What We Stand to Lose, We Lost Once Already

The decision that you make on October 18th will significantly impact you, your neighbors, and all 4,200 school children in Reading. If you are not sure what is going on in our community on October 18th and why it is essential for you to participate then you should keep reading. If you own property in Reading; if you have children in our public schools; if you like the municipal services, you have then you should keep reading. On October 18th, you are being asked to execute our long held privilege and duty to vote. The question on this local only ballot is if you will vote YES to support a $7.5 million dollar tax override, our first operating override question in 13 years, since 2003. The outcome of the vote will directly impact how the Reading School Committee spends the next 6-12 months. They will spend those months in one of two ways: either dismantling our great public schools, or bringing them back to solid footing on the journey from great to excellent. We have been cutting the school budget for the past four, years and that has been extremely difficult. Nearly all of the expense cuts have been taken and additional cuts will impact students directly. If this override fails, the task will be figuring out how to cut $2 million dollars, equating to at least 30 teachers and staff from our school district. Municipal cuts will impact public safety, public works, and the library, with losses of up to ten employees.

I personally know both the public and private pain of making deep and decimating cuts to our schools. I lived through the cycle of failed overrides in 2001 & 2002, when my children were in early elementary and I had just joined the School Committee. I want to share that experience and its impacts with you in the hope that you can glimpse the real and personal impacts if you do not get out and vote YES.

In conversations with parents, who are my peers, I realized why the October 18th override decision and thought of its failure is so visceral for us. We lived through the pain of watching our children’s education suffer. I am so incredibly blessed and fortunate that at that time, I was at home with my children and had my own mother living with me. This enabled me to volunteer to be in my third son’s classrooms, as well as spend time with them at home doing my best to fill in the missing pieces.

My twin sons were in 3rd grade in 2002/03 school year, after the failed override attempts. That year, there were 29 students, yes, 29 students, in their class. There were zero  para-educators. In 2001/02, my then kindergartener was among 25 in his class and there was no para-educator. A part-time one-to-one did her best to also help other students, and there was an hourly rotation of parent volunteers. We weren’t buying tissues. We were buying workbooks with parent and PTO funds. I clearly and distinctly remember the principal of Killam feeling almost shameful at taking the PTO money to support materials and resources that absolutely should have been provided by the district.

There is no second chance at 3rd grade or kindergarten. Maybe it is no surprise that because the first years of school were at such a time of crisis and lack of support, that one of my sons never really liked school until midway through 11th grade. Also no surprise that the “math strands” and skills that should have been locked in for my twin sons in 3rd grade were not. It was not until 6th grade with Charlie Smith – his excellence, tenacity, and commitment to practice sets that they recovered from that “failed override” education gap.

It was a devastating period for our community’s children and for our teachers. The teachers did not want to be “working to rule” but they had almost no choice. Any parent who had students in RPS between 1997 – 2004 knows the truth of this pain. Though we adults can always wait another year to improve our district and do the things we know we need to do for children, our children CANNOT wait a year. The excellent teachers WILL NOT wait a year. The parents who can afford it will send their children to private schools. I do not want another child in our district to be impacted in the manner the students were in those failed override years. No taxpayers like tax increases, yet none of us have long lists of things we think the municipality or schools don’t need to do for us anymore. I know that we must figure out how to fund our children’s future now. They cannot wait for their future, they wake up everyday to it and it is up to us to provide the best opportunities we can.

Unless you have children ages 18 – 28, you may not know when the current “class size guidelines” were set. I know, because I lived through the class sizes of 29 in elementary, and over 30 in middle school and high school with students in studies instead of instructional classrooms. After the override finally passed, the School Committee set up class size goals. We have come so very far in this realm, that now I feel like parents think that the low class size is an entitlement. I believe that as a school committee, we will need to begin to address a new version of the class size guidelines to prepare parents and students for where we will be if the override fails. We need to re-set expectations at the high school to let the students who did not get into the classes they wanted this year, know that they won’t next year. This will leave some of our seniors with transcripts reflecting what they could not do instead of accomplishments that would set them apart from their peers.

To some people this may sound like an exaggeration, to my peers and I it is a painful reminder of a past we swore we would not repeat. The only very small solace my peers and I have is that it won’t impact our own children this time. I am not satisfied with this solace. No one in this community should be satisfied with detouring and degrading our children’s education and future.

Vote on October 18th. Make a commitment to strong municipal services and keeping our schools on the path from good to great to excellent. I don’t want you and your children to re-live a past that we should have already learned from. Our students will rise to their next grade level in FY18 expecting us to keep our promise to them. We can’t fail them. I urge you to get educated on this critical vote. If you don’t vote, you will be voting NO. If you value all that this Reading is and all that it could be then Vote YES on October 18th.

Elaine L. Webb
RMHS grad, 38-year resident of Reading, 4 children graduated RMHS
Reading School Committee Member
Reading Coalition Against Substance

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