Jim Oldham: What next for the Amherst schools?

Friday, November 25, 2016

After Amherst voters approved, by a margin of less than 1 percent, a Proposition 2 1/2 override required to fund the construction of two “co-located” schools for Grades 2 through 6, Town Meeting voted not to appropriate funds for the project, which was the other essential step for it to go forward.

Although Town Meeting members were also equally split between yes and no, the result was not close given that state law requires a two-thirds majority to approve borrowing. This ensures that any commitment of future resources has broad community broad. The school proposal did not have such support in Town Meeting nor among voters at large.

While many families and teachers were relieved by the Town Meeting vote, others were understandably disappointed. There are many different perspectives regarding both the current schools and those that were proposed, reflecting diverse needs, experiences and priorities in our community.

Should Town Meeting have appropriated funds because the ballot measure won on Election Day? Was there a mandate from the voters? I don’t think so.

First of all, state law required each of the votes for different reasons, and they addressed distinct questions. To suggest one vote should follow the other would make the second one meaningless.

Beyond that, with the town’s voters split evenly, it was Town Meeting’s responsibility to determine if it was appropriate to mortgage future revenues belonging to all of us for this project, and the majority thought not.

For me, the biggest concerns were the impacts of the poorly thought out educational plan that I have written about previously, and the large cohorts of students that would be created in each grade, particularly at Crocker Farm where the youngest children would be. Others emphasized the significant loss of playgrounds, the transportation impact, and the burden on families, especially those with single parents, no cars, or limited resources.

The most compelling argument I heard in favor of the proposed co-located schools was made by and on behalf of families of children with special needs. It is challenging to provide specialized services in three schools, and requiring children to be go outside their district to receive those services isolates and sometimes stigmatizes them.

However, other families emphasized the challenges transitions create, particularly for children with special needs, and the value of remaining with adults who know them. And it is possible to address the problem of having to go out of district for services without accepting the proposed education plan.

I’ve heard it said that those of us who voted no let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The accusation is that by voting down a flawed plan we left the town with no option at all.

To me, the more reasonable conclusion is that the school leadership, with more options available and more time to develop a proposal people could unite behind, behaved irresponsibly in bringing a controversial plan to voters and Town Meeting and gambling that it would pass.

As others have noted, a proposal for two co-located K-6 schools on the same site, while not satisfying everyone, could have delivered most of the desired benefits with fewer negatives. Had that plan been proposed, it would now likely be moving forward to final design and construction.

That said, rehashing these arguments won’t address Amherst’s needs. The sooner we can come together to bring a new plan to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the better. Despite fear-mongering to the contrary, there is good reason to believe that a new proposal can be approved and move ahead in perhaps as little as two to three years. After all, the same conditions and needs exist now as did when Amherst’s initial application was approved.

And however uncertain one believes the future to be, it is clear that our children will be best served if the adults in the community work to come together around a concept that can be broadly embraced.

In the meantime, how do we deal with the current situation? First we need to distinguish between real problems and hype. The noisy environment and lack of natural light created by the open-classroom design at Wildwood and Fort River are legitimate concerns, but they have also existed for decades during which Amherst has been a destination for families seeking excellent schools.

The deferred maintenance of the schools seems a greater problem, and we should be prepared to spend some money to deal with problems that should have been addressed several years ago.

Finally, now that school officials have acknowledged the inappropriateness of busing 46 students from the apartment complexes in South Amherst out of district to achieve socioeconomic balance in the schools, they should rapidly find a way to give those families freedom to choose their schools. Equity isn’t something to offer only when you have funding.

Jim Oldham is an Amherst Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.