Guest Column

Today’s Children: Asset or Liability?

by GARY A. BURTON

Do the residents in your school district view school-aged children as a community asset or a financial liability?

I pose this question to make a specific point. I believe the young people in the community I serve, Wayland, Mass., are indeed fortunate. Historically, this suburb of approximately 14,000 residents midway between Boston and Worcester has provided for its children in ways that clearly demonstrate a concern for their well-being and personal development.

Wayland has invested heavily in its youngest residents, and evidence is found in everything from the quality of the local schools and the children’s section of the town library to the number and condition of public playgrounds. The prominent role of children is unmistakable in holiday parades, youth leagues, and social and religious organizations. Thumb through the local newspaper and half the articles center on the activities and accomplishments of Wayland’s youngsters.

Still, with the national economy in crisis, perhaps it’s time to ask whether the children and grandchildren in your community continue to be viewed as an asset or have they unfortunately become financial liabilities. Depending on your community, this may be an uncomfortable question to answer.

As a superintendent, I wonder whether the value communities collectively place on children is changing. Of late, it seems as if more and more citizens from cities and towns large and small are publicly challenging the expenses associated with young people and portraying these costs as unwelcome community burdens.

When reminded that death and taxes were inevitable, the humorist Will Rogers supposedly quipped, “The difference between death and taxes is … death doesn’t get (any) worse.”

Of late, the costs associated with providing Wayland’s children with a first-class education, inclusive of building maintenance and athletic fields, has generated heated conversations. Some citizens have openly questioned whether schools really need to be “world quality.” Couldn’t we get by with something less?

The upkeep of playing fields, be it for baseball or soccer, has left some wondering what happened to sandlots and backyards.When did everything associated with children get so expensive? Typically, I counter with the observation that virtually everything has become more expensive — health care, gasoline, housing, food, etc.

Anti-Kid Covenants
A few years ago, my wife and I decided to downsize. While looking for a condo, we found “no pets allowed” restrictions far more common than we expected. Our refusal to abandon family animals greatly limited our housing options. I mention this because we also found entire developments that prohibited children. “Over 55” housing complexes were commonplace. Developers eagerly promote them as generating tax revenue without an offsetting demand for town services, particularly classrooms for school-aged children.

In the Southwest, I’ve heard about a retirement community that prohibits school-aged children from being outside after sunset. It’s a covenant that is strictly enforced. The community has no public schools, and the sounds of children playing shouldn’t disturb the peacefulness of an early evening sunset. The governing powers apparently decided the proper place for children is somewhere else. In this restrictive community, pets are permitted, but not children.

It’s different in Wayland. Last fall, I watched a police officer stop traffic at a busy intersection — the 6th graders were on their annual outing to Walden Pond in Lincoln, Mass. Our students retraced the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, whose life and writings are studied throughout the year.

Watching the officer halt the morning traffic as the students biked across the intersection served as one more reminder of this community’s willingness to accept inconveniences that benefit its children. Not far away by the old south cemetery, an unusual traffic sign advises all of us to “Drive slowly because we love our children.” It’s a constant reminder to all who pass by that our community cherishes its youngest citizens.

Enlightened Citizenry
Not surprisingly, Wayland’s older citizens are also revered. At recent town meetings, a number of ballot questions designed to provide better services and tax relief for the town’s most senior citizens all passed unanimously. Voters endorsed tax exemptions for homeowners who are over 65, widowed, disabled, military veterans or have low incomes. Voters also approved funding for a senior citizen center, a Meals on Wheels program, a subsidized medical taxi service and tax reductions in exchange for community service.

In truth, Wayland does more for its senior citizens than most cities and towns in Massachusetts, and much like quality schools, these programs are reflective of an enlightened community.

With a difficult budget year before us, I remain confident our voters will continue to support the services and opportunities that have made Wayland so welcoming and highly desirable for residents of all ages. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether in the months ahead, Wayland will be the norm or an exception.

Gary Burton is superintendent of Wayland Public Schools in Wayland, Mass. E-mail: Gary_Burton@wayland.k12.ma.us