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Should candidates’ votes on charter and school project influence who we support?

Nick Grabbe

The two most far-reaching decisions Amherst has made in the last five years have been voters’ approval of a new form of government  and Town Meeting’s blockage of a plan to build two new elementary schools using $34 million in state money.

On Nov. 6, we’ll determine which 13 of the 26 candidates will sit on Amherst’s new Town Council. Should the candidates’ positions on these two votes influence which ones we support?

Even though I strongly supported the new charter, opponents do not automatically lose my support. There are at least two anti-charter candidates who I think would be valuable members of the Town Council.

But opposition to the school project was so financially irresponsible, so heedless of children’s educational needs, and so damaging to the Town’s long-term welfare, that I believe it’s a valid reason to reject certain candidates. Three of them, Jacqueline Maidana, Steve Braun and Rob Kusner, voted against the plan in Town Meeting, Candidates who voted for the school plan in Town Meeting were Mandi Jo Hanneke, Alisa Brewer, Andy Steinberg, Bob Greeney, Nicola Usher, George Ryan and Steve Schreiber.

I would like to see Amherst come together as one community after the bitter battle over the new charter last fall and winter. I hope we don’t create de facto political parties based on this one vote, and I hope that people are open-minded enough that their positions on the charter don’t predict their positions on other issues.

I understand some of the reasons why 41 percent of voters opposed the charter. Some Town Meeting members liked participating directly in town government. Others believed that more people making decision was better, no matter whether or not voters chose them, while some bought the line that a Town Meeting form of government is more progressive than a Town Council.

The decision on building new elementary schools was an epic fail (and was a major factor in the charter’s overwhelming approval by voters). Amherst’s children will be going to school in two unsound and outmoded buildings for many years, and we forfeited $34 million in state money to replace them, along with some needed preschool slots. Now we”ll have to spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars in maintenance costs just to keep two school buildings open, which is like putting a new engine in a 30-year-old car.

Anyone who helped create this epic fail by voting against the bond authorization in Town Meeting demonstrated bad judgment and shouldn’t be on the Town Council, in my opinion.

Let’s briefly review what happened. Officials spent almost 10 years securing state funding and devising a plan to locate two new schools on the current site of Wildwood School. There were some sincere arguments against this plan, but it passed the elected School Committee and voters approved raising taxes to implement it.

The last step was for Town Meeting to affirm, by a two-thirds vote, that the Town could afford to borrow our share of the costs, known as a “bond authorization.” Town officials had worked out a detailed, long-term plan to accommodate the debt from this and other infrastructure projects.

Jim Pistrang, the moderator of Town Meeting, allowed debate on the project itself and not just the bond authorization. A minority of Town Meeting members maintained, incorrectly, that the town would be able to go back and revise the plan and still get the state money. They labeled the project a “mega-school” and made other questionable arguments against it. They were able to kill the entire project, even though 57.2 percent of Town Meeting members voted for the bond authorization.

I held Pistrang partly responsible, because he did not restrict debate to the bond authorization. But he recently explained to me that historically, Town Meeting has been allowed to debate the merits of a proposal when considering its funding source, and his non-intervention was consistent with what other moderators across the state do in similar situations.

Although he abstained from the actual vote, Pistrang recently told me, “I wish that Town Meeting had approved the bond authorization. My personal opinion is that the proposed school project was not perfect, but the positives far outweighed the negatives.” I have known Pistrang for many years and regard him as a conscientious, honest public servant. I think he’d be a valuable member of the Town Council, possibly a bridge-builder.

Other Town Council candidates who were not Town Meeting members, and thus do not have recorded votes, should be questioned closely on their positions on the school vote.

 

Comments 35

  1. Thank you for this article, Nick, and for having the conversations that went into it. I campaigned hard for the schools project. I was wondering if someone could provide 2-3 examples of where Town Meeting was allowed to debate the merits of a proposal when considering its funding source? I know this happened on the schools project and would be interested to actually learn about examples of precedent. I think this would be important information for school-project supporters who are working to decide who to vote for among the at-large candidates.

