During the last weeks of my brief tenure as a member of the local public school board, I took to carrying around a copy of the Declaration of Independence. I felt a need to commune with ancestors who had suffered a "long train of abuses"--and done something about it. Only six months into my five-year term on the board, I was frustrated and angry. The town had been unresponsive to the stunning failures of the local school district--nearly two-thirds of our 4th graders couldn't pass a mediocre state reading test--and continued to show not even a pulse of concern. Not that everyone was happy with the way things were, but those few were resigned, or unaware, or simply afraid to speak up. I did speak up, and I will long remember the growling response of a teacher in my son's school: "How dare you show your face here!" Or a fellow school board member's laughing, "Pete, why do you say those things? Don't you know they have your kid?" It really did feel like a hostage situation. But what was I saying? That the system needed fixing. In this small town, however, that was like a stick in the eye. "Changing a school system," an educator friend reminded me, "is like moving a graveyard. You're not going to get any help from the inside."
My colleagues on the board were in their working prime, with jobs that held retirement potential and deep ties to the community. Not a group of boat-rockers. Dave owned a local catering and tent business; Todd was an investigator for Social Services; Ed, a computer systems analyst for the state government; Jim, a banker; Frank, our town librarian; Cathy, a popular former kindergarten teacher. Most were either born in the area or had lived there for decades. Each one had kids who had either just graduated or were still in the district schools; Jim and Frank had wives who were teachers in the district. I was a freelance journalist and suddenly felt as if I had gotten off a plane in the wrong country. What was I doing here?
Here is a public school district of 2,400 kids and several hundred support staff located 120 miles north of Manhattan. It is nestled between the picturesque Berkshires and the ancient Catskills, on the banks of the Hudson River, a district cobbled together from several small towns and villages in a county of rolling hills and old dairy farms, centered in the old river town of Hudson (pop. 8,000). Once on the short list of candidates for New York state capital, Hudson had been a whale oil processing center whose docks once saw the coming and going of dozens of ships every week. Alexander Hamilton, in his last case, had defended a Hudson publisher against libel charges. Martin van Buren practiced law on its Main Street. The lush landscapes had inspired the painter Frederic Church as well as the writer Washington Irving. My wife and I had fallen in love with all of it, including the old houses, one of which we bought in the late 1980s, dreaming of a time when we could move there to live the simple life.
And so we did, in 1997, with a five-year-old son in tow. Almost immediately we saw a different town. Behind the luxuriant views and This Old House corbels was a crumbling social infrastructure. The town's population had actually declined over the last 40 years. The once-bustling shipbuilding factories, river docks, brick-making yards, and cement plants had disappeared. The proud mansions, sturdy brownstones, and energetic Victorians that we loved were mere reminders of a once-prospering local economy. Social services and corrections were now among the town's largest industries. A quarter of the residents lived below the poverty line, while less than 10 percent held a college degree. In search of Currier & Ives, we had stumbled into a place of ancient feuds and crusty habits sculpted by the physics of poverty, a place of too many rusty teeth and too few books. The struggling public library was quartered in an 18th-century stone building that had been, in the course of its 185 years, an almshouse, an orphanage, and an insane asylum. …