Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Build Consensus before a School

Last Thursday an unofficial straw vote rejected building a big consolidated school at the site of the old Brunswick high school. On Friday the local paper ran my op-ed criticizing the leadership on this issue. Today the superintendent resigned.

This is an opportunity to rally community support for a new, smaller school with a K-5 grade configuration as was the original plan. A second straw vote could ask voters to choose between the two options and help the town find consensus. Below is my op-ed which ran in the Times Record 7/27/07:

Brunswick may lose state funding for a new elementary school. This would be a serious setback because the town needs a new school to replace portable classrooms and accommodate all-day kindergarten.

With a lawsuit pending against the State Department of Education and Brunswick residents criticizing the proposed grade configuration, the 750-student school size as well as the proposed site, it would be a grave mistake to ignore the problems.

The original proposal to build a new, small K-5 elementary school to replace Hawthorne School and the mobile classroom units received broad support. Yet when the school size grew beyond 500 students and Superintendent James Ashe proposed a K-2/3-5 grade configuration, a large number of citizens objected.

Additionally, many have complained that there has been too little public involvement and participation in decision-making. In response, the School Board and the school department have asked the public "to trust the process."

How can there be trust when the "public process" has resulted in the same proposal Ashe offered nearly two years ago?

People are as frustrated about the process as the results. Trust needs to be earned not demanded.

Last November Kathy Thorson, running on a platform of small K-5 schools and equity, beat the incumbent, a proponent of trusting "the process." She won the at-large School Board seat by a significant margin in every single district in Brunswick. We have no better indicator of what would happen if a large grade 3-5 school were put to a town vote, the final step in the state-mandated process.

At the April 30 public hearing, an overwhelming majority of citizens spoke against the Educational Specification Committee Report's recommendation for K-2/3-5 configuration and called for more discussion and public input. Without any further deliberation, the School Board on May 9 voted 5-3 to accept the reconfiguration.

In June the Elementary School Building Committee voted to build a 750-student "double school" for grades 3-5 at the site of the old high school. The architects recommended replacing the old structure. In response, 71 residents have filed suit against the State Department of Education. Some object to the need for a new school, others to tearing down the old high school.

Even if these citizens fail to halt new school construction, this suit indicates public dissatisfaction with the new school proposal. Add this suit to a number of critical opinion pieces in The Times Record, to the public hearing testimonies and to the last at-large School Board election, and it would be foolish to conclude that the new school would easily pass a townwide vote.

Those who have voiced dissent in the past have been labeled "a special interest group." There have been claims that "a silent majority" supports a new grade 3-5 school. Yet there has been little evidence of broad public support, and such dismissive comments do not build consensus.

The lack of consensus and a grab bag of objections to a big public project bring to mind the public safety building that was voted down by a townwide vote in 2003. People had a broad range of reasons to object to the plan, but it was an up-or-down vote.

We need a new school just like we need a new public safety building, but the need itself will not be enough to guarantee passage of a project that has consistently ignored the public's concerns.

How do we build consensus?

The first step is opening the process to public input. We have an opportunity on Election Day in November to add a nonbinding ballot question on the new elementary school proposal. The question could ask whether the voter supports the new school proposal, and, if not, to check off the reasons such as grade configuration, school size, site, etc.

The ballot responses could help the town re-examine the new elementary school proposal and make necessary changes to ensure broader public support. Ideally, the school department and the Elementary School Building Committee would have already asked these questions of the public. It is not too late to ask them now.

The danger of plowing ahead without consultation and consensus is that we will forgo a new school and fail to meet the needs of the children. Brunswick has good schools, involved parents, dedicated teachers and staff and many civic-minded citizens. Let us pool our great resources to bring our town together and reach consensus. We have so much to gain and even more to lose. Ground has yet to be broken on the new school.

To read more of my op-eds and political letters search the archives section:opinions and keyword:Sarah Laurence and Sarah W. Laurence. Click on the tag below for more information on small schools.

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