The optimist in me sees some hope the state may pivot a bit on providing funding for a new Buckingham Elementary School. However, the realist was taken aback a bit by the comments from the IAC leader who wants to pursue other options to help with the Buckingham situation.
Though the comments from the local officials were important, the key part of last week’s Interagency Commission on School Construction (IAC) meeting came after their impassioned requests when Chairman Edward Kasemeyer acknowledged receiving communications from the county’s citizens in support of the project. Kasemeyer then asked IAC Executive Director Alex Donahue to share more information with the board. Donahue said state funding is not eligible due to “available capacity” due to a state-rated formula that is now being fully implemented when in the past it was not adhered to with dedication. Nonetheless, Donahue said he “looks forward” to continuing the dialogue and investing time into an amenable solution. I took that to mean it’s not an option for the state to fund the requested $5.8 million of the overall $50 million-plus project.
“I would note that the rules under which this analysis is conducted have not changed significantly in many years,” Donahue said. “What is different between this year as compared with past years in which previous projects were evaluated is that the IAC now has the capacity to fully implement these rules to a degree which they may not have consistently been implemented in previous years. Nevertheless, IAC staff are looking forward to working through the next couple of months with Worcester County Public Schools and Worcester County to identify how the state may support improvements in the WCPS portfolio including Buckingham Elementary. We’re looking forward to this continued dialogue and appreciate very much the good efforts and time and investment made by all the presenters today from Worcester County as well as staff and look forward to more discussion on this topic in coming weeks.”
It was Kasemeyer’s comments that lead me to think other options are going to be presented to the county rather than a new Buckingham Elementary School, which is 45 years old and has not been renovated.
“I think Alex has a more comprehensive concept that hopefully might work for them,” Kasemeyer said. “He’s going to be in contact with them in the near future to try to work that out.” Board member Atif Chaudhry responded, “After Alex’s conversations with Worcester County it may be helpful just to provide us with some updates on next steps so we can have those as background, given the concerns with the community. I personally would love to learn more information about what options are available.”
It’s this talk of other options – such as combining Buckingham and Berlin Intermediate into one huge school building – that’s worrisome, as it appears to be a show of the IAC’s hand the state’s decision on new construction funding is going to stand. The details of these other options should be known in the coming months.
The public comment portion of this week’s Worcester County Board of Education meeting lasted for about two hours, but it was inspiring to hear all the passion from local parents, teachers and students.
An online group called Worcester United was formed shortly after the November school board meeting when some citizens in the county and elsewhere aired concerns over books available in high school libraries they deemed offensive and inappropriate. At that meeting, there were more speakers for banning books than opposed. At Tuesday’s meeting, the board room was full and there were far more speakers supportive of a diverse book selection and opposed to books bans. Many of the speakers are affiliated with the Worcester United group, which has been meeting and the Facebook group has grown to 601 members in just a few weeks. The full public comment section of the meeting can be viewed on the school system’s YouTube channel.
Berlin resident Tony Weeg, a parent of a public school graduate and two current students, represented the Worcester United’s general premise, saying “Let us collectively reject all attempts to stifle this freedom, understanding that a well-rounded education is firmly built on exposure to a broad spectrum of ideas. We must actively champion the values of tolerance, diversity, and intellectual curiosity. By doing so, we not only enrich the educational experience for our students but also uphold the principles that form the bedrock of a democratic and enlightened society.”
After the public comments and a thorough review of existing procedures on book evaluation and selection, the school board made the right decision to not make any changes to its existing book review policy. There is an extensive procedure in place that’s appropriate and proper. Moving forward, it’s wise of the school system to provide some education to its parents about the process that currently exists about books. Parents have the ability to restrict what their kids check out if they desire, but most are simply unaware of this option. With books bans in the news across the country, it’s wise to inform, or re-inform, parents of these rights.