She finally got up to $850 a year

THE much repeated, and perhaps plausible, contention that public education will improve if we spend more money for teachers gives me pause. I first heard this back in the days when teachers' salaries were appropriated, rather than negotiated, and I remember in detail the annual town meeting when it was first brought up. I ''covered'' four separate town meetings in those ribbon days of journalism, and was interested that four different school superintendents got up in four different meetings and delivered the same spirited speech - a speech prepared for them by the state department of education. Ribbon days? I was a ''stringer,'' and wrote items for the weekly paper by the column inch - I had to clip my stuff and paste it into a ''ribbon,'' which the editorial auditor measured with a yardstick before he paid me.

Education was the first subject in the list of local prerogatives undermined by bureaucratic influence from the state house. Town meetings were their own boss, and teachers' salaries were published in the annual printed reports. It was not often, but now and then some disillusioned parent would rise in meeting to inquire why we were wasting $700 a year on so-and-so. As town meeting time approached, the school committee would bring in its recommendations - how much should be spent for each school article in the warrant. Then the ''budget committee'' would agree or differ, and the citizens could make the decision. On that particular year - in the 1920s - school superintendents were coached by the state house and arose to ask for greatly increased money for teachers' pay. It was in one of the meetings that the local florist, a gentleman sparsely cultured who spelled cosmos with a ''k,'' spiked the attacking guns.

The superintendent had been recognized by the moderator, and was shuffling the statistics intended to bolster his prepared speech, when this florist arose and addressed the chair. ''I rise to a point of order,'' he said.

''Will you state your point of order?''

''Yes, I would ask the clerk if Mr. Superintendent is a resident of the town qualified to vote in town affairs?''

The town clerk, sitting on the platform by the moderator, shook his head. Everybody knew that this superintendent had been hired ''from away'' and was not yet a legal resident.

''The point of order is well taken,'' said the moderator. ''You've got to belong. It's the law.''

''In that case,'' said the florist, ''I will ask for unanimous consent to suspend the rules so that Mr. Superintendent can be heard.''

This was done kindly. The school-marms and ''friends of education'' in the meeting could see that, while the florist had made his point about outsiders, he was a gentleman and was making things right.

The moderator said: ''I have a motion for unanimous consent to allow Mr. Superintendent to be heard. Those opposed?''

That's the way to do it. Under unanimous consent it doesn't matter how many are in favor - it takes only one voice to defeat the motion. ''Those opposed?''

The florist called out, ''NO!''

So the superintendent passed his ammunition to one of the members of the school committee, and we had our first appeal for increased salaries, so we could attract better teachers.

It didn't work that way - at least in any of the four towns I ''covered.'' They kept the same old teachers and just gave them more money. Which, I think, was all right. There was one who was 82 years old and had been in the same one-room rural school for 57 years. There was a community understanding that the school would never be closed until she wanted to retire. She taught ''some good, '' and folks liked her methods. She could yank an unruly boy right out over his desk by one ear and warm his pants just fine. That school had no electricity, no plumbing, woodstove heat. You couldn't have hired a ''better'' teacher to take it on at any price. Because she had two years of normal school, she finally got up to $850 a year.

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