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The news from Holyoke on Tuesday, where residents overwhelmingly opposed a tax increase to fund the building of two new Middle Schools, should be a cautionary tale to Amherst leaders.

By a margin of almost 2 to 1, Holyoke voters rejected the school district’s plan to reconfigure their schools and build two new Middle Schools. Did district leaders poll voters during the planning process to find out if there was sufficient local support for the plans or did these results come as a shock? A search of Holyoke Public Schools’ “Middle School Redesign” website found no mention of public surveys/polls.

Waiting until voters line up at the ballot box is too late to learn that the community does not support your plan. Instead, it seems prudent to gauge community support throughout the planning process and adjust course to address key concerns that are raised. Is the project too expensive? Then let’s look at ways to reduce costs. Is it too big? Let’s look at how it can be scaled back. Are there features that don’t sit right with the public? Let’s figure out how to address them. It is a shame that polling is not mandated by the MSBA process for obtaining state aid for school projects.

As Amherst leaders embark on “listening sessions” on the four major capital projects, they would do well to learn from what happened in Holyoke, and find ways to assess the support of the entire community early and often. From what I have seen, listening sessions draw only about 100-200 residents — often the same faces, often predominantly white, older, and affluent. However, when it comes to a tax override, all residents who are registered to vote get to weigh in. In the 2016 override for the Amherst elementary project, 13,524 people voted. Town leaders would do well to reach out to all voters now and adjust course as appropriate.

Some of the big looming questions for which I would encourage broad outreach:

  • Should sixth graders be moved from the elementary schools to the middle school?
  • Should the three elementary schools be consolidated into two?
  • Would the community support having one larger elementary school (with about 600 students) and one smaller school (about 360 students) or would they prefer equal-sized schools?
  • Does the community support spending $16-$28 million on the renovation and expansion of the Jones library, considering all the other needs of the town?

I’ve heard elected officials say that they’ve been “burned” by surveys in the past. Is that code for “the results were not what we wanted”? When the town of Hopkinton voted down their first MSBA-supported project, they hired an independent firm to design and conduct a survey of the community to discover why people voted for or against it and what they would support. More than 1,200 people responded and the subsequent plan that incorporated that community feedback secured 73% support at the ballot. Amherst should be striving to ensure that whatever plans are developed have the support of a large majority of the community. 

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