Saturday October 27, 2012

Two recent topics in the news involve teenagers in Bennington and the issue of quality education as a means of boosting the regional economy.

Thomas Dee, the CEO of Southwestern Vermont Health Care, the county's largest employer, wrote in a Banner column about his thoughts after attending a forum on economic development efforts in the area.

And a letter writer sparked a debate about the youth of Bennington when she expressed fear of some of those she sees hanging out around town. Naturally, the age-old response to problems with teens hanging out was quickly received, and the answer was said to be: They have nothing to do, give them something to do besides hanging out and getting into trouble.

Here is why those two topics are intertwined: One, Mr. Dee points out that professionals the hospital recruits to the area sometimes opt to live outside the Mount Anthony Union school district, sending their children to schools in the Northshire or in Williamstown, Mass., where the average student consistently excels at a higher rate than in Bennington's middle and high schools.

Rightly or wrongly, this impression establishes a mediocre or poor reputation for education within MAU, despite the obvious success of the top students. And as Mr. Dee and others point out, an important contributor to the gap is that a high percentage of students come from low-income and poor families.

Since environment, at school, at home and within a community are important to parents, upper-income people often settle in or move to the town with the top schools -- the town that inevitably has the higher average family income.

Which comes first, is one question. Does having a wealthier community lead to a better school, or can a community that is low- to medium-income improve itself by focusing on quality of education, regardless of a student's family background?

In the long-running debate over teens hanging out on street corners and in parks and causing trouble or frightening their elders, the same question comes up: Can a town improve its economy and overall attractiveness by expanding its recreational facilities, such as parks, ball fields and additions to a recreational center or a new facility?

The answer is that investments in these areas can produce a healthier economy, despite whatever other problems a town might have. Here, transportation issues such as the lack of a major highway or rail or bus connection to large cities also make it more difficult for many businesses.

So where does this leave the Bennington area? It seems obvious that the notion more money is not the answer in these situations is ridiculous. It is the primary answer, and not only to focus intensely on those students from lower-income backgrounds with educational assistance but on expanding public facilities like the Recreational Center, parks and bike paths. The latter would improve the overall quality of life and attract those people for whom these issues are vitally important -- especially including the young.

Another issue Bennington faces, of course, involves infrastructure problems that will cost millions to address. So perhaps there is not enough civic resolve to tackle those problems and significantly improve both the education experience here and recreational opportunities. Then again, maybe there is, even though the payoff would not arrive overnight.

What it would take is a major bond or bonds totaling in the several millions of dollars to actually move beyond the endless talking stage and realize measurable progress and a healthier economy.

Despite those who will immediately term this an impossible mission, it is also one area residents should choose to accept if they are serious about reversing a steady decline for most residents.