Our kids are caught in the middle again ... this time in East Lyme

In the pantheon of absurd concepts here in our corner of the world would be pay-to-play high school sports in the People's Republic of East Lyme, the hamlet known for quality schools and mostly sufficient bank accounts.

Imagine: a school system, despite its academic and athletic acclaim from the comforts of the burbs, destitute enough to make kids and families pay for the mere opportunity to play.

And yet pay-to-play was a recent possibility after the Board of Finance voted to reduce the proposed education budget by $500,000. Seems now that with half of that money restored at a recent meeting, pay-to-play won't be necessary, although superintendent Jeff Newton wouldn't guarantee middle school sports would survive the existing shortfall.

Maybe adults just can't help themselves. Maybe we're somehow hard wired to use children as pawns. Maybe using children is easier and more convenient than having hard conversations and making hard decisions.

But why on earth would anybody in East Lyme imperil the school system, the town's No. 1 attribute?

Board of Finance members sat in a room and approved $500,000 worth of cuts that also included staff reductions, reduced student programs and increased elementary class sizes. In other words: all the dumb stuff they do in other towns. All the other stuff that sets East Lyme apart. Instead, the 06333 just took a swan dive into the same morass with game-playing and bickering.

It took a public hearing with 500 residents in attendance to get $250,000 restored. Still, middle school sports may not survive. So once again the question: When do you suppose decisions will be made here in the actual best interests of the kids?

Sports are in the best interests of kids. They are not extracurricular. They are co-curricular. And I'd make them positively paramount in middle school.

All levels of education are voyages of self-discovery, perhaps none more than in middle school, where minds are developing and bodies are changing, thus creating dizzying levels of inner conflict.

Ah, but 13-year-olds are mostly voiceless in the cosmic scheme, thereby making the choice to save a few pennies rather easy. And that's what we're talking here: pennies. Per an e-mail from Central Office, middle school sports amount to an expenditure of $25,281 per year in an overall budget of nearly $50 million.

Twenty-five thousand dollars for something of inestimable value.

Once again: This is middle school. Puberty. More standardized testing. Higher academic standards. It all underscores the value of sports, provided that developing social and communication skills, regular exercise, and quick decision-making surrounded by people with varying engagement, motivation and interest levels bears significance to kids that age.

It just doesn't ever change, though. Aggrieved taxpayers everywhere aim their darts at education, especially if their children are grown. The education budget was of dire importance while their children were in school. But now? Not so much. It's perfectly reasonable that kids today won't have the same benefits theirs did.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Didn't you hear?

East Lymers ought to be disgusted with this. It's a peaceful place to live. Downtown Niantic rocks. There's shoreline. High level town services.

And the granddaddy of them all: an attractive school system. Why in the name of gamesmanship would they try to ruin what works so well — and more odiously put the kids in the middle?

I get that education budgets need to be monitored as well. There's no carte blanche for anyone. But East Lyme has been doing it quite well for many years now. I'm not sure why anybody would want to imperil that.

So, here's a modest proposal: Schedule a new meeting. Leave your egos at the door. Sit down and listen to each other. Being right is overrated. It's about being responsible to our most vulnerable residents:

The kids.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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