It’s not what Town Meeting has done that’s the problem. The problem is what it hasn’t, can’t or won’t do.
The Daily Hampshire Gazette’s recent article, “Amherst faces big bills for upkeep of schools,” is maddening, partly because it’s so predictable.
Those of us who supported the school buildings project wanted to provide our children and their teachers with safe, healthy, up-to-date buildings that are conducive to learning. We warned, over the course of a long campaign to merely convince our town to accept $34 million in state matching funds, that the costs of delaying would be significant. We didn’t have an official estimate of those costs. But common sense would lead anyone who had set foot in either building to conclude that the costs of upkeep and maintenance would be large.
Now, we have a tally. “Significant” is not quite a dramatic enough word in describing the costs. From the Gazette article: “A review of the condition of Amherst’s three elementary school buildings shows that the town will have to spend more than $1 million per year for the next four years, and more than $3 million in fiscal years 2022 and 2023, to maintain them, according the facilities department analysis.”
Looking for some context? Amherst’s building repair/maintenance budget for the entire town (which includes the schools) only just recently started topping $1 million per year. Now the schools alone will require more than that total budget. That’s a big deal.
Curiously, the campaign against the proposed charter has decided that the schools may be a winning issue. It took out an ad in the Amherst Bulletin last week to name forty – forty! – Town Meeting members who oppose the charter updates but voted in favor of the school project. Well, as my grandmother would have said, bless their forty little hearts. Maybe the next time they join our fellow parents and students at Fort River School for a gathering in the library on a rainy day, they can bring their own buckets to catch the water falling from the ceiling. Because as we all know by now, Town Meeting members voted against funding the project just after voters voted in favor of it.
Now we know the real financial costs of Town Meeting’s failure to approve: $34 million in state aid lost and another $10 million in maintenance costs over the next six years – all while we wait for another chance to replace these buildings. Even if the state aid comes back, Amherst still loses $10 million to maintain buildings that will be torn down, instead of putting that money to use in other buildings in town. What a reckless, fiscally irresponsible vote from Town Meeting.
The Gazette article quotes a Town Meeting member who suggests that the School Committee “should have seen that the project would fail to gain enough votes.” It is a striking contrast to read these words from a Town Meeting member and leader of the anti-school buildings campaign just after reading comments from an actual School Committee member who took the time to serve on the committee – a thankless but absolutely vital job. It’s a lot easier to wave around your strong opinion when you’re an unaccountable Town Meeting member, beholden to no one.
Opponents of the charter have claimed many times that unhappy school building supporters are trying to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” In this reading, we’re guided by a blind, irrational rage at Town Meeting as a result of its vote to overturn the popular decision to support the buildings and act fiscally responsibly. This is a typically condescending view.
We saw up close how Town Meeting doesn’t work. Town Meeting has done a great job patting itself on the back for its “net-zero-building” vote, and for its appropriation of some smallish amount of dollars for the North Amherst Library. But when it comes to the big things – schools, libraries, public works buildings, taxes, zoning – it appears utterly unable to get its act together.
And that has consequences for all of us. While Town Meeting members are eagerly participating in democracy camp twice a year, the rest of us are wondering what in the heck is going on in our town. It’s a great town, but we have some big issues to address – now. And the occasional government of Town Meeting isn’t up to the job.
Bennett Hazlip is a nine-year resident of Amherst and father of two children who attend Fort River School.