    1. I’m thinking back on the major funding projects of the past 25 years where Town Meeting was asked to approve the borrowing of large sums of money. The High School Expansion, Town Hall Renovation, Parking Garage, and the Plumbrook Playing Fields all come to mind. In all cases, Town Meeting discussion included debate on the merits of the project and was not limited to the affordability of the project. I also recall discussing the subject with other Moderators at the annual Massachusetts Moderator’s Association in October 2016. They all agreed that discussion on the merits of a project were in order. They also stressed that the tradition of prior Town Meetings was an important factor, and a Moderator should be cautious about suddenly shifting from past practices.
      If anyone wants to discuss this with me in more detail, I would welcome a phone call, an email, or a person-to-person meeting.
      Jim Pistrang, Amherst Town Moderator (and Councilor-at-large candidate)

        1. Jim – Thanks so much for the timely and thorough response. It’s really helpful for voters like me, who weren’t part of town meeting, to understand the context you were operating in. Wishing you a great weekend.

  2. I think Johanna asks a great question about the precedents for allowing the debate to expand beyond the funding and I would also like to know what they were, if it’s possible to find that out. My guess is that the former moderator who mentioned the precedents must be aware of them. And I agree, you wrote a really good, well-researched and very fair-minded article. Nick. Nice job.

  3. I disagree that candidates should be considered financially irresponsible because they voted to block the school project. Contrary to the campaign rhetoric of those trying to get the school project to pass, we did not just throw away the matching money from the state. Other towns who voted down their school projects in Massachusetts have been approved for their funding again within 2-3 years, and recieved it within 5-6 years. So **it’s still there.** Of course, no one wanted that delay, so it was sad we couldn’t pass a plan that the town agreed on this first time around. But to blame it on the No voters is wrong. Blame it on the school administration, who became **utterly and blindly fixated on the grade reconfiguration of the town’s kids, despite strong opposition from the get go, from parents at all three schools.** They attached this bad idea to a reasonable new building plan. I can see why they wanted it; I’m sure they were pretty tired of hearing “their school is better than ours” from 2/3 of the school’s parents every time one of the three elementary schools was renovated. Putting all of the town’s kids of the same grade into the same building solved that complaint. But it created huge, other problems. No one wanted to do away with the small neighborhood school feel. No one wanted to put all the kids, even the youngest, onto long bus routes across town, twice a day, every day. No one wanted siblings broken up into different schools. No one wanted the environmental impact of all that additional busing.

    I was on the ground in the campaign, talking to both sides, and in my opinion the building plan would have worked just fine as a double school for Fort River and Wildwood. (Not ideal, perhaps, because of the large size, but it would have solved the problems of those two buildings, and it would have gone through just fine, because of that.) It was only that they insisted on tacking on this grade reconfiguration of the kids, that made the plan fail. The administration could have changed that at any point, and they didn’t. They hoped to force it through. What we learned in this first round, is that that the town’s parents will refuse a grade reconfigured school plan, and the tax payers will refuse to fund such a faulty solution.

    A lot of the current candidates are talking about the importance of listening to the townspeople ahead of time, before going in and making decisions. If the school administration had done this, we would not be waiting for 5-6 years to begin construction on the ultimate solution. They held the forums, they even had a study done to determine where parents and teachers stood. The study revealed that 94% of parents, and 96% of teachers, voted for building solutions that were **not** grade-reconfigured. So the “listening” of parents and teachers was pure show. Had they actually listened, we would not be in this position.

    I’m not promoting any particular candidate with this argument. I’m just saying, I disagree with your methodology for ruling out the above three.

    1. First off, the reason I think no one who opposed the school should be voted onto the Town Council is NOT for financial reasons. It is for judgement reasons. It was because the people who opposed it let “perfect” be the enemy of the “very good” and used that to kill the whole thing and condemned another generation of children to have to attend poorly constructed classrooms that are an enormous obstacle to learning.

