Amy Finlay: Urges Amherst to Move Forward as a Town

Urges Amherst to move forward as a town
Amy Finlay
Published Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 21, 2017

Most parents understand that a larger environment isn’t better for our young kids, and most of us have an instinctual sense about what makes a school that “feels right.”

Unnecessary, increased time spent on buses, does not feel right. Grouping children in a grade cohort that is three times the size of their current one, from the earliest years, does not feel right. Separating siblings into two schools unnecessarily, doesn’t feel right.

Parents and teachers in Amherst were surveyed about our elementary school update options over a year ago, and this grade-reconfigured, large building solution was the least popular solution by far. It was the top choice of only 6 percent of parents and only 4 percent of teachers. Now, after it has been pushed forward, and held onto so tightly by influential supporters, despite ongoing, widespread opposition, we are in a position where it might pass a town-wide vote.

If it does, then I will tip my hat to the hard-working supporters, acknowledge it as the town’s will, and go along.

If it doesn’t, I hope that supporters of the plan will concede the will of the town-wide vote, so that we can finally start working toward a solution that more people can get excited about, on behalf of all of our town’s kids.

The marathon of this effort, on both sides, has had more hills in it than any of us anticipated — and I know that people who have worked the hardest on both sides are feeling it — but I am left feeling grateful.

I am grateful to the Building Opportunity for Learning and Diversity (BOLD) members that I have spoken with, who have engaged in real conversation, as we each genuinely stretched to understand each other’s outlook more.

 I am also so, so grateful to the most hard-working of the Save Amherst’s Small Schools (SASS) members, who have demonstrated to me what it means to operate a campaign with unwavering honesty, civility and integrity.
However the March 28 vote goes, it is my greatest hope that we can move forward into the next phase, as a town, with a sense of trust in the process of self governance, and trust in the goodness and good intentions of each other as neighbors. We have all put forth our greatest vision and greatest effort. Now we let the good people of this town define our way forward.
Amy Finlay

Amherst

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Perot: Why I’m voting no.

Reprinted by permission from letter circulated by Melissa Perot, Amherst.

I do not have children or grandchildren in the Amherst school system and so could easily say this is not my issue. However I would be guilty of lying. Like the climate, how children are educated and to what end, affects us all, now and in the future. It creates our expectations, dashes our hopes, and above all challenges us to fundamental change.

I will not vote for the proposed innovative school building because my priority in education is to teach through example the short term difficulty and long term benefits of building not just your self but community; how to deal with conflict resulting from differing priorities or socio-economic circumstances, how to adapt to financial and energy (material and human) restraints and whether to risk creative ideas in unpredictable times.

To me education is like a compost heap that recycles old information to create new soil and the potential for growth and adaptation. It is a messy, complicated process that requires the integration of multiple factors to ‘work’. Attention and adaptation are key in the presence of uncontrollable circumstances. Composting can be achieved in an expensive, purpose built, attractive green plastic, smoothly rotating container, often with ‘additives’ or in an open semi-confined space exposed to various natural influences, including potentially harmful ones that could, through a form of alchemy, create something no-one had yet thought of, moving mankind a step forward … or backward in the dance of life. Either works, but for me Buildings are Bling without U and S holding up either end and with D (for $) closely guarded in the middle.

Melissa Perot

Carol Gray: Why I’m voting no

Reposted with permission from an individual email by Carol Gray:

Regarding the school issue, here’s why I am voting No:

1) This is not the only plan, or the best plan, or even the second or third best plan. During a survey of parents and teachers in 2016, there were four plans presented and this one we’re voting on now was ranked as preferred by only 6% of parents and 4% of teachers. Many people have been left with the misimpression that it is this plan or none at all. Let’s leave behind the scare tactics and hold out for a plan that won’t leave us with a bitterly divided community. (See more info. about the numbers attached.)

2) Bad timing: We’re looking for a new superintendent and two new principals. Could there be a worse time to start a multi-million dollar project with a divided town?

