Really? It takes a lawsuit?

Mind-boggling indeed was the news that the failure of Monadnock and Keene school district officials to communicate effectively with each other has led Monadnock to sue Keene over the start time at the Cheshire Career Center, located at Keene High School.

The controversy stems from the Keene school board’s approval of later start times at the high school and middle school beginning in the 2020-21 school year. The board’s decision also applies to the Career Center, which, in addition to Keene’s own students, serves students of both Monadnock and the Fall Mountain Regional School District, under a contractual arrangement. Neither of those districts has plans to follow Keene’s lead and change their start times, and Monadnock officials fear a shift in the Career Center’s schedule will limit Monadnock students’ ability to take classes there.

Clearly, each district (and, for that matter, Fall Mountain, too) has important concerns. Keene’s board determined that a later start was in its students’ best interest by addressing concerns about sleep deprivation. And Monadnock officials are understandably concerned that Keene’s moving its start time from 7:25 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. would limit the number of sessions that Monadnock’s students, whose school day starts at 7:30 a.m., would be able to attend at the Career Center.

Legitimate though their concerns may be, surely this didn’t need to end up in court. Monadnock Superintendent Lisa Witte says that since Keene announced the new schedule, her staff has periodically inquired about its impact on Monadnock students. The Keene response, according to Witte: “Nope, there won’t be any impact; it’s all gonna work out,” she told The Sentinel. Her Keene counterpart, Superintendent Robert Malay, disputes that characterization, denying Keene misrepresented the effects of the new start time and saying he believes that despite the later start time, it’s possible for the Career Center to accommodate the interests of Monadnock and Fall Mountain students.

Apparently, each side is either not hearing what the other is saying or not saying what the other is hearing, or both. The Monadnock district has over the years shown itself to be no stranger to litigation, and Witte claims it is merely following its attorney’s advice in taking Keene to court, alleging that Keene has breached its contract with Monadnock by acting unilaterally to change the Career Center’s schedule.

For their part, Keene officials, who have in some recent instances seemed to be operating in a communications bubble, forging ahead on initiatives while not fully communicating with those impacted — think competency-based assessments to replace traditional grading or, more recently, the Symonds School bus turnaround brouhaha — seemed surprised there’s a misunderstanding that’s led to the lawsuit. Malay points to a different provision in Keene’s contract with Monadnock — requiring the N.H. Department of Education to arbitrate disputes between the districts — and said he wishes Monadnock were pursuing that option rather than going to court.

Here’s a suggestion: Drop the lawsuit; forget about arbitration. We don’t doubt each district has its students’ best interests in mind. But surely, there’s a better, less contentious and less costly way for Keene and Monadnock officials to resolve this amicably.

They could start by talking with each other rather than past one another. By doing so, not only would they better serve the students from all three districts who stand to benefit from the Career Center’s offerings, they would also set a welcome example in reasonable dialog, compromise and sensible dispute resolution.

Call it a teachable moment.