When I first read comments from a certain Board of Supervisors member last week, I, like many others, was angry. But over the weekend, I began to see this middle school fight as a welcome opportunity to build and strengthen relationships across the entire county not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will increase our ability to take on tougher fights in the future.
Before I explain myself further, let me digress for a moment. Imagine that I am one of those mind readers you’ve probably seen on YouTube videos. Instead of asking you to think of a number between 1 and 100, though, I’m going to ask you to think of the top one or two reasons you like living in Pulaski. You can answer for the Town or the County. For this trick, either works. Don’t tell me what it is! Just think about it.
Now let me guess one of your answers. Was it that you like the small town/community feeling here? Maybe you even went so far as to answer that you like it that everyone knows each other and helps each other out when there’s a need?
Now, think about whether or not that statement is actually true. Do you actually know all of the people in Pulaski (Town or County)? If that’s an unfair question, here’s an easier one. Do you have authentic relationships with a significant number of people from a cross section of the community in terms of age, socioeconomic class, and race? Do you invite them over to your home? Do they invite you to theirs? If you can answer yes to these questions, then skip the next paragraph (but keep reading because we need you).
If you are anything like me, the answer is probably no. And it’s probably not that you don’t want to have those relationships; it’s just hard for one reason or another. My current best excuse is that I have two small children who hate to be in the car, so spending significant time outside of work with people who live outside of walking distance is difficult. I also have a hard time justifying putting someone without small children in the position of having to endure my three-year-old son for any significant amount of time, especially over a meal. If you lack the cross section of relationships I’m talking about, I bet you have very good reasons for it, too.
But I want to propose right now that if we are going to make headway on any meaningful front in terms of economic development or otherwise improving our beloved town and county, we’re going to have to figure out how to truly be the kind of community we say we are. If we are going to make headway on any meaningful front in terms of economic development or otherwise improving our beloved town and county, we’re going to have to figure out how to truly be the kind of community we say we are.
If we are going to make headway on any meaningful front in terms of economic development or otherwise improving our beloved town and county, we’re going to have to figure out how to truly be the kind of community we say we are.
The people who are trying to prevent us from even getting a chance to vote on whether or not we should fund a new middle school prevail when we stay separate. They convince our older neighbors and others without middle school-aged children that they have nothing to gain from a new school. And they imply to those of us who own our homes that, through our increased property taxes, we will shoulder an unfair burden of the cost of the new school while our neighbors who rent their homes will disproportionately reap the benefits.
When we lack meaningful relationships across generations and socioeconomic lines, we are more likely to accept those explanations without examining them. But if we begin to scratch the surface of these misguided arguments, they crumble quickly.
Our entire community benefits from good public schools, just like we all benefit from good roads and utilities and emergency services. I personally hope to live in Pulaski for the rest of my life and, when I get to the age that I am not able to fully take care of my own needs, I hope that there are educated, well-trained younger people who will be able to help me out. When it comes time for my husband and I to sell our two-story home and move into a one-story house, I hope that we will be able to sell it for a decent price so that we can live comfortably in our old age. Both of these hopes require strong public schools to educate our local children and to court new businesses and investments in the county and, thus, raise property values (or at least keep them from plummeting).
Having rented apartments for the majority of my adult life, I feel pretty confident that our neighbors who rent their homes will pay their fair share of any increase in property tax. I’ve never met a landlord who absorbed costs like that without raising rents. And while they will shoulder that tax burden, unlike their landlords, they will not benefit monetarily from any corresponding property value increases. So not only are they paying their fair share, they are doing so without any potential side benefit other than contributing to the public schools.
When we have strong relationships across traditional lines of differences, we see through these bogus divide-and-conquer arguments and the officials who tout them and we are able to focus on the real issues – Do we need a new middle school? How much are we willing to pay for it? And how can we plan so that a new middle school meets the needs of as many community members as possible?
I’ve yet to find anyone who answers the first question in the negative. (If I do, I plan to show them these photos.) And since we don’t yet know the cost of the proposed middle school for individual families, we can only speculate about that one. Perhaps it’s a useful question to consider as we wait to hear how the debt will actually get divided up. Are you willing to spend $5 a month? $10 a month? $50 a month? And for how long?
But it’s the last question that I want to propose that we engage sooner rather than later. While I hope most of us can agree that the entire community benefits in abstract ways from strong public schools, it might be easier to build support for a new middle school if we look for ways that a new school could meet some more concrete needs. Perhaps, for example, without much additional cost, the plans for the new school could include something like a wellness center or community gardens for older community members in the evenings or on the weekends? I hope that there is still time for the school board to consider such community benefits going forward.
Doing so may help those of us with children who predictably support a new middle school to garner more public support from people who have less obviously to gain from it. Theirs are the voices (and votes) we need in the coming weeks and months. But I think those conversations could do more, too. According to a study funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation:
A neighborhood with an existing social network such as the one created around a school is also better equipped to tackle community needs entirely unrelated to education, whether that’s rallying city support for a new stop sign, or organizing neighbors to combat crime. Even if you have no children of your own…you benefit by living in a place where the public school has created a network of concerned community members.
In the hopes of working toward stronger community relationships across generations, class and race, those of us who write for this website are working to plan a community organizing training in the near future that will focus on building support for a new middle school. The lessons we learn in the training as well as the relationships built and strengthened will also be beneficial for other work down the road. Please look for more information on this training activity in the coming weeks. And, in the meantime, let your representative on the Board of Supervisors know how you feel about the new middle school.