3) This project is very expensive! The national (2012) average cost/per/square/foot for elementary school construction was $211.55. This plan’s square foot cost is :$441.00
We need better/new schools but we don’t need the most expensive schools that this state grant has ever funded (which this current plan would be).

4) We shouldn’t lose K-6 schools. There’s a reason why the norm for primary education is K-6: it works! Creating a transition so kids would have to go to a new school for the second grade is bad for kids. Plus, our son loves the Book Buddy program where 6th graders read with kindergartners. Our schools thought they were being cutting edge 50 years ago, breaking from the pack to create open floor plan classrooms. It turned out it would have been better to stay with the pack and have regular walls. Let’s not branch out again with a K-1 and 2-6 school system only to find some years down the road that there was good reason to stay with the K-6 model.

5) Small neighborhood schools are better for the community. Our friends have developed through our neighborhood school. I would hate for our son to go to a location that has twice the number of kids compared to Fort River. Plus I would hate to lose Fort River. It’s been a great school for us plus it has the best fields of any school. I can’t imagine packing twice the number of kids on half the open space of Wildwood’s already small playground area. Also, as an economic point, I read about a study that said when neighborhood schools closed down, property values went down about 10-12%. The town already shut down Marks Meadows a long time back; let’s not now shut down Fort River, another fine school. Sure, it needs to be modernized or rebuilt, but that can happen without abandoning the site. (If you build the new Wildwood next to the old Wildwood, you could put the Fort River kids in the old Wildwood while the new Fort River is being built.)

I hope you’ll vote No so the building committee can get to work on the next school plan, hopefully one that keeps our small neighborhood K-6 schools in our neighborhoods.

poll-watching! Legal guidance in Massachusetts

Quick reference for anyone who didn’t “get the memo” (literally): Legal guidance for poll-watchers in Massachusetts, from the Elections Division.

The PDF is attached HERE.  Full text is below, although the quality of the OCR is poor (apologies).

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts
William Francis Galvin, Secretary of the Commonwealth
Elections Division

MEMORANDUM

TO: Local Election Officials and Persons Interested in Observing Elections in Massachusetts
FROM: Elections Division
DATE: October 25, 2012
RE: OBSERVERS AT THE POLLS

INTRODUCTION
State law requires the election be held in the public view. To achieve this
legal requirement, observers are permitted inside the polling place, outside the
guardrail, unless they are disorderly or obstruct the access of voters. An
observer must comply with the applicable laws and regulations and observing
must be done in a manner so as not to interfere with the voter or voting process
and in conformity with the instructions of local officials. This memorandum is
provided to give some additional guidance regarding observers at the polls.

GENERAL INFORMATION

Observers must be allowed into the polling place at least one half hour
before the polls open so that they can observe the public inspection of the voting equipment or test results where scanning equipment is used. G. L. c. 54, § 35; 950 C.M.R. § 54.13(c). Observers must be allowed to remain within the polling
place after the polls close to watch the voting lists and all ballots being removed
from the ballot box. Only election officers may take part in the actual process of
counting and sealing the voting materials. During this process, the observers
must stand outside the guardrail. G. L. c. 54, § 70.

Although there is no requirement that observers notify the local election
official that they will be at the polls, it is strongly recommended that observers
notify the local election official in writing prior to election day. Pursuant to 950
C.M.R. § 54.04(23)(b), if the polling place is not large enough to accommodate
all observers/challengers, to the extent possible, priority will be given to those individuals representing candidates appearing on the ballot and to those who
provided written notice to the local election official prior to the election. Local
election officials may limit the number of observers in a polling place. If there are
so many observers in the polling place that they obstruct voters, they may be
asked to cooperate in collecting information. 950 C.M.R. § 54.04(22)(a).

