EDITORIAL: Can we learn from failure?

NO MONSTERS UNDER THE BED. No dragons in the closet. Kids outgrow their irrational fears, mostly. Parents help: See, there’s nothing there. We teach children to distinguish between imagined threats and real ones.

Grownups must deal with a different set of standards, especially adults engaged in public service. Public figures of all stripes who say they’ve changed their minds are greeted with skepticism. Is this a ploy? Have you sold out? Embraced the dark side? Flip-flopped? Public figures don’t get much credit for changing their minds in public. When it comes to new ideas for the public good, we want new people to have them.

So what’s in store for the Chatham Board of Education, which late last month rescinded its resolution to consider plans to consolidate its three school buildings? Is it worthy of scorn and suspicion or is it a step forward, clearing the way for new approaches?

Chatham, like the five other districts in the county, must do something to cope with a future with fewer students and higher costs. And it’s not like the district rushed into its decision to rescind its focus on consolidation. A discussion of the action began nearly a year ago, and that was a year after voters resoundingly rejected a $13.8-million bond proposal to fund upgrades to the high school and elementary school so the district could close its oldest building, the middle school.

At one point the district threatened to proceed with consolidation even if the bond act failed. But faced with the logistics of cramming students from three schools into two buildings without funds to modify and expand the space, the board backed down. The resolution keeping consolidation on the table lingered, however, because no one had a better idea for cutting costs.

Now the board faces the problem of what to do next. Tossing the resolution in the trash is the easy part. Replacing it with a plan that has community support is where the real work begins, and this time school officials know that.

Everyone who looks at the numbers agrees that enrollment will drop at schools throughout the county unless Congress suddenly opens our borders to increased immigration or, equally unlikely, space aliens tinker with our birth rates for their own creepy reasons. Otherwise, not only will the number of school-age kids dwindle, so will the population of people who pay property taxes.

State aid for schools is based in part on enrollment. So fewer kids means less state aid to offset property taxes. School districts plan for such changes, and that’s what Chatham has been trying to do. But the state cap on property taxes not only limits what schools can spend, it lulls taxpayers into believing that the cap lets districts raise the money they need to educate kids in the near future as well as they educate them today. That’s a risky assumption.

The consolidation plan to mothball the middle school ran into fierce opposition from people attached to the building and its century-old role as a community anchor. The district’s initiative rattled some folks who were not connected to the school’s history, because it seemed clear that a plan of action had been decided before the community had its say and all other reasonable options had been addressed. This fed a sense of exclusion, despite all the meetings and other outreach efforts, and that probably doomed the project well before the vote.

The current school board members understand that they can’t erase that mistrust by disavowing a toothless resolution. The must restore trust in their judgment. So far, school officials have invoked vague, optimistic terms like “collaborative process” and “shared vision.” They need a moratorium on touchy-feely talk.

Maybe the emphasis should instead be on facts that tell a story with a number of possible outcomes. Start with data on who lives in the district and what their resources are. Explain patterns of state aid and make assumptions based on good, bad and average years. Tell people what programs and services can be cut and what cannot. Create a Lego set of future school budgets and see if the crowd really can be a source of inspiration.

This is a crazy idea. It’ll never work. It takes too much time. It’s too complicated for the public to understand…. Yes. That’s all true. But what’s the alternative?
Perhaps a modified version of what was tried last time will be successful on the second try.
Really? If that’s the approach, what have we learned?

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