When my son was in Kindergarten in 2003, I first heard the rumblings that things were not as they should be at the Mitchell School. There were mold problems. An air conditioning system and rugs had been torn out and abandoned. In a school designed to run on that air-flow system, windows cracked open just a little, and it was not ideal. But the teachers and principal were amazing, and I was a new Mitchell Mom, with my daughter in an area preschool. I volunteered a ton, and went to meetings, like lots of Moms.
Sometime in the winter of that year, we heard that the budget was so compromised due to overbuilding in town and state budget cuts (sound familiar?) that, unless we passed an override, there would be a shortened school day the following year. Parents were horrified. Potential cuts included loss of foreign language at the middle school, cuts of all extra curricular activities at the middle school and high school, a $500 fee to play sports at the high school, no more band or chorus at the middle or high school, class sizes into the thirties across Bridgewater, no music, art, or gym across Bridgewater, and no aides in the Kindergarten classrooms. Because teachers were contractually owed their preparation period which usually happened during these “specials”, the prep period would happen at the start of the day, so the start time for elementary students would be close to 10AM.
Parents were beside themselves. They needed to get organized, and fast. The superintendent at the time spoke to any group that would have him, to lay out the numbers so people could understand. There was a young Dad at one of those meetings who saw the complexity of the school budget and stood up to say, “I’m a CPA. Can I help?” That young Dad was Mike Berolini, and he, along with Mike Demos went on to give more hours and service to this town on the Advisory Committee, BOS, and Town Council, than you can count.
A group of parents led by Shawn Masefield and Keith Buohl formed ‘CBB: Citizens for a Better Bridgewater’, and they held informational meetings and debates. A young Mom named Dori Kelly started ‘KIP: Knowledge is Power’ to get the word out. As parents, we spent Saturdays and Sundays at the baseball and softball and soccer fields with fliers. We sent daily emails to as many townspeople as we could. We got educated, wrote letters to the editor, and held signs in the town center with our children where they heard their first swears, yelled from passing cars.
That override failed, and every potential consequence we had heard of came to be. In that year, tons of kids left the district to attend the private Southbrook Elementary School, which was right up the street, and other districts. Many others moved out of town. Property values plunged. The parent groups mobilized yet again to get another shot at the override. Stuffing envelopes for mailings, going door-to-door around town, speaking out at games, it was all we talked about.
In the meantime, there were other forces mobilizing. Townspeople with considerable skin in the game, tax-wise…business- and property-owners, poured resources into the ‘no’ campaign. Some of them played dirty and maneuvered inside and outside of town meetings in a way that would make your skin crawl. It seemed insurmountable at times. Our lives as young families revolved around meetings and voting days. On one voting day, our beloved Mitchell music teacher, Mr. Mundt, played guitar on the common and sang as a reminder to get people out to vote. People threw things at him from their cars. We lost that vote, and Mr. Mundt that day. Honestly, I don’t know how some of these people went to sleep at night.
The battle continued. To build the high school, it took two ugly, polarizing votes. To get school-friendly (actually they were town-friendly, but they were painted as ‘school’ voters) candidates on boards was almost impossible and our spirits rose and fell with each election. Town departments were pitted against each other to get their piece of a shrinking pie, and everyone was affected. The town library was decertified and only open a handful of hours a week. The senior center was cut. Public safety was impacted. The school system barely held on with a couple of money-move votes, but class sizes continued into the thirties as a matter of course. Raynham at that time gifted money to their K-8 program, and Bridgewater’s kids were far behind. When the override finally passed in 2009, the district had a ton of rebuilding to do. Superintendent Jacqueline Forbes decided to focus funds in the lower grades to start that rebuilding process. It was publicly stated that our kids, now in grades 5-10, the ones who had really suffered through the brunt of the cuts, were already behind in standardized testing. It was regrettable, but it was time to start fresh.
And they did. A new generation of parents into Bridgewater had no memory of the trials that had been faced, the work that had been done for them. They saw a district that seemed lacking and maybe they laid blame on the generation of parents who came before, but they had NO IDEA. Maybe they saw the tiny music department and had no earthly idea of the blood and sweat that parents had given to try to keep it afloat during those rocky years. They had no memory of then-School Committee chair Don DeLutis speaking out until he was hoarse, tears in his eyes, about how kids needed a marching band.
When the current group of elementary-school age parents blame “the people who came before”, I get it. I remember it. There was corruption beyond what you can imagine. As an activist, organizing parent at that time, I wish I didn’t know some of what I know about some of my fellow townspeople. It was that bad. Some builders, some town employees, and some elected officials played a game that some are still playing, and it is not about kids or education but the bottom line.
Back then, I would run into parents whose kids were going elsewhere to school and they would say how happy they were that they didn’t have to live and die over every vote like I did, and how it didn’t matter to their family. I used to get so angry at this. I would say, “for one, of course it matters to you because of property values and the kind of town you want to live in, but also, if you live here, these kids are your responsibility.” I still believe that. I’ll still always vote ‘yes’ for my town’s schools, and I’ll always encourage others to do the same. Working together is the only way to get things done. As Keith Buohl always said, if the parents in this town all show up to vote, they can get whatever they want.
My best advice to those who are organizing current efforts to benefit the schools is to educate and unite. If you don’t know the history of what happened before, ask someone who was there. Google some articles from 2004-2009 and read the comments-they used to be anonymous and even crueler than Facebook if you can believe it!) Like my friend Dori always said, Knowledge is Power. It’s so important to understand the past in order to gain a brighter future. Let’s work together for the kids and get it done.