Category: official documents

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


TO: Local Election Officials and Persons Interested in Observing Elections in Massachusetts
FROM: Elections Division
DATE: October 25, 2012

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.


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).

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.


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.

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

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.

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.


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 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.

• 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.


Curious about our schools? How to get the facts.

There is a lot of confusion out there about our schools, and about the MSBA process. Are our schools segregated? Are they sick? Are they crowded? Are enrollments going up or down?  Where does Amherst rank in terms of its schools’ condition?  It can be hard in the midst of a political campaign to know exactly which competing claims to trust, and how to assess them.

We recommend going straight to the source of the data, rather than simply relying on Facebook, a newspaper, a friend, or even a local grassroots group of fellow parents who have spent way too much time digging into these issues.

DESE – Massachusetts Dept. of Elementary & Secondary Education
The first and best source of general information about our schools is the Massachusetts Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE.  The DESE website ( is a great source of information about our schools, and the statutes and regulations guiding them.

From the DESE website, you can go to “School and District Profiles” (, and see general state-wide reports or statistics. Or, click on Hampshire County and then Amherst to get to a page ( that links to all our local public schools (and two Amherst-based private schools). Here are our three elementary schools:

On each school page, you can click the “Students” tab to see the current enrollment, race/ethnicity, gender, etc.  To the LEFT of the tabs, you will see a year, and you can click to see previous years’ data. (That tip is GOLD. It took me many visits to the DESE website to find that.)

The “Analysis – DART” tab has more detailed information about a variety of topics; if you click this tab, then look on the left, you can see enrollment; curriculum; achievement gap; etc., with visual aids.


MSBA – the Massachusetts School Building Authority

The best place to learn about the MSBA process is the MSBA website.

The MSBA ( is a state agency that administers a fund to support Massachusetts school districts’ school construction costs. The MSBA has a dedicated revenue stream from the state sales tax.

Quick facts about the MSBA are here on the “About” page:

Check out the menu on the left, but to see everything you have to HOVER OVER the menu options to see the pop-up menu .

For instance, “Polices, Forms & Guidelines” — if you click it, it takes you to the “Guidelines” page, which has MSBA policies, including reimbursement rate calculations, green school guidelines, and a variety of other forms. . But if you hover over the “Policies, Forms & Guidelines” option, you see a link to the statutes; the vote requirements; and model contracts, among other topics.

(Curious why the language of the proposal is so long and hard to read? Because the MSBA specifies very closely the language that can be used for these votes.)

Check out “Our Programs & Initiatives” for some key points. The MSBA Repair Program, which has both “Major Repairs” and “Accelerated Repairs”, is described here: , and there’s some helpful charts about what kinds of repairs can go to which program. (The two major categories the MSBA has right now are the “Accelerated Repair Program” and the “Core Program”, for everything else. [1])

Another key resource is the “Building With Us” menu, which includes links to information about the statements of interest.

The School Survey is extremely valuable, because it tells us a lot about the condition of our schools, and what the MSBA bases its judgments on.  Check out the 2005 and 2010 needs surveys on the survey page at  A 2016 needs survey is being finalized now. The 2010 Needs Survey Report is a PDF (linked here), and you can easily search for “Fort River” or “Amherst”.  But don’t just look at the charts — read some of the other sections to understand the categories and rankings. The MSBA also created several short presentations that summarize state-wide data; these are listed under the “2010 Needs Survey Report”. Totally worth a quick review!

If you’re not sure what’s going on with the MSBA, still, the MSBA has a community liaison, Diane Sullivan.  Under the “About Us” link, if you click “Contact”, you’ll get the general email information; you can also call and ask to speak to Diane Sullivan.

Want to understand what went down with a particular school system?  You can click on the “Your School” link, and then dig down into school and district applications.  On any given school or district, you will see a list of schools, and a list of press releases about projects in those schools, and a link to “View Projects” for the schools. The “View Projects” link takes you into the MSBA database which lists projects and status. Unfortunately, you can’t quite a holistic picture of applications very easily from this method.

(We at SASS used a number of different sources of information to figure out what happened in any one school district. First, we used the data from the website. Then we contacted the MSBA and spoke with staff there at length, and got additional data from them directly. We also reviewed board meeting notes (under “About Us”, click the pop-up menu to see “Board Meetings”). For instance, if a press release dated August 6, 2015, talked about the MSBA board approval, then we knew that approval would be in an MSBA board meeting just prior to that date.  Last, we reviewed materials local to the school district — School Building Committee minutes and School Committee minutes — and talked to district staff to help put it all in perspective.)


ARPS – the Amherst Regional Public Schools

ARPS has a lot of information on its website (, but copies of the important documents and submissions in the MSBA process are not as easy to find.

They have been mostly published to Facebook (“Amherst Elementary School Building Project”), so are in reverse chronological order.

The project website set up by NV5, called the “Wildwood Elementary School Design and Construction Site”, is at . It’s very difficult to find the key documents on this site; however, meeting agendas and minutes, and public presentations, are mostly listed here.

