Guest opinion from a concerned resident:
The decision facing this town in proceeding with or withdrawing from an expensive new elementary school is creating turbulence even out of proportion to its economic gravity. Civility has declined to a point some old-timers compare with the vilification of McNamara and Kissinger by conscientious objectors. Numerous citizens exemplifying civic engagement speak of this matter only in private, or have withdrawn from the discussion entirely.
Whatever the various costs and benefits to children, parents and taxpayers, the price of this debate’s tone and style may be evident for years to come: in damaged relationships, eroded trust in and between persons and organizations, and a caustic tendency toward polarization inimical to the “Lincoln Way”—a way which, though defined differently by nearly everyone polled, tends toward a careful and respectful convergence on inclusionary common ground. And the net benefit? Dialectic may be one of the most powerful tools humans have used to discover some collective approximation to truth, or at least optimal utility. Without such compromise here, we seem likely to have either the execution of a plan many do not admire, with potentially nasty consequences well-outlined by other writers on this esteemed blog and elsewhere; or the embitterment of an unimpeachably dedicated—if perhaps too narrowly focused—
Q. What alternative reuses of the Smith Building were considered and why were they all rejected?
A. It is not in the SBC’s purview to determine alternate uses beyond school use.
group of mostly selfless toilers and rejection of the free-with-strings gift of a vast sum of other people’s money should said plan perish. In either case, one may only pray that from post-mortem analysis will emerge some rich understanding of culture and process and social niceties that will let us serve ourselves better come the next such daunting challenge. –Or that we never again face one.
So what’s in the balance?
This all started, one gathers, as an exercise further to enhance education in this most educated of towns. And how is one to measure success? From a recent communique:
Q. Are the MCAS scores a reasonable metric to discuss measured school performance and compare such to our peer communities?
A. MCAS scores are the only standardized measure available to compare districts.
Oh good; we have a clear rule by which objectively to confirm eventual success.
Q. Is it correct that the latest MCAS scores rank the Lincoln elementary school at 103rd in the state and the Lincoln middle school at 43rd in the state and if so, how will the new facility change this?
A. To understand the accuracy of the question, more information would be needed to know which metric is being referenced: The former AYP system; current achievement levels across subjects and grades; or current PPI.
Q. Is it correct that Lincoln’s schools operating costs fall in the range of $17,000 to $18,000 per pupil depending on the number of pupils on any given year? Is it correct that the operating costs per pupil of our neighboring towns are significantly less than that of Lincoln and can you provide an apples-to-apples comparison of operating costs per pupil with our peer communities?
A. We have always found it hard to make a strict apples-to-apples comparison with other districts, and there are a number of factors to consider when analyzing these numbers: the experience of our faculty, the scale of our community, our commitment to an inclusion model of special education resulting in a high number of support professionals, our commitment to classroom assistants throughout the elementary school, and the different grade ranges included in the numbers.
Or perhaps not. In any case,
Q. If we assume our peer communities to include: Concord, Bedford, Lexington, Waltham, Weston, Wayland and Sudbury, how do our MCAS scores rank and how will the new facility change this?
A. We are not able to accurately predict the impact of a new facility on MCAS scores, however, we believe that a revitalized Lincoln School will provide a more flexible working and learning space for teachers to do their best work, and students to be engaged in learning.
OK, so it’s not about test scores, it’s about teaching and learning. Moving from artificial, stuff-’em-in-a-box evaluation (as some would have it, “degrading”) to enhancing the ability of those most (save parents themselves) responsible for creating better citizens, leaders, thinkers, athletes, etc.; and for the kids themselves to be thus elevated.
