error in draft of Prop 2-1/2 debt exclusion question

I sent the below letter earlier this morning.  The tl;dr (too-long; didn’t-read) version of my letter: The draft of the debt override question is ambiguous and misleading. If the Select Board approves the current draft language, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see litigation ensue. What a waste of everyone’s time and money that would be, when we really need a clear, well-informed debate about the future of our schools.

The larger question is how do these fairly large errors keep happening? The Administration was in error about the timing of the School Committee vote last fall ; they were in error about the ending date of the Feasibility Study; and now this language, with an error that should have been fairly obvious to anyone working on the project. These big errors do not make me confident that the small issues are being well-considered.

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July 18, 2016

Dear Select Board, School Committee, & Acting Town Manager Mr. Hechenbleikner –

I call to your attention a significant error in the draft debt exclusion question (posted on the Select Board agenda for tonight, July 19).  The draft question currently reads:

Shall the Town of Amherst be allowed to exempt from the provisions of Proposition two-and-one-half, so called, the amounts required to pay for the bonds issued in order to construct, originally equip and furnish a consolidated Wildwood Elementary School and Fort River Elementary School in one building serving grades 2- 6 on the existing Wildwood Elementary School site, including the cost of architectural design, project management and other incidental and related costs, as well as demolition of the existing building and other necessary site improvements? Yes No

The current language does not meet the standard of accurately “describing the project” as required by the MSBA. (Bulletin 08-02, “Requirements for Warrant Articles, Motions, Orders and Votes”, available at http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/sites/default/files/edit-contentfiles/Documents/Vote_Requirements/PSB_Vote_Language_Bulletin_Cities_Towns_Sept-2008.pdf ).
The language fails on its face to accurately describe the project, since the proposed new school is actually a consolidation of grades 2-6 from all three elementary schools, not just Wildwood and Fort River.  The current language completely fails to mention Crocker Farm, whose 2d-6th graders would also be moving in at the same time as the Fort River kids (fall 2020).  By naming two of the three affected schools, but omitting one, the project description is inaccurate.
Moreover, the current language will likely cause confusion among voters with a completely different plan that was proposed and widely discussed last fall, but not ultimately adopted — the “dual K-6” plan that was rejected by the School Committee in January, which would have moved Fort River and Wildwood into a new school, but left Crocker Farm where it was.  The current language more accurately describes that plan, and thus does not accurately describe the actual project. Instead, it implies to voters that families that attend Crocker Farm as a current K-6 school would be unaffected by the proposed plan, a misconception that has been expressed by both Town Meeting members and the general population.
To remedy this problem, I suggest changing the confusing wording from “a consolidated Wildwood Elementary School and Fort River Elementary School in one building serving grades 2-6 on the existing Wildwood Elementary school site”  to “a new elementary school serving all Amherst children in grades 2-6 in one building on the existing Wildwood Elementary School site…”  The new wording would read in its entirety:

Shall the Town of Amherst be allowed to exempt from the provisions of Proposition two-and-one-half, so called, the amounts required to pay for the bonds issued in order to construct, originally equip and furnish a new elementary school serving all Amherst children in grades 2-6 in one building on the existing Wildwood Elementary School site, including the cost of architectural design, project management and other incidental and related costs, as well as demolition of the existing building and other necessary site improvements? Yes No

The new wording is cleaner and more succinct, and most importantly, accurate.   That seems to be the minimum amount of language that clears up this serious ambiguity. Other alternatives are:
  • “a new elementary school building serving grades 2-6 in one building on the existing Wildwood Elementary School site”  (not mentioning any of the three school names)
  • “a consolidated 2nd through 6th grades from Wildwood Elementary School, Fort River Elementary School, and Crocker Farm Schools” (mentioning all three school names) 
  • “a new elementary school building serving as a consolidated upper elementary for Amherst’s grade 2-6 children on the existing Wildwood Elementary School site” (retaining the “consolidated” language but dropping the names of all 3 schools)
In short, there are probably any number of ways to do this accurately.  The current language, however, misrepresents the project and will undoubtedly cause voter confusion.
Sincerely,
Laura Quilter / lquilter@lquilter.net
Attorney, Librarian, Teacher
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
lquilter@library.umass.edu
If this were legal advice, it would be followed by a bill.
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2 comments

  1. Pingback: upcoming meetings (7/18 on) | Save Amherst's Small Schools
  2. Pingback: debt exclusion going on the ballot | Save Amherst's Small Schools

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