Who Cares

“Who Cares?”

I really hope that my house is not the only place where the phrase “Who Cares?” comes up.  

Because here, it is used mostly to avoid doing something.  “Who cares, Mom?” they all three cry when I point out that they are “living in a hog pen.”  “It’s my room, why should you care?”

“Who cares, Mom?” they chime in, uniquely united in this crusade to avoid the dishwasher unloading and kitchen cleanup duties

that I insist are–seriously, honestly, truly–a part of living in this house and having the privilege of food to prepare, or prepared for them. “It can wait.”

“Who cares, Mom?” I hear when I note that it is cold this morning, and perhaps longer pants would be a good idea.  “Who cares, Mom?” is the refrain chorused nearly in union when I dare to suggest making beds instead of just throwing things on top of them.

This past week, I have had six conversations about another item that has caused me to rethink the phrase “Who Cares?”.  After quite a bit of hesitation on my part, I decided to share some thoughts on this, venturing into the political realm where polite conversation is not really supposed to go.

These exchanges were about Act 46, this “consolidation legislation” enacted at the close of the last legislative session in Montpelier.  Many truly political folks can explain it in detail, and policy afficionados can no doubt go into its rationales and hoped-for-results much better than I can.  

For me, it all comes down to the question of “Who Cares?”.  

I dare say that I am not alone in my progression through caring about education. At first, we are just the consumers–and often unwilling ones at that–of the public education process.  We have a different view, though, when we are putting our own little people into someone else’s care.  Then, we start to be the Ones Who Care about what is taught, and how, and what the results are.  

Even then, though, it is easy to care just about the classroom your own kid is in, or perhaps, the entire school that he attends, particularly if you get involved with the parent groups.  For me, when I joined the school board, I quickly started to care about the three elementary schools and the EES program here in town, since that’s what the Brattleboro Town School Board officially governs.  Soon I was caring–and asking–about all of them.  As a board, with the administrators, we asked ourselves questions like, “Is a child at Green Street getting the same access to technology as a student at Oak Grove as the kid at Academy?” and “If this behavioral program is working at the grade school level, can we use it at the preschool level, too?”  

Soon, my older kids were leaving their grade school and heading over to the middle school, and the high school.  Like the self-centered human being that I am (or really, that we all are), I started looking around at what happens when we pull all these Brattleboro Schools together, and what happens when we bring in the outlying towns’ students into the mix.  Around the same time, coincidentally, I started attending the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Board.  

There, the answer to “Who Cares?” is broader, although still defined by our individual roles of representing each districts’ (in this care, that equates to each town’s) specific interest.  Our priority is educating the kids in our own district, maintaining that careful balance between what our taxpayers value–and what they can afford and are willing to pay.

But our first responsibility is to our own taxpayer constituents.  So if our individual town budgets can’t support programs or purchases, the school doesn’t have them as an option.  

Take an example in foreign language. Right now, students in Brattleboro Town Schools receive foreign language instruction, but students in outlying towns do not.  When they get to the middle school, or high school, depending on when they join in, the schools must adjust to the varied student knowledge base.  Or look at technology: in some of our schools, I-pads and computers are used daily as an integral part of the curriculum.  In other schools, students have had only limited exposure.  

Is it fair to the students?  The legislators in Montpelier approached this conundrum of shrinking enrollments and rising tax rates with a large carrot.  If your district merges, we’ll give you a tax break, they said.  The tax break is significant–10 cents the first year, 8 cents the second, 6 cents the third, 4 cents the fourth, 2 cents the fifth.  It is a great incentive–we all care about a tax break.  

Here in southeastern Vermont, we are fortunate to not have such large inequities as many other locations around the state.  We already join together for high school (with some school choice in Vernon); we already share in many areas. There are some hard questions to answer, things like what might happen to school choice, how local boards would still have control, who votes on the budgets, how we make everything equitable to all the schools in the new district. There are some things that should be really positive:  sharing resources and staff more easily is a big one.  Reducing costs would also be excellent, and a recent, mandated change to consolidate special education in our district brought lower costs overall. The supervisory union board is looking at the legislation and the concerns point by point, and listening well to each other. This is a process, although one with quick deadlines–something would need to be on town meeting budgets next March if we were to try to merge (and receive those tax incentives).

In fact, it was in the middle of the first supervisory meeting where we talked about Act 46 that caused me look differently at the question of “Who cares?” As I sat there listening to the other towns’ school board members discuss their concerns, I realized I don’t even know what programs are offered in the outlying town’s schools.  (Nor did any other board member really feel confident that he knew about others, although, of course, the administrators in the room were much more aware.)  

If we do decide to go to one district (instead of one supervisory union)–and if I continued to serve on the board–my role would change, I realized.  No longer would my priority be to monitor the balance of costs and outcomes in EES and the three Brattleboro elementary schools.  Instead, it would be look at the entire system, from pre-K all the way to high school graduation, for all the schools in our supervisory union.  All the communities would be working together towards one common goal of educating all of our kids–not just worrying about our own portion of the total student body.

Then, the answer to the question “Who cares?” becomes: We all do.

And, call me an eternal optimist if you want, but I think that this is a pretty good start to this conversation.

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools–next week, only at the high school and elementary school levels.  She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment and the Brattleboro Town School Board. Contact her at jill@globalcow.com.

 

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools–fifth grade, freshman and junior. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment and the Brattleboro Town School Board. Contact her at jill@globalcow.com.

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