of the total cost of running the district; for this school year the percentage is down to 37.5% with the expectation that this figure will continue to decline. At first, the towns picked up the difference in state funding, but over the last few years it has been met by cutting educational opportunities and services to our students. Student opportunities—academic, social, and physical—and educating the whole child (while meeting ever-increasing unfunded mandates) have taken a hit across the entire country. Locally we have to find a way to ensure that we don’t further restrict student opportunities. In my opinion, it is no longer possible to reduce staff and services beyond what we now have; ideally we’d look to restore and expand some of the services we have curtailed. We have already improved efficiencies in the district by decreasing busing costs, making more efficient use of staff and in-house services, decreasing utility costs, and using bulk and cooperative purchasing. These have helped but we must respond to the community’s questions about the efficiency of having five schools open for less than 500 students—not only in terms of finances, but more importantly in how we deliver services. To end the research at this time and not be able to answer these legitimate questions would be to abrogate the administration’s and school committee’s responsibility and would lead to questions of competency, credibility and trust.
I don’t know what the final outcome will be—I have difficulty weighing the needs of students against the needs of parents and the community—and need much more information to reach a conclusion. I commend all parties involved for a process that allows for the sharing of information, concerns, perceptions and feelings despite the toll that this takes on everyone involved. While we may not all reach the same conclusion at the end, at least the process allows these viewpoints to be taken into account—a much different scenario than when Blandford Elementary closed and my youngest child had to attend Russell Elementary. Let the process unfold, remember that in the end we’ll all still be neighbors, and be thankful that the school committee is actively using a process that welcomes input from all who are interested in participating.