John Mauer in the Letters to the Editor section, is right that apathy reigns among voters in Region 1. Considering that the budget for Housatonic Valley Regional High School and for regional services provided to the six elementary schools in District 1 totals $14.4 million—the biggest annual expenditure for towns in the district—it is dismaying that so few people express an opinion on educational spending.Perhaps that apathy is generated because, year after year, voters are told in their local towns that nothing can be done about educational costs because they are largely determined by pre-existing contracts and obligations. It is hard to generate much enthusiasm for voting when the only things that can apparently be cut are programs and services directly benefitting the students.
Where Mr. Mauer errs in his reasoning in our estimation is his assumption that a handful of malcontents, aided by a compliant press, have generated the gridlock currently experienced in the district in passing a budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year. The proposed budget, which started below last year’s budgetary level and has remained there through various adjustments, has now failed six times, a record for rejections in District 1. Why it has failed has become increasingly evident in the months since its first defeat in May. It is one of only two vehicles—budgets and elections—the public has for expressing its displeasure.
There is disarray in the school district, disarray that first became evident in 2010 when the high school’s principal and assistant principal both resigned in the days prior to the school’s opening; disarray that was documented in the Pingpank Report commissioned by the Board of Education; continuing disarray that is evidenced in the lawsuits brought against and by the superintendent and assistant superintendent of schools. (One suit for harassment brought against superintendent Patricia Chamberlain by her former executive secretary was settled this week for $120,000, while the suit by assistant superintendent Diane Goncalves against Region 1 Board member Gale Toensing, also for harassment, still pends.)
There remains an adversarial dialogue between board members and some members of the public—indeed, there continues to be a division on the board itself as to the direction it should take on various issues. Underlying it all is a contention by some of the public that nothing has really changed in the administration of the school—that administrative intimidation and harassment of dissenting members on the faculties and school staffs in regional schools is still common.
Mr. Mauer complains that the opponents of the current administration are quoted excessively in the press and that this helps to stir the discontent and the negative budget votes. That, in itself, is not true. Critics are quoted but so are those speaking in defense of the board and administration. Board members’ rejoinders to the criticisms leveled against them are also reported. It is appropriate that the wider public, which usually does not attend board of education meetings, be given the details and flavor of the actions of its elected leaders.
But above and beyond that, it is shortsighted to say that a few malcontents should not be given a voice. It is accurate to say that the American Revolution would never have happened if it were not for a handful of agitators who kept pointing out the inequities of this nation’s relationship with Britain. And most Americans of the 1970s were unimpressed with a “third-rate burglary” at Watergate until the persistent digging of reporters and the revelations of critics peacefully brought down a corrupt administration.
This editorial is not meant to levy accusations of corruption against Region 1’s administrators or to endorse the actions of those protesting the current administration. Its purpose is to argue that the public has the right to know what criticisms are being leveled, to hear of the often-hostile interactions of board members and the public, and to see the cost, both psychological and financial, that is being incurred in the district.
Housatonic Valley Regional High School has always been a fine school, an institution the district could take pride in. The educators employed there and in the district’s elementary schools are dedicated to their tasks of preparing students for whatever career paths await them. Some of them express frustration with the continuing turmoil, wanting only to shine the spotlight on their students’ achievements.
To achieve that end, The rancor must stop.
And to do that the district’s leaders must come to the table with defenses down and a willingness to listen to the public. The people—even malcontents—are not always wrong.