Eight parents and students met with me two days before the election to try one last time to have their voices heard and save the school in this small Adirondack town. The heart of Westport, New York is the central school --- kindergarten through 12th grade, 215 enrolled students, class size sixteen to eighteen.
The school is the reason many have moved here or stay here: “We are here for our children, we love this school and our teachers. We are nationally recognized. The culture is different than other schools around here -- the students really want to do well." Said another parent: "We have had one drop out in ten years, 37 students from other districts attend our school and 25 students outside our district pay tuition to go to our school.”
The merger of schools in Westport and Elizabethtown-Lewis school districts would change all that, busing high school students to Elizabethtown. Westport students clearly do not favor the merger: a student survey found 77% were against the merger. These results were censored – the superintendent forbid the students to publish the results! Parents who knocked on doors and collected signatures to “save our school” were also overwhelmed by political demands and slick presentations that promised state funding for the merger and state funding for building a new high school.
Like nearly every school in rural America, Westport suffers from funding formulas that favor city schools. On the surface, the merger seemed like the answer to keeping the doors open. On the surface. “The politicians, the school officials, the outside consultants are pressuring parents and ignoring our kids" No one hears their deepest concern: "Our school is far more than a building. Our school is the center of this community." Another parent jumped in: "When school is over for the day, the kids walk out in groups of 2, 3, 4, 6 or 7, they stop in local stores, they spend money here in our community, and so do our families. So many of us live here for this school. If the school goes, many families will move away, the economy will be hurt, the town will change. We will become a summer tourist attraction and the town we love will die.”
The shared anger highlighted the way the merger was presented. “They only talked about the negatives of our budget shortfall, only about what we would lose – teachers fired, classes cut, hours shortened. That was the line fed to our students, who came home very upset. We never had the opportunity to talk about how to raise the money we need or reduce costs in a way to save our school.”
Days before our conversation, with four weeks to the December 4 merger vote, a team was formed to come up with a plan to save the school and find the $200,000 needed. Altogether, the ideas added up to more than $200,000. The question remains: Is time running out for the plan to have a fair hearing.
The local politicians and outside consultants missed the message now getting clearer and stronger. Along with the loss of a beloved school, more than the disrespect for student views, for these parents and their children, the merger signals the inevitable destruction of the town’s character and traditional economy. Tick tock, tick tock. Deadlines approach quickly. Will the spirit of Westport survive?