The online survey offered up by the Manchester Essex Regional School District, and the release of its results earlier this week, clearly offers some insight into how residents feel about the three options currently being explored for an elementary school building project.
But the most important recognition is already the one being noted by Superintendent of Schools Pamela Beaudoin and School Committee members like James Haskell of Essex, who both emphasized that the survey is merely one tool toward obtaining community sentiment regarding any such plans. And it’s clear more input is needed.
Why? For one thing, the survey drew just 647 responses, with a clear majority supporting a proposal that would carry out needed renovations to both the current Manchester Memorial School and Essex Elementary. But for another, the demographics of the survey make it all too clear that this has proven to be a survey of the “school community,” not the larger community of taxpayers within both towns.
In fact, 66 percent of those taking the survey have children in the regional district’s schools, while another 11 percent were teachers or other district employees. And just 10 percent — or roughly 64 in all — were taxpayers who do not have direct school ties.
Now, the fact that no other town residents didn’t offer their views on the project are, frankly, no one’s fault but their own. But the fact is, school families and especially school employees are far more likely to oppose any move toward consolidation — and building a single, new combined elementary school is among the other options.
The idea of maintaining “neighborhood” elementary schools has a true context in Essex, where the “neighborhood” is the entire town. That’s very different from Gloucester, where those in the school community continue to insist on maintaining five “neighborhood” elementary schools, despite longtime declining enrollment and the fact that, in at least some cases, kids from Gloucester Avenue are being bused to Plum Cove School — miles from their “neighborhood.”
Yet Manchester Essex officials would do well to invest in mailing a similar survey to all of the district’s households to get a better view of where more residents in both communities stand.
The information drawn from a survey like that may avoid a divisive fight between taxpayers and their school officials down the line.