The Town Manager’s slogan, “One Town, One Plan,” is clearly aspirational. It points to a place that he would like us to be, not the place that we currently are in. Nor is it a place we are likely to get to if we assume we are already there. The political battles of the past three years have created a chasm of distrust which inhibits civil disagreement, which is the foundation of democracy. The town’s political and civic leaders would do well to acknowledge this and help the town heal. And the town needs to be seen working on healing as it contemplates four major building projects looming on the horizon. So, where are we in terms of the four major capital projects the Town Manager, Paul Bockelman, apparently thinks we want and can afford?
My guess is that a new fire station would sail through a debt-exclusion override with wide support. A new Department of Public Works (DPW) facility will have wide support as long as its location does not unduly impact residential areas. Most voters will support School Superintendent Morris’s skillful compromise between the conflicting positions that tore us apart two years ago and will vote to build a new elementary school. But the library trustees have yet to make the case that we either want or need a larger library, and given the strength and the obvious need for the other three projects it behooves them to rethink and clarify the need for expansion.
If this general reading of the situation is anywhere close to the mark, the Town Council would be making a serious mistake in presenting these projects as “One Plan.” Instead, it needs different strategies and must be prepared for the likelihood that voters may not be willing to pay for all these projects. Indeed, it needs to be sensitive to the reality that Amherst is not “One Town.”
When I was a wage earner, I considered it an obligation and a privilege to pay local taxes, even the high taxes that Amherst has always required due to the prevalence of so much untaxable land within its limits. Now that I am a pensioner, the obligation and privilege have been joined by a real strain. This is a strain that a great many Amherst residents have been feeling for a long time.
Town boards and committees will need different strategies for presenting these capital projects to the town. Strategy One would deal with the Fire Station and the new DPW depot. These projects would most likely receive a positive override vote. Two issues, to my knowledge, will have to be dealt with – the location of the DPW building and the resistance of some to the net zero energy proviso voted by Town Meeting. I hope that the Council will give a full-throated endorsement to the latter and will devise a strategy that puts Amherst on the side of the angels. Environmental protection is the long-term imperative that requires short-term sacrifice.
Strategy Two would deal with the proposed elementary school. I admire the Superintendent’s proposal. The thing that separates the school issue from the fire station and public works depot, is that so many residents have a close and intimate relationship with our schools, and all voters have or have had personal experience of school. This leads to pretty well-defined opinions and feelings about school-related issues. And the complexities of teaching and learning mean that brick-and-mortar solutions will not always map comfortably onto these opinions and feelings. The strategy, for both Town Council and School Committee, must involve genuine humility and sensitivity. There are those in town who prefer smaller schools for young children and prefer two schools to the one proposed by Mr. Morris. There are some who are concerned that his plan does not consider the possibility of substantial growth in the elementary school population over the next decades. There are others – and I am among them – who would prefer to see sixth graders as leaders and role models in the elementary schools as they negotiate the perilous journey into adolescence. Everyone acknowledges the need for major capital spending for our elementary schools. Town boards and committees should engage in serious and receptive listening to the public before a final plan is endorsed and overrides sought. If the state approves the Superintendent’s plan, of course, the parameters of this listening will be different. But the listening should still precede the selling. I am optimistic about the success of the Superintendent’s proposal.
The library is the most perplexing of all these projects and the hardest for which to devise a winning strategy. That may be because, as much as I love the Jones, I really don’t like the terms of its proposal; I’m not sure I want it to win. The library trustees want the main library to grow bigger, either up or out. I don’t want more big buildings downtown, but the greater problem is that the library trustees appear in thrall to the State Board of Library Commissioners (SBLC) which doles out state funds to support local library building projects. The SBLC has very definite ideas about libraries and it wants us to follow them if we want their money. They believe that bigger is better, and much bigger is much better. They have formulas and metrics from Wisconsin that will reveal how big our library should be. I am not at all convinced that in this library-rich town the Jones needs to be bigger, and I wince at the rigidity and inappropriateness of the metrics.
I will have more to say about the library proposal in a future commentary. But it would be unwise for the Trustees to assume voter support for a larger Jones without greater clarity about the need for the expansion. And meeting the demands of the SBLC is not part of that need.