My cousin David is a professional gambler. He fervently believes that every human problem can be expressed in mathematical terms, and thus solved with mathematical logic.
He has been wildly successful with this philosophy in his chosen profession. Once, years ago, I was alone in a hotel room on a business trip clicking through the cable TV channels late at night and landed on a championship poker match televised from Las Vegas, where David lived. There he was on the screen at the very moment of winning a $600,000 pot. He cracked a grin, in spite of the importance most people in his world attach to keeping a strict poker face.
I love numbers, too — it runs in our family — but not the way David does. I don’t believe everything can be reduced to a calculation.
If you’ve followed the arguments leading up to this Tuesday’s districtwide vote on spending $95 million to rebuild Nauset Regional High School, you know that numbers have dominated the talk. Opponents have pounced on the large contingent of “choice” students from other districts, calling them “free-riders” because their home towns pay less than $6,000 per year per student — an amount set by the state. They compare that number to the per-pupil cost at the school, which is closer to $20,000 per year. Their conclusion: Nauset district taxpayers are being ripped off. Get rid of those free-riders, build a smaller school, and we’ll save a ton of money.
Defenders of the renovation plan have bought into this paradigm with their own mathematical counterarguments. The critics are wrong, they say, because the incremental cost of adding one more student isn’t $20,000, so we won’t save $14,000 per pupil by kicking “choice” kids out. Building a school for 600 wouldn’t save much anyway, they argue.
There is no doubt some truth on each side of this fight. And people seem to agree we’re not debating about luxuries. I haven’t heard anyone argue that students don’t deserve heated and properly ventilated classrooms, roofs that don’t leak, or windows to look out of. They don’t have those things. Almost everyone agrees that the school is literally crumbling.
Talking to students makes the narrowness and meanness of this debate abundantly clear.
They are proud that young people from all over the Cape choose Nauset High in spite of its decrepit condition. They know why their friends chose the school, and why future students would, too. “It’s really the people that make it,” senior Sarah Kelly told K.C. Myers, “not the buildings.”
What’s missing from the election discussion are our honest feelings about taking a risk on the future of young people in this community. This is no time for carefully calculated poker faces on that question.