Guest columnist Nina Mankin: Correcting ‘revisionist’ history on school vote

  • Fort River Elementary School

Thursday, May 20, 2021

In the May 7 edition of the Bulletin, Chris Riddle, whose expertise and dedication to our community I have long respected, called out what he describes as “the dishonest point that Town Meeting is to blame for Amherst’s failure to take advantage of state support and approve the Wildwood School Project.”

That dishonesty, he asserts, is evidenced by the (dishonest) refusal of some members of our community to accept that “public opinion in town didn’t support the project.” Town Meeting members, with their votes, he asserts, were only doing their jobs by reflecting that opinion.

This is revisionist history. The Town Meeting vote on Nov. 15, 2016 that doomed the school project was not about whether or not the town should or should not fund the building of a new school. That question was resolved in a townwide vote eight days earlier that passed by a small majority (Ballot Question 5, Nov. 8, 2016).

The Town Meeting vote that killed the school project was a bond motion, Warrant Article 2: Bond Funding Authorization Motion for the Wildwood School Building Project. I was on Town Meeting at the time and I understood that I was not being asked, in this vote, to give my opinion on whether or not I personally thought we should move forward with the school project; every member of Town Meeting had already exercised their democratic right to express that opinion on Nov. 8.

The argument Riddle makes is that the townwide vote was not a two-thirds majority. It’s convenient, in retrospect, to claim that somehow that vote was not, therefore, legitimate. But this is the equivalent of delegitimizing a presidential election won by a slim majority (every election in my lifetime). To be, I hope, more clear by quoting from the Select Board’s letter (in unanimous support of Warrant Article 2), “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, not the Town of Amherst, determines the quantum of vote needed to pass a Proposition 2½ override [in which voters authorized the borrowing of funds to build a new school], which is set at a simple 50% majority, and [the Commonwealth also decides] the quantum of vote needed for various Representative Town Meeting actions, which is set at two-thirds for bond authorization.”

Our job as Town Meeting members on that day was to evaluate the financial soundness of our town taking on the debt required to build a new school. This project, a decade in the making, had already cost nearly a million dollars and countless professional, volunteer and community hours; it was finally at the point of ratification.

On Nov. 15 Town Meeting listened to reports from the Finance Committee, the Select Board, the Planning Board, the superintendent of schools, the School Committee and the town manager — volunteers and professionals paid through our tax dollars; all presented their unanimous support for approval of the bond.

The fact that so many members of Town Meeting felt they had the right to ignore the legitimacy of the townwide vote and exert their personal power to kill the project, is the reason so many of us blame Town Meeting for the loss of state funds. This is not a dishonest stating of the facts; it is the fact.

That following March, as Riddle points out, there was a final “hail Mary” (my language) attempt to override this egregious power move by Town Meeting with a citizens referendum, but that was a different kind of vote — to overturn a ruling by Town Meeting — that required two-thirds to pass; it received 92% of the required number and thus failed.

If Town Meeting had ratified the bond on Nov. 15, students at Wildwood and Fort River would already be in two new co-located schools. We would not have thrown away a decade of work and millions of dollars (many millions if you include a minimum 4% price increase each year) and a decade of schoolchildren — and all their school staff and teachers — would not have had to deal with leaking roofs, mold, lead and noise problems.

This is a large part of why, 16 months after Nov. 15, 2016, our community voted to disband Town Meeting and move to another form of government. And that's not just my honest opinion.

Nina Mankin lives in Amherst.