Because it’s so difficult to find the key documents on the official project pages, we have stored copies and linked to original copies here on the SASS website (look at ARCHIVE and then “Official Documents”)  The key documents are:

  • The Educational Report, from fall 2015;
  • the “Preliminary Design Program” (PDP) from December 2015, which included the various alternatives then under consideration (including renovation, dual K6, etc);
  • the “Preliminary Schematic Report” (PSR), which spelled out in more detail the current proposal (February 2016); and
  • the “Schematic Design Report” (August 2016) which includes quite a lot of detail and is 700+ pages long.

If you want to understand something that is not clear from the Amherst system, you can file a Public Records Act (PRA) request with the District. There is some boilerplate language you can include, but the essence of the request is to describe, very clearly, what you want, and be sure to specify that this is a PRA request.


This post was written by a librarian [Laura Quilter], and has an agenda: To help you to be more information-literate and better able to fact-check claims you may hear.




air quality testing at Fort River and Wildwood

Janet McGowan did a Public Records Act request for air quality testing at Fort River. The PDF of the test results, from 2004 to 2015, is below. Marla Jamate and Maria Kopicki did separate requests for air quality and environmental testing at both Fort River and Wildwood.

boilers at Wildwood & Fort River

5 years ago in 2011, the Town replaced Fort River’s boiler. According to Mike Morris in spring 2016, any new building would not be able to re-use these boilers. They would be demolished with Fort River.  (2015 Town Meeting presentation from the School Administration, available on the Amherst Town Meeting website archive)

fr-boiler-2-2015tm fr-boiler-1-2015tm ww-boiler-2-2015tm ww-boiler-1-2015tm

site plans

It seems a lot of people still haven’t seen the site plans.

This is the site plan. Note that Wildwood is on a hill, with slopes on 3 sides — immediately behind to the middle school; at the back of the proposed new building; and from Strong Street down to the school.

This chart shows student flow from parent-loop and bus-loop into the entrance plaza. (622 of the Schematic Design)

This is the plan of proposed play areas.




This is the first floor plan.  The second floor plan has the fourth and fifth graders (in both wings) and the sixth grade “pod” together in one wing.

Amherst schools exit survey data

With all the horror stories going around about our schools, one might be forgiven for thinking that people would flee them in droves because of the terrible building conditions.

It turns out, not so much. In fact, the District’s exit survey data doesn’t show any concerns that the buildings are old or falling apart.  No complaints about quad classrooms showed up (and you know they would have highlighted it if it had been there). No air quality concerns.

In fact, in terms of specific concerns,

  • want a smaller school or class size – 7.96%
  • social and/or emotional concerns – 13.27%
  • bullying – 5.31%
  • inadequate rigor and/or curriculum – 11.5%
  • did not meet child’s learning style – 10.62%

It’s clear that Amherst’s schools lose kids to private schools and charter schools because of education — not because of the buildings. This makes sense, because look at the families that are coming to Amherst, because Amherst allows choicing in, and Amherst’s schools are better than wherever they’re coming from. Not the buildings. The education.

Check out the data. It’s fascinating.

Exit Survey Data, 2010-11 through 2014-15 school years.


exitsurveydata-2015-chart exitsurveydata-reasons


— Laura Q

Amherst Finance Committee: Implications of the override

The Amherst Finance Committee posted their analysis of Question 5 (which SASS recommends voting NO on), published in the Amherst Bulletin on Saturday, October 22 (link: .

Amherst Finance Committee: Implications of the override

by MaryLou Theilman

On the Nov. 8 ballot for president, Amherst voters will be asked in Question 5 whether they want to increase their taxes for a proposed new elementary school through a debt-exclusion override. A simple majority is needed. State law prohibits the ballot question from listing the amount of money requested in the override or how much it would add to annual property tax bills.

New school cost

The Amherst School Committee has recommended construction of a new school on the Wildwood site to serve all students in Grades 2-6 as part of a reconfiguration of the elementary school system. Estimated cost is $67.2 million. The School Building Committee expects the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to pay about $34.4 million, leaving Amherst the remaining $32.8 million. Assuming interest at 5 percent, payments on a 25-year bond for $32.8 million is estimated at $21.3 million. The town’s actual cost would thus be approximately $54.1 million.

Override explanation

An override raises the state’s limit on how much towns can increase their property taxes each year. This limit, Proposition 2½, caps property tax increases to 2.5 percent of the previous year’s tax levy, plus any amounts derived from new taxable property development. Towns can only exceed this limit if a majority of the voters agree to override the limit. There are two main types of overrides, both of which Amherst has used. The first is a “basic override” that adds a specific amount of revenue for the operating budget in a given year. In future years subsequent percentage increases are based on that higher amount. This type of override is thus permanent.

The other type (the Nov. 8 vote) is a “debt-exclusion override,” which allows the cost/debt of a project to be excluded from the normal Proposition 2½ limits. When the debt for the project has been paid off, the additional yearly charge ends.

