Column: Levy defeat will have far-reaching effects in area

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 13, 2001

In Bath, Mich.

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

In Bath, Mich., on May 18, 1927, an &uot;irate taxpayer&uot; blew up the local school, killing 37 children and 7 teachers, and injuring at least fifty other students and school employees. The man responsible, Andrew Kehoe, a farmer and school board member, was angry about the taxes he had to pay for a new school. Up until the destruction of the Federal building in Oklahoma City, it was the single worst act of terrorist violence in the United States.

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Four years ago, when we were exploring the possibility of moving to Freeborn County, we took note of the vote in the Albert Lea School District to increase taxes to pay for a new high school. We saw that as a positive sign, as a sign that the people of Albert Lea (and possibly all of Freeborn County) really cared about giving students the best possible opportunities to learn. That vote was not the only factor that convinced us that moving here was the right thing, but it was high on the list.

So it is with great dismay that I reflect on the defeat of last week’s levy election. Once again the tactics of misinformation and false accusations win the day. It’s hard to think of a positive way to deal with what’s going to happen next. What were those no voters thinking? Didn’t they read the same information in the paper that I did? Didn’t we all look at the same numbers? What more do they want? Or maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe I should be asking what they want less of.

Fewer elementary schools is one thing they apparently want (resulting in larger classes with less time for one-on-one contact between teacher and student). And there will be fewer electives, like foreign languages, music, art and theater classes. And there will definitely be fewer school-sponsored extracurricular activities, fewer things that make schools more interesting and creative places for kids. Now the classes and activities that can help kids see that there is more to learning than diagraming sentences and timed math quizzes will have to be cut.

I know that some have been complaining for awhile that schools need to cut back to the basics, and stop offering all of these &uot;luxuries,&uot; like programs in Spanish. But those things they see as &uot;extra&uot; are the things that keep kids and families committed to learning. Back in the &uot;golden age&uot; of basic education, the high school graduation rate was appallingly low. As recently as the late 1960s, only 50 percent of the students in Albert Lea graduated from high school. Is that what the no voters want for the future of this community? Is that the &uot;dream&uot; they have for our children?

But we’re just a small city, filled with too many poor people, I hear them whine. The economy is bad and our community keeps getting smaller. We’re too poor; we can’t afford new snowmobiles or motorboats, I guess, or trips to Mystic Lake. Too poor for winters spent in second homes in Florida, Texas or Arizona. But no, actually it seems we’re not too poor for those things, just too poor to pay for an excellent education for our children. Most of the other school districts in this area do a better job of supporting their schools, and they’re pretty much in the same boat economically as the people who live in the Albert Lea School District.

I don’t envy Sen. Grace Schwab and Rep. Dan Dorman now. They both support fully funding public education, but have chosen to be members of a party that only seems to care about taxpayers. I don’t see them having much success convincing other Republicans to increase school spending next year. And why should taxpayers statewide help school districts whose voters won’t tax themselves to pay for better schools?

Those who voted no last Tuesday didn’t plant any bombs in school buildings, and no students were killed by irate taxpayers, but the result will be pretty much the same in the end. Schools in Albert Lea will become more crowded, with fewer reasons for kids to get excited about learning, and some families may find it easier to drop out and disappear. The schools may have been the target last Tuesday, but the whole community will suffer the consequences.

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.