John Paradis: The frugal ‘yes’ voter on Northampton override
NORTHAMPTON — When I retired from the Air Force in 2009, my family could choose any place to live. We elected to return to New England, where I was born and raised and where I was proud to tell people I went to a great public school.
We did our shopping. We researched high schools all over Massachusetts, visiting schools from the North Shore to the Nashoba Valley to eventually Northampton. Sure, we looked at MCAS scores but we also talked to a lot of people. And we decided to live here because we wanted the best possible public high school education and most welcoming environment for our kids.
Now, four years later, we believe emphatically that we made the right choice.
I was thinking about that decision two weekends ago during Northampton High School’s graduation ceremony. I was there, of course, because my daughter was graduating. But the day was also an affirmation of everything that is incredible about our high school — from the Northamptones signing the National Anthem to the best rendition I have ever heard of “It’s Time” to thoughtful and funny speeches by faculty and students.
Although there was no direct mention of the proposed tax override, it was definitely a backdrop. At a time when all public schools across the Commonwealth are facing cuts, and when it’s the arts that suffer the most when the budget axe falls, the override was on a lot of minds.
How could it not be? Like a lot of parents, the continual erosion of performing arts is troublesome to me. I don’t understand it when people feel that theater and music is something you can do on the side, as a second subject.
So it was a home run moment for me when Kate Todhunter, the history teacher who received this year’s Mary Gray Teacher of the Year Award, provided this bull’s-eye statement for all the assembled parents and grandparents: “Northampton High School students know better than anyone that a class in band is as essential as a class in history or physics.” When the Class of 2013 rose and walked out from Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall, time flashed before me, seeing our kids as now young adults.
I said to myself: “To all of you, all of you graduates, thank you for validating for all of us the potential of the public school and thank you to Northampton.” Thank you for continuing an enduring American tradition of free, compulsory education that developed out of a law enacted in Massachusetts more than 378 years ago.
What will our children say of Northampton High School and our city’s commitment to public education in decades to come?
Will they say we awoke to the challenge? That we encouraged future innovators, future inventors and continued our Yankee ingenuity legacy? That we gave free rein to the minds of our young? That we retained the best in teaching talent? That we ensured our children could get to school safely and efficiently?
To reach the American dream, education is the ladder. It is up to all of us to ensure our kids can climb it as far as they can.
I am far from a tax-and-spend bleeding heart — far from it. I was raised by parents born during the Great Depression and I’m as frugal as frugal can be. But my mom and dad were both public school teachers, and they also taught me that you don’t skimp on our schools and on our future.
All across Massachusetts, many students go to school and suffer because their public schools don’t offer enough classes, have enough textbooks, or hire enough certified teachers.
In Massachusetts and other states, schools have lost theater, music, art, and sports — programs that can keep discouraged students in school.
In these difficult economic times, the argument for the humanities can sound, to some, impractical and elitist. Without the humanities, though, I worry that students won’t develop the kind of critical thinking, imagination and empathy necessary to solve the most pressing problems facing future generations.
Even more egregious is cutting school transportation. If students can’t get to school, they won’t go to school, and they won’t graduate. Eliminating bus service to the high school will only increase the dropout rate, which not only has great social impact, but major long-term economic consequences.
It’s undeniable that a community is better off by making a deep commitment to education. Weak public school educations limit future vocational and college opportunities, which can limit job opportunities, which can limit earnings, which can limit home buying, which can cripple a family’s ability to build wealth and invest more in the education of the next generation. It’s a chain of consequences.
Education is the answer, and it requires everyone’s full commitment. I’m voting yes June 25.
John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the communications director for the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.