Observers may keep notes including marked voting lists. If there
are so many observers in the polling place that they obstruct voters, they
may be asked to cooperate in collecting information. The warden may
exclude from the polling place any person who is disorderly or who
obstructs the access of voters. 950 C.M.R. § 54.04(22)(a).
LOCATION OF OBSERVERS

There are generally two functions of “observers,” which are sometimes
also referred to as “poll checkers.”1 One function of observers is to observe the
check-in process to gauge turn out and challenge voters at the check-in table.
Another function of observers is to observe, generally, the election day activity at
the polling location. While all observers must remain outside the guardrail, the
specific location of observers is dependent upon their function as well as
available physical space. Under no circumstances should an observer be sitting
at either the check-in or check-out table.

1 For purposes of this memorandum, ”poll checkers” will be referred to as “observers.”

Observers watching voters during the check-in process are to remain
outside the guardrail but close enough to the check-in table to hear the names of
voters checking in. It is at this location an observer may challenge a voter in the
manner discussed below. These observers are most commonly referencing their
own list of voters and keeping notes of who has already voted.

To observe the overall election day proceeding, observers should be
located outside the guardrail in a designated area so as not to impede the travels
of persons voting at the election. It is from this area that pictures may be taken
and video (no audio) may be recorded. Pictures and video at the polling location
will be discussed in greater detail below.

CONDUCT OF OBSERVERS

Observers may not wander around the polling location as it becomes
disruptive and confusing as to who is an election official, voter, observer, etc.

Observers are to have absolutely no interaction with voters. An observer
may not:
1) Speak directly to voters;
2) Speak to each other;
3) Talk on cell phones;
4) Take pictures of individual voters checking-in by observers
located at the check-in table;
5) Take pictures of voters marking their ballots or depositing their
marked ballots into the ballot box in a manner in which the
secrecy of the ballot may be compromised;
6) Record audio of the check-in process;
7) Converse with election workers; or
8) Ask election officials to repeat or speak louder. (If election
officials are not announcing the name and address of the voter
loud enough, the observer should contact the warden.).
An observer located at the check-in table may only speak when making a
challenge or when requesting to speak with the warden.

CHALLENGES
This section refers to observers located at the check-in table making a
challenge. For purposes of this section, these observers are referred to as a
challenger.

A challenger must be prepared to exercise their challenge at the time the
voter’s name is announced at the check-in table in a manner so as not to cause
delay and interference in the voting process. Challenges can only be made
when a voter is checking-in. Once a voter has received their ballot, challenges
cannot be made as it is too late.
CHALLENGE PROCESS

If a voter is challenged, the poll worker should call the warden, who shall
ask the challenger to briefly set forth factual information specific and personal to
the challenged voter as to the reasons that voter is not qualified to vote in the
election at that precinct. If the election official determines that the challenge is
valid the warden shall process the challenge consistent with the regulations. G.
L. c. 54, §§ 85, 85A; 950 C.M.R. § 54.04(23).

The warden shall then ask the challenger: “What is the reason for the
challenge?” If the reason is general in nature (i.e., the voter is not who they say
they are), the warden will ask the challenger, “Why?” If the challenger doesn’t
give a specific reason, the warden must reject the challenge. The burden is on
the observer to provide such information, and the challenger must be ready to do so.

If the warden believes that the reason stated by the challenger is factually
specific and personal to the voter and therefore valid, the warden shall administer
the following oath to the challenged person:

“You do solemnly swear (or affirm) that you are the identical person whom you represent yourself to be, that you are registered in this precinct, and that you have not voted in this election.”

The warden shall require the challenged person to write his name and
present residence on the back of the optical scanner ballot. If it is an absentee
ballot, the warden shall insert this information. The warden shall write on the
ballot the name and address of the challenger and the stated reason for the
challenge, and the voter may cast the ballot.

The warden shall cause to be recorded in the clerk’s book the name and
residence of every person who is challenged and has voted. The election
officers in charge of the voting list shall mark the letters “CV” next to the
challenged voter’s name on the voting list.

