If your house looked the way Kingston High School looks — with crumbling plaster, water-stained ceilings, radiators so rusted they look like they were salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic and plumbing that hasn’t been redone since god-knows-when — you’d be ashamed to let anybody in.
That’s the gut reaction to next week’s $137.5 million high school bond vote; that it really has to be done before the noble and classic building gets to the point where it looks more like the Acropolis than a place where several hundred students have to go each day to learn.
But even the net, after-the-state-kicks-in figure of $55 million is a lot of money, so you can’t just go with the gut. This has to be thought about and numbers have to be crunched in every homeowner-owned home in the district. As I have written about school budgets before, if you truly cannot afford the $100-$200 extra a year the bond will cost through the middle 2030s, then you have my sympathies and commiserations — I am not even sure how I am going to pay for my brakes to get fixed next week, much less anything as non-immediate as a high school renovation.
But if you can, I am going to argue that you must vote for this bond. This is as true if you don’t have a kid in the school system as it is if you have six kids going through the school system.
Our culture has always had a tension between individualism and communitarianism. Many of us have a hard time realizing that what we perceive to be smart or necessary moves for our own good is really just cutting off our noses to spite our faces. Allow me to explain — the public school system is the essence of the community, and the better the schools are the better your community is and the better it will be down the road. That means the more attractive your house will be to the person who someday is going to buy it. That means Kingston continues to be thought of as an up-and-comer, not a down-and-outer like that other city down the river. That means the kids that grow up here have a better shot at making it in this world.
Let me expand on that, and I apologize in advance if what you’re about to read is overly blunt. In this world, stupid is as good as dead. Poorly educated is as good as dead. For a lot of young Kingstonians, the education they get through public school system is the only shot they’re ever going to have at getting free from a vicious generational cycle of ignorance, poverty and dependence on the state, either via the Department of Social Services or the Department of Corrections. Take a look at the stories in our paper and other papers about all of the drug busts going on in this city. Feel like this is a problem that will never go away? Well, there’s no chance of it going away unless the kids of this city, the ones faced with the choice of going to school or going out on the street to sling rocks, choose to stay in school. Yes, there are a lot of factors that play into whether a kid stays in or drops out. Yes, not all endings are happy, despite everybody’s best attempts. And anyone who blames the school system for all of youth’s woes is tragically deluded. But when you hear about cockroaches in classrooms, you wonder what kids take away from that. I’m guessing it’s something along the lines of “our community doesn’t think we’re worth having a school without cockroaches in it, so why should I think that much about myself.” Unless there’s a countervailing message from family or the neighborhood, I am thinking that’s exactly what those kids are thinking.
Kingston High’s setting is also important. This needs to be said — as Midtown goes, so does Kingston as a whole. Getting people from outside Kingston, be it the state, SUNY Ulster or BardCollege, to invest in Midtown is crucial. But there needs to be a copay from the community: $55 million is the hometown copay toward a healthy heart of the city. It’s got to be made if anyone outside of Kingston is going to take the city seriously as a place in which to spend and make money.
Could they have done a cheaper plan, one that just patches up the basic basics and keeps the school wheezing along until better times? Probably, yes. Would that have been smart? Definitely, no. We have all seen in our lives what happens when necessary stuff gets put off, for whatever reason. When the time comes when the putting off doesn’t work anymore, it’s harder and more expensive than it would have been to do it right the first time. If I don’t get a brake job next week, when I can’t put it off any longer, it’s not gonna be just the pads. The rotors will be effed, and that’ll be twice as much as I was going to spend in the first place. See what I mean?
Kingston has some good leadership at the top of the school district, leadership that’s been honest, unafraid of tackling some pretty big issues and has a good track record of getting building projects finished on time and under budget. Closing four elementary schools wasn’t easy, but it needed to be done and it was done. Fixing a school that’s a historic landmark so it will be a plus and not a minus both to students and the community as a whole won’t be cheap, but it needs to be done and it should be done. Go out and vote yes on Tuesday.