If the townwide vote for the override is successful, Town Meeting would still need to authorize (by a two-thirds vote) the actual borrowing required. Town Meeting begins Nov. 14.

Cost for property owners

Exact cost estimates are not possible because the interest rate or structure of the bonds that would fund the project are not known. Here are two examples which are reasonable approximations: a resident with properly assessed at $200,000 would see an average yearly increase to the existing tax bill of $212, ranging from $270 to $126 during the 25-year bond; with an assessed value of $700,000, the average would be $742 with the range from $945 to $441.

Note that the actual impact on tax bills will change with time: payments will be highest in the early years of the bond repayment period, and lower in later years. These estimates cover both the principal and interest that the town will pay over the bond life.

Additional information

If the debt exclusion override is passed, and Town Meeting authorizes the borrowing, the impact on residential property taxes would start in July 2017 with the greater impacts starting in 2020.

If funding for this project is defeated, either by voters or Town Meeting, options for addressing the schools’ needs are available. Although there is no guarantee that MSBA funds will be available, the MSBA allows another vote on the same override question, or a new proposal for downsizing, renovation, or some combination of renovation and new construction. A new proposal needs to be submitted as a new statement of interest to the MSBA and follow established rules for consideration of a project. A new or revised Feasibility Study would be required, which may be funded partially or solely by the town, depending on how much of the study is new, and how much the MSBA agrees to pay.

Reconsiderations have been submitted to the MSBA by other districts following a failed initial funding vote, and some districts have received funding for new/revised projects. The timeline for the reconsideration process is difficult to predict.

Voters should also be aware that, in addition to the proposed school project, Amherst is also weighing three other large capital projects — a new fire station, new DPW building, and expanded Jones Library — which will need to be paid for by some combination of another debt-exclusion override or the town’s existing capital budget. To help offset the impact of these projects on taxpayers, the town is exploring the following: savings from the operating budget; use of reserve funds; sale of town properties; and increased revenue from new development.

This report was prepared by the Amherst Finance Committee, which is chaired by Marylou Theilman. The other members are Stephen Braun, Joseph Jayne, Bernard Kubiak, Tim Neal, Janice Ratner and Anurag Sharma.

debt exclusion going on the ballot

UPDATE: See 7/18 blog post about a critical error in the draft wording of the question.

The Select Board will be meeting on July 18, 6:30 pm, in the Amherst Town Hall (Town Room) to approve placing the ($65 million) debt override on the fall ballot. The agenda is here: (timed agenda is here: )

Note — Town Counsel has drafted the language. They will then set the date for Town Meeting for AFTER the election.

Here is the motion (available at )

d. MOVE to place a Proposition 2 ½ debt exclusion question on the November 8, 2016 State Election ballot for Amherst voters which 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

Notice that the total amount is not included in the question.



d. Wildwood School Project Brewer The School Building Committee will be present to give the Select Board an update on the project. Town Counsel has drafted the language of a ballot question (which is exactly the same language of a warrant article) to place a debt exclusion on the ballot. If the Select Board wants the matter on the November federal ballot, the Select Board must approve the question and submit it to the Secretary of State’s office by August 1, 2016. The advantages of placing this question on the November ballot is that it saves $20,000 in holding a special election, and the voter turnout at the November federal election will be the highest that will be possible. Action recommended: under item ii, move to place the following question on the November 8 2016 State election.
i. School Building Committee Update
ii. Debt Exclusion Ballot Question

e. Establish Special Town Meeting Date – Fall 2016 Brewer Following a decision relative to the debt exclusion for the Wildwood School project, the Select Board needs to establish the date for the fall Town Meeting. Assuming that the Select Board wants to have the Town Meeting following the election, November 14 would be the first Monday after the election. Action recommended: Move to establish Monday, November 14, at 7:00 PM at Amherst Regional Middle School for the fall 2016 Special Town Meeting with additional dates

District response to MSBA (March 18)

Below is the official document prepared by the District’s contractors in response to the MSBA (state agency)’s questions about the reconfiguration plan. This is a public record, and will likely be posted on the Elementary Building Project website soon.  We’ll excerpt portions later on.


Survey results to MSBA

Parents and community members have submitted the results of the  January survey data to the MSBA.

The January survey of teachers and parents clearly demonstrated that the Administration’s preferred option (“reconfiguration” and a large 750-student school) was the least popular of the options presented among parents and teachers alike. The comments provided a rich set of critique of the process to date and biases in the survey, with a number of commenters observing that the survey was tilted toward reconfiguration and others lamenting the absence of dual renovation as an option.

No doubt due to the negative findings, the Administration opted to not inform the MSBA about the survey.  (They also declined to present the survey results at the January public forum.)  At the February 2, 2016 School Building Committee, member Anna Bartolini (Crocker Farm teacher) and Maria Kopicki both raised the issue, arguing that the MSBA should be informed of the results of the survey.

Consequently, we have been forced to take advantage of the MSBA’s public comment option, and submit this information to the MSBA.

The letter and packet are both available in PDF, and linked under “Public Comment” and “Official Documents”.