(Special Guest Opinion about the proposed school construction project
from a concerned resident)
In about two months, a special Town Meeting will vote to approve the partial demolition and substantial reconstruction of the Smith/Brooks school complex. This will commit taxpayers to Lincoln’s 60% share of the plan, about $30,000,000, as well as 100% of over-runs, unplanned maintenance and any other contingencies that may arise during the 50-year planned life of the new facility.
Balancing results with appearances, our elementary school will rise from being one of the best in the state, even in the nation, to being one of the best in the state, even in the nation. The new buildings will be more comfortable in changing climates, more salubrious for all within, and better fit to (at least) this decade’s instructional modes and technologies. And building codes, green standards, and the rising millennium generally. All this will doubtless reflect in enhanced numbers of Lincoln youth who will excel at LSRHS (or Andover, Exeter, Groton, etc.), matriculate at the finest universities and B- or law schools, and eventually become wealthy enough to return to this fine nest to keep the tradition going.
We say “will vote to approve” because, politically speaking, there seems to be little choice. The committee created to design this all-up “preferred option” invested countless hours refining and elaborating a grand vision, legacy of the outgoing superintendent. Though not nominally charged to do so, they also had a briefer look at lower-cost options that would have spread needed and discretionary repairs, replacements and upgrades over a few years or decades—gradualism vs. upheaval, as it were—and concluded that this would cost almost as much for a lesser result. So that “preferred option” got the funding request, and—just recently—the funding.
Some citizens concerned with both direct and secondary costs demanded a closer look at the repair-and-maintain option. Mañana—tomorrow is soon enough. Why rush to improve a school well into the upper ranks of the state’s own ratings? Unfortunately, the firm hired to explore this path may not quite have grasped that the point was to deliver an alternative “just good enough” instead of “nearly optimal” and save thereby more than a few shekels. A further multiplier imposed by the state: renovations beyond a smallish fraction trigger a requirement for full compliance with increasingly stringent codes. The Yankee adage of frugality enjoins us to “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Here in the Bay State, the first two options seem to have been dropped in favor of “Tear it down and build it out.”
Even after trimming, the alternative proposal so far costs out at about $35 million. –Much less, in other words, than the Big Plan, but more than Lincoln’s own share for same. And because repairs are not “programmatic,” the state mightn’t help even if we did slap the outstretched hand and start all over. Oh, well. Since there may lack either time or energy for yet another analytic go-round, debates (if there are any) will pit a shining campus on the flats against the unglamorous maintenance of a simply adequate status quo paid for solely out of our own pockets, with no levy on the 350 other cities and towns that should look up to (or down on) our beacon. Nor even the national treasury, bulging as it is.
“Will vote to approve” also because that Meeting’s demographics are predictable. The fivescore or so faithful who ever defend Lincoln’s true democracy against collapse in the face of apathy, Saturday sports and shopping, the competing attractions of second homes and Cancun and anything but sitting through another warrant in those butt-busting kiddie seats (which, by the way, will not be replaced)—they will be there, on time and fully informed, as has been since time immemorial (or 1754, which ever came second). The idle curious, news-hounds from near and far hot on the scent of controversy, newcomers to town who wonder what all the fuss is about anyway. And approximately 800 parents, who would never enter the darkness of this noon did their children’s very futures not hang in the balance. Those, in fact, who decline the plaintive quorum call when lesser issues flush the warrant: issues merely of governance, community, health & safety and so forth. For this vote, their numbers will be as the myriad stalks of garlic mustard, yea, or of serried SUVs at Ballfield Road.
Not that this need be a bad thing. A town, like a nation or any other human construct whose primary embodiment is its citizenry, has the right to become what it wants. And unless one be a Quaker or otherwise consider ad-hoc majority rule a form of tyranny—violence, even—the efficacy of a quick vote is a key to progress. If development may be equated with progress, that is, and if more is always better.
And therein may lie the rub. Another little item with which the SBC was apparently not charged, or at least on which it has not widely reported, is the larger economic and social context in which this unprecedentedly magnificent expenditure will take place. Not just vague matters of global recession, relentless under- and unemployment, degraded home prices, nor yet inevitable uncertainties about what this palace of pedagogy, this sylvan academy may actually cost to keep up and to be upgraded again when teaching and technology and regulations all take their next giant steps. Rather, and locally, we don’t really know what this investment will prevent us from doing, what opportunities it may push off the buffet, what new challenges it might disarm us from engaging.
