Public Misinformation

Melissa Stagnaro

I was disappointed by the turnout at last night’s Public Information Forum at the Oxford Middle School. With less than thirty community members and a smattering of school staff members in attendance, the school’s once grand auditorium was virtually empty.

Yes, I was disappointed. But not entirely surprised. Not because the public is not interested in the fate of the school, but rather because there was little notice of the meeting.

Superintendent Randy Squier was quick to place blame on The Evening Sun. I questioned his assertion that a press release had gone out two weeks ago. It turns out he was right, to an extent. My editor did receive a press release on Nov. 21. With an attachment that could not be opened. A new version was not received until the day before Thanksgiving. Which gave one week exactly as notice of the meeting.

But is lack of notice our fault? Are we the only avenue the district has for keeping residents and taxpayers informed? Absolutely not.

The district’s monthly newsletter, which sported notice of the meeting prominently on its back cover, did not arrive in mail boxes until yesterday afternoon. At least that’s when I, as a resident of the district, received mine.

It was only a few weeks ago that the Oxford School Board penned an eloquent letter to the editor, which was published in this paper, taking umbrage to our coverage of this issue and taking aim at community members who had supposedly misconstrued their intentions.

Last night, one board member spoke passionately about the fact that she and the others on the board had not made up their minds about which option would be right for the district and that they understood the concerns and sentiment of the community. She said that she felt they would be doing a disservice if they did not explore all the options open to them.

I don’t doubt that for a second. I do believe that the members of Oxford’s school board have the best interest of the students and the district at heart.

But does the school’s top administrator feel the same? About keeping all the options on the table, I mean.

Let me relate the  first line of the Capital Project Update in the December newsletter. “At the time this report went to print, the district was reviewing three potential capital project options.” Hmmm. Past tense.

I was particularly disturbed by one item included in both last night’s power point presentation and the printed material distributed at the forum.

Listed as one of the questions the school board is asking itself was the following: “In the face of declining enrollment, is it wise to invest $19 million in the 78 year old middle school when classroom usage in the building could drop by 50 percent in three years?”

Wow. Sounds convincing. Unfortunately it’s more than a little misleading, not to mention factually inaccurate.

The “question” seems to imply that Option 1 would pump $19 million into just the middle school. That is not the case. At their Nov. 6 workshop, the board of ed put the figure for remodeling and renovating the historic structure at around $11 million, with the remainder going to work at the Primary School/High School campus. When I asked, board president Robin DeBrita confirmed that the $19 million figure was for the entire option, not just work at the one school.

And classroom usage would drop in just the middle school by 50 percent? Squier stated more than once last night (and it was stressed back in November) that there would be empty space in all buildings with the continuing decline in enrollment.
As grades 5 through 8 are housed in the building, the classes that will be in the building in three years are currently in the primary school. Are half of those classrooms already empty? This figure is not possible unless they are already talking about shuffling grades.

I sat in close proximity to Mr. Squier during the presentation and the question and answer session which followed. I’m not sure all of his comments, especially the ones made under his breath, were heard by all.

When Tom Emerson, a prominent member of the Oxford Community, mentioned the petition signed by more than 600 district residents, Squier made a comment that “most” of those who signed had done so under false pretenses.

Even better was his comment, made after I raised a question about state aid for the middle school if it was no longer housed students, that demolishing the building’s ‘52 wing would be returning it to historical accuracy.

The district will hold one more public information session on the capital project plans. It will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 8 in the Middle School Auditorium. I would sincerely hope there will be a significantly higher turnout at that event.