Troy's Take: Time For A Community Dialogue
By: Troy Clarkson, February 10, 2014
Tevye was right. The accidentally wise milkman in the classic Broadway show “Fiddler on the Roof,” in moderating a debate on an edict from the authorities and the heavy hand of government in his small but tight-knit community, noted that Perchik, the visiting student from Kiev, was right in his assertion that the villagers should engage themselves in debate on the issues of the day. When another villager opined that they should only be concerned with issues at home, Tevye noted that he was also right. Yet another villager questioned Tevye’s logic and noted that they couldn’t both be right. The astute and thoughtful dairy farmer-protagonist noted that he, too, was right.
In this brief but salient moment in one of Broadway’s greatest tales, an important life lesson was provided to us all that has value and relevance in today’s society—and today’s Falmouth.
It’s entirely possible that well-meaning and intelligent people can espouse and cling to opposite positions on an important issue, and both hold a kernel of truth in their beliefs.
The current debate in town over school funding and a potential override is no different. I’ve seen and heard opinions all over the philosophical spectrum on this important issue—and many of them are right. Those who insist that the town should keep education as a top funding priority are most certainly right. Others who insist that a conservative approach to spending our tax dollars should be on the forefront of budgeting and financial planning are also right. In a Tevye-esque analysis of our current local debate, those who have lamented on the tenor of the debate on this issue and raised an eyebrow at some of the nastiness and bad manners are indeed also right.
Perceived spending priorities in a community are as varied as the people served by a local government. There are a few, however, that none will deny are at the top of the significance list, with education, public safety and public works undeniably among them. In light of the school committee’s budget discussions, the tepid response to their plight by the selectmen, and the subsequent grassroots effort to bring a request for an override to the voters in May, the debate on this issue locally will carry on from Main Street to the main office at the high school for the next few months. As always, this local newspaper and social media will play a large role in the tone and content of this debate, but those media, as useful and important as they are, do not allow the public and participants in the decisions to actually communicate with one another face to face. Posting thoughts on a Facebook thread is good. Having a dialogue in person, where questions can be asked, sincerity can be assessed, and consensus can (maybe) be reached, is even better.
That may be what’s missing from this current issue. The school department has made a compelling case for the encumbrances of special education and the need for more funding to address this budget buster. The finance committee has properly lamented the apparent lack of long-range planning and discussion of priorities and pressures. The town manager and selectmen have the weighty responsibility to fulfill their charge to provide a budget that gives a proper nod to all departments and to begin to satisfy the public’s insatiable appetite for services. They have each discussed the issue—in their own words, on their own turf and on their own terms.
What we need is a community get-together. A good, old-fashioned meeting where people bake brownies and cookies and leave them at the entrance, and join in a true dialogue—which means talking and listening—and develop a sense on the best way to move forward on this most important of issues. My guest list would include members of the school committee, board of selectmen, finance committee, Town Meeting members, parent organizations, and, of course, citizens and voters, all who have a stake in our collective future.
All opinions have a seat at the table in a meeting like this. Everyone is welcome as long as they leave personalities and bad manners at the door. I’ll gladly be Tevye and tell everyone that they’re right. After all, if they take the time to attend, they are.
(Mr. Clarkson may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @TroyClarkson59.)