Fortunately, the Town just recently decided that large capital projects ought to be viewed in concert, rather than as solo pipers. Perhaps, during the few weeks remaining for final rhetorical flourishes to be loosed from various parapets of power, the Selectpersons and selected other persons might like to give we-the-electorate some semi-quantitative notion of:
- what other expensive-but-needful projects are in consideration (one envisions a community/senior center to bring us all together);
- what other delectable but pricey once-in-an-economic-cycle gumdrops might dance near our noses (one dreams of the next great land/watershed acquisition, or merger with a more congenial high-school region); and
- what economic perils dangle like unto the sidearm of Damocles over our fiscal well-being (one recoils at the thought of Hanscom closure or partial privatization, plus a few underfunded liabilities current).
And perhaps, too, the actual year-to-year personal price of the new school as reflected in the range of tax bills. For how many decades to come. And how this relates investment-wise (since for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like) to a notional increase in real property values. In other words, while our precious youngsters must e’er come first, the rest of us come not so far after (and will in the main depart before), and may also deserve a nod.
In particular, it would be interesting to compare this bonded expenditure with its indirect human cost: what Town services will be compromised? How many elders (and youngsters) may be forced to emigrate, and what will be the result for our deliciously diverse culture? Und so weiter.
Yet whatever is said, it seems to be a conclusion of the foregonest that a new school there shall be. So let us consider another angle, by casting our gaze upon certain other capital structures that adorn these hills and vales. Though now mainly marketed for its sculpted grounds, the former pied-à-terre of Julian and Elizabeth de Cordova. The yellow cottage in the green below Five Corners, donated by Pierce for a medical clinic but now mainly serving our communal celebratory, nuptial and memorial needs. The earth-toned hall above, original home to the lectures of Bemis and also quondam vessel for Town Meetings when Town was more compact. All free to you and me.
That last venue is especially apposite, having been built to purpose. So we look also to the soon-to-be-late Charles Sumner Smith School. Seems Mr. Smith was committed enough to education hereabouts to sell the Town a nice lot for a round dollar, and then throw in a grand twenty grand to help erect Center School—a century and a few megabucks later to become our rehabilitated Town Offices. Then he added fifty thousand more for a high school (though it wound up junior).
Now, 1927 isn’t that long ago. (Remember Lucky Lindy? The Jazz Singer?) Even with compound interest, stock splits and so forth, it wouldn’t half pay for a Mars probe. In fact, according to one read of the consumer price index, $50,000 in 1927 equates to something like $650,000 today—just about enough for a code-compliant lunch-warming station in the new plan.
BUT—and here, at last, we come to the nub—wealth among the kind of elite that illumine the empyrean of Lincoln society has risen all out of proportion to the CPI, the price of a double latte, or even the national debt. There currently dwell in our little town a goodly handful of people who meet that elegant criterion of pragmatic wealth: they can live well on the interest on their interest. And could write a check for $30 million or so with barely a twinge, easily offset by the kind of immortality that only a plaque on a 50-year “preferred option” can bring. And if power-law statistics hold as well here as they do for earthquakes and lexicography, there may a short step down be a couple of dozen who could, collectively, produce the same sum with as little (or less) discomfort.
Here, then, an immodest proposal: rather than a few hundred people encumbering thousands for the benefit of some intermediate number, how about if we just ask for the money, from those what has it? Politely, of course, and sans groveling or guilt.
The Town Meeting vote on buying our flagship against conflagration, the mighty Quint, was a model of engaged democracy:
“We really need a new fire truck. And we’ve picked out a doozie.”
“No doubt. What’s it gonna cost?”
“Well, list is about $600,000.”
“But we got a great discount, and everything shy of the tab for a set of whitewalls and a new Dalmatian has already been pledged by committed and generous townsfolk.”
“Skip the discussion—we’ll take it.”
(applause all around, exeunt omnes for dinner)
What a pleasure it would be to vote, come All Hallows’ Eventide, on just a token million bucks or so, where the State anted up 40% and the Town’s quiet but ever-present venture capitalists, investment bankers, sports and media stars, entrepreneurs and whoever else got all the money that somehow leaked out of our erstwhile retirement funds—and had it returned manifold from those turbulent waters—had a bake sale or a million-a-plate campaign at AKA and raised the balance.
‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. Any volunteers?