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.