I don’t often discuss politics in my blog, but this is one local issue that I can’t get off my mind lately, so excuse me while I vent.
I grew up in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, which is about forty-five minutes north of Boston. One of the reasons my parents chose to live there was because of its good school system, and I agree that for the most part, I had a great experience in the Chelmsford public schools. I had some amazing teachers, and I feel that I was so well-prepared for college that college actually seemed easy to me. I majored in English, and none of the English classes I took at BC were as rigorous as the English classes I took at Chelmsford High. I had a terrific calculus teacher who made things so easy to understand that I wondered why anyone thought calculus was hard. I had some wonderful teachers in elementary school and middle school, too, and some of my fondest memories of high school involve extracurriculars: swim team, musical theater, treble choir, yearbook, etc.
I don’t live in Chelmsford anymore, so I don’t really follow the local news there, but this week, I read in the Globe that voters had failed to approve a property tax override that would have prevented several budget cuts. I was sad to hear that, but I had to give the voters the benefit of the doubt, since I’ve never had to pay property taxes myself. Nobody likes tax increases, and I thought that if the override had failed so decisively (3 to 2), it must have been a significant increase.
Then I found out more facts about it. Because this override failed, an elementary school will have to be closed permanently, when the schools are already getting overcrowded. Students will have to be redistricted yet again. There’ll be a $200 bus fee per child, when previously, buses were completely covered. Student activity fees will be significantly increased, which means that some kids might not be able to afford to participate in the extracurriculars I was involved in. 35 school employees will be laid off. A fire station will be closed permanently. Police officers and firefighters will be laid off. Libraries will have to cut their hours.
These are not small things. These are life-changing, property-value-diminishing, educational-quality-decreasing, threat-to-public-safety changes. The people of Chelmsford decided, through the democratic process, that several people should lose their jobs, residents should be more vulnerable to crime, homes should be more likely to be destroyed by fire, and that the town should no longer have a high-quality, enviable school system that makes people want to raise a family there. That override must have been for a hell of a lot of money, I thought.
Then I found out exactly how much. This document explains that the taxes on a home valued $370,000, which is slightly above the town average, would increase by about $200 a year.
Back up there.
$200 a year? $200 a year! Not a month! A year. A YEAR! $200! Not $2,000. $200! Two zeroes! Two!
Now, you all know that I have no money. The first word of my blog title is “struggling.” I recently joined a Facebook group called “I work in publishing and I’m underpaid.” Taking a vacation is a dream of mine, and God only knows when I’ll be able to afford a house. But when I can, I will most definitely be willing to spend $200 a year to help schools and town services. I’d be willing to pay that now, for God’s sake, as little money as I have!
I just don’t understand this way of thinking at all. Not wanting a tax increase when you don’t know where your tax dollars are going is one thing, but how can you see these very specific things that are going to be cut and think, “Oh, we don’t need good schools! Screw the fire department and police, I’ll take the risk and save myself $200 a year!” I get that a lot of the people voting against it are senior citizens on fixed incomes, but most of them had children in the school system in the past. How can they look at the kids in their neighborhood and feel okay about decreasing the quality of their education so that they can save $200 a year? How are that many people so selfish?
The last override in town happened seventeen years ago. I actually vaguely remember it—I was in first grade, and my parents, along with many, many others, had a bumper sticker on their car and a sign on their lawn urging people to vote yes. I was only six and had no idea what taxes were, but I remember thinking, “Well, of course people should support the schools. Why wouldn’t you?”
Seventeen years later, my thinking hasn’t changed at all. Maybe someday I’ll look back at this and think, “Oh, you stupid, idealistic twenty-three-year-old. You have no idea how the world works,” but I really don’t think so. Last year, Chelmsford was named the 21st-best place to live in America by Money magazine. Somehow, I doubt that it will happen again. And I used to think that once I was married with kids, I’d like to live there and have my kids go through the Chelmsford public schools. Unless something major changes between now and then, that’s most definitely not an option anymore.
I believe strongly in public school education. In college, I was amazed to meet so many people who had gone to private schools, since I barely knew anyone who did growing up, and I’ve never quite understood the school choice position because it doesn’t address the problem of how to fix failing schools. Education is a right, not a privilege, and the people of Chelmsford, who, according to the PowerPoint presentation on this page, spend $2,000 less per student than the state average, aren’t asking for anything extravagant. They just want a school system in the town they live in with good teachers, small class sizes, available transportation, and affordable extracurriculars. I thought most people in Chelmsford felt the same way.
But apparently, by a 3 to 2 margin, they don’t.