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Editorial: Don’t Try To Rewrite History Just Because It’s Inconvenient

Last week the Groton Herald published a story titled ‘Flo Ro & Swallow Union Schools Ace MCAS.’ The story, based on a letter released by Superintendent Chesson, extols Groton-Dunstable’s elementary schools’ achievement of being recognized statewide for high MCAS test scores.

    In addition to this good news, the story offers historical context to the news of the high MCAS scores. A story without appropriate context can be a distortion of its true significance. One of the greatest benefits of a local newspaper is its institutional memory, being able to flesh out salient background information and details for ongoing stories, especially stories with a trail extending back years. 

  In last week’s MCAS story, contextual background information was as important to the story as the very good news of the elementary schools’ success. When voters go about making spending decisions of far-reaching financial impact involving schools, they need to understand and evaluate the school committee’s past recommendations, actions and performance to help evaluate new proposals for basic integrity and veracity. The town will soon need to make consequential decisions about paying for a new elementary school, projected to cost Groton and Dunstable taxpayers about $35 million. Therefore, having a full and clear understanding of related historical background is needed.

     Shortly after last week’s MCAS story was published, School Committee Chair Marlena Gilbert posted a 1,170 word attack on the Groton Herald’s story on social media. In her letter Ms. Gilbert ignores the historical background cited in the story, but attacks the story’s veracity by ascribing nefarious motives to the Herald for publishing it.

   The basic facts of the background to this story are not in dispute. They have been reported many times and can be verified by newspaper reports or reviewing source video documentation. As reported last week, the basic facts are these: 

   The School Committee forced a $2 million override vote onto the May ballot three years ago against the advice of many. The override would have funded 40 new, full-time equivalent, school positions, positions justified by the so-called Needs Assessment. The School Committee predicted the following dire scenario if the override did not pass:

  Student test scores would plummet and there were signs they were already falling.

  GD Schools would drop in state certified level.

• Property values would decline.

• Special needs children would go underserved. 

• Drastic teacher staffing cuts would be inevitable.

• Students could contract infections in school bathrooms.

  After the $2 million override was defeated at the ballot box, the following came to light:

  An objective review of test scores dispelled the misleading test score graphs and predictions of decline. 

• The state concurred that the test conclusions were ill-founded as they relied in part on mixing results of experimental test protocols with standard MCAS testing.

• Later, an evaluation of prior staffing showed that teacher levels had seen almost no reduction from historic highs despite a considerable drop in student enrollment. 

• Special needs instructors were hired using a surprise surplus of funds, only to discover two years later that they were not assigned to students.

• Even after the override defeat, the School Committee continued to use charts and graphs showing purported decline in test performance to argue for more spending. 

• More recently, School Committee members wanted a greater share of the municipal budget for the Schools despite an intensive municipal audit showing little waste in a generally well-managed municipal budget.

   There is much more to this history, but this is enough for now.

   The reason to review these events is not to cast aspersions on the School Committee or on their fundamental ability to address the need to build a new elementary school, or to manage the high-level affairs of the schools. We admire school committee members who give so much of their time and skills to maintain our schools’ quality, striving to make them better. We have often said that serving on the school committee is one of the hardest, most thankless and most important jobs in town government. School committee members deserve our thanks.

   Still, you can’t rewrite history just because it is inconvenient. Instead of taking a “dig-in-your-heels”,put-up-your-dukes”, approach to deny this history, we think a reasonable humility would serve the school committee well. The world is complex and unpredictable. Voters understand this and are forgiving. 

    But, if there is a continuing inability to acknowledge errors of judgment, grandstanding, and overblown rhetoric as demonstrated by Chair Marlena Gilbert’s letter, it will be harder for the schools to make a credible argument for the huge spending that will be required for a new elementary school. 

    In recent years, there has been an us-vs.-them demeanor emanating from certain members of the school committee, a sense that every dollar ‘won’ at town meeting is a dollar wrested from taxpayers, grasping, unwilling hands. Actually, it is just the opposite. Most residents and taxpayers, whether they have children in the schools or not, want well-funded schools and are willing to respond to reasonable needs. 

   The fact that Groton-Dunstable schools have excelled for so many years, including in the wake of the massive override defeat, is a clear sign that voters are paying attention. Voters are approving funding for good schools, but they are thoughtful enough to know that too much money could be as destructive as too little. We urge the school committee to take a less combative, less political, more conciliatory stance.


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