New School Blues

December 1, 2008

—Op-Ed by Calvin Luther Martin


Amish community building (photographer unknown)

The New School Blues.  I’ve got ’em bad.  The “new school” being my shorthand for the Malone School District’s two-phase school renovation & construction project.  Whose advertising blitz in the Telegram is surpassed only by the daily series of approving articles by Connie Jenkins, the editor.

I can’t decide if this is brain-washing or a more innocuous effort to “educate” the public.  In the end there’s probably no real difference.  The hyperventilating ads and tedious stream of Telegram articles reveal the same thing:  someone is very intereted in getting this plan approved by voters.  I’m told the school board hired a PR firm for a whopping $25,000 (another report put it closer to $30,000) to sell the plan.  When this unsavory little matter was brought up at a public meeting, Superintendent Wayne Walbridge reportedly shot back, We’re not in the advertising business, so we hired experts (or something to this effect).

Hmmm.  This is my $25K and yours, by the way.  I find that unseemly.  And alarming.  We are a small community; if a proposal has merit, it’s a simple enough matter to describe its merits and rest assured this intelligent community will approve it.  Such is my take on the community, at any rate.  To pay an ad agency a whalloping $25 grand to convince me of something, makes me highly suspicious.  As in, “Who’s trying to flimflam me?”

That’s why I’ve got the New School Blues.  I gather I’m not alone.  I hope all of you who feel similarly will join me on December 4th in voting against this nonsense.

Nonsense?  I wrote a more restrained piece about this a week or so ago.  Since then two things have transpired which have made me less charitable toward the idea.

The first is, I learned of the sleazy ad campaign.  (Did anyone else notice that Connie Jenkins opposed the plan in her initial editorials?  Not explicitly, to be sure, but it was plain she was less than convinced.  Then something happened.  A 180° about-face.  The Telegram began hitting us over the head with the story–a story that could have been lifted verbatim from advertising copy.)

Number one, then:  sleazy ad campaign reinforced by daily browbeating from the Telegram restating the PR hype.

That set off alarm bells.

Second thing.  The economy got markedly worse.  Folks, we are now officially in a recession.  It was announced today by the feds.  This is not any old, off-the-shelf recession; this one is unique in a variety of ways, experts tell us.  I won’t go into the reasons why it’s unique; suffice it to say the financial future of all of us–individually, as a community, as a county and state and nation–is dicey.

I now laugh aloud when I read assurances from Mr. Sprague and Walbridge that the state’s contribution to this (nearly) $40 million package is guaranteed.  (Don’t assume this $40 million is accurate, by the way.  Cost over-runs for projects like this are standard. By then, of course, it’s too late.  And don’t assume the state won’t withhold in equal measure, over the next year or two, whatever it might give us now, should we approve this plan on Thursday.)

With the state budget the worst it’s been in history (according to Governor Patterson), with Congress weekly debating which of the latest parade of supplicants it’s going to bailout (Wall Street? Detroit auto industry? NYS and California and Michigan and so forth?  New York City?  a host of other cities?  the insurance industry?), to the tune of tens of billions here, hundreds of billions there–in this financial and economic catastrophe which has seasoned economists taking Valium washed down with Scotch, to listen to Wayne Walbridge assure us everything’s okay and on track makes me wonder if he’s been paying to attention to the news.

Folks, this is unrealistic.  That’s putting it politely.

If you’re a taxpayer, think of it this way.  Would you launch your family into a major borrowing/expenditure scheme in this economic climate?  Let’s get this straight:  we’re talking about money you don’t have, my friend.  The money for this plan is going to be squeezed out of you and me, and hopefully out of the state.  You and me:  we’re facing a highly uncertain financial future.  Ditto for NYS.

The only certainty is that this is a whole new ballgame–except in the mind of our school board, it seems.

Under circumstances like this, Mr. Walbridge, all promises and guarantees are swept aside (think of a tsunami) by the new paradigm.  Which is:  the state’s broke and you, dear reader, have no assurances you won’t be suffering, too.

To which I add:  this plan has nothing to do with pedagogy.  Pedagogy being the old-fashioned word for the art of teaching and learning.  I ended my editorial a week ago by showing a photograph of the modest building where I learned most of the science I was taught as a college student.  I’m sure many people reading this column could point to a comparable building where they, too, learned readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic.

As I noted a week ago, my profession was pedagogy.  I was a university professor for decades.  Over the course of those years I taught thousands of college students who became school teachers.  I hope one of the things they learned was that it doesn’t require million-dollar buildings to teach and learn.

Malone needs to take a deep breath and rethink its model of teaching and learning.  Over the years we have allowed ourselves to accept–accept without question–that schools must be large and expensive to be so-called state-of-the-art.  (A word on that latter phrase, which to me sounds like fingernails on a blackboard.  There is no state-of-the-art when it comes to pedagogy; the phrase is a swindle.  It’s a phrase used by administrators who are really talking about fancy buildings and fancy gadgets.  Don’t you, dear reader, confuse good education with expensive buildings.  One is apples, the other is oranges.)