INVALID CHALLENGES

If the election officer determines that the challenger has not provided
factual information specific and personal to that voter demonstrating that the
voter is not qualified to vote at that precinct then the election officer shall reject
the challenge on the grounds that the challenge was not based upon a legal
cause. The election officer shall note in the clerk’s election record the name of
the challenged voter, the name of the challenger, the factual basis for the
challenge and the reason why the challenge was rejected.

A challenger should be made aware that any person unlawfully using the
challenge procedure for improper purposes, including but not limited to, the
intimidation of a voter or to ascertain how he voted, may be fined up to $100 and
or be subject to other available legal penalties and/or remedies.

Baseless challenges may be grounds for the warden to have the
observer/challenger removed from the polling location.
PICTURES
Pictures and video (no audio) are allowed at the polling location outside
the guardrail in an area designated by the warden. However, an observer is not
permitted to:
1) Take pictures or video in any manner that compromises the
secrecy of any ballot;
2) Take pictures of voters in an effort to intimidate them;
3) Use public power sources;
4) Use signage; or
5) Leave equipment unattended.

It is the opinion of this Office that cameras of any kind may not be used by
observers at the check-in table to take pictures of individual voters as it is
disruptive to the voting process. That area is to observe the check-in and
challenge when necessary.

MISCELLANEOUS MATTERS
• Observers are there to observe not converse.
• Wardens should be responsive to legitimate issues brought to their attention by observers.
• At the discretion of the warden and when available, observers may be supplied with a tag identifying that person as an observer. However, while it is encouraged, observers cannot be compelled to wear an identifying tag.
• No prior approval is required to be an observer.
• Any observer who fails to obey the warden may be removed from the poll and may potentially face criminal penalties.

Corson: Engaging Diverse Views About School Consolidation

Catherine Corson, Amherst Needs to Engage Diverse Perspectives on School Plans

Shortly after the November Town Meeting vote on the Amherst elementary school consolidation, I attended a parent session on the new student-created Wildwood constitution.

Children described to their proud and occasionally teary parents how they came up with a set of shared rules for Wildwood Elementary School. When asked what they had learned in the process, students replied: “To be respectful of others even if their ideas are not the same as mine,” “To reword things so everyone agrees,” and “To work it out without yelling even if someone else has a different idea.”

Sitting there in the Wildwood library, I wondered how these students would have negotiated the opposing views about consolidation. Proponents of consolidation might take a lesson from them about how to create effective dialogue across difference.

There is no question that Amherst citizens are deeply divided about the plan. In assessing the distance between the sides, it is important to remember that, while social media, petitions, and protests reflect the loudest voices, vote tallies and surveys provide more representative information. On Nov. 8, 6,825 voted for consolidation, 6,699 voted against. The subsequent Town Meeting was very similar to the popular vote: 106 for and 108 against.

The only survey conducted to gather public input, completed in January 2016 by 50 percent of educators and 450 parents/guardians, showed preferential support for retaining K-6 schools and parent preference for small schools. Yet, the School Committee’s unfortunate decision to ignore these results rather than discuss them at its subsequent meeting surprised and alienated many educators and parents who might otherwise have been supportive.

In an era in which many are condemning the divisive language that pervaded the U.S. presidential election, the divisive rhetoric surrounding Amherst school issues is equally disheartening. Innumerable teachers and parents who oppose the consolidation have confided their hesitation to speak out for fear of being labeled anti-school. Those who have had the courage to do so have lost friendships, received distasteful letters and faced pressure to recant their positions.

Those opposing the consolidation are not ill-informed; they are respected educators, parents and advocates for equity who are concerned about various problems and inaccuracies — from the lack of a sufficient plan to fund expanded pre-kindergarten at Crocker Farm, to the fact that Wildwood and Fort River have both passed their air-quality tests despite inflammatory rhetoric to the contrary, to the inadequate play space in the consolidated school and intended destruction of the community-created Wildwood “castle” playground. They have argued that much academic research shows that small schools better foster equity.

