‘Tis the season for haggling over local budgets, especially since the state is not bending over backwards to increase what it doles out to towns.
Because most Berkshire towns aren’t growing much these days and because of the limits of Proposition 2 1Ž2, town fathers and mothers have fairly finite amounts of money to spend. They depend on property, excise and personal property taxes, plus state aid, and must be ready to compromise and, all too often, make cuts.
Every community has its share of outspoken opponents of spending anything, people who are convinced that a closer look would reveal a fat layer that can be melted away. The fact of the matter is that Berkshire communities are rarely governed by lavish spenders. Town meeting warrants aren’t loaded with pork, so choices have to be made. One of the interesting ones recently found a sizable number of people in Dalton wanting to solve their regional school budget problem by closing the Berkshire Trail Elementary School in Cummington. The smaller towns in the district prevailed and the school, although still threatened, remains open for at least another year.
Closing it started a storm. People in Cummington were articulate in their protests. They talked about the long bus ride many of those kids, starting at age 5, would have twice a day. It means getting up earlier, getting home later, having less time to do homework or to play. In addition, bus time is negative time, even if everyone is behaving. Anyone driving Route 9 between Dalton and Cummington (by way of Windsor) can be grateful to be in a car with just a couple of passengers, not a bus full of children who’ve just gotten up from their desks.
Even more important is what happens to a town when the school is gone, and that’s why emotions run high on this issue. The kids grow up without that sense of belonging that is very special. Many local friendships won’t even be made. School is also where parents find new adult friends. In an era when we seem to be in disconnect too much of the time, the local school is all about connecting.
Closing a small school usually puts kids into classrooms with more students. Indeed, it may be more economical. But it’s odd that we are on the one hand creating larger classes when educators are adamant that smaller classes are what works best. It’s why colleges offer courses with a once-a-week giant lecture hall session that breaks down into a bunch of small seminars for the other two hours. We don’t learn as well in large clumps.
It’s also odd that our leaders -- educators and politicians -- espouse the need for better education across the nation while individual communities balk at paying for it. The importance of arts and music is the word from on high, for instance, and that’s exactly where many schools cut. Pittsfield is arguing the size of the curriculum at a rebuilt vocational section of Taconic High, even as employers plead for better trained high school graduates in a wider variety of fields.
We just keep fighting ourselves on the issue of education. Perhaps a shift in thinking on some fronts would solve some of the problems. For instance, it’s been suggested that the state take over teacher salaries. Relinquishing team names and giving up rivalries is always hard, but some boundaries between communities can be softened without ruination. Schools could share. If it takes only one person to be superintendent of Pittsfield’s schools, why does it also take one for Lenox and another for Lee? Why couldn’t Richmond and Hancock have one principal instead of two?
And why can’t the legislature see how ridiculous it is to allow school choice and then pay only $5,000 toward an education that costs two or three times that? Time to clamber out of the box.
Ruth Bass is a former Eagle Sunday editor. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.