TOWN MEETING AND THE SCHOOL VOTE - II
In my first commentary on this topic, I reviewed the history of the school project and the four votes, two referendums and two Town Meeting, taken on it. In this post, I want to reflect on the actual debate in Town Meeting. My comments are directed particularly to those who supported the school proposal and are angry at Town Meeting because it did not. I believe that Town Meeting acted in an exemplary fashion and deserves the support of those who supported the school proposal. Here’s why.
First to state the obvious: matters are controversial because people disagree. Town Meeting provides a forum for disagreement, and that should be highly valued by all citizens. It is sometimes not so highly valued by boards and committees which seek approval of their proposals; this is understandable. Boards and committees devote time and effort to crafting proposals, usually reflecting the organizations they both oversee and represent. It has often been remarked that those proposals come to Town Meeting with unanimous or near-unanimous recommendations for approval. This is a complicated matter; what leads to such unanimity on boards and committees? And why are they surprised and distressed when Town Meeting does not manifest the same degree of unanimity?
By the time that Town Meeting convened in November, 2016, the school controversy had been raging in town for a long time. The School Committee was dealing with its own internal disagreements and other stresses, and these were all being played out in public. My own view as an interested observer was that all members of the School Committee acted honorably and were committed to the best interests of Amherst’s children but that they did not handle disagreement particularly well. This may be one of the complicated byproducts of the Open Meeting Law particularly in this age of social media where even a cough is subject to analysis, attack and scorn.
So sides had already been drawn, positions firmed up and disagreements transformed into antagonisms. Under these conditions, the Town Meeting debate, while passionate, was orderly and respectful. Some speakers supported the proposed new schools while others regretted, sometimes with anger, the breakup of K-6 schools and the amount of busing the new configuration entailed. Some speakers emphasized the $34 million that the state had awarded to support the project. Others claimed that the Fort River and Wildwood physical plants could be rehabilitated for much less. One suggestion, that the state contribution could be reallocated to another configuration, became the locus of considerable anger. It was proved incorrect, as project supporters said it would be. Some who are angry at Town Meeting, blame the faulty prediction about state funding on Town Meeting. But this is clearly not the case. While the school project could not win a simple majority in November, it did win a significant one in January. And in the subsequent referendum the project also won a simple majority of voters.
However, none of the votes - not the two referendums and not the two Town Meeting votes - approached the 2/3 level required by the state for borrowing the money needed to build the new schools.. (The first referendum, approving an override of the limit on taxation, did not require a 2/3 majority.) As a body Town Meeting moved closer to the School Committee position, but not close enough to enable the borrowing of money. Throughout the anguished months, Town Meeting was remarkably reflective of the Town voters, and this is worthy of respect and appreciation.
Could the Town Meeting vote have turned out differently? I think it might have been different if the School Committee rather than - or in addition to - the Finance Committee had been in the front of the auditorium. While the then-acting superintendent of schools, Michael Morris, did an impressive job of explaining the project’s educational dimensions, he was not - and should not have been - in a position to deal with the issues at the center of the controversy. The absence of the School Committee spoke loudly, especially since the Moderator always gives deference to committees at the front of the room. The technicality - that the article at hand was about funding rather than about the project - should not have prevented the School Committee from speaking to and defending its proposal. Some individual members, who were also members of Town Meeting, did speak from the floor but they were voices among many.
One other point requires comment. Town Boards and Committees seem remarkably unprepared for disagreement. Sometimes it seems even worse - that they think there should not be disagreement. Too often over the years, their arguments seem reducible to “We work hard and long. We want the best for our town. We have access to professional analysis. Trust us.”
I do trust them. I appreciate and honor their long and hard work. I have no doubt that they want the best for our town. But professional analyses do not always come out at the same place. And they alone may not be sufficient guides for decision-making.
Tensions between the legislature and executive seem healthy in retrospect but rarely feel healthy at the time. Town Meeting includes many members who at one time or another have served on boards or committees which belong to the executive. It includes members who have not before served in town government. It also includes some members who are generally suspicious of executive power. This is often a volatile mix and has had a volatile history. But it is a useful mix and Boards and Committees should be more prepared to deal with it.
Town Meeting has served as a stabilizing influence in town. Members of Boards and Committees should listen to it, respect it, and be better prepared to deal with divergent points of view. We should all appreciate and honor the importance of disagreement in a free society.