January 11 – I Must Be Nuts – My Thoughts on the School Board

No, this is not about labor negotiations, though it may be about a group of folks who, if nothing else, have an eye on the bottom line. This is about a plan to close three of the eight Neshaminy elementary schools, and, in particular, Oliver Heckman School here in Langhorne. The Borough Council doesn’t like the idea and neither do I. I may be nuts to bring up school board politics of any kind, but I will.

Some acknowledgements first.

  • Change is constant whether we like it or not. The district school building and attendance boundaries were configured for a time twenty years ago when the school age population in our area was a third larger than it is today. You can’t keep doing things the way you always have. If there’s a lesson the church needs to learn, this may be it.
  • I am not an expert. Our kids are grown and gone. I do not have daily or personal contact with Neshaminy Schools. But I have tried to inform myself. I have read the consultant’s presentation provided by the Board and have found some recent news stories helpful: hereherehere and here.
  • I know that money matters and that efficiency is important. The “school consolidation” plan being proposed will save millions of dollars over the years of its implementation. Some of those dollars are my tax dollars. I know that.

Let me also say that one of the sad realities of the world with which I am much more familiar is the closing of once-vital churches. Our own Philadelphia Presbytery now closes several of its churches every year, predominantly but not only urban churches whose congregations have died off or moved away. In the end, endowments run out and the remnant congregation of a couple of dozen cannot maintain the building let alone the ministry of what was once a congregation of a couple of hundred, maybe even a couple of thousand members. Tough decisions should have been made years ago, but were not.

In fact, my ecclesiastical experience is exactly why I am foolish enough to comment on the school consolidation plan. My church convictions that come to play:

  • Place matters because we are people who belong in places.
  • Size matters because we are people who belong in relationships.
  • Parents matter because we are people who belong in families.

Regional malls, mega-churches, suburban commutes are all realities of our time. Each has contributed to the erosion of our sense of place and belonging. The Old Testament knows the importance of place: the land given to the sons of Israel, the Jubilee return of places to their proper owners. Local schools, like local churches, are an asset that builds community. Their loss has consequences. Place matters because we are people who belong in places.

The consolidation plan will have Langhorne kids (I am very provincial at this point) bused to a 125,000 square feet (think Super Wal-Mart) facility housing 1,375 students. One of the draws of mega-churches is that they provide anonymity for those who prefer consumer Christianity. But there are, finally, no anonymous Christians and faith is not a product we consume or Christianity a brand we prefer. “I have called you by name,” the Lord says (Isaiah 43:1). Education is not a matter of facilities efficiency; it is a matter of relationships. Efficient facilities are important, but they don’t educate. Size matters because we are people who belong in relationships.

The schematics of the proposed regional school our kids might attend are impressive. By the time the place is built there will be even more wow technology to help our teachers educate our children. But wow technology does not nurture children. Parents do. The church does. The community does. Teachers do. The Bible’s bias is always towards nurture and families, but we buy a lie that says we can outsource nurture to someone else. In a time of weak families, the consolidation plan can’t help but add to the weakening of families. Education is critical in a competitive, changing world. We absolutely need to provide our children with the best education possible. But nurture, especially family nurture, develops faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is love. Parents matter because we are people who belong in families.

McKissock Associates have done an impressive job in developing a District-Wide Facility Study. The vexing issues of aging buildings, declining student population and limited financial resources must be addressed. In the end, we will probably have to close some buildings. Oliver Heckman may be among them. We may save millions of dollars, but we will, without a doubt, lose a little more of our sense of place, a little more of our depth of relationship – being known by name, a little more of the importance of parental nurture in the things of faith, hope and love, the still more excellent way.

Like the Langhorne Borough Council, I don’t like the school consolidation plan before the school board. I don’t have an answer to the bottom line issues the board must tackle. I pray, though, that they consider more than just the bottom line.

I’d love to hear from you.

See you Sunday