Friday, September 21, 2007
Rebuild Spalding, now or later?
As we plunge into the season of falling leaves and rising costs, FY09 might be an annus horribilis for town departments and Carlisle taxpayers. The Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee, in a joint meeting on August 25, warned town departments to prepare for level-funded budgets. Furthermore, town officials predicted a climate in which taxpayers might not be receptive to large overrides, especially after last year's 7.5% increase in property tax assessments.
Compounding this gloomy picture, the Carlisle School Building Committee proposed that the Selectmen ask voters to approve $3 million at Fall Town Meeting to pay for architectural designs to replace the aging Spalding Building. The juxtaposition of level-funded town departments and a request for a whopping $3 million at Town Meeting is startling, to say the least, and has begun to create queasiness in local wallets. The Selectmen have deferred the Building Committee's request until a later date.
Whether or not funds for the design phase reach Town Meeting this fall, sooner or later new construction will take place at the Carlisle School. Later seems better. The School Building Committee is doing its best under very difficult circumstances. One of the reasons it cited for recommending design funds now is that construction costs will escalate next year and each successive year. Another rationale for acting now — that the school is currently overcrowded — doesn't correspond with projections of declining enrollment for the Carlisle School over the next several years. If current trends continue, according to a June 2006 report by A Liveable Carlisle Community, the Carlisle School population in 2010 will be 10% less than it was in 2005 (730 students versus 814), so school infrastructure improvements will benefit a smaller percentage of the overall population. And the population is graying — currently 45% of Carlisle residents are over 50.
The prospects of a new school building are challenging enough for Carlisle taxpayers. The added burden of paying for much-needed new construction at Concord-Carlisle High School would send taxpayers reeling. One way or another, residents will be paying for upgrades to the Spalding Building, either the cost of repeated roof repairs and mold reduction efforts or an entirely new structure.
Whether or not we have children at the school, Carlisleans are proud of the high standard of education our town is noted for and have supported overrides in the past. But the double whammy of replacing Spalding and CCHS led Selectman Tim Hult to point out, "We have to consider the ability of people to pay taxes."
It would be prudent to defer new construction at the Carlisle School and to reassess the fiscal climate after FY09.
During the dot-com bust in Silicon Valley, when my engineer brother was between jobs, he applied to be an SAT tutor. His first hurdle was to take the SAT test. Because he was a math and science professional, it wasn't much of a surprise that he scored 800 on math, but he completely bombed the language arts section. I had a similar experience when my youngest sister, 15 years my junior, was preparing for a statewide mathematics contest her senior year in high school. One of her practice exams was the test I took and aced my senior year. Fifteen years of a non-math-oriented life later, I would have been lucky to score two points on that test for correctly identifying my social security number.
I don't mean to denigrate the value of the humanities, but I think the loss through disuse of highly specialized expertise in mathematics, or any science or technology, is greater than the loss of an ability to analyze a paragraph and pick out the topic sentence. It just takes so much time to get back up to speed in the hard sciences. From a different perspective, just starting out, it takes almost an entire school career to prepare a proper foundation for useful scientific work.
In The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman relentlessly catalogs our waning interest in scientific study as barriers to global competition are breaking down. Friedman quotes Shirley Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, as saying we are in a "quiet crisis" that involves the steady erosion of America's scientific and engineering base, which has always been the source of American innovation and our rising standard of living. Friedman continues, "The shrinking of the pool of young people with the knowledge skills to innovate won't shrink our standard of living overnight. It will be felt only in 15 or 20 years, when we discover we have a critical shortage of scientists and engineers capable of doing innovation or even just high-value-added technology work."
Lamentably, I did not feel encouraged to pursue a higher degree in math or science. Partly, I made a conscious choice, which may itself have been misinformed. I reckoned that a science career would entail solitary "geeky" work. (My youngest sister, now an engineering graduate of RPI, commenting on the favorable male-to-female ratio in the engineering school, pithily reinforced this conclusion with her quip, "The odds are good, but the goods are odd.") As a result, I encourage my children, if they are at all interested, to follow a science path. Through sad experience, I've learned that my urgings need to be soft-pedaled. It got to the point that the girls would start to cry before I sat down to help them with their math homework. Luckily, our excellent math and science teachers at the Carlisle School could counteract the damage.
Even though my husband and I don't leave the house in white lab coats, we have a healthy regard for science in our household. For example, my 19-year-old daughter took part in an 18-year study linking physiological evidence to the question of whether nature or nurture plays the predominant role in temperament. Her involvement often required that a shocking number of electrodes be applied to her toddler torso and adolescent abdomen. We have pictures of a smiling child with wires protruding from small body parts, captioned, "When good mommies go bad." All in the name of science.
© 2007 The