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Community identity should take a back seat to quality education

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I’ve been reading a lot lately about how important it is for small schools to keep their community identities.

The schools in question are the ones involved in a study looking at, among other things, the creation of a regional high school – Morristown, Hermon-DeKalb and Heuvelton.We’ve been told while reporting on community forums on the subject over the last two weeks that one of the factors central to the study is the need for the schools to preserve their community identities.

Maybe it’s just my pregnant, hormone-soaked brain not working well, but I don’t get it. For starters, I don’t really understand what they mean by community identity. Seems like a pretty broad term that could mean a lot of different things. It could be a school’s sports teams. It could be the name of the school that appears on a diploma. It could be the name that appears on their school buses, or bumper stickers that brag about the fact that somebody is the parent of an honor student at a certain school. It could be just a loose idea built around the geographic area in which a school happens to be.

I can see how any of those things I just mentioned might matter to different people, and sure, if you care about your community, it’s a source of pride. But when it comes to our schools, the quality of education they can provide is much more important, and I think the prospect of improving educational opportunities for kids is well worth the potential sacrifice of a name based on a coincidental geographic location.

My children, one not yet a year old and the other not yet born, God willing, are going to grow up in the Morristown Central School district. I care much more about the quality of education they will get than where they will get it.

I am apparently crazy to think that way, because I have been hearing much more about the need for each school district to keep its own identity than anything that could be done to make sure their students succeed academically and can move on to promising futures.

I am not going to condemn a study that isn’t even done yet. And I will keep an open mind when it is finally released for public review. Still, I’ve made it pretty clear in this column that based on what I have learned so far, I think the regional high school idea stinks. That’s why I am hastily assured by officials at these schools whenever the subject comes up that the study will also look at the prospect of school mergers.

Let’s be clear on the difference between a regional high school and a merged district. With a regional high school, students from different school districts are all under one roof, but each participating district keeps its own administration and school board. With a merger, all the students are under one roof, overseen by one administration and governed by one board of education.

I don’t know why school officials bother to point out that the study will also look at mergers. The study is building its data around the idea that it is of utmost importance for each district to keep its own identity. Since the schools’ identities would each be lost under a merger, I predict it will be a below-zero day far south of heaven before the study suggests that merging is the way to go.

The word “merger” leaves such a bad taste in school officials’ mouths because it means each school district would lose its own administration and board of education. School board members would lose their little empires, and administrators would lose their jobs with great pay and benefits.

It could be that preserving community identity is really just another way of saying that administrators and school board members get to keep their jobs.

I hope someone can tell me I’m wrong about that. I don’t want to think that the judgment of those in charge of each of these districts is so clouded by a desire for self-preservation that they will ignore what makes the most sense to improve their quality of education. We’ll see when the study is done and its findings get a good public airing.

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