I drove up Route 7 to Monument Mountain High School on Friday night as the moon rose over East Mountain, milky white and nearly full, luminous in a sky streaked with coral and rose pink from the setting sun. I had forgotten how beautiful that stretch of the Berkshires is in the evening. I hadn’t been to a School Committee meeting since 2001 when I resigned soon after I returned from my first trip to China. In the twelve years since then, my attention has been focused on an increasingly global business, but between spearheading the Train Campaign and running a popular online group based in my Great Barrington neighborhood, I’ve been refocusing on local issues and thinking again about how I can best make a contribution to the small town I call home.
I had, all those years ago, ended up on the School Committee by chance. I was looking for some way to contribute to the community I’d moved to a few years before. My then-husband was leafing through the local paper and showed me a notice about a vacancy on the School Committee, as the regional school board is called in Massachusetts. “They’ll never pick you,” he said. But no one else applied for the position, and the town’s selectboard had to appoint me. I heard the news from my dentist as he prodded my molars. “It was on the radio this morning,” he said.
My appointment was not welcomed by the School Committee or the district’s administrators. I was treated with suspicion and then with outright hostility because a controversial school building project was in the works, and they thought I was infiltrating. I hadn’t even known about the project, but there was a reason they were worried, and before long, without in the least meaning to, I ended up leading the opposition.
My political horizons are rather different these days, but small-town politics offers a fascinating contrast to global geopolitics and as it happens, Great Barrington has another controversial building project in play, an expensive renovation of Monument Mountain High School. It was dramatically defeated in a vote on 5 November but many citizens are convinced that the School Committee plans to push it through anyway. That’s what the daily paper the Berkshire Eagle has suggested, and we have seen it before. But I am hopeful that the magnitude of the defeat in Great Barrington (nearly 2 to 1) was sufficiently clear, and I went to the Friday night meeting to find out what’s going on. What strikes me about the recent discussion and the defeated $56 million project is how certain misconceptions I saw during my time on the School Committee are evident today. There are commonalities in politics, of course, so I’ve made a list of the patterns in the hope that we can talk about the underlying assumptions that lead to misconceptions like these, and come to a better understanding of what really makes sense for our lovely small town.
Here are the six myths that lead to conflict in small-town communities:
#1: Only a Million. The trouble with being on boards is that people lose a sense of proportion. They think of the figures in the budget as Monopoly money. Some get infected with millionitis, a disease that makes people’s heads swell when they deal with long strings of zeroes. My favorite phrase of the recent debate about the high school renovation project was, “It’s only $21 million for Great Barrington.” That is, our town would pay “only” $21 million out of a total of $56 million to renovate our regional high school because the other towns and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would pay the rest. But it is, nonetheless, $21 million, and Great Barrington is a town of less than 7,000 people.
#2: Buy 1, Get 1 Free. If we can save money by spending $5 million and getting a reimbursement from the state, we can save even more by spending $50 million.
#3: Manna from Heaven. The matching funds from the state just fell from the sky, and we should scoop them up before anyone else does.
#4: The Master Builder Syndrome. Neighbor Anthony Dapolito provided this apt term, writing at TheHillGB, “I practiced as a CPA serving not-for-profit organizations for 35 years. In the NFP business we call the uncontrollable and sometimes illogical urge by boards to leave a lasting edifice as the “Master Builder Syndrome.” No presentation, entreating for a reasonable approach, will alter that inherent and indefatigable drive.”
#5: The Power of Positive Thinking. Demographic information tells us that our population is ageing and declining. The total number of school children in the region has been falling for a long time and a number of districts are talking about consolidation for that reason. But some people think that we should ignore the facts because they are “negative.”
#6: Politics is Personal. Those who don’t agree with you are “spreading false information.” They are against education or against progress. They’re not “working for the community” the way you are. This is a classic example of an ad hominem argument, which attacks the character or authority of an opponent instead of addressing the substance of their argument.
These myths are understandable. People get attached. We have personal connections and loyalties and investments, and don’t always look at the big picture. But that’s where a diverse community can be helpful: by calling on the knowledge and professional experience of our citizens as well as on common sense, we can look beyond myths and misconceptions, and come up with sustainable, sensible solutions for our small town.
By Karen Christensen
Image source: Images_of_Money @Flickr http://bit.ly/18432uH