Guest Column

Defining the Word ‘Sacrifice’

by GARY A. BURTON

Everyone agrees our local, state and national economies are under great stress. Daily news reports announce the latest round of negative financial indicators.

Unemployment is steadily rising, the number of home foreclosures continues to make headlines, health care costs are escalating, retirement funds are in jeopardy, stock prices continue to fluctuate and so on. Predictions for the days ahead are anything but optimistic.

You don’t have to listen carefully to hear an underlying current of fear in conversations in the aisles of the local supermarket and corporate boardrooms. My 90-year-old parents may remember living through the Great Depression and the widespread accompanying hardships, but few of us have experienced hard economic times. If you are younger than 65, many tales of “going without” are simply elder family members’ memories that accent how well off most Americans are today. I recall being told of cardboard that filled the holes in my parents’ shoes, a single orange shared among many siblings and one gift per child on Christmas Day. It all sounded rather dismal to me.

While new national leadership is cause for genuine hope, most citizens believe until the economy improves and the job picture brightens, the days ahead will undoubtedly involve collective pain and suffering for many throughout the community. Calls to confront these challenges head-on are increasing in volume, and related conversations are taking place at all governmental levels and within many households.

Frequent Reference
I’ve noticed that the word “sacrifice” is common to many of these conversations. I hear it repeatedly. Politicians, evening network news reports and budgetary discussions frequently cite the need for public and private sacrifice in the difficult days ahead. Few believe we can return to the inefficiencies of the past, and many citizens, both young and old, seem ready, if not eager, to make the sacrifices needed to regain control of the economy and our future.

With this in mind, consider the word sacrifice. How do you define it? Is a sacrifice something you experience or go without, or is it something that others must give up or endure? Obviously, there is a big difference. Are our citizens willing to make personal sacrifices to preserve necessary or highly desired town and school services? Or are community members willing to sacrifice these services because they believe they are no longer affordable?

In most situations, the choice is not that simple. Do we want a public library or not? Should taxpayers support athletic teams at the high school or, starting now, should the students and their parents assume the cost of fielding these teams? Should town roads be well maintained year round? I’m not suggesting the answer to these questions is a simple yes or no. Proper responses are probably somewhere in between.

I suspect, too, that each answer involves a willingness, or lack thereof, to reach deeper into one’s pocket to support these services — and for some that is the sacrifice.

Defining Moment
I’d like to propose the idea of “shared sacrifices” and recommend this concept be introduced into conversations whenever and wherever possible. The notion of what is being sacrificed and by whom is particularly important when discussing school budgets. Local voters, be they the parents of school-age children or citizens without any direct ties to the local schools, need to know what school officials are willing to sacrifice, even as they ask local residents to continue to support particular programs or positions that might otherwise fall victim to budget cuts.

The claim that public schools are “taxing people out of their homes” or taking advantage of taxpayers without young children must be blunted with evidence of what schools are willing to give up to preserve instructional quality and basic school services. Shared sacrifices must be explained in clear, concise terms that reinforce the fact that funding of public education is more than an annual expense. It is an investment in the education and well-being of our children.

Little disagreement exists that these are difficult economic times for almost everyone. Nonetheless, we must reach consensus on what levels of publicly funded services will best serve the entire community. This will require honest dialogue about police and fire protection, a range of school activities, recreational programs and services for senior citizens. Reaching agreement on all these services may not be easy as opinions differ widely on what is needed and what is affordable. Acknowledging these differences, I ask you to consider your definition of sacrifice as this will ultimately define your community and our nation.

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