Which gets to an interesting point: what really is important to children’s advancement? Lane-width and pavement grip on the information superhighway? Or perhaps relationships with peers and teachers? And looking back (for some of us just behind; for others, through cobwebbed decades), who would count comfortable chairs over comfortable teachers as the enabling influence? Hence the counterargument: Keep the building safe, keep it tolerable, hold the non-essentials and spend every available cent on teachers and other critical staff. (And was not the archetypal akademeia but a cleared olive grove?) Any lesser course risks holding form over substance, physical comfort over moral advancement, and the temptations of the edifice complex. And no harm in privatizing some of the activity: how many Lincoln families would not like to have back a little of the schools’ half of our property taxes to take the kids on enriching vacations and field trips of their own, or support the many other social, cultural and natural aspects of town that likewise enrich a growing mind and body?
Q. Other than improved IT infrastructure and more spaces for small group collaboration, will this investment significantly improve the children’s education?
A. The number one determining factor in improving learning is teacher quality. While it is difficult to quantitatively predict the impact of building design on improved learning, it is easy to understand how improvements in the building can improve physical comfort and access to resources. In addition, appropriately matched spaces to type of instruction, confidence in the reliability of technology, and efficiencies that lead to programmatic improvements can all contribute to increased learning.
Hmm… Sounds like absent a brand-new building, Lincoln will have trouble attracting the best teachers. And that they’d rather have rebalanced natural light and a consolidated power plant than higher pay. Was that the teachers’ own assertion?
However, there’s more in balance here than education vs. a few bucks in the bank, a better flagon from the Turtle Creek cellars gracing our tables, or even nicer crystal from which to imbibe it. For some, the extra expenditures (hardly even double the Prop. 2½ mandate though they be) may well drive a few of our less-fortunate—many with or hoping to have children—from our very table. No-one has offered an estimation of the new balance between property values and property taxes, a gross but vital consideration when imposing such a cost on a population of which so many will derive no direct benefit, and where so many have real and pressing needs for other (less) expensive facilities. Up or down, in or out—a weighty vote indeed. Where the question of equity continues to arise, the question of value for money in many forms and over many timescales deserves closer attention.
And the uncertainties compound:
Q. Is there a written 20-year pro forma budget for maintenance and repair of the new school that has been presented to the SC by the SBC?
A. Not at the present. We expect that there would be minimal repair needs during the first 5-10 years, and we will have a more accurate picture once the project moves forward and we have chosen specific systems.
Only Dean Swift would be so immodest as to propose that advocates of the new plan each pledge some fraction of the value of their own homes against contingencies that might drive others out of theirs.
Lincoln has always thought to the future; it was encompassing vision and convergent effort and selfless investment that created this town in the first place. In those halcyon days before state and federal aid contests, the nipping of a few square miles probably gave each donor town barely a twinge—and in turn gave each a fine, new-yet-known neighbor. Back then, after all, towns were more about community and less about property. But this investment will not last a broad quarter-thousand years, as has Lincoln already; it is slated for barely a fifth of that duration. And many of its justifications—lighting and HVAC and information technologies, matching of spaces to instructional protocols, perhaps even the automobile itself as we now know it—which of these will not have changed almost beyond recognition long before these new-laid walls are given over to whatever will have replaced the wrecking ball?
There’s an old proverb, variously ascribed: No matter how far you have gone down the wrong road, turn back. The tone of today’s discussion sinks sometimes so low that one hopes for a teacher to walk in and say OK, play’s over; let’s discuss what we all learned from this. Because the learning, with its impact on the next quarter-millennium of Lincoln evolution and revolution and conservation and confabulation, is likely to be far more important to our identity as a town, even as that changes through time, than any transient structure ever could be. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here on November 3rd, and it will probably forget how we vote (on this issue, at least) three days later. But we will know, and what we have learned of each other and ourselves will temper many other conversations, in the main much smaller in scope but some perhaps much greater.
So for these last few days’ discussion, and in working with whatever choices are made, let’s all please try to keep it clean, civil and positively memorable. And perhaps try to stay in the mode of listening and learning. Because encouraging that is the central purpose for which we are all gathered here in the first place, yes?