Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “Common sense is genius, dressed in its working clothes.”
I have listened to the debate over the new school building project in Westport with great interest, and am confounded by the pervasive lack of simple, common sense in the “analysis” that is presented by many who have chosen to “participate” in the discussion now that the question of whether to fund this project is finally before us. My use of quotations is, of course, intentional, as we are again presented with a series of “factual” evidence by familiar voices who oppose investment in our school system.
Nine years ago, I jumped with two feet into the fray of politics and education in Westport as part of an override attempt and later as the founding president of the education foundation. My empathy for the current school building committee runs deep, as I know well the sacrifice of long nights spent at a computer and at meetings, missing countless hours with my own children, all in the spirit of defying a decades-long curse for school funding.
Back then, I was moved by the possibility of creating change for my community, and of course for my own children, as well. Now, I have done my own analysis (no quotation marks) of the school building funding question, for far different reasons. Between 2010 and 2015 we moved our children, one by one, to private, independent schools in Providence. Each move was made for different reasons, and all of them equally difficult. A quick Google search will tell you what our family is now investing in education for our three daughters.
I mention this only because we must look at the school building question through a far more practical lens. We are considering the vote from the same perspective as any Westport resident without children to benefit from a new school. No, a new building will not change our decision to send our children to private school. We, therefore, needed to answer several questions for our family. Is this a good decision for the community? What are the alternatives and trade-offs? How will this choice impact our financial obligation today, and our property value tomorrow?
And here is where the need for common sense comes in. Common sense, and personal responsibility that we each have to do our own research, analysis and fact-finding. Not by listening to “analysis” from others who say what we want them to say. And so I am not going to quote all of the numbers and facts that my family learned through this process; they are as available to you as they were to us.
There is no guessing about where this money will go. A building — along with all of its furnishings, technology, parking and athletic fields — is a very tangible asset. What I feel compelled to write about is an argument against the “facts” presented by recent letter writers, such as Bill Reed, and other familiar voices I have come to anticipate whenever Westport considers funding for education-related costs.
In recent letters, an argument has been presented that Westport children and their parents are customers of the school system, and that we should pay attention to the fact that these customers are telling us something by choosing other schools. Bill Reed asserted that a new school building would not solve the issues that prompt families to choose high schools other than Westport High School.
First, the argument over why families choose one school over another is moot. We are not building a school to convince all Westport families to send their children to Westport High School. The new school will be built because "we need a new school building." The building is infrastructure. As residents of the town, we need to maintain it. We have a school with toxic chemicals and another that is 69 years old. The fact that it is time to have this conversation should not be a surprise. Secondly, there is plenty of data (Mr. Reed and his comrades cherry pick which data they will “present” to you) to show that the private school decision is a complex one, and does not necessarily indicate a quality problem with a school.
We have many children who never attended Westport public schools, so we cannot say their parents have a qualified opinion on their merits. There are families who will choose a parochial education for personal reasons — regardless of where they live. According to the most recent data from the Massachusetts Department of Education, 85 percent of Westport’s children attend its public schools. In Wellesley and Needham — both widely regarded as top performing school systems in our state — 79.4 and 82.5 percent of children attend their public schools. The reasons for school choice are personal, and also totally irrelevant to this school building decision.
Mr. Reed’s armchair quarterbacking from the safety of his keyboard has become predictable entertainment whenever there is a school-related vote. What I hope you will pay attention to is that these vocal opponents are never part of a solution-finding group in Westport. I have never seen Bill Reed at a finance committee meeting in the 2+ years I have served. Some applaud his “well researched” financial data about the town, but you discount the fact this his role is entirely passive. How can he — and others — really judge decisions when they do not need to make them? They sit, and wait, for someone to suggest that additional dollars will address an educational need. And then they ... write.
They also raise a bit of money and send the infamous postcard to your home, full of “factual” evidence of why you should vote "no." I really believe most of my fellow Westport residents are capable of far more common sense. What our research told us is that a “no” vote does not spare us the cost of school buildings. I do not want to be on the hook for paying for a school that will be far more expensive, without the contribution from the state, a few years from now. Instead, I will be proud to drive past this beautiful new educational facility with community spaces, and all of its possibilities. It will stand tall, a huge statement to our town — that yes, we finally, finally, said "yes."
Karen Maxwell Powell lives in Westport.