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The Cost of Community

It has been a hard week where I live. For those of you who don't live in my community, I will give you a quick summary. (Thank you in advance for indulging me in this post.)

Our area's middle school is in terrible condition. Buckets are placed on the floors to catch the water falling from the shoddy roof when it rains; many classrooms don't have adequate heating/cooling; students (not to mention teachers and staff) are in trailers in the adjacent parking lot due to overcrowding. It's a mess.

The school board, after reviewing options and soliciting feedback from the area, put forth a referendum on Tuesday's ballot asking for a large bond issue to build a new school that would be state-of-the-art in technology, design, and extracurricular features. The costs would be added to our property tax bills over the next twenty years. The referendum failed.

And now, here we are in what feels like a torn community. Discussion of Tuesday's vote has been everywhere this week (all over town and on social media) and it has ranged from sympathetic to hostile. Proponents of the referendum are heartbroken by its failure, and many feel that the students and staff have been shafted. Opponents of the referendum feel that the school was too grand in scope, too expensive, and that the board needs to go back to the drawing board to come up with a new plan.

I suspect that the solution lies in the middle somewhere, but I'm an optimist and a "balance in all things" libra. Here's what I think. Or at least what I hope.

We all want what's best for our children and almost everyone can agree that the current building is a problem. The struggle is to find a solution that everyone can agree on. And that's the seemingly impossible task at hand. (Full disclosure: There is a group of people in our community (as there is in every part of the country) who will never vote for anything that might raise their taxes. I get that.)

Our community school district is made up of three towns, which are side-by-side-by-side, sharing soccer fields, a high school, preschools, restaurants, shops, and a rapidly changing real estate market, with residents often moving from town to town, from one house to another. We live in a symbiotic relationship. Each town needs the other to thrive.

I have friends in all three towns. I have friends who voted for the referendum (as I did), and others who did not. I respect their opinions, and I hope that they respect mine.

I understand some of their concerns, in particular, the cost of the project, whether the high price tag was justified, and the more specific concern that the developer's price jumped markedly from one blueprint to the next after other costs were added. I can appreciate the reluctance to give work to a developer who you think may try to pull punches down the road.

I would hope that they would understand my concern too, that the building is dangerous for students, teachers, and staff, and that continued delays result in throwing good money after bad, putting a band-aid over the current situation in an effort to bide time. I personally believe that the proposal was fully vetted and I trust our elected Board of Education (as well as the Facilities Committee who worked tirelessly on this project) to guide our community to the best outcome.

Here's what's keeping me up at night. In moments when the conversation has gotten heated, neighbors from the town next door have said that they're not going to vote for any referendum (no matter the cost, however reduced) because their own children wouldn't benefit directly (as they would attend their own middle school in their town). In response, neighbors from my village have retorted with saying that perhaps the two villages should split and create individual school systems. Village has been pitted upon village. Neighbor upon neighbor.

I realize that we're living in an unprecedented political climate right now. You can't turn on the news (or scroll through a news feed) without seeing anger bubbling over from all sides, all over the nation. I'm seeing it at a local level and — I'm not going to lie — that terrifies me.

Is this what it's come to? Have we lost all sense of compassion for those around us? What happens to the kids in limbo? What happens to our community?

I would like to think that if I lived in my neighboring village, I would have voted for the referendum, even if my own children wouldn't benefit from it. I would have voted for it because there is a need in the community and that's what you do for your neighbor. You lend them your jar of baking powder. You look after their children at the playground while they run to the restroom. You bring dinner over when someone is sick or grieving. It's what you do. (N.B.: There's a whole paragraph that could go here about property values and how excellent schools across the district keep those values up, but I don't think I need to write that one.)

What I'm hearing is (to paraphrase, but not by much) "That sucks that your child is having asthma problems because of the mold. But if my kid isn't getting all the bells and whistles, why should yours?" That isn't community. At least, not the community I know.

As the failed referendum stands, the estimated costs for each household would be a few hundred dollars a year for the next twenty years. Yes, that may incur a sacrifice for some families, especially as our high school is poised to ask for its own referendum this fall.

But what happens as this process continues? What is the true cost? What is the cost of living in a divided community, where distrust and vitriol replace civil conversation? Is that what we want our children to learn from this process? I hope not. That cost is too high.

This is my third attempt at writing this. My first was much more heated, but, as the saying goes, "cooler heads prevail." I hope that I'm not alone in that thinking. There are parts of the original proposal that I will fight to keep (perhaps a post for another day). There are others that I'm willing to let go. That's how this whole compromise thing works, right?

I am hopeful that we can work out a solution that can bring us back together. In the meanwhile, let us all try to remember that we are a community first. Your kids are my kids. I hope that mine are yours. Let's continue the conversation with kindness and open hearts. That's what neighbors do.

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