      Those quad classrooms with the open walls are the single worst thing I have ever seen in any school in my life. And I am a personal witness to how distracting it can be trying to listen to a teacher while you can hear another teacher in another of the quad classrooms talking. I have sat in them on Open School night and tried to hear the teacher tell me and the other parents what their plan was for the year only to be distracted by another teacher doing the same thing in their classrooms. How many children have been hurt in their ability to learn because of the problems of distraction and focus? How many kids have had difficulties that could have been removed by building the new school and how many will continue to have troubles with their schoolwork because of that? The teachers at Fort River are excellent but this is beyond their control and they try their best to overcome it. It cannot be overcome. It was poor construction and a bad idea from the beginning… and I think a lot of people knew it and let it go on for 40 years.

      How many kids have not got as good a start in elementary school because of these quad classrooms over those 40 years? Sure, some kids were able to focus better than others and tune out the distractions, but what about the kids who can’t and couldn’t? Opposing that new school for any reason, financial or “grade reconfiguration” was just an excuse for throwing their elementary school experience in the garbage. Yeah, I said garbage because that is how I feel the people who purposely killed that school treated our kids.

      My daughter has gone to Fort River since kindergarten in 2013 and although the new school would not have been constructed in time for her to benefit from, I, like a lot of other parents whose kids wouldn’t directly benefit from it supported that new school and Dr. Morris’ attempt to make it happen. There were a lot of people who voted for the school, who knew they’d be paying higher taxes and it might be the next generation of kids who would benefit if theirs did not. Those are the kind of people I want on our Town Council making decisions for us and for our kids. Not the people who used scare tactics and lies and to defeat that badly needed school and now want to talk about “grade reconfiguration”. And as for the “environmental concerns” of the new building, how about talking about the air that my kid and a hell of a lot of other kids have to breathe in at Fort River and Wildwood from faulty heating systems and poorly air circulation? Or the lead in the water that they had to work on for a year to fix and have to now monitor regularly? How many kids have to live with the dampness in the schools caused by leaky roofs? How many kids get sick because of all the conditions of those schools that everyone knows and ignored by opposing that new school?

      And more than anything, how many kids feel like they aren’t as smart as other kids because they are having more troubles in their studies because of those open quad classrooms and how will that effect them in middle school and high school? What has that done and what is it doing right now their self-esteem? I think if even one kid was feeling like he wasn’t as smart as the other kids that would be too many… but for opponents of the school, hundreds who had and continue to have learning problems were not enough for them to let the “very good” new elementary school be good enough to let perfect go for another day.

      Yeah, you bet your life that I’m going to only vote for people who supported the new school and I will vote against anyone who opposed it. And I’ll bet I’m not the only parent and citizen who feels that way.

      So don’t tell me…

  4. I think the claim that it was the grade reconfiguration alone that cause town meeting to tank the schools proposal is disingenuous. A few months ago I asked opponents of the schools project if we could work together to revive the co-located schools project if it was K-6, and was outright rejected. There was no interest or appetite in working together on a compromise like that.

    I took the survey that Amy referenced. Like most parents who received it and hadn’t quite clued into the details of the building project at that time, I responded to it saying that I preferred K-6. I responded that way because K-6 is what I knew… and when faced with the known vs the unknown, we tend to prefer the known.

    But as I came to learn more about the merits of the project, like most people in Amherst, I became solidly in favor of the project including the 2-6 grade reconfiguration because that was part of how we kept our schools small, without crowding, and it’s how we expanded preschool.

    I believe the school committee DID listen. They listened to the families and teachers who are desperate for quality learning environments. They listened to the families that are thirsting for more affordable preschool options. They heard the anguish of parents of special needs kids that were being bused away from their siblings because their education program was at a school other than their own. And they connected the dots on all these issues and developed an elegant solution that addressed many of them. Sure, there were disadvantages too, as there are any time you compromise. But it would have been a MASSIVE improvement over current conditions.

    Whether or not candidates for town council supported or opposed the schools project IS a bright line issue that should determine who we vote for. Because it’s the litmus test for evaluating which candidates can connect the dots on complex problems and develop solutions based on thoughtful thinking and compromise.

