Editorial: Amherst school supporters face high hurdle

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Supporters of the Amherst elementary school project deserve an “A” for effort in securing a decisive townwide referendum next month, though they face a steep challenge in winning approval of the $67.2 million plan.

After Town Meeting on Jan. 30 for the second time rejected borrowing for the project, proponents of building a new school collected more than 1,000 certified signatures to force the townwide vote. It will be held March 28, the date of the annual town election.

Holding a referendum to overturn a vote by the representative Town Meeting is a little-used provision in the Amherst Town Government Act, or charter. It was last tried in 2005, unsuccessfully, after Town Meeting approved borrowing $500,000 to improve athletic fields at the Plum Brook Recreation Area.

There are two thresholds that voters townwide must meet to override Town Meeting. First, supporters of the new school plan must secure at least a two-thirds majority of those voting, the same proportion that Town Meeting failed to meet.

Language in the charter specifying the second requirement is less clear. The sentence reads: “No action of the representative Town Meeting shall be reversed unless a number of registered voters equal to at least 18 percent of all the active registered voters shall so vote.”

In preparing for the 2005 referendum, town officials said that meant at least 18 percent of registered voters had to cast ballots in favor of rescinding Town Meeting’s support of spending for the athletic fields.

However, this year, some have suggested that the intent is to require only that 18 percent of the town’s registered voters turn out for the referendum, no matter how they vote.

The difference in interpretations raises the stakes for the new school proponents. Simply getting 18 percent of the town’s 16,569 registered voters — or 2,983 people — to the polls March 28 is well within reach. Turnout for the 2016 annual town election was 17.7 percent, and 21.2 percent for the 2005 referendum.

However, convincing at least 2,983 voters to cast ballots for the school project is a more formidable task. For example, if 20 percent of the registered voters, or 3,314 people, participate in the referendum, all but 331 would have to vote in favor of the plan for it to prevail.

The original vote Nov. 8 approving a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override for the school project passed 6,825-6,699, which is far less than the two-thirds majority required in the referendum.

The Select Board has asked the town’s attorneys for their interpretation of the language in the charter governing referenda. Town officials must ensure that the ground rules are clear well before the March 28 vote.

At stake is the town’s final opportunity to take advantage of $34 million in state financing that would pay about half the cost of the project to close the outdated Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools. They would be replaced by two co-located schools, each serving about 375 students in Grades 2 to 6, at the Wildwood site.

The Crocker Farm Elementary School would become an early learning center for children in pre-kindergarten through Grade 1.

The school project, which emerged from nine years of planning, is unanimously supported by the Select Board and has the backing of four of five School Committee members. A petition supporting the plan was signed by 187 teachers before the last Town Meeting vote.

Select Board member Andrew Steinberg told Town Meeting last month that Amherst “cannot place another generation of students in substandard buildings by delaying the project.”

We agree and urge voters to remedy the failure of Town Meeting to heed his advice. Accepting the state’s $34 million guarantee is the quickest way to ensure that Amherst elementary students will be educated in 21st-century schools.