Susan Tracy: Rejects Town Meeting as decision-making body

Friday, November 25, 2016

I am appalled by the Nov. 14 Amherst Town Meeting vote against the proposed new elementary school allegedly in favor of “neighborhood schools” which by definition guarantees inequality of access and opportunity for poor students and those who need special services.

The most impressive aspect of the school plan brought forward by the school administration, the School Committee and the School Building Committee for two co-located schools for students in Grades 2-6 at an expanded Wildwood site and additional preschool seats at an early childhood center (preschool to first grade) at Crocker Farm, is its attention to equity in providing equal opportunity for all of Amherst’s elementary school students.

No longer would children from poorer families be bused around the town to achieve economic balance, services for students with learning disabilities would be centralized, and critical preschool education could be offered to more children, an essential factor in their future academic success as four decades of data from Head Start education has demonstrated. And all students would have access to the same academic, artistic and athletic resources.

There is not space here to list all of the bizarre and specious arguments concocted by the opponents of the Wildwood building project as they persisted in undermining the knowledge and work of the various boards, committees and individuals who have spent countless hours over the last two years thinking about this project and planning it with qualified professionals.

Indeed, the most irrational aspect of the debate was some peoples’ insistence in spite of the evidence that the existing buildings could and should be renovated. Apparently they didn’t believe the architects’ assessment that to renovate and replace the open classrooms, the leaky roofs, and the inadequate heating and cooling systems and to make the buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act would not only be prohibitively expensive, but would be inadequate in the end. Additionally, the operating cost saving of $500,000 a year made no impression on them.

What was most discouraging to me was the false construction of the existing schools as “neighborhood schools” when fewer than 10 percent of children walk to the already consolidated schools and the opponents’ apparent obliviousness to the historically racist and classist form of evoking “neighborhood schools” to thwart the legitimate rights of poorer students for equal access to educational resources, good teachers, and environmentally sound buildings. (Think: 1970s Louise Day Hicks’ movement in South Boston.)

It appears that it is completely acceptable to these Town Meeting members to bus other people’s small children across town for economic balance and to access critical educational services, but it isn’t OK for their children to attend a larger school broken into two smaller units that addresses the needs of all the children of the town.

Indeed, the opponents impressed several of their children into service to testify for programs they liked in their current schools, all of which can be duplicated in the new schools. The opponents’ myopic attention to their own situation and their inability to empathize with others’ reality was to me the most striking and discouraging aspect of the debate.

The most outrageous consequence of this negative vote is that since the plan cannot be changed, Amherst will lose the $34 million  to build the new co-located school building (about half the cost) and will return to the bottom of the queue for funds from the Massachusetts School Building Authority where we had worked our way up since 2007. We will also have to go into future financial markets to borrow our half of the money where most likely we will be charged higher interest rates and inflated costs for any future building.

It is our shame that this plan was voted down especially given the recent support among voters for it and provides those voters with another reason among many to reject Town Meeting as a decision-making body of government. I certainly will if I am given a chance.

Susan J. Tracy, of Amherst, is professor emerita of history and American Studies at Hampshire College.