  5. Thank you Nick for raising this important issue and I agree with you wholeheartedly. As we choose from among many qualified candidates to serve on our council, I’m going to value known experience and thoughtful leadership. That school building project funding vote at TM was beyond disheartening. But before this vote came to TM there was a strong parent led campaign of SUPPORT for the project and in fact the whole town voted on the project and it passed. An OVERRIDE passed. No easy feat. So it went on to a surprising defeat on the floor of TM but the support for the project only grew. It went back to TM after thousands of signatures were gathered in a matter of days (more strong support shown) and after TM voted it down a second time (defeated by just over a hundred TM voters) it actually went out to the public again and won majority support. Not enough to get over the 2/3rds threshold but strong support indeed. These community wide votes are evidence to me of how those who led on the building project were acting in the interests of the community and an effort at fiscal responsibility for long term investment in our schools. A major issue indeed.

  6. Some community members continue to perpetuate the myth that the school building plan was a “mega-school” and that it was bad for students and teachers, and that the plan wasn’t perfect and did away with”neighborhood schools”. ​Another ​myth was that we could “get right back into the process”. The fact​s are quite different.

    The building was going to house two schools of 350 students each, hardly a “mega-school”. ​

    ​The​ MSBA has a ​very specific process and every year ​it accepts applications from districts all over the Commonwealth with dilapidated school buildings. Being in the process previously gives a district no advantage, as you are competing with the districts that applied that particular application year.​

    If​ Amherst were to​ get back into the process this December​,​ we will have one new school by 2025​-2026.​ ​We would then need to apply for the second building and in the best-case​ scenario​ have all Amherst students out of open classrooms​ and into buildings to support their learning by 2033.

    The Amherst​ school building plan, and the educational plan that drove it, was recognized nationally by the Century Foundation for being a plan that will result in truly integrated schools. The ​educational discussion nationally​ has for years recognized the expression “neighborhood schools” as one that affluent white families use to keep schools segregated by class and race. ​In contrast to this segregated model – which dominates communities across the country, even liberal communities-​ Amherst’s plan would have provided every child with full access to programs and teaching environments that would support and enhance their learning.

    Community members, including teachers, families of color, low-income families and parents who wanted better learning environments for their children and for the town’s future students, stood in the back of the room on the night T​own ​M​eeting voted on the funding for the project. They were not allowed to speak​,​ in part because the moderator didn’t recognize them​,​ ​but ​largely​ because NO voters called the question and​ forced​ the vote before they could hear from the​ larger​ community .​ This turning away of $34 million of state money for a school building plan that would have expanded pre-school and had all Amherst students in a new building providing full access to resources for all students, is the definition of fiscal irresponsibility. I certainly see the school building vote as a measure of whether a candidate will be a fiscally responsible and sensible Town Councilor.​

    1. My God… a possible new school that won’t be able to help all the elementary school kids until 2033? THAT is the final nail in the coffin for ANYONE who opposed that desperately needed new school when it comes to being elected into any town office. It is unforgivable what the so-called “Save Amherst’s Small Schools” group has done to our children… and another entire generation of children. Mean-spirited scare tactics and flat-out lies hurt every kid in Amherst. I hope this will never be forgotten and I hope that no one will reward any member of that opposition with the trust of a Town Council seat or any other position in Amherst government. My God… look what they did to our kids.

    2. I appreciate it when Ms. Appy attempts to keep us grounded in the facts about the school plan. What gets lost is that there were aspirations of the community about education, involving a head start for every child, that were embodied in the plan. It wasn’t just about the money forfeited for many of us. It was about an important element of social justice that the Town was going to deliver on for each and every elementary school child. I can’t vote for a Town Council candidate who did not (or would not) weigh those considerations in the balance. So NO voters on the plan who want my vote for Town Council have “some ‘splainin’ to do”.