In short, the debate is not about being for or against the schools, but about different perspectives about what is best for our children, educators, citizens and town.

Last year, I attended almost all of the public events about the consolidation — then named the Wildwood Building Project — talked with district officials and Amherst School Committee members, and pushed for the educator and parent survey.

Despite having many colleagues and friends who opposed the plan, as well as a few who are for it, I did not join an advocacy group, but remained open-minded, focused primarily on advocating for public engagement so as to foster strong and long-term community support for the Amherst public school system.

One of the biggest failures of the process to date has been its domination by white privileged voices, despite the equity rationales being made. Well-intentioned efforts to promote equity can have the opposite effect if marginalized voices are not solicited and heard, and a climate in which dissenting views are silenced does not create the welcoming space needed to engage these voices.

As Ms. Jagadeesh pointed out in her column (“School project should unify Amherst,” Jan. 20), teachers are not in agreement, and it is vital to recognize the way that power plays out in silencing certain views and privileging others, not just in the schools, but in our community.

As we move forward from this point, I would encourage the district and elected officials to hold community forums in locations easy to get to by parents/guardians from disadvantaged groups so as to ensure their voices are adequately represented and to engage educators and community members from diverse perspectives in respectful dialogue and debate in advance, rather than trying to garner buy-in to an already decided-upon plan.

Especially at a time like this, we owe it to our children, who are learning to take the time and develop the courage to engage across difference, to do the same.

Catherine Corson, of Amherst, is the parent of children at Wildwood Elementary School.

Barbaret : Vote No. We need to find a project that does not divide residents.

Denise Barbaret
Submitted to the Amherst Bulletin March 13, 2017

The upcoming referendum on whether or not to build a new $67 million elementary school may well be the most controversial referendum in Amherst’s history.

Supporters of the project worry that children will continue to languish in substandard buildings if the project is again voted down, and that available state monies will be forever lost. Opponents worry about adopting a seemingly untested model of grade reconfiguration, whether or not the new plan to achieve equity will actually work, and the potential of creating another type of inequity for taxpayers who cannot afford the subsequent increase in property taxes (we need to remember that even with state monies, the town will be responsible for an additional $22 million in interest payments over the life of the bond, and that the town is planning other capital projects that will raise taxes even more).

As shown by the numbers in both the fall election and now two Town Meeting votes, the town is evenly and deeply divided. Emotions are high, positions have solidified, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for opposing sides to really listen to each other. Real and viable alternatives that might provide us with what both sides ultimately want – better school facilities – cannot be considered or even seen objectively in such an atmosphere.

This is why I will again vote NO on March 28. This is an expensive, controversial project that has pitted neighbors and friends against each other, that has failed to win widespread town support, and that may well force residents from their homes because they can no longer afford their taxes or their rent. To proceed with this plan because it seems that there is no other way is folly.

Both sides want the same thing. There are other ways to move forward and achieve what we all want. We need to stop, step back, and find them. Otherwise, proceeding with a project that divides residents into winners and losers will cut the fabric of our community, and ultimately we will all lose if that happens.

340 words

Denise Barberet
67 North Whitney Street, #1
Amherst, MA 01002
(413) 253-9675

Cunningham: Please vote no

Toni Cunningham
Letter to the Editor:
Amherst should vote no on education referendum

Letter published in Daily Collegian March 27, 2017

I’m a local parent of two kids, ages six and four. I’m writing to ask that you vote no on Tuesday’s referendum ballot.

It may seem appealing at first–$67 million for a new school!—but this proposal is actually going to close one of our schools, and completely change our beloved system of small K-6 elementary schools. It will consolidate 750 children, who are in second grade through sixth grade, in the new building, on a site with small, fragmented playgrounds. It will send their little brothers and sisters—all 300 of the kindergarteners and first graders—to a school in the south end of town. In fact, the smallest children at my end of town will be on the bus twice as long, stopping first at the big kid school to the north of town before driving through downtown to the K-1 school. With this plan, 23 buses will stop at both schools twice a day.

