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The Price of Neglect

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The Price of Neglect

May 16, 2016 - 21:09
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We can hope to look back five years from now and say "the spring of 2016 was the worst of times.” A time when, after two years of confronting the result of decades of waste, fraud and incompetence, the butcher's bill came due: $106,479,575.

Some groan at that unflinching tabulation but carry on while others, heartily tired of hearing what is wrong, beg for the complaints and criticism to end. And then there are those who are dragged kicking and whining, denying the obvious reality, every step of the way.

At some point, however, it becomes necessary to remove the blinders of the past and confront the hard reality that something has been very, very wrong in our school system for a very long time. We need to set aside our differences and come together; try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what someone might say about what we decide to do.

Some say that it does not matter how or why things are the way they are; that those who constantly demand an admission of guilt only wishing to dwell in the past. Their critics say that calls to move on without assigning blame are at best "useful idiots" and at worst complicit in the malfeasance that left our schools in disrepair. As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Writing at the turn of the previous century, essayist George Santayana wrote:

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual…”

And then the line for which he is most known:

“…Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We cannot improve our schools by failing to acknowledge and retain our knowledge that a lot had to go wrong for our school buildings to need over one hundred million dollars in the most basic of repairs: roofs, windows, walls, sidewalks, parking lots, storm drains. This has to be one of the least sexy 9-figure bonds on offer in New York State. There are no performing arts centers, high-tech computer facilities, or world-class science research labs. Instead there are parking lots and locker rooms and elevators. Boring.

Tolstoy famously said of families that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Likewise for school districts. There is a tremendous amount of good that goes on in our schools; my own children have been the beneficiaries of much of that. Excellent teachers, incredible programs and unique and enriching educational opportunities fill our schools. But pointing to these good things does not make every person working in the school system a saint or even merely competent and not everyone benefits equally from the good or is shielded from the bad. That you may have had a good day does not mean the person sitting next to on the train or walking down the street or driving past you on the highway has not had a bad one.

There are many people taking credit for the change that has been occurring in our school district. Some are even running for office as if they caused the change to occur. Anyone familiar with how New Rochelle works knows that change rarely comes from within. The change that has begun to occur in the New Rochelle schools has come about almost entirely by the people who have read the stories on Talk of the Sound had been fed up.

More recently, it was the Reform First effort to defeat the bond — meant to send a message that we needed really change, the sort of change that is painful for some people. Voters rejected the bond and, working through the leadership of Reform First, got real change.

In December we did not have a completed Building Condition Survey. After the bond was defeated we got one but even that was woefully inadequate. The Building Condition Survey was opened up to the public, again almost entirely through the work of Reform First. Building-Level Health & Safety Committees and a District-Wide Health & Safety Committee came into being and held meetings open to the public.

Reform First called for eight specific reforms. Most of them we got and we have some level of commitment on the others.

Two of the biggest were Aramark and the Business Office.

Aramark was fired.

Business office staff has been fired, retired or are otherwise in the process of being disappeared.

These and other steps are real progress.

It would be easy to keep banging away to defeat the school bond but the purpose of defeating the bond in December was to get a better bond in May. We said it often. We achieved that. Now is the time to come together to focus on the bond and focus on the next big battlefield — the school board itself.

There is one open seat this year. There are expected to be two open seats next year. These openings represent the next “front” in the “culture war” going on in our district. The culture of the old obfuscation and misrepresentation and the culture of the new, based on admitting mistakes and solving them.

For those who want to continue to battle the bond I would remind you of the words of Ulysses S. Grant:

 “The distant rear of an army engaged in battle is not the best place from which to judge correctly what is going on in the front.”

The battle over the school bond is the distant rear.

To return to Santayana for a moment, he also said:

“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.”

The aim is to make the school district better, not to blindly deny funding to the district by mindlessly defeating a bond or a budget but to bring about increased transparency and accountability by using various elections to press specific strategic objectives.

To borrow a line from a film...

...if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to go to the polling places tomorrow to support the bond and vote James O’Toole on to the school board and set the stage for a 2017 election when together we shall secure a second and third board seat and give them a 16th of May 2017 that shall never, ever be forgot.