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Luskin: Heated Debate

The Newbrook Elementary School serves the towns of Newfane and Brookline, and this Thursday, the voters of both towns will meet for the second time to resolve how to heat the building.

The current boilers are weary, and the ventilation inside the school is poor. After years of study, the energy committee is proposing a solar array with air-to-air heat pumps. The old boilers would kick on as the temperatures approach zero.

But it turns out that how we heat the school is a hot topic, and people are sharply divided between those in favor of replacing the oil-fired boiler with a new one and those who favor using solar-generated electricity to power air pumps.

I’m the school moderator, and I welcome controversy, because controversy increases civic engagement. Generally, only about forty people show up to vote on an annual school budget of nearly two million dollars, but more than a hundred people turned out for the first energy vote in June, and I expect even more will turn out for the revote. Less money is at stake, but more principle: whether to go solar or stick with oil.

This debate has engaged people in civic life with a passion Newfane hasn’t seen since the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. But instead of pulling together to help each other, the differences of opinion about heating the school are pulling us apart.

I love that the people in my town are passionate; but as moderator, I hope they will also be polite.

The rancor infecting current town politics makes me long for the purposeful sense of community we had right after Irene, which was like an athlete’s endorphin high. There was an urgency that allowed us all to pitch in, neighbor helping neighbor, followed by sitting down together at the end of the day to share news and a meal.

Of course, this kind of urgency can’t be sustained. One indication of recovery is the return to the busy-ness of our private life – as well, I suppose, as our return to civic strife.

And while I wouldn’t wish another natural disaster on us, I do miss that moment of civic cohesion, and it leaves me wondering two things.

First, I wonder why we’re so capable of great generosity in times of crisis but so equally capable of great civic rancor when we’re all safe and sound. New Yorkers who survived Super Storm Sandy also experienced neighbors helping neighbors in that storm’s aftermath. So it seems that in the face of natural disaster, community is second only to survival no matter where you are.

And that leads me to wish for a way to sustain that sense of mutual purpose in ordinary times - a way for neighbors to view our civic obligations, like educating our children in a warm, safe school, as if our lives depended upon it. Because the way I see it... they do.