  7. Thanks Jim. Were any of the projects you mentioned also subject to override votes of the voters? If not, then it can be said that the bond authorization in Town Meeting was also a vote on the merits of the project, since the voters as a whole wouldn’t ever get to weigh in on the merits. But, in this last vote, the voters had already spoken on the merits, approving it. Therefore, it can be argued that the vote in town meeting should have been solely about the financial aspect, with discussion of the merits being extraneous-the merits had already been approved by the voters. Allowing discussion on the merits essentially allowed Town Meeting to second guess the voters on the merits of the issue.

    1. This is a really good clarifying question posed by Mandi Jo Hanneke… I hope Mr. Pistrang answers it here.

  8. I held my nose and voted for the two-school solution because my kids attended Wildwood in 1972. We continue to call it the Wild Child School because along with the floor plan came the theory of total freedom. Discipline and self-control were the other pole of the pendulum. I am still convinced that the problem causing the defeat of the project — political control by the 34% minority which could block borrowing — lies clearly in the political deafness of the then-Superintendent. I also brought up the same issue in the public meeting of the Select Board on the day they set the date of the election. DO NOT PUT TWO CONTENTIOUS ISSUES IN ONE QUESTION TO THE VOTERS! This was especially important as there had been no public debate for us folks out of the school parent loop.

  9. Any Town Meeting members that voted NO for the bond authorization of the school building project deliberately overstepped their authority and used an “Ends Justify Means” approach to killing a project that they did not support. Such people should NEVER be elected to serve in public office. And shame on voters who knowingly cast their votes for such candidates.

    1. 147 elementary school staff and teachers signed a petition in support of the school project. All three elementary school principals supported and endorsed the plan. It had near-unanimous support from the school committee, finance committee, and select board. Voters supported a tax increase to make it happen. Twice. The will of the people, the knowledge and expertise of those who spent years considering the proposal, and perhaps most disturbing, the support from the very people we trust to educate and care for our kids every day were ignored.

  10. I’m reposting Noah Kuhn’s post from 9/6/2018. Note that here were 2 Town Meeting votes–one in Fall 2016 and a reconsideration in January 2017.
    —————————————————————————————-
    The January 30, 2017 Special Town Meeting results are public. Here are how the Town Meeting members who are going to be on the ballot voted. https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/37746/1-20-17-Votes

    AT LARGE
    Hanneke: Yes
    Brewer: Yes
    Pistrang: Abstain (as moderator)
    Steinberg: Yes
    Greeney: Yes (initially voted No at the Fall session)
    Kusner: No

    DISTRICT 2
    None were TM members

    DISTRICT 3
    Ryan: Yes
    Braun: No

    DISTRICT 4
    Schreiber: Yes
    Maidana: No

    DISTRICT 5
    None were TM members

  11. I will be voting for the candidates that I predict will be best at having a collaborative, robust, creative, curious, practical discussion; and are great at drilling down to root problems, consider unintended consequences, and be able to both disagree reasonably and work as an effective body.

    I will not be voting for people who I agree with on a single issue, no matter how much it may appear to be the perfect one question personality indicator.

    I will vote for people who will not see the $32 million as “state money” as opposed to “our tax contributions” and not see politicians in Boston as some irrefutable higher authority; but instead will charter a party bus of all 13 of you to go insist that we want that $32mm to pay for a plan that we don’t have to “hold our nose and vote for.”

    1. Post
      Author

      I really like the first sentence of your comment, Ira. That’s a very good guideline for the kind of person who will be effective on the Town Council. But I don’t think your final sentence is a practical solution to the problem.

    2. It’s your right to vote for anyone you want. There is no requirement that one must not vote for someone whose actions have resulted in hurting the town’s children. Your vote is your vote.

      Myself, I won’t be voting for anyone who put their personal desires above the needs of the children of our town by killing that new elementary school. They took that school away from the kids after a majority of the town’s citizens voted to build it… twice. They killed the new school with a very well-financed and orchestrated campaign of scare tactics and lies. They were very clever. They were very effective. They won.

      And then they walked away.

      Well, people like me and a lot of other parents who have children in Fort River and Wildwood schools have to deal with the problems that are still there every single day.

      We can’t walk away… and neither can our children.

