Sunday, March 18, 2018


Up til now, my blog posts have fluctuated between praising Town Meeting, pointing out the deficiencies of the proposed charter, and wondering about the organization behind the charter, Amherst For All.  As we enter the final days of this exhausting and dispiriting campaign,  I want to make a stronger case: Town Meeting is essential to assuring Amherst the future we want.

This was confirmed for me by a recent article that announced a poll by the website  They rank school systems nationwide on the basis of several metrics as well as other qualitative criteria.  In Massachusetts they ranked between 215-218 school districts based on the availability of data.  Here are the first fifteen school districts:

Name Population Form of Government
  1. Wellesley 28,000              Representative Town Meeting
  2. Lexington 31,000               Representative Town Meeting
  3. Newton 85,000               Mayor-Council
  4. Westford                   22,000              Open Town Meeting
  5. Cambridge               105,000              Mayor-Manager-Council
  6. Belmont 25,000              Representative Town Meeting
  7. Weston 11,000              Open Town Meeting
  8. Brookline 59,000              Representative Town Meeting
  9. Wayland 13,000              Open Town Meeting
  10. Acton-Boxborough 29,000              Open Town Meeting
  11. Amherst-Pelham 38,000              Representative Town Meeting
  12. Needham                  29,000              Representative Town Meeting
  13. Westborough 18,000              Open Town Meeting
  14. Lenox                        5,000              Open Town Meeting
  15. Harvard                     6,500              Open Town Meeting

This list is worth studying and then contemplating as Amherst voters prepare to cast their ballots on March 27th.  First, we can be pleased that our own schools rank so highly in Massachusetts.  Second, we can be pleased about the company we keep.  Third, we should note that 13 of these systems come from towns with either representative or open town meetings.  Two are from cities with significantly larger populations than ours.

The overwhelming preponderance on this list of towns with a town meeting form of government is no coincidence.  Here are the rankings (out of 215-218) of the cities whose company we would join if the charter passes:

31.    Franklin
44.    Barnstable
70.    East Longmeadow
115.  Palmer
135.  Randolph
142.  Watertown
148.  Bridgewater
173.  Southbridge
 —    Chelsea (insufficient data)
 —    Winthrop (insufficient data)

The inference is inescapable:  communities in which voters have a direct voice in making decisions about budgets support their schools to a greater degree than communities where those decisions are delegated to a small council.  Budgets are, in essence, reflections of a community’s priorities.  There are always hard choices to be made.  Higher taxes, level of state funding, school programs have always been major players in the drama surrounding those choices.  And there are many other players too - salary levels, staffing levels, fluctuating utility costs, enrollment projections, just to mention some of those pertaining to schools.

In the annual juggling of taxes and schools, managerial priorities take higher precedence in councils.  It is not bad that they do; we should want our executive to be good managers.  But we should want just as fervently a body that challenges the managers to be true to the values and priorities of the community they serve.  “Throwing the rascals out” every two years seems to be Amherst For All’s preferred way of doing this.  But it is a dreadful way.

Town Meeting is necessary, not only to the Town as a whole, but to the Boards and Committees in particular.  It reminds the Boards of the Town’s priorities amidst these difficult decisions.  When Town Meeting’s priorities priorities differ from the Boards it should be a sign that recalibration and collaboration are in order.  Sadly, this hasn’t happened recently.  

Amherst For All claims that the 13-person council will exercise “policy leadership” for the town.  What that may mean depends at any given moment on who serves on the council.  But at any given moment, that’s it.  And that’s bad.  It is inherently unstable as councillors come and go.  Two years is not a great span as policy leadership goes.

Town Meeting is inherently stable.  It contains many interests and factions that combine and separate and re-join depending on the issue at hand.  It accepts disagreement as the foundation of democracy and accepts voting as the way of deciding priorities.   It is too big to be corrupted or to be infiltrated.   It has all the defects of its virtues.

At a recent debate sponsored by the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, Andy Churchill, representing Amherst For All, and I, representing the coalition of groups opposed to the charter, were asked whether our campaigns have anything like a united vision for the future of Amherst.  Andy answered yes.  And indeed Amherst For All does have a unified vision and asks its members to pledge their support to it. 

I answered no.  In a democracy, there are and should be competing visions.  In Town Meeting there are competing visions.  Those who vote together on one issue may be opponents on another.  I suggested that we need a sort of meta-vision - a civic society whose members can, together, devise an etiquette of controversy which supports both disagreement and the manner of resolving it.  That is what Town Meeting does.  That is why it is necessary.


  1. Mr. Greenbaum, this is an interesting use of data. When considering successful school districts, my own default position is simpler: The richer the community, the better the schools. Of course, there will always be exceptions - thank goodness! But I wanted to put that to the test here. So I just compared your list against the list of highest per-capita incomes in Massachusetts ( and lo! there is a simpler correlation. With only four exceptions, every town you cite for its successful schools is distinguished for having a per-capita income that is in the top 50 of all towns in Mass. With zero exceptions, every single one of your worst-performing districts is outside that list - in most cases, by a long shot. For example, Southbridge, the lowest-performing district on your list, ranks 342 out of 351 in terms of per-capita income.

    I would submit to you that your inference is not at all inescapable. Wealthier towns have better schools.

    Thank you for your service on Town Meeting.

    Bennett Hazlip

  2. Michael, I would also suggest that a data set is best evaluated when controlled for other factors, like diversity.

    A quick comparison of the demographics would suggest that in addition to being more affluent, most of these towns are notably less diverse.

    Wellesley is 77% white, 2.2% black
    Westford is 84% white, 0.3% black
    Weston is 83% white, 1.9% black
    Wayland is 85% white, 0.8% black
    Lexington 67% white, 1.0% black

    I think the intersection of affluence and race and school success and form of government is a subject worth exploring, but only if we commit to examining the extent to which these structural elements - and the privilege they disproportionately convey to some and have for generations - is on the table.

    Ted Parker

  3. Of the original 88 towns with representative town meeting, 33 remain. With two up for vote and more in preliminary committee a stage. How is this a relevant statistic, given the accelerating overall movement away from representative town meetings?