Columnist Jim Oldham: Attacks won’t deliver new schools

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Susan Tracy’s column (“Rejects Town Meeting as decision-making body,” Nov. 25) used misleading parallels to attack Town Meeting members who voted against the elementary school building proposal, comparing us to anti-integration activists of South Boston in the 1970s.

Apart from getting her historical analogy mixed up — Louise Day Hicks opposed busing to integrate schools, Town Meeting stands accused of perpetuating busing — this professor emerita of history and American studies shows little knowledge of recent events in the Amherst school system.

Town Meeting has neither caused nor advocated the busing of “other people’s small children across town for economic balance” nor done anything to “thwart the legitimate rights of poorer students for equal access.”

Rather, the busing is a policy of the Amherst School Committee, established seven years ago by a leadership that decided that having a similar socioeconomic mix of students in all elementary schools was a high priority and, to achieve that, it was OK to target one group of families — those living in South Amherst apartments — for treatment different from everyone else in town.

Unlike Tracy, I opposed the decision at the time and have called often for change. The policy could be rescinded at any time, yet it has been perpetuated by the very leaders who now use the situation as a polemical device to win support for an unpopular school reconfiguration.

While Tracy’s unfounded accusations are particularly extreme, she is not alone in attacking the legitimacy of Town Meeting and the character of the citizens who comprise it, rather than focusing on real issues. We’ve seen the incongruous argument that a Town Meeting result that reflected, almost exactly, the townwide vote somehow shows that the body is unrepresentative.

Town Meeting is characterized as made up of people without knowledge of the schools when in fact nearly half of members who spoke during the debate on the school building, and a solid majority of those who spoke against the proposal, were parents of elementary school children. Members are attacked as uninformed when many have engaged with these issues for years.

I initially saw these angry attacks as unpleasant but understandable: momentary expressions of disappointment from people whose preferred choice had been defeated. That is normal, but after taking time to deal with disappointment, the next step is to reengage to find compromise that can win wider support.

However, it is now clear that the losing side intends instead to reconvene Town Meeting for a second vote on the same proposal. Proponents promise new information but all indications are that we will get the same arguments as before, but with increased hysteria and attacks on those who disagree.

It is not new information that another statement of interest must be submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to get funding for an alternative proposal. In fact, many people are very frustrated that the school leadership wasted a great opportunity by choosing to try to push through a proposal against the will of half the community rather than embracing a more widely supported plan.

However, it is not correct to suggest that Amherst will have to return to the end of the line: there is no line. Any new submission will be judged on the same criteria of need and history that led to the current MSBA funding commitment.

The best way to speed the process is to quickly withdraw the current proposal. It is unfortunate that those whose plan was defeated because they ignored parent and teacher input a year ago are now fulfilling their own prophesies by delaying any opportunity to submit a more widely supported plan.

It is also not new information that Wildwood and Fort River were both poorly designed, and have been allowed to deteriorate, or that many teachers desperately want something to be done about the schools. It is understandable that those in the schools are anxious about having to wait longer for improvements, but the fact that some may be ready to embrace the only option offered does not discount that the vast majority of teachers, when given the chance to respond anonymously, felt there were better approaches than the one brought forward.

Town Meeting needs to consider not just the urgency of the need, but the quality of the solution being offered. If there is one lesson to learn from the history of Wildwood and Fort River schools, it is that when investing community resources to build for the future, not everything new is better, and bad investments have long consequences.

Bringing the same building proposal back to Town Meeting with all the same arguments wrapped in new levels of vitriol will not address the needs of our students and teachers. Only a genuine effort to efficiently incorporate the best ideas from all sides into a new proposal will create the schools we need for the future.

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