      All any of us can hope for is that the town’s voters won’t put our children’s elementary school futures into the hands of the same people who stole them.

      I trust the town’s voters because the majority of them voted to build that new elementary school. They got it right… twice. And then they voted the form of government that took that new school away from our kids out of existence.

      The voters got it right…three times. No reason to think the voters won’t get it right again.

  12. Not the first time we have seen things differently.

    Massachusetts invented “no taxation without representation.” Our tax dollars are now held hostage because the conditions were we get it only if we adopt a very flawed plan.

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      Author

      There’s nothing surprising or wrong about people seeing things differently. But I think your statement of “a very flawed plan” is an opinion, not a fact.

  13. Im not sure how a plan that was the most equitable ( as recognized nationally), the most fiscally responsible, expanded pre-school so that more low income children could attend, stopped busing children based on their families’ socio-economic status, got our special education students into rooms with windows and more resources, got all our students out of classrooms without walls and was supported by the majority of professional educators in town is so “flawed” that we would wait 15 years in the best case scenario to solve these problems?

  14. Nick: yes, my opinion is not a fact (just like all opinions). Plus, as a lifelong learner, my opinions are not cast in stone.

    FYI, though I was torn, like many people, I voted yes on the school project, thinking it was now or never, even with a plan I thought had several significant problems.

    My points are:

    I will vote for team players

    Who don’t demonize

    Who understand that innovation comes from combining ideas

    And no one opinion shows the needed character and wisdom to earn my vote.

    And we are all neighbors in a small town.

    I appreciate you trying to have a reasonable discussion.

    Ira

  15. Ira, I completely agree and appreciate your point of view. It’s also my hope that we elect town councilors who can be collaborative, open minded and think about the needs of the community in a strategic and thoughtful way.

  16. Nick: You note that the Charter controversy is over, and ask that we not use someone’s position on the Charter to influence whom we support for the Town Council. That’s a reasonable view, but not one that you extend to the elementary school vote. According to you, voting no on the schools should disqualify someone as a candidate for Councillor.

    In my view, a candidate’s vote on either issue is irrelevant. Both were terribly controversial and divisive, and large numbers of thoughtful, responsible people supported both sides of each. The school project was favored by a small majority of our voters, but not two-thirds. I voted in favor more than once, but many whom I respect voted the other way.

    I will support and vote for people for the Council who are thoughtful, collaborative, rational, and good listeners. Qualities like these are what I will seek in a Councillor, not voting history on any particular issue.

    When the School question arises again, I want people on the Council who will consider the proposal on its merits at the time. How they voted the last time, on a very different proposal, is immaterial to me and it should be immaterial to the voters.

    You are targeting Darcy DuMont in particular. I won’t have the chance to vote for her since I’m not in District 5, but she has all of the qualities I’m looking for in a Councillor. I hope that most District 5 voters see past your narrow vision of what defines a good Council candidate and vote for her.

    Chris

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      Author

      Chris, while we agree on the school project, we disagree on whether its opponents should be held accountable for the situation we find ourselves in now: dilapidated, rundown schools, the loss of a significant amount of state money, and the need to spend millions on maintenance and repair. Their votes just showed bad judgment, which resulted in a decision that will haunt the town for decades, in my opinion. We need councilors who will show good judgment.
      I can’t really fault Darcy in this case, because she wasn’t a Town Meeting member. But she has been asked for her position on the school project (with circumstantial evidence indicating that she opposed it) and she has studiously avoided answering the question. Candidates should answer their potential constituents’ questions, don’t you think? Also, I think Darcy is pandering to those who are understandably uneasy about the pace of change in the visual landscape of the northern part of downtown, ignoring the manifest benefits to the town of the two new buildings, and I believe she should have checked out the legality of a moratorium on development before proposing it.
      I admire her work as a climate change activist, as you do, but I think that’s not really relevant to her candidacy for Town Council.

