Well, the votes are in. The Town of Scotland voted decisively to advise the Board of Education to pursue a cooperative agreement with Hampton's BOE, and the Town of Hampton voted decisively to advise their BOE not to. I'll take an educated guess here: the co-op school is not going to happen.
At least not for now. The plan is on the shelf, ready to be taken down when circumstances require us to act--in other words, when there is a crisis. Which there is going to be if we don't do something comprehensive. Elementary school enrollment is declining (98 this year so far, a little more than half of what it was fifteen years ago), state aid is decreasing, the overall economic picture is not improving, and there is no end in sight to these trends. So fixed costs, as a percentage of the overall school budget, will continue to chew up education dollars, and education costs will continue to chew up taxpayer dollars.
In the meantime, other town services have already been cut to a bare minimum. The DPW trucks are all older than twenty years; one of them will celebrate its 50th birthday soon. The tractor and backhoe are also old and worn. Town Hall is in dire need of renovation, and the Federal grant will not cover even half of the work that's needed. Past efforts to economize on infrastructure--a firehouse heating system that has led to numerous freezeups, and a school water system that has failed twice in recent weeks, to name two examples--are catching up with us. The Gager Hill Road bridge needs extensive repair. The engineering approval for the Bass Rd Bridge runs out in two years. Other Merrick Brook bridges have been identified as needing work. Our town infrastructure cannot go much longer without significant funding.
The same is true of town personnel. We operate with a skeleton crew of people who work hard for very little money: a two-man road crew, who have no relief driver during long winter storms; an administrative assistant who doubles as the building clerk and triples as the registrar of voters and quadruples as the assistant town clerk; a town handyman who fixes everything from toilets to sophisticated electronic systems for $22/hr. And me. I work at least sixty hours a week at this job, and it is on my mind most of the rest of the time, and I still don't get it all done. My salary is around $45,000 a year, with no health or retirement benefits.
I'm not complaining, at least not much. I chose to do this, and I am committed to my choice. I will continue to work as hard as I can to make things better until my term ends next November. But then we are going to have to find someone else to do it, and our choices will be limited to someone who has time and money on their hands--a retiree with a good pension, someone with a second job (that's how I do it), someone independently wealthy, or otherwise willing and able to take on a complex and demanding job for love rather than money.
But just for comparison purposes, consider that the school superintendent makes in the neighborhood of $60,000 for a two-day-per week job. The principal makes around $100,000 plus benefits. Teachers average $75,000, plus benefits. There are two full-time administrative assistants in the school office to support those personnel. I'm not complaining about this either, or otherwise throwing shade here. These people earn their salaries, and then some. I do not believe they are overpaid.
But the disparity is glaring. The sheer volume and complexity of the tasks the town employees have to perform--budgeting, payroll, State and Federal reporting, record keeping, personnel management, purchasing, storm response, building maintenance, grant solicitation and administration, social services, negotiating disputes among neighbors, and on and on--is overwhelming. You can see it in the turnover: I've been in office for three years, and in that time we've replaced the town clerk, the administrative assistant, the tax assessor, the zoning and wetlands officers, the building inspector, and the bookkeeper--some of them more than once. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we ask a lot of our employees for very little pay, just as we ask a lot of our physical infrastructure without providing sufficient resources for maintaining it.
Under those circumstances like these, how sustainable can a town be? How long until we cannot run the town with the human and financial resources available? I'm not threatening bankruptcy or disincorporation or anything like that. I'm just saying that it will at some point become impossible to have a town, at least the way we think of it. Our own town may become a luxury we cannot afford. And while it may be true that a town needs to have its own school, it is certainly the case that a school cannot exist without a town to support it.
Eventually, whether we like it or not, at some time in the not too distant future we will not be able to support a 98-student school or, for that matter, a 200-student regional school that is in a 55-year-old building in need of major upgrade--at least not without raising taxes to a level that is burdensome for too many of our residents. (And if I hear one more person say that we should just get used to paying higher taxes, I will introduce them to one of the many people in town who are just barely holding on by their fingertips, and for whom the thousand dollars in taxes that a cooperative school could buy them is a huge amount of money, maybe the difference between eating and not eating, and let them say that to their face.)
The crisis may come when we have to purchase a new DPW truck, build a bridge, or raise salaries to retain employees, and do all that at the same time. Or it may come when the State makes good on its agenda to reduce or eliminate small schools. Or for reasons that we can't yet imagine. But it will come.
The only way to avert this outcome is to plan ahead, to take action before we absolutely need to. We've already done some of that. We've pared down our government budget to a bare minimum. We've contracted out our tax collection to Windham. NECCOG is handling our animal control. Eastern Highlands HEalth District does our sanitarian work. We're talking with Canterbury about ways to work together for emergency medical and fire services.
But our major expenditures are for education. That is as it should be. Education is the most important thing a town does. But it's not the only thing, and its expense (it accounts for about 75% of our budget) means that it is the first place we must look for a comprehensive solution. The BOE has done as much as they can to keep their budget to a minimum, but that makes life harder for students, teachers, and administrators, and it doesn't address the underlying problem.
The Ad Hoc Committee tried to find one of those comprehensive solutions. We failed to convince the people of one town. We also, as far as I can tell, failed to convince many members of our own Board of Education that a cooperative school was not only a good idea but a necessary one.
So maybe we were wrong about the solution, or maybe we just sold it badly. But we are not wrong about the problem. We did not exaggerate it or cherry pick the data or working in order to advance a nefarious agenda. We took an honest shot and it missed. So now it is the Board of Education's turn. I hope they can start to fashion some solutions, and that we can support them as they do.