Trained ponies needed

The Northgate School Board is facing quite the decision, but may have already stacked the deck against themselves and their ability to make meaningful change in the district by presenting what failed miserably at being the dog and pony show that was needed.

The first thing anyone attempting to govern needs to learn is that seeking opinions from the public on an idea that is, at best, half formed, is suicide. People will have questions about anything new, and inevitably will opt for the status quo when those questions cannot be answered. The drama that will ensue is hardly productive.

You might think that the elected officials who do reach out to the public in such a situation would at least appear open and delightfully democratic, but they don't. They look unprepared, uninformed, and ill-equipped to govern.

Northgate officials have put themselves in an awkward position , albeit with the best of intentions, on the question of whether to realign the district's elementary schools by grade level rather than the current basis of where a student lives. The idea would create a primary center for grades pre-K through 3 at Bellevue Elementary, with those in grades 4-6 going to Avalon Elementary (which also will offer a pre-K class)

From the first fleeting glimpse of this idea in someone's mind, the negatives were a known quantity in a district where children are not bused to school, and where the cost of educating children has now far exceeded the district's ability to maintain a property tax rate that will make it attractive to home buyers.

At the same time, the positives are, so far, vague and difficult to imagine, let alone grasp.

This all needed to be worked out before Northgate officials went in search of opinions from parents who will ask, as parents will, "What's in it for my kid?" Instead, Northgate has created a storm of negativism from frustrated parents just to find out whether they should do the work to answer that question.

Those answers need to be discovered in a conversation that does not include the words "traumatized" or "devastated" when referring to the children who will be impacted by a change in school alignment.

Let's just look at the biggest "negative" of the proposal: the problem of making sure children are able to get to school safely on what could be a longer walk.

Northgate is supposedly a "walking" school district, but traffic jams at all the schools will tell you that quite a few of them are being driven to school, especially at the elementary level. Even with the present alignment, children arguably are being forced to walk some distance every morning and afternoon. A first grader walking from Bellevue to Avalon does not appear to be a whole lot different than that same first grader walking from, say, Hillcrest to Bellevue Elementary, or Ohio River Boulevard to Avalon Elementary, under the current alignment. No one is raising a fuss about that.

Neither is anyone raising a fuss over the elementary school children from Bellevue who have been switched to Avalon Elementary for the last few years. Their parents apparently have managed to keep those children from being struck by a car or kidnapped by strangers.

It might be safe to hazard a guess that parents will make sure their children are safely at school no matter what building is designated that child's school. It may not be as convenient as a parent may like, and it may require some neighborhood planning to get a car pool going, but it can be done.

The other negative is one of cost, particularly the cost of hiring another teacher. Northgate currently is basking in the warmth of an inflated reserve fund, but that's not going to last forever. Officials appear already to have decided that the extra cash will not be used to address the district's biggest problem -- a property tax millage rate that is way too high -- although they may be able to reduce future tax increases.

If Northgate is going to spend that much money, the community needs to be able to grasp a solid benefit from the change. What benefits could there be?

First, and perhaps least, the district will be able to eliminate the need to move students back and forth among schools each fall, depending on enrollment numbers. That's a solid benefit that clearly exists. The rest of the potential benefits are not so clear.

One potentially major benefit has never been mentioned. Mixing students from both towns in a single school as young children could be a big boost to the vision of Avalon and Bellevue as a cohesive community, which could have an incredible impact on the area as a whole. Municipal government officials alternately talk about "shared services" and "maintaining the town's identity" as if they are mutually exclusive. More intermingling among the inhabitants of these two planets -- Avalon and Bellevue -- can only work to the advantage of cooperative efforts at all levels that will benefit the residents and taxpayers.

Officals have talked about studies that indicate the value of informal collaboration among teachers. The reality is that teachers from different schools can have meetings ad nauseum, and they are not going to pass on the little gems that could be mentioned during a couple minutes in the hallway. Teachers who are able to learn from each other are teachers who are going to do a better job educating their students.

The idea of an entire school environment dedicated to a particular age group also is appealing. A sixth grader is a completely different creature than a first grader, and there are numerous reasons why the two groups should have limited contact with each other in a school setting. A primary center could be a truly magical place for the youngest students, while the elementary school could become a stimulating learning experience for the older children, preparing them for entry into middle and high school.

If a school district is going to carry a millage rate as high as Northgate's, it better offer students an impressive educational opportunity. So far, test scores indicate that such is not the case at Northgate. If changing the alignment of the grade schools will markedly improve education, then realignment is a no-brainer.

The problem is, no one knows if that will be the case. There are no studies, no statistical analyses, that prove one way or another, or at least none that have been shown to Northgate parents as of yet.

The Northgate School Board would be cheating current and future students if they don't at least study this subject fully and devise a tangible plan for making it work. This proposal is desperately in need of a dog and pony show, only this time the dogs and ponies need to know their routines.