    2. I guess Chris wants to take the position that he is fairer, kinder, gentler, and just plain more civilized than some of us in looking at the political pasts of candidates. He wants us (apparently) to see each candidate as a tabula rasa, to be taken at face value for everything that they say NOW. I choose to use a slightly different method, that is, what the candidate has done or said at the big moments in the history of the Town matter. The past record of candidates, if any, working collaboratively and deliberatively with others matters. And, yes, some key votes give us a window into how a candidate thinks about the big picture. For me, Chris Riddle would do pretty well as a candidate using this approach, because he’s been out there for years serving the Town in a number of different capacities, and, as I think he would agree, he’s cast some difficult votes in public. But the sanctimony above rankles a bit. I don’t see why I need to apologize, as Chris seems to be demanding, for looking at candidates in this way , or why it is “a narrow vision”, simply because it does not favor someone he likes. The vote on the School Plan is not the end-all and be-all, but it’s not nothing. It matters, and candidates should not be able to escape the implications of the choices they made. I am eager to listen to Ms. Dumont in public forums.

  17. Should a person who voted to take away healthcare from poor children and end health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions be given our vote in the Senate or the House Elections?

    Should a person who instituted the cruel policy of separating children from their parents who are desperate seeking asylum at our borders as they flee from violence be given our vote for President?

    And should a person who knew what the conditions, as we all did, were like for learning and living in Fort River and Wildwood Elementary Schools and who opposed that school and helped to kill it… killing those kids’ chances for a new elementary school for another 10 to 15 years, should that person be given our vote for Town Council?

    Okay, the first two are big, national issues. The first affects millions of people and the second affects many thousands. The third one is a very small, local issue. It affects a few hundred children. But the stakes are the same because they are personal, human stakes… whether you are a person who is in fear of losing their healthcare or losing their daughters and sons at the border… or you are the parents of children who have to overcome obstacles to learning and healthy living every day in our very own neighborhoods.

    We are all judged by the decisions we have made in our lives. Some were good, some were bad. I have made many of both, probably more bad than good if you count car purchases. But most of those decisions probably just affected ourselves and so that doesn’t matter so much. But decisions that affect a lot of other people… decisions that take good things away from those who need them… particularly those who have less than we do… who, like our children, have little or no voice and no say and certainly no vote in getting the help they need. They count on us. THOSE decisions matter.

    And those of us who have let them down should not be allowed to let them down again.

  18. What Katherine said, plus:

    In my opinion there were two main problems with Town Meeting voting down the new school plan:

    1. As already mentioned, it was a bond authorization vote, not a school plan vote. TM should have been much more focused on whether or not the town could afford the bond, not on the merits of the plan. Why does it take a 2/3 vote for a bond authorization, yet only a majority vote for an override to pay for it, and for the School Committee and School Building Committee votes? Because of finances, not because of plan merit. If it was because to plan merit, then 2/3 would be required for the School Committee and other related votes. Logical, right?

    The really crazy thing is that the plan presented was the best financial plan. Regardless of what you thought of the plan, it’s undeniable that the plan presented was the least expensive. That was one reason why I voted for the plan; we needed to save as much money as possible for operations. Remember, we used to have 4 schools, and moving to 3 saved us around $800,000 annually. What would our class sizes be now without that $800K? Everyone focuses on the condition of the WW and FR schools, which was and remains a big problem, but there are more problems that the plan would have solved than just that.

    2. I saw a lot of TM members legitimately concerned that they were hearing loud objections to the plan. The wanted more consensus.

    Here’s the problem: there was no plan that was perfect. Every plan had its pros and cons, and so every plan would have had detractors. Picking the right plan involved a very careful weighing of all pros and cons. The bottom line is that TM is not capable of doing that — way too large, part-time, and unaccountable — and so it’s a good thing that TM is no more. The School Committee did a very careful weighing when it voted yes (4-1) on this plan.

    TM should not have been considering the plan merits, but they did, and were incapable of doing that well.

    Anyone who was incapable of seeing the above, and thus voted no on the school plan, does not get my vote for Town Council.

  19. In June 2017, I attended a conference with the Superintendent entitled “Furthering Diversity in K-12 Schools through Student Assignment” sponsored by the Center For Education and Civil Rights. The district was invited because of the visionary nature of the failed building project in its efforts to move the district towards truly diverse and equitable schools.