Fact is, we can educate our youth in the buildings we currently have.  Do they need renovations?  I suspect they do, but even these should be done with money we have in hand.  Even these renovations should be done, I suggest, as a community enterprise.  Much the way the Amish raise a barn.


Photographer unknown

We have vast amounts of building talent; we have many people who donate their skills putting up Habitat for Humanity homes.  We have the people to make those renovations, Mr. Walbridge.  And we have enough of a financial base, Mr. Walbridge, to put up the money–ourselves–to pay for materials.

Again, think Amish.  Think Habitat.  Think of the myriad churches throughout America that send groups of parishoners to wherever, over the summer or Christmas holidays, to build schools for kids who live in wherever.

Malone can do this.  This is an ideal time to wean ourselves from the state mammary gland and, frankly, grow up.

Some years back my wife & I took our daughter to look at a school in North Carolina.  Nina & I were thinking of moving from Princeton, NJ, to Chapel Hill, NC.  We visited a school where all the buildings had been built–get this!–by the students.  I’m not kidding.  This was not a college or university; it was a high school.  No, it wasn’t a BOCES program; it was a regular high school.  A Quaker (Friends) school, in fact, although one didn’t have to be Quaker to attend.


Habitat for Humanity:  Kids building (photographer unknown)

What am I saying?  I’m saying the youth who benefit from Malone’s schools should at least assist in renovating these buildings.  No, I’m not suggesting that elementary school kids put up their school, or renovate it; I am suggesting that FA (high school) kids should renovate buildings.  And the adults in the community should work alongside them.  Everyone donating his & her time.

Again, think Amish.  Think church groups.  Think Habitat for Humanity.  And I’m probably leaving out at least half a dozen other groups that do the same thing, including those kids at the Carolina Friends School.


Habitat for Humanity (photographer unknown)

History–and I was a professor of it–shows that the creature that can’t adapt to changing circumstances, that can’t be nimble and creative and imaginative, that can’t live within its means, that allows itself to be brainwashed by those who supposedly know better–that such creatures are doomed.  Biologically, these creatures currently live as bones at the American Museum of Natural History.  They’re called fossils.  Dead-enders.  Culturally, societies who behaved like this are erased.  They don’t live in museums; they live in history books.  Think of the Aztecs and Incas:  they had no realistic way of handling the novel changes introduced by 16th-century Spain.

We are not a dying community in North Country.  That’s hogwash.  We can stop allowing media like the Telegram and Press Republican to insult us by preaching–endlessly preaching–that we are abject supplicants to the state, the feds, industry–any industry–to somehow save us.

I’ll say this:  I have never lived in a community with such abundant basic skills.  Building skills, farming skills, mechanical skills, skills at being self-sufficient and skills at stretching a dollar.  That’s us.

I’ll tell you who’s not skilled at anything worth a damn:  those lobbyists swarming the legislative halls in Albany and Washington, and those zillions of people whose occupation in life seems to be sitting behind a desk, before a computer, generating paper or pixels in large tall office buildings all over NJ and CT and most other states and in every big city you care to drive through.

I close with an illustration.  This afternoon I picked up my car from a man in Brushton.  This man has kept my 15-year-old Subaru going for the past 8 or so years.  There’s nothing remarkable in this, except that he also builds cars from what, I swear to God, is junk.  He’ll get an engine from here, a body part from some farmer’s field (with permission, of course), another body part from over there–and after a few months in his home garage he drives out with a gorgeous, fully restored vintage Mustang.  Painted.  The works.  All done right in his garage.

Today this fellow showed me through the home he’s nearly finished building–with his wife and two kids.  Gorgeous home.  Spacious.  He and the wife (who works full time) and two boys (elementary school children) work on the house weekends and summer vacations.

Did I mention that this man also works full time?  He rebuilds cars and is building his home–no builders, no loans–on the side.

Awesome.  And you know what?  There are loads of people up here who do more or less the same thing, and think nothing of it.  This is one of the reasons why I live here:  it is a privilege to live surrounded by such people.

I’ll put it this way.  I am absolutely, 100% confident I could walk through Flanders School (a marvelous building) and the Middle School, and likewise through the bus garage, with Rob Nimz and Bill Laymon and Peter Brown and Bruce Cromp, and they could (a) figure out, within several hours of examining these structures, what needs attention, and (b) they could direct a crew of parents and students, over x amount of time, in making those renovations.

I’ve oversimplified the process in order to make my point, but I’ve not oversimplified the point that we have the talent and expertise right here to handle the renovations as a community project and, I believe, with money we generate locally.  Materials, that is, donated and paid for by a community that insists on being involved in the education of its children.

As we learned during the famous Ice Storm, and we have reinforced many times, the North Country knows what self-reliance means.

While driving out to Brushton today, and pondering this column, I passed a young man (he looked about the right age for a high school student) driving a black horse and buggy on the shoulder of Route 11.  The horse trotting briskly along.  Soon after, I pulled into the driveway of the fellow who works on my car, and there stood his new home, nearly finished.

While admiring the home, I heard the clippity-clop of the horse-drawn carriage going by.


Photographer unknown 

Self-reliance.  Forty million dollars we don’t have isn’t self-reliance.  Think about that on Thursday when you vote on the school budget.