Jim Kenyon: A Question Of Value for Mascoma

While taking the pulse — as we say in the news gathering business — of the community about the proposal to renovate Mascoma Valley Regional High School, I stopped by the Listen Thrift Shop in West Canaan on Tuesday.

I figured folks who shop and work at a store that sells used goods might have something to say about getting the most for your buck while sticking to a budget.

“There needs to be improvements to the school, but I don’t know if people can afford it,” said an Enfield woman, who indicated that she had voted against the proposed $21.5 million project. She didn’t want to give me her name, which I could understand. It’s tough to come out against a school project without being painted as anti-education, particularly when you have grandchildren, as she does, in the Mascoma school system.

Affordability has always been the No. 1 issue since the school district’s five towns — Canaan, Dorchester, Enfield, Grafton and Orange — began debating and voting six years ago on what to do about Mascoma High. It’s hard to argue that the 51-year-old school on the hill in West Canaan isn’t a dinosaur.

The science labs and gymnasium are too small; the library is inadequate; the auditorium is nonexistent, and the roof leaks. Teachers use duct tape around classroom windows to keep out the cold. Cans hang from the ceiling to catch dripping water.

But the towns that make up the Mascoma district are not Hanover, Norwich or even Lebanon. That doesn’t mean Mascoma residents value education any less than people in wealthier communities. They just don’t have the same ability to write big checks to improve their schools.

The district’s two elementary schools are a testament to the importance the five communities place on education. Canaan and Enfield elementary schools have stellar reputations, which the latest round of state standardized test scores seem to back up.

Supporters of the renovation plan had surmised that a key to victory was getting parents of students in the two elementary schools to the polls. When I drove past on Tuesday morning, supporters were waving signs on Route 4 near Enfield Elementary. They planned to be outside Canaan Elementary when parents arrived to pick up their children at the end of the school day.

“These are the people who have the most at stake,” said Dave Shinnlinger, a 1989 Mascoma High graduate who teaches woodworking at the school. He has two children, ages 10 and 11, headed to Mascoma High in a few years.

The fear, which I think is legitimate, is that if improvements to the high school aren’t on the horizon, families with young children will vote with their feet. Parents who can afford to move out of the district or pay to send their kids to private high schools will do so, depriving Mascoma not only of students, but families who are deeply involved in education.

Vanessa Stone grew up in Canaan and lives in Orange. The youngest of her three sons is in seventh grade. That was reason enough for Stone, a 1980 Mascoma High graduate, to be on her soapbox, as she calls it, trying to rally support prior to the vote. She appeared on a school district video and made phone calls. Last Sunday, she cornered a few people on her way out of church.

Along with her personal ties, Stone has a business interest in the outcome. Stone has sold real estate for 26 years, and in 2005 started her own company in Enfield that now has nine other agents. “It’s not like I can pick up my business and go somewhere else,” said Stone. Besides, she said, “I grew up here.”

A Mascoma High makeover would help persuade people to “move into our community,” she said. “It would help the public perception of our community. We’ve been getting a bad rap. People have been saying, ‘Don’t go to (the) Mascoma (school district.) They vote down everything.’ ”

People who live in the district often ask how much she thinks their homes are worth. “Their biggest asset is their house. I don’t like to be political, but I have to tell them there’s a direct link between schools and property values.”

Aaren Dow can see both sides. She graduated from Mascoma in 1996 and said the building was beginning to show its age back then. But having grown up in Canaan, she knows that coming up with the money to pay their property taxes can already be a struggle for some families.

Before her husband, a chef, found a job with restaurant in Hanover, she put herself in that category. “I know what it’s like to be worried about not being able to make your mortgage payment,” she said.

On Tuesday, I talked with Dow in the church parking lot across the street from Canaan Elementary, where she’s a para-educator. (In my school days, we called them teacher aides.) Dow waited until it was her lunch break and preferred not to talk on school grounds to avoid giving the impression that she was campaigning for the project while on the clock.

She’s not looking forward to paying more in property taxes. But her daughter, Xyvan, is a fourth-grader at Canaan Elementary.

The vote on Tuesday wasn’t only about whether residents could afford to support the much-needed renovation plan. It was about whether in the long run they could afford not to, for the sake of their kids and their communities.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.