    Speakers experienced with racial and socio-economic integration efforts stressed a point that struck me: policies to achieve these goals often do not feel “natural”. Such integration requires explicit policies to be put in place and followed, which may feel quite disruptive to the status quo. Racial and socio-economic segregation are so ingrained in our society and history that shifting this norm may appear as a serious upset.

    A major concern I had with Town Meeting was that significant decisions could be made based on the emotional tenor in the room at any given moment. Emotions are powerful and important, and they have some merit. Many votes that came before Town Meeting, however, had been researched and discussed for months to years by individuals with significant expertise and experience. This work could easily be instantly shut down by a series of emotionally charged comments on the Town Meeting floor, which may or may not have been backed by facts, knowledge, or understanding of the larger picture. It was not uncommon for people to put their children at the podium to make an emotional argument. While many Town Meeting members may have diligently prepared for the meeting in advance, the complexity and scope of the issues was such that I believe many important decisions were made based on people’s gut feelings about what felt right or wrong. I see this as a problematic way to do government.

    The co-located, reconfigured model for the elementary schools felt weird to people. I get it – It felt weird to me at first, too. It was very different from what I knew and what I’d expected for my kids. I then came to understand the perennial challenges that our schools face around issues such as re-districting, busing, special education programming, preschool, and population shifts, along with the overwhelming infrastructure failings and the MSBA program requirements. I talked to principals all over the state with similar configurations to hear how it affected their school cultures. With this new knowledge, my feelings changed to great excitement about the potential of this new plan to meet the needs of our students in better and more powerful ways while moving towards true integration.

    Preserving tradition, culture, and the “feeling” of our town and schools is important. There is a reason we’ve all chosen to live here. But as the broader culture is slowly and painfully waking up to aspects of “how things have always been” that are no longer acceptable, Amherst must as well.

    Gut feelings should be taken into consideration, and then they need to be held up against research. Beyond the elementary building project, I want Town Council members who will look at future decisions with a belief in preserving the great things about Amherst that benefit all its residents, and an openness to changing those that don’t.

  20. When I majored in Elementary Education in the early 70s, I was pretty sure that “free school” was the natural way – kids would ambitiously find ways to learn, in a safe, unstructured environment. When I walked into a job directing/ teaching in a K-6 free school, I realized quickly it didn’t work that way. (much more to say about this, but I digress.) I figured that one step to the right – open classrooms – must be the middle path. Luckily, Buffalo just then opened a publicly funded open classroom school; and gave all our students right of first refusal. I moved back to Long Island, to join my family’s business. Anyway, I can understand why Amherst made the decision to build 2 schools in the open classroom model, but it is a lesson in not getting caught up in fashion or fantasy. I just found an article from the Greenfield Recorder from the early 70s (posted here: irabryck.com/perspectives/openclassroomamherst1970s ) describing strong support for building Fort River School, in the image of the brand new Wildwood School. The article cites only one person who opposed it, saying that maybe Fort River should be somewhere between the openness of Wildwood and “rigid, self contained” classrooms of older schools; maybe, he suggested, more the collapsible and movable walls then used at Crocker Farm. I note this only to say it’s good to have minority opinions on a board or council, to prevent only vanilla ideas and conventional thinking getting to the finish line. I can see why candidates who are concerned that – without a strong block of candidates who all agree- the co-located school will again be defeated. In this environment, that 1972 man, who thought that Fort River should not be another open classroom, would be opposed by the PAC. And even though several council candidates presently agree on a set of issues (physical plant, school, fire station) there will definitely be disagreement on other issues, and when that happens, I hope our council will have some people with the ability to have a neighborly exploration of complex issues, create innovative solutions with the collision of ideas, respect people who think differently, etc. It seemed to me that those supporting the charter wanted to improve the discussion they thought was limited by Town Meeting. I think the long term health of the council will not be best served if filled with voting blocs and promoting only those who agree on one of many issues. (Yes, I understand it’s an important one.)

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