The Winchendon School Committee is concerned. They have two vacancies coming up on the Committee, each for a three-year term, and it seems that nobody wants to run. Nomination papers have been available from the Town Clerk since January 11 and are due by March 15 (which seems like more than enough time to collect the minimum required 34 signatures), but no nomination papers for the School Committee have been turned in.

I'm sorry to hear that, because serving on the local School Committee is surely one of the most worthy volunteer jobs a citizen can do (and often one of the hardest--definitely not a role recommended for those who are sensitive to criticism). But I'm also not surprised. Parents raising school-age kids are already overwhelmed. But how can a Winchendon resident who has no child in the school system feel welcome on the School Committee?

When I started publishing the Winchendon Courier, I intended to make several changes in the newspaper's previous approach to news. Banishing explicit political commentary, so this would be a newspaper for every resident in town, regardless of how they voted, was one of those decisions, and it came at a cost. But I also resolved that the Courier would always be supportive of the public schools.

I'm not naive about how school systems work. I worked for a large regional school district for years. I'm the third generation of my family (at least) to work for public school districts. I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly about public schools up close and personal--count on that. I have no illusions.

But I also know, intimately and personally, how heartbreakingly difficult it is to work in public education. Why all teachers don't burn out after ten years, I can't imagine.

So when I took over the Courier, the first person I talked to was Superintendent Joan Landers. I knew Supt. Landers from her time at North Middlesex Regional. I was thrilled when she came to Winchendon. I spoke to her several times about how much I wanted to include more information about the schools in the Courier. She promised to have me come in and speak to the administrative staff. But this never happened, partly because of COVID, but that's not the whole story.

The school district is simply not forthcoming to the public. The district website is seldom updated. The Facebook pages are mostly abandoned. No School Committee minutes have been posted on the Town of Winchendon website since April of 2020. Notice of School Committee meetings are usually posted by one of the Committee members on Facebook at the very last minute (which is hard when those wishing to comment must submit their comments in advance of the meeting). Information about what's actually happening with the students and classes is apparently given out only through the "Parents Portal" or "in the Google Classroom" which means no one sees it but parents and students. For those of us who don't have kids in the schools, what goes on during an average school day is a complete mystery. The occasional event that let us through the doors--open houses, concerts and plays, athletics--have all been COVID-whacked for the last year. I'd love to list more student activities like the recent bottle and can drives in the Courier. I only find out about them by pure luck.

This is a problem because the schools need everyone in a community to be involved and invested in what the schools do. Public schools aren't funded by tuition fees. They're funded by tax dollars--indirectly, from the state and federal government, and directly, though Winchendon property tax revenue. The public school district alone receives almost as much from the town as the towns' entire annual budget. Whether or not property owners have children in the school system, they're paying for it, roughly 45 cents of every tax dollar.

The school district, in return, owes the citizens of the town a little more transparency. Non-profit organizations who receive grant monies are accountable to their funders. They are required to submit detailed reports describing how every dime was spent. But they don't just submit columns of figures. They also get bragging rights--they talk about what they actually did (and how much more they'll do with even more money). It's odd that schools not so dependent on their community are so much more generous with information. The Courier receives regular press releases from Monty Tech, Mount Wachusett Community College and the Sizer School in Fitchburg. Where are the press releases from Murdock Middle High School?

The Winchendon Schools need to open up and communicate. I'm not saying this to be unkind or critical, but because I care. Winchendon can't afford to have unfilled vacancies on the School Committee. It can't afford to lose another Prop 2-1/2 override by a scant 40 votes or so because the district hasn't shown taxpayers with no kids in school why supporting the local district is so important.

If you've ever thought that you'd like to help improve things in the school district, now is your chance. Grab those nomination papers and shoot me an email--I'll sign them! And vote for you! Especially if you agree that the Courier should be publishing as much news about Murdock, Memorial and Toy Town as it does about Sizer. If you'll help with that, I'll buy you lunch.

Inanna Arthen

(P.S. Best wishes to retiring Supt. Joan Landers, whose last School Committee meeting was tonight. You will be missed, Joan. Thanks for everything.)