There’s something extra special about covering your hometown as a reporter, and as a Hamilton native, I love informing my family, friends and neighbors about what’s happening in our town. However, sometimes—like at a recent school board meeting—covering your hometown hits a little too close to home.
I walked into the Feb. 27 school board meeting to find out more information about the district’s charter school policy, and I was pleasantly surprised by how crowded the meeting room was. In other towns I’ve covered, I was sometimes the only person in the attendance at school and government meetings.
But that night in Hamilton, there was only one seat left in the corner of the room. I asked the woman sitting nearby if the seat was open. She nodded yes but warned me to be careful as I sat down. There was a hole in the floor that caused the chair to wobble.
I sat down and tried to move as little as possible to avoid sinking further into the hole as I took notes about the state of the school district. Considering I had to carefully shift my weight to avoid toppling over in my seat, I braced myself for what was to come.
It’s no secret Hamilton’s schools are literally falling apart. At Lalor Elementary, pieces of the ceiling have fallen on risers where students had been standing just moments earlier. Cracks in Steinert High School’s auditorium ceiling forced the school play to be relocated last year.
And the problems keep on coming. At the Feb. 27 meeting, there was a brief discussion of a sinkhole that had formed in the parking lot of Kuser Elementary School. It was mentioned at the meeting so casually it was almost as if officials were referring to a broken light bulb they haven’t gotten around to changing yet.
When I glanced over my notes about halfway through the meeting, seeing the phrase “Kuser sinkhole” sandwiched between “$11 million budget gap to close” and “tax cap” was jarring. What kind of town am I living in where there are dozens of easily fixable dangers lurking around our children, but many residents seem to be more concerned with defeating any proposed solution just to save a couple bucks a year?
Little did I know, the meeting was about to get worse. As my mind raced with thoughts of what today’s children of Hamilton will have to face when they walk through the doors of their schools, then-interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra announced cuts to close the $2.7 million gap that was still remaining in the budget. One of the first—and biggest—items to be cut was all of the elementary school lunchroom playground aides. One of them so happens to be my mother; she has held the job in the district for the last 13 years.
To recap, I found out at a Board of Education meeting that my mom may lose her job while I sat on an unstable chair on a broken floor in the middle of attempting to wrap my head around how a school district could have a sinkhole and collapsing roofs at its properties without the funds, support or conviction to fix any of it.
I was appalled, saddened and hurt, but I was never once surprised.
‘It’s our job to protect the children who live in our town, and we’re nearing a tipping point.’
I graduated Steinert High in 2010, and I still remember the textbooks that were falling apart and fraying at the seams. I remember bumping into other students as we tried to navigate through crowded hallways lined with garbage bins that were collecting rainfall from the leaky ceilings. I remember the projectors—which were much older than I was—that kept breaking in the middle of class and almost falling out my chair because one of the legs was broken.
All throughout my education in Hamilton, my friends and I knew the school district was subpar compared to some other Mercer County towns, like Robbinsville and Hopewell. Yes, we had teachers who inspired us—and still inspire us—to be better people, we had classes that were engaging and challenging, and we discovered our passions inside Hamilton’s schools. But we also lived in fear of classes and programs being cut, a foreboding feeling that hovered over us all throughout our education.
As we got older, we saw teachers put in hours of extra work every day as their benefits were slashed. We were amazed that our friends in other districts had senior trips, air conditioned classrooms and updated facilities while we were embarrassed to tell them our classrooms had bugs crawling on the floor and wobbly desks.
In that moment, when I realized my mother may lose her job, I had the sobering realization that I have come to expect that my hometown schools will let me down.
My mother has spent every school day the last 13 years with the students at Morgan Elementary. She and her coworkers know what games the students like to play at recess, their favorite foods to eat at lunch, and what their favorite subjects are in school. It seems every time I go somewhere in town with her, we hear “Mrs. Pollack! Mrs. Pollack!” and see an excited child running up to her to say hello.
But in a town where no one seems to mind the crumbling school infrastructure, why should I expect anyone to care about the benefits of having lunchroom playground aides who know and care for each individual student? Why would they see the benefits of having the same people care for the children each day, when they can just make the teachers do it on a rotating basis? If the school desks aren’t stable in Hamilton, I suppose a child’s lunch schedule and routine wouldn’t be either.
But maybe there is still a tiny bit of hope for the future of the Hamilton school district. A referendum is in the works, and while it won’t save my mother’s job, it will address many of the structural issues lingering—sometimes literally—over our students.
It’s our job to protect the children who live in our town, and we’re nearing a tipping point. We can either create another generation of students who grow up believing their town doesn’t support their education or we can show them their future is worth our time, money and effort. Either way, I know the students will remember.