I and other parents, teachers and community members want to keep our community schools. We currently have three small schools, with 400 or fewer kids per school, where the youngest kids can have fifth and sixth grade reading buddies, where everybody is a single bus ride from their school and where each school has great playing fields and playgrounds.

All of this would be lost with the proposed consolidation of elementary schools. Of course, many of us do want to renovate or rebuild our schools and deal with some outdated floor plans, but this plan throws out the baby with the bathwater.

We can vote this down, and devise a better solution to address our old buildings. Other towns have done just that.

Please help us “Save Amherst’s Small Schools.” Please vote no in the special referendum on Tuesday, March 28.

Toni Cunningham
Local Amherst Parent

Gelfan : Large building nightmare for elementary kids

(Posted on Town Meeting listserve; pasted by permission)

I went to a middle school that was much like the proposed consolidated elementary school: three “separate” schools (called “houses”) which shared gyms, cafeteria, library and playing fields. There were three separate pick-up/drop off entrances, one for each house, and a common bus area for the whole school.

It did not feel like a small school. It felt like the giant school that it was.

As a middle schooler, I liked it. However, for K-6, it would have been an overwhelming nightmare.

In both my elementary school and the middle school. there were 4 classes per grade, but, again, 4 classes per grade times the three houses felt very different during much of the day than the 4 classes in one school. …and that was for only a three-grade middle school.

For an elementary school with 5-7 grades, depending on configuration, I cannot imagine…….and I was an extroverted kid. For a shy or sensitive child, or anyone on the autism spectrum, it would be truly traumatic.

Having all the K-6 kids in town in one building is insanity.

Stephanie Gelfan, pct 2

Janet McGowan : We need schools big enough for the next 50 years

We Need Schools Big Enough For The Next 50 Years.
Janet McGowan
Another “NO” letter the Amherst Bulletin did not publish. 

While the cost of renovating both Wildwood and Fort River schools is similar to the cost of the new project with ‘co-located’ schools, right now both Wildwood and Fort River have more gyms, playgrounds and fields for kids to run and play in, and space for preschool classrooms. And room for more students.

It is doubtful enrollments will decline over the next 50 years, the building life span required by MSBA. New housing is being built in Amherst and the University is adding more students. Renovated Wildwood and Fort River schools will have room if enrollments increase in the next 50 years. But the new $67 million school will need an addition.

Renovating Wildwood was estimated at $34.7 million, roughly half the cost of the proposed $67 new co-located elementary school. (Construction cost consultants A.M. Fogarty & Assoc. Jan. 6, 2014). If Amherst reapplied and got 50% MSBA reimbursement, Amherst taxpayers would pay $17.4 million for a lovely K-6, renovated Wildwood–with its own gym, cafeteria, library/media area, large playground and fields. The Middle School and Fort River could be used as swing space, similar to what was done in the past. Fort River could go next. Total ballpark for taxpayers: around $35 million for 164,000 sq. ft. of renovated space–with room for increased enrollments.

Or, for about the same money, Amherst taxpayers can pay for a building that cannot handle many more students. At 122,714 sq. ft., it is 25% smaller than Wildwood and Fort River combined. Its 750 students, in separate wings, will share one gym, one cafeteria, one library and two small playgrounds with little on-site field space. If enrollments increase, the new $67 million school will need an addition. How much more will that cost?

It’s worth waiting to do the right school project that will last.

Janet McGowan

Survey of low-income and special needs families

A survey was conducted over the last few months of Amherst families in low-income apartment complexes, and families with special needs children. The survey led by Eve Vogel, a UMass assistant professor of political and environmental geography, is entitled “Equity, Transportation, Location, Configuration,” and can be read here:  https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bxao77AcxLVSVFJndG1wVVY0VVU/view

It shows that our town’s current system of small, geographically-districted, (Pre)K-6 schools provide highly-valued benefits to low-income families, English language learner families, families of color, and families of special needs children.