Jim Oldham: Amherst school revote offers nothing new

Jim Oldham: Revote on School Project Offers Nothing New
Amherst Bulletin, Thursday, January 19, 2017

The convening of Town Meeting to reconsider its November vote against appropriating funds for the proposed new elementary school building is particularly interesting in the context of the ongoing work of the Charter Commission.

As the majority of that commission moves steadily toward their long expected, if not predetermined, proposal to replace our Town Meeting, Select Board, and Town Manager with a Council and Mayor, advocates for the new school are demonstrating one of the great strengths of our current form of government: citizen access.

A year ago, after the School Committee voted to move forward with the proposed construction and grade reconfiguration, many in town were very unhappy, yet there was no opportunity to require committee members to reconsider. The only way to get a school committee, or a town or city council, to revisit a decision is to either persuade the individual members or to vote them out. The former is rarely possible, the latter often can’t happen in the timeframe needed to reverse the unpopular action.

In contrast, if citizens want Town Meeting to take up — or reconsider — any issue, they need only to collect 200 voter signatures and that will happen.

The upcoming Jan. 30 Special Town Meeting also belies the oft-repeated claim that Town Meeting is inefficient because it meets only twice a year. Although, unlike smaller bodies, Town Meeting is not always in session, the current situation demonstrates that it can easily be convened anytime an issue arises for it to act on.

Unfortunately, apart from the educational value of demonstrating the strengths of our current system, the decision to petition Town Meeting to reconsider the school vote simply serves to increase divisions with little chance of a delivering a different outcome, never mind a resolution reflecting broad community support.

The previous vote by Town Meeting was not close — proponents were unable to achieve even a simple majority for a decision that requires a two-thirds majority due to its long-term fiscal implications. With no new information, it is unreasonable to expect people to change their positions two months later just because they are subject to more pressure.

When the school proposal was debated in November, Town Meeting was urged to appropriate funds because a handful more Amherst voters had supported an override than had opposed it. This time around, the argument is that we should vote for the plan because some teachers have signed a petition advocating approval.

Just as the 126-vote margin in the townwide vote reflects a split community, not a mandate for a particular action, the petition illustrates that, like town residents and Town Meeting members, teachers are divided. Many signed the petition, but many others have remained silent.

Teachers at our largest school are conspicuously unrepresented and the petition shows less support among teachers in the lower grades — those whose students will be most directly affected by the new education plan — compared to upper-grade teachers. The fact that support is clumped in this way is particularly indicative of the failure of the proposal to balance competing needs.

Teachers I’ve heard from who oppose the plan feel very frustrated. It doesn’t feel safe to speak up, and their position is often misunderstood. While the desire for new schools seems almost universal, they point to many concerns about the educational plan, the building and site designs for the co-located schools, and the plans for converting Crocker Farm to pre-kindergarten through first grade. They do not believe the current proposal delivers the schools we need.

One teacher took issue with the claims about the equity benefits of the new plan. Another felt that complaints about the existing schools are overstated. Two pointed out that the proposed plan is not analogous to South Hadley, as has been recently claimed, since that town has a purpose-built early childhood building, which is not what is proposed here.

I’ve only heard from a handful of teachers, so I don’t know how representative they are of the many who did not sign the petition.

Similarly, among those who did sign, I am aware that some — though again I can’t say how many — do not like the grade reconfiguration but are calling on Town Meeting to approve the funding because they see that as the only way to get a new school. That is a valid position, but very different from strong support for the education plan.

Ultimately, as one teacher told me, Town Meeting members need to make up their own minds based on all the information available, rather than vote based on a perception of the teachers’ position.

For me, while I appreciate the urgency felt by many to get new schools, I cannot justify committing the town to a 50-year investment in a building and plan about which important concerns remain unaddressed.

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.

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