by Mike Brodinsky
The Board of Education has issued an online survey, which asks residents about their views on education in Wallingford. The point of the survey is this: Should taxpayers spend a lot of money to re-build schools?
Three spending options are presented.
One option is that four schools would be rebuilt as new at a cost of about $197,000,000. After hoped-for reimbursements from the state, the town would have to pay just $117,000,000. The costs would be phased in as construction progressed and paid through bonding — principal and interest would be baked into the tax rate.
Another option is to have the two middle schools rebuilt as new, and only one high school which, which would probably be Lyman Hall High School. It would be rebuilt and expanded. That would cost the town $95,000,000.
Another option is to pay for more maintenance on and repairs to existing schools. That would cost $17,300,000.
The option that is not brought up, however, is a plan that makes savings due to declining student enrollment the primary goal.
An informed answer to the questions on the survey requires some special knowledge. The board, therefore, imbedded in the survey information it wanted folks to consider.
Whether this survey is a responsible approach is another matter.
Polls are a good way to learn of preferences. Sometimes, however, technical, complicated, and expensive decisions may not be appropriate for a survey. In the private sector, for example, if a no-nonsense CEO of a business was considering whether to spend $117,000,000 on a project, he/she might first insist on a rock solid, objective analysis of the reasons for the expenditure. Goals would be clearly stated. The needs would be separated from the wants; necessities would be separated from luxuries. Every dollar of expense would be justified by a showing of effectiveness. The results of the project would have to be measurable so all would know whether the project was worthwhile.
To that end, the CEO would require that research and data be accumulated to support the arguments for and against the expenditure. The pro and cons of cheaper alternatives would be researched, too, and all executives would be on guard against costs that might produce jazzy appearances but wouldn’t produce results. But that’s how a business might approach a $117,000,000 decision.
Governments don’t always operate that way. Sometimes an attractive project starts because officials trot it out before it is shown to be necessary, practical, or effective. Some voters buy in. And if sentiment becomes strong enough, the idea moves forward because populist leaders follow public opinion. One way of proving public opinion and justifying the project is with a public opinion poll.
In the case of the Wallingford public schools, the Board of Education has not shown that it has required the sort of investigation a CEO might do. It has some consultants, but they are not educators. Nor has the board made any recommendation. It’s fair to ask, therefore, whether a public opinion poll is being substituted for due diligence.
If it had solid research, the board would be able to share with taxpayers: (1) the evidence that an expenditure of $117,000,000 (or $95,000,000 under the other option) would result in measurable, increased educational achievement; (2) its findings on other more affordable ways to improve academic achievement; (3) why good Wallingford teachers and capable administrators can't provide an excellent education in the as-built schools we have; (4) the data proving "21st century teaching techniques" yield better results than what Wallingford teachers do now; (5) why the Board has confidence that these techniques are not just today's fad or new-wave thinking that might be replaced in 10 years by something else that's trendy; and (6) why the school facilities couldn't be serviceable after $17,300,000 of maintenance and repairs.
If, though, measurable increased educational achievement is not the point; and if savings because of declining enrollment is not the point either; we should hear more from the board. But as it now stands, this survey and the board seem to evade all the important issues.
Mike Brodinsky is a former Wallingford town councilor and host of “Citizen Mike”on WPAA-TV.