Stability and growth of that complex system called a community depends on honesty, equality, fairness, balance, foresight, continuity, healthy relationships, maturity, safety, common goals, and recognizable successes shared among all community members and good leadership.
Industry and government facilities were having great difficulty attracting highly educated and qualified professionals to Oak Ridge despite competitive salaries in the new millennium. One of the attractions that might help this problem was thought to be the existence of superior schools for the children of those professionals, combined with attractive, upscale housing.
As is so typical in Oak Ridge, many bright minds saw only their need and targeted the solution they hypothesized would make it work. Also, as so often happens with brilliant focused minds, the complexity of the economic and social organization, its influence, and the needs of the whole community were not factored into the equation. There was an assumption that the hypothesis of good schools, combined with an abundance of attractive housing, would solve the problem. So, $67 million was spent on building and equipping a state-of-the-art high school with amenities usually limited to high-priced, private, college prep schools. This, despite the critical need for a new preschool facility having been very high on the official city list of capital needs for over a decade.
The targeted highly skilled professionals were supposed to flock to the city. They would pay lots of property taxes, and the cost of the fancy school would not be a problem. Today, nearly 10 years after the beginning of the great experiment, it has not worked. Recruitment of those key professionals is still an illusion, and there are 5,000 vacant lots for those houses. The targeted professionals are very happy to work off-site, living in California, Cambridge, and Colorado. Just don’t make them having to live here a criteria for employment. There are other research facilities that are equally as attractive as Oak Ridge. Those who do come are still opting for Farragut.
Enter the current high-profile “emergency” for a combined Head Start/Preschool facility. I do not argue that the need is real. It is the methodology, the angst, the lack of data, and the meanness that I find so objectionable. There are new elements at play now giving us hope for a positive outcome, basically new players on both sides, but the old habits and tactics of high pressure, vilification, entitlement, and panic are still being enacted. It is time for the old players to step back and realize that high-pressure tactics are no longer acceptable—the boy has cried wolf once too often.
Just about everyone wants a stellar education for those children just beginning to learn, as well as at all stages of learning. Most people understand that in the world there are nearly unlimited opportunities somewhere; most also understand that they need to figure out how to grow and prosper within their budgets.
Today there are about 200 preschool children in classes in Oak Ridge. There are 100 on the waiting list. The Head Start program has been shown to be successful over many decades as has very early education for children born with disabilities. None of these children should be subjected to classrooms with lead paint or mold or asbestos. The community is remiss in not dealing with these long-known needs years ago.
Why should credence be given to one possible solution to the problem without complete exploration of all viable alternatives? Why should the taxpayers be forced to accept any solution not designed well enough to anticipate the future need for growth and meeting the needs of the waiting list children? There are many empty classrooms in our elementary schools. Why cannot we share this burden for a year or two? Why not appoint a joint committee to study long-term affordable solutions and find space for all of the children in the city to be educated during the process?
Our history is that we hypothesize and then act without further testing of the hypothesis. When dealing with community issues, the variables and the sheer inconvenience of the human factor have too often been ignored in favor of the quick and dirty solution. The school board and city council are now on speaking terms and are meeting together to evaluate options and formulate reasonable solutions. Everybody else needs to back off; the name calling needs to stop and the children, so long neglected, need to take center stage.
Pat Fain is an Oak Ridge resident.