by Andrew Buckley
Regional School – Really?
I’ve already written about the scheme of the regional school with Harwich, and how simply bigger is only, well, bigger. Not better. Still, money has been spent on this because the state is pushing all districts to try regionalization, and Harwich needs a new high school. At this upcoming annual town meeting, Chatham voters will be asked to fund yet another $10,000 study to evaluate the benefits and costs of regionalization.
That amount sticks in my head because it is the same that the Women of Fishing Families were shorted this year for running the Chatham Maritime Festival.
It especially sticks in my head because I don’t think anyone has any doubt but that said “study” on regionalization will be anything but favorable. After all, Harwich (who wants to regionalize with Chatham) is paying half the cost, and the report is mandated by the state (who wants the same). Under the circumstances, it is highly unlikely that the conclusions will be little more than tired old “glass is half-full” assumptions and one-size-fits-all arguments that have been employed in one suburb after the other.
And still, when completed, this study will be used as a gong by pro-regionalization supporters. Before they have even begun, they are citing Peter “I-Never-Met-A-Town-That-Wouldn’t-Be-Better-Off-Regionalized” Francese. Of course, Mr. Francese is a demographer, not an educator. Just last week in a New Hampshire newspaper he predicted Americans would be so angry at the federal government that they would throw out their census forms. Francese had no data to back this up. Instead, he relied upon listening to talk radio.
So this is the guy we’re relying on to make decisions about the future of education.
In our case, however, Francese looks at the entire Cape and predicts a dwindling school population, coupled with older voter unwillingness to fund the schools. What he doesn’t factor in, specifically for Chatham, is that we steal students from other systems through school choice. We do that because we are small. There’s a cachet to Chatham, too, no doubt. But if we regionalize, we lose that.
In return we’re supposed to get state-of-the-art computer labs.
We’re supposed to get AP courses.
For all students? No. Just those who qualify. For the classes we can afford to hire a teacher for.
And more sports. Like hockey? The game that we already play with Harwich and the school committee tried to cut funding for recently?
Or maybe football. But hockey and football seasons overlap, and you might be talking some of the same kids then, so you’ll end up with, what, an opportunity for a handful of players from Chatham.
OK, but there is a downside. I can think of several. The first, as I’ve written before, is the way a regional school system’s budget would be presented to Chatham Town Meeting for an up or down vote. If it is amended, there will be a great wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth as it must then be approved by the voters of Harwich.
That shouldn’t be a problem. I can hear that familiar argument trotted out at Chatham Town Meeting: “We have to pass this or else we’ll have to start from scratch.” Democracy in action.
But here’s an even more concrete argument: I have a daughter. Sofie. She’s seven. She’s in first grade. The bus doesn’t come down our road. When she goes to middle school in a few years, she’ll ride her bike a mile and a half. It will take 10 minutes. Or she could walk. Or, in a pinch, I could drive her. That will take less than five minutes.
Same with picking her up.
In Chatham, even the house furthest from the middle school and high school is only five miles away. On the other hand, if the schools were regionalized, with either the middle or high school in Harwich, Sofie is looking at a seven-mile drive. Walking is out. Biking, for most of the year, is out. Other students in Chatham will be looking at up to a 10-mile bus ride. And that’s a straight line – which no bus does. How early are they going to have to get up?
Worse, with so many kids having after school activities, how many times a week am I going to have to go drive all the way into Harwich Center to pick her up? And if she forgets something at home, that’s me having to lose the better part of an hour during a workday on that roundtrip.
And we all know how much kids with drivers licenses love to continue to take the bus. So we’re looking at a convoy, twice a day, of carloads of Chatham teenagers on the roads between Chatham and Harwich.
We cancelled school this winter because of a threat of snow that never materialized. How about real ice- and snow-covered streets? Are they suddenly going to be safer for our kids to drive to school on just because they lead to a regional high school?
Not really. No.
Chatham has a good school system, with good test scores, small class sizes and strong local control. Yet we are being asked to throw good money at a study that says it can get even better if we get hitched with Harwich.
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