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GRAVES: Safety is top priority in closing Capital Street

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People will sometimes ask me, usually after I've announced some initiative or decision that is bound to be controversial, why on earth I would willingly gore such sacred cows. I think they see me as someone who just loves to stir the pot, who can't quite be happy unless somebody else is rankled.

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I don't see myself in that light. But perhaps it is just like the person who has other character flaws -- the nag or the jerk or the meddler -- who can't see in themselves what is just so obvious to everyone around them. (The nag is just a person with high expectations, the jerk "tells it like it is," and the meddler a virtual saint who has devoted their life to "helping" others.)

In any case, I was reminded of this on Tuesday, the day after I announced that I had requested of the Traffic Commission the closure of Capital Street between the north and south parking lots of the high school. Didn't I realize that people would be angry about such a proposal?

Yes, I did. I know that for certain parts of town, Capital is a bit of a main thoroughfare. Though Minnesota Street is even more of a main thoroughfare, making the analogy an imperfect one, it is nevertheless true that I would be annoyed if some entity moved to close a section of it since I live in the area served by that road.

So if I can empathize, why make the proposal? I did so and continue to do so because safeguarding student safety is one of the most important obligations of my job. When I watch or hear the narratives of others watching students cross Capital on their way to or back from the MCTEA building in states of obliviousness to traffic and watch or hear of drivers similarly unmindful of pedestrians in their midst, it scares the gee willikers out of me. Closing Capital would virtually eliminate this hazard.

And this is not the first time I and others with the district have raised student safety issues which led to significant inconveniences and financial costs for lots of people. Past school board members, building principals, and I were, in part, behind the call for more sidewalks in town. The call began in the L.B. Williams neighborhood as we watched elementary-aged students walk home on icy streets because no sidewalks were present. As the issue came to demand attention, the need for sidewalks as a consistent expectation for homeowners became the norm. No one liked the fact that so many had to be hit hard in the wallet for such, but the obligations of student safety compelled it.

And so here I am at the table again. But this is not to say that closing Capital Street is the only possible solution to this problem. Rather my intent is to bring to the attention of people who can help solve the problem of the current safety concern at the high school. If other reasonable and effective solutions are possible and will help us reach that same goal of enhancing student safety, then I am wide open to them.

But what I am not open to is ignoring the current, unreasonably unsafe situation or the rather astonishing argument that some have already made that there are simply logical consequences to pedestrians who don't watch where they are going.

So let's sit down and see -- as The Daily Republic suggested in an editorial last week -- if solutions to this issue are possible which can meet everyone's needs. This does not mean, however, that I will cease to make student safety, in that conversation, my number one concern. Not because doing so will ignite controversy in our community but rather because doing so is, quite simply, my job.

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Joe Graves
Joe Graves is the superintendent of the Mitchell School District. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Republic during the school year.
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