School budgets, particularly during times of financial stress, challenge a community to balance competing interests and values. Apart from the facts and numbers involved the character of the discussion plays a huge role in determining the quality of the outcome. Understanding and respect for opposing views will always promote the sort of dialogue and problem solving which not only helps achieve the best short terms results, but also draws forth resources from within the community to meet shortfalls in materials, and helps frame a positive basis for future needs.
To help gain some perspective on the current budget vote I tossed a few questions at Wilton resident Karol Maybury, the founder of a local group whose mission statement is also its title, Support Our Schools .
Kenny: First of all Karol tell us a bit about Support our Schools.
Karol: Last summer, around budget vote time, I was talking with friends and colleagues and neighbors and discovered many of us were very concerned about the budget passing. We were all having almost identical kitchen table conversations about saving programs like academics, music, library, and sports. I wondered if we could successfully establish an online space to connect the parents, teachers, students, alums, and citizens committed to adequate funding of Mt. Blue schools. I made a Facebook page, invited friends and neighbors, and we grew to 50 people by the end of the day. The next morning I opened my computer and there were 160. A few hours later there were 300. By the end of the week we were at 500 and now there are almost 700 members of our online community. It’s grown beyond a pure focus on the budget to share cool goings-on, music performance videos, and accolades received by the Mt. Blue School District. And we repost from other sites like the Mt. Blue Campus site. Members also post funny cartoons and stuff about teaching and school.
Kenny: How does the well being of our schools relate to the well being of our community?
Karol: I believe that “so go the schools, so go the communities.” Strong communities need strong schools. It is the key to each individual child’s future. It’s the key to advancement of our community. My parents always told me that education is a huge equalizing force for a community. Plus these are the kids that are going to be our community’s future leaders: business people, entrepreneurs, doctors, and teachers. It benefits us all to have a strong educational base in our community. Good schools also protect property values, research shows.
Kenny: The necessity of a smaller school budget in a time of constricted financial resources obviously means that the budget itself can provide fewer physical resources, for example in the proposed budget school library book accounts have been reduced by half. The concept of community presupposes that we are all stakeholders in a common enterprise. Do you see the community having a role as a supplementary resource?
Karol: The budget cuts to the library really sting. You think of all of the times a book is read and re-read by different students. This will take a community-wide effort, like we’ve seen with Support Our Schools and the advocacy for an adequate school budget. A short-fall like this can be an opportunity for a small, but strong community like ours. I’m sure we can pool our efforts to supplement the proposed cuts to our school libraries by community partnerships. I’m confident that we can, and will, with the help of our community members and supportive businesses like yours, find a way to meet our students’ reading needs.
Kenny: Mary Wortley Montagu once commented that “Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.” On the other hand Samuel Johnson remarked that “When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.” What role do you think civility has in the budget process?
Karol: It is critical, when we disagree on something as a community, to stay constructive and to not disparage the other side. As we’re sharing our perspectives and priorities, I believe we should strive to share our experiences and our beliefs (whether pro- or con- the school budget) in a constructive way.
We see such “demonizing of the other” at the national level, unfortunately, all the time. That doesn’t make it right. When we disparage another person’s position through uncivil words, or feel that our group’s perspective is the only one that matters and so we should be the only ones who have a voice, something has gone awry. Mainers are plain-spoken and civil folks, and we need to remember that these are our neighbors.
We can come to meetings, or comment in on online forum and heartily disagree, but we should step back if we start to become so impassioned that we forget that there is another human being that we’re addressing. We need to listen to the teacher who talks about having to feed her students, and listen to the senior who is concerned they’ll need to go back to work in order to pay their bills. We should come together as a community, respect each others’ experiences and opinions, not delve into personal attacks. Strive to be above-board in our dealings, play by the meeting rules, and ultimately, when it comes down to it, vote our conscience. It isn’t easy! I think your quotes should be read before meetings and online forums.
I will say that there are some teens (students) and recent alums on our page (and kids come to the budget meetings like we had last week). The youngsters are really attuned to how adults behave when we disagree. As my Mom always says, you can disagree without being disagreeable. Recently, when a person posted something disparaging (and was removed) a recent Mt. Blue grad came to the defense of her teachers and itemized the high quality education she received throughout her 12 years as a Mt. Blue student and how her Mt. Blue education is impacting her to this day. It was a beautifully articulated, civil response to incivility and unfounded attacks. I was so proud that she deftly defended others and expressed her beliefs so humanely. It was an ethics lesson in action! On the page we try to be an oasis of good dialogue and how to disagree or share opinions in an illuminating, not disparaging way. I sense people appreciate the tone as much as the camaraderie. We have only one ground rule: no attacking or disparaging of others on the page.
Kenny: If you could hand community members a single thought to carry with them as they prepare to cast a vote for or against the budget what would it be?
Karol: Strong communities need strong schools. A careful review of the budget shows how thoughtfully our school directors and administrators, led by the highly capable, devoted superintendent, Dr. Tom, thoughtfully prepared for the maximum impact of our tax dollars. We all benefit from investing in our kids’ education.