Letter to the editor: Hand MET proposal over to voters to decide

Posted:  Tuesday, January 9, 2018 - 4:30pm
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I attended the school board meeting on December 20 to share my thoughts with the school board about the proposal put forward by Michael Mullins for use of the MET building that is slated for public hearing by the Board on January 10.  If this proposal interests or concerns you, now is the time to share your thoughts with the board.  These are the thoughts I shared with the Board:

With regard to a decision on MET, this board stands in a position of considerable leverage.  I come here tonight to encourage the board as it considers the proposal put forward my Michael Mullins to wield that leverage wisely and narrowly.  The board must protect the interests of our school district as a whole and the middle school in particular.  However, I believe that those interests can be protected, while producing a proposal that can go to voters for a final decision on the matter, and I believe that is the best outcome for our school district. 

Inclusive process in and of itself has been beneficial to this institution.  The differences between the 2015 bond referendum and that of 2017 were fairly small, yet the outcomes were wildly different.  In 2015 the process leading up to the vote was dominated by a jurisdictional battle between the school board and other governing bodies rather than discussion of the issue at hand.  That bond was turned down by a fairly wide margin.  In 2017 the outcome was different because the process was different.  We communicated, and we responded to community input.  We went from large-scale disapproval to large-scale support for a very similar project simply by choosing the right process.

I got involved in the middle school project because I believe that, much like the way Hogwarts the building was an actual character in the Harry Potter novels, the building in which our children attend school and the feeling the community has about that building affect our children’s educational experience. I was overwhelmed by the broad margin of approval of the bond not simply because it felt good to see months of hard work pay off.  But because I naively believe that my children, and all of the other children in our community, will benefit in a substantial way by attending middle school in a building that was built on broad community support.  Fundraising will be easier, parental involvement will be greater, morale and self-confidence will be higher.  

So I believe broad community support of the middle school project is critical.  And I believe the process by which we come to decisions shapes the level of support we feel from the community as much as the actual decisions that are made.  Thus, my interest in the Mullins proposal is centered around the process of dealing with it more than it is whether or not it should be approved.  That process is entirely in the school board’s hands.  And I hope the process that is chosen is one that will expand community support of the middle school project rather than contract it.

The bond passed easily.  All that tells us is that plenty of folks felt that the need for a new middle school trumped whatever their feelings were about MET.  For example, people like Geoff Scott volunteered to sit behind information tables and write letters advocating for yes votes even while being opposed to the demolition of MET.  I attended a presentation by Mr. Mullins last week.  The room was limited to 25 people, and it was at capacity, with a broad cross-section of community members.  Quite a few of the folks in attendance had Middle Matters signs in their lawns last spring.  The reality is, nobody has a very good read on how the community as a whole feels about the future of MET.  Just as there were a lot more than the few of us that did most of the talking last spring, I assure you there are a lot more than the few that are speaking up on behalf of MET that would prefer to see it remain standing.  

I’ve spoken to a number of people about the Mullins proposal.  I’ve heard blind optimism, and I’ve heard legitimate concerns.  Importantly, nobody I’ve spoken with has raised a concern about whether the proposed use is appropriate for the location or whether the use will have a significant detrimental impact on the middle school project.  The concerns I’ve heard can all be mitigated against with a thoughtfully negotiated proposal.

I don’t believe this school board should make a habit of avoiding the responsibility of making difficult decisions.  However, in this case we have a decision that will have significant ramifications beyond the operation of our school district, a decision that will impact a resource that has been part of this community for nearly a century, and a decision where public opinion on the matter is entirely unclear.  In this scenario, I absolutely believe the board will be best served by a process in which its role is limited to crafting a proposal that it is comfortable handing over to voters to make a final decision on. 

Wyatt McConnell lives in Camden