Just don’t mention the War!

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Just don’t mention the War!

Imagine Washington DC, a few days after the election in 2014. The Democratic Party has lost control of both houses of Congress. Harry Reid, the most senior Democratic congressman, can’t be reached. He has left town for a yoga retreat, no cellphones allowed at the ashram. President Obama won’t answer questions about the election or the future, and will only talk about Michele’s plans for next year’s White House garden.

Of course that didn’t happen. Political leaders don’t have the luxury of taking time off, much as they might like to ignore the results of Tuesday’s vote. When votes are counted, the losing politician has to get up on stage and make a speech. Losers have to stand up and face the music, and talk to their supporters face to face.

But in Great Barrington on Tuesday, after a smashing defeat for the School Committee, and for many other elected officials who’d put themselves in front on the $51-million high-school renovation project, I was reminded of the British comedy Fawlty Towers. I thought of the episode when the Fawltys, who managed a hotel, were preparing for a group of German guests. “Just don’t mention the War!” Basil Fawlty admonished the hotel staff. He talked, instead, nonstop about anything and everything else. “Anything but the War!”

That was the Berkshire Hills School Committee on Thursday night. Anything, but anything, except the defeated building project.

Lawn signs in Great Barrington, town center parking lot.

On the Thursday evening after the vote, cold rain was falling, but my spirits were high. At last, we might be able to break through and get the change that Great Barrington needs. Last year, a virtually identical project was defeated, and that’s when I re-engaged with local politics. It was a breathtaking moonlit evening when I went to a School Committee meeting for the first time since 2001. [You can read about that here.] I was hopeful then, too, but in spite of what I heard that night, the School Committee had simply brought the same proposal back to the voters. It had been even more resoundingly defeated.

Everyone had expected the subject of the first School Committee after the vote to be, well, the vote – win or lose. But the most important topic – the War, in Fawly Towers terms – was off the table. Conveniently, the district’s superintendent, Peter Dillon, had left for China immediately after the vote, providing the ostensible reason for not saying a word about the most divisive campaign the town has ever seen, even though the elected  leadership of the school district was, to a man and woman, there in the room.

But there was no sign of Dick Coons, who has been at the center of every construction project for the last two decades, and who last year at the same time sat just off to the side of the school committee, at the front of the room with them. There was no sign of Karen Smith, the volunteer leader of the 2014 committee outreach, who got the job because she stood up last year and gave one of what I think of as her “denouncement” speeches. (I was the target of one, once upon a time, and have heard others.) [You can read about that here.]

The meeting began with a committee reorganization that went like a roll call, every vote unanimous starting with Steve Bannon’s re-election as chair. “High school renovation is officially dissolved,” he said, and that was that. “We’ll talk about it on the 22nd, when Peter is back.”

They ran down the list of committees, joking amiably. What a good-humored group they are. “I want to be on that. It should be an interesting year,” said a man in yellow shirt when they got to the Building & Grounds Committee.

A student in suit and tie provided the “good news” that has become a feature of reporting from the district. I see the point of this (so often people just hear about things that go wrong) but wish it didn’t come across as so much like kindergarten notes. On Thursday, I would have liked to hear something substantial from the high school, the center of the current political battle. Instead, the good news was just school sports, leading with golf, a Shakespeare program, and student government contact with another high school. Nothing was said, for example, about college applications (early acceptance letters were due this week) or anything academic.

The committee members were clearly determined not to say a word about the vote – like Harry Reid away at the ashram and Obama refusing to talk about anything but the importance of fresh vegetables. The affable Steve Bannon, whom I think of as Teflon Bannon, sets the tone.

I gave up and went home an hour into a presentation about MCAS results. The presenter repeatedly apologized for “rushing through this,” as he took went through the data in slide after slide after slide, with the committee members’ nodding with solemn fascination. Anything, anything at all, just don’t talk about the War.

But I was glad to have heard what I did. I learned just how poor our district families are, and that instead of being a country version of a top suburban school district we’re on the verge of being eligible for a program that would give every child a free lunch. (Eligibility for the program requires 40% of families, and we’re at 37%.) That’s not well-off suburban but inner-city or poor rural. Most of our MCAS results are lower than the state average, and hitting that average seemed to be our target. I asked about this, saying it seemed a surprisingly low bar. This is not the high-performing district I remembered from the days when I was on the school committee. The speaker answered my question by explaining, sympathetically, that ours is a poor rural school district.

I was shocked by this because it’s not what I’ve heard of late about the district. Here’s a typical example, from a recent post from Karen Smith: “Berkshire Hills’ programming is so rich and its academic standards are so high, we have more students than we can accommodate clamoring to choice into the district.” I now have a better understanding of the challenges our teachers face, and realize that the children and families in our community need a great deal of support to get the kind of start in life that US public education is designed to offer.

Is there a disconnect between parents who want the Great Barrington schools to be the equivalent of Westchester or Bethesda public schools, and therefore want the community to support building projects on that scale? It would be natural. We all want the best for our children, and that means that we want great schools in Great Barrington. But demographic realities suggest that our challenges are not STEM teaching or adding a new AP program, but helping a student population that needs the most basic support.

I’m no expert but I imagine that our students need more of what children in any poor neighborhood need: better nutrition, language coaching, after-school tutoring, mentoring programs, etc. But not big new buildings that would make it even harder for their parents to make ends meet.

By the way, I checked with someone who stuck it out to the end of the Thursday meeting and was assured that the building project was not mentioned again. Not in polite company. Don’t mention the War!

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