MEADVILLE — Editor’s note: The author warns that this column has language for mature audiences only. Reader discretion is advised.
If you’re like me, you’ve chosen to live in a small town because the communities are close knit. You attend the same churches, volunteer for the band boosters, frequent the same bars, cheer for the same football teams (or their rivals), and watch parades with your neighbors. Small-town folks treasure simple virtues like honesty, integrity, kindness, generosity, respect and working together.
Now more than ever those of us who live in Conneaut School District need to let those values guide our behavior. We are facing serious adversity as the school board and administration make major decisions concerning the configuration of our schools. Sometimes it seems as though bitterness, anger, fear and dishonesty have ruled the day instead.
Instead of extending generosity to volunteers who have given hundreds of hours of their time to try to save the district from fiscal catastrophe, I hear verbal invectives hurled at them in public meetings. (“Screw you! You have screwed us over for years. Screw you!,” accompanied by audience jeers and mocking laughter.) Instead of honoring the integrity of the process, these volunteers and administrators are accused of not caring about kids because they didn’t say the word “student” enough in their presentation. (Let me see, and they’ve worked this hard for ... Edward the vampire? Breast cancer research?)
Instead of acknowledging that often research can be found that supports both sides of an argument, people insist that “all research shows” that small schools are the best way to educate kids. I have research that says that medium sized schools (9 to 12 grades) of 600 to 900 are the most effective size in educating kids. This research also shows that disadvantaged kids benefit the most from those schools.
Instead of showing respect and kindness, students boast that they will never be friends with kids from (pick one) Lake, Linesville or Valley. Parents support and encourage that attitude. Tell me, how do you manage that on Facebook? Do you check addresses before you friend someone? If “outside” students are bused to the school in your town, will they (and their parents) be welcomed or shunned?
Instead of working together, some parents will homeschool their kids through cyberschool and keep them out of a consolidated high school if that’s the decision. That’s your right. The district will have to take more money out of the bricks and mortar schools to pay thousands of dollars per cyber child. What the district has budgeted to pay for cyberschooled students ($700,000) is almost as much as its entire kindergarten budget ($775,000). I respect parents’ right to educate their children as they wish, but that is the cold, hard economic reality. This astronomical bill is one of the reasons the district has to consider consolidation. The threat of cyberschooling is also a good way to show the powers-that-be how wrong they are to dare to consider change, isn’t it?
I believe that the vast majority of people in our small towns are good people who live lives of integrity and honor. Many have expressed support and thanked those who have worked tirelessly at dealing with the issues facing Conneaut School District. I’m not saying that everyone has to agree or that anyone who cares about our schools can’t be passionate about issues, express concerns, ask questions and disagree. But how we conduct ourselves in difficult circumstances is revealing. Adversity has a habit of cutting through all the baloney and showing our true character.
Now it’s time to direct our energy into participating in this process and supporting whatever decision is made. This is why you elected the school board and they in turn appointed the committees (BUSS) to study the issues. The school board is charged with promoting student growth and achievement through providing a thorough and efficient system of education. The people you’ve elected and who volunteer to serve on committees throughout the school year all come from your communities and reflect your values. They are being responsible to the students and taxpayers by facing these issues head on and leading our district through a time of change.
I believe that my friends and neighbors still believe in simple values. Perhaps the most important one is to treat others as you want them to treat you. We need to extend encouragement, kindness and generosity to each other, and support neighbors working together, yes, even from different towns.
How we face this adversity will give our kids more of an education than anything they’ll get in the classroom, wherever that happens to be. They are watching their grandparents, parents and peers to see if our small town values are really as important as we say they are.
Zill is a Conneaut Lake resident and former member of the Conneaut School District school board.