Vanishing Arlington?

Our beloved Route 128 is a part of Interstate 95, the main north-south route between Canada and Miami.

I-95
I-95

For the longest time, Arlington has had a presence on I-95, with signs at a couple of exits pointing drivers to our town. North or south, drivers on I-95 encounter this sign at Exit 29 as the way to go to Arlington.

Arlington Exit
Old sign for Arlington’s exit from I-95

There is currently a sign replacement project on I-95, and it looks like the new signs are going to purge Arlington from the highway. The first new sign has removed Arlington and replaced it with Boston.

Boston sign
Boston exit?

The second new sign, one of those supplemental signs which point folks to the second tier cities, lists Acton and Cambridge.

Acton and Cambridge
Acton and Cambridge

The exit for Middlesex Turnpike once listed Arlington and Burlington as destinations, but Arlington was removed when the signs were replaced. Now Arlington’s only mention on I-95 appears to be vanishing completely from the highway.

It’s likely to be a move that creates confusion and unhappiness. Route 2 to Boston? Really? Savvy drivers know that Route 2 may go to Boston, but it’s not really the best way to get downtown. Heading east, it comes to Arlington, hits the former Alewife rotary, and descends into gridlock from there.

So, MassDOT, how come Arlington is vanishing from the highway signs?

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Amending the Minuteman Regional Agreement

Tonight’s remarks under Arlington Town Meeting Article 21,
AMENDMENTS TO THE DISTRICT AGREEMENT OF THE MINUTEMAN REGIONAL VOCATIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT 

As a former member of the Minuteman Regional School Committee, I know that our relationship with Minuteman is a complicated mix of partnership and competition. We are partners in educating Arlington students, yet we also compete for students. We need Minuteman to provide the specialized and expensive vocational programs that individual towns cannot provide on their own.

In the past three years, our Minuteman assessment has increased from 2.4 million dollars to 3.8 million dollars, a 61 percent increase in just three years. This is unsustainable.

The reason for this dramatic increase is our percentage of the member town enrollment increased from 27 percent to 38 percent, and our assessment is based on the percentage of member town students from Arlington.

Minuteman is looking to build a new school, and the local costs are based on the percentage of students from each member town. Our share is rapidly approaching 40%, but we cannot afford to pay 40% of the cost of building a new vocational school.

The operative term here is member town.

According to the state, about 40% of the students at Minuteman come from outside the district. They don’t pay for the capital costs of the district. They don’t pay for a new building.

When you count all the students, member town and out-of-district, Arlington sends somewhere in the neighborhood of 21 to 23 percent of the students. I submit to you that Arlington can afford to live in that neighborhood. We can afford to pay for 21 to 23 percent of the local share of a school, but we can’t afford to pay a third to 40% of the cost.

That’s why so we need to take some steps to restore the balance between Arlington, the other member communities, and the non-member towns that send significant numbers of students to Minuteman.

First, we need to support a new regional agreement, which will weigh votes based on the town’s enrollment. Currently, Dover has one student in the school, one vote on the school committee, and their one vote for a $38,000 assessment is equal to our one vote for a $3.8 million assessment.

The agreement before us tonight will begin to fix this inequity, but it doesn’t go far enough. Last January, the Minuteman school committee voted to dilute the proposed weighting system, for the purpose of shifting votes away from the big town and retaining more power in the tiny towns. Instead of a vote that reflects our share of the cost of the district, the agreement was changed to cut proportional voting in half. Half of the vote will be proportional, half of the vote will be allocated equally to each town.

The new agreement also exempts key financial decisions from weighted voting, so little towns will still be able to combine to pass a budget that adversely impacts Arlington.

Minuteman had a major discussion about how to write an unweighted supermajority into the new agreement. Would it be a two-thirds vote or a three-quarters vote? It was a big argument that didn’t make a dime’s worth of difference.

A two-thirds unweighted vote requires 11 towns. This can be achieved with the combined votes of the 11 smallest towns that, combined, send 29% of the students to the school.

A three quarters unweighted vote requires just one more town, and can be achieved with the combined votes of the 12 smallest towns representing 35% of the district. Arlington, remember, is now 38% of the district.

In reverse, the five smallest towns can block an action that requires an unweighted ¾ vote supermajority. The five smallest towns have a combined enrollment of 31 students, or 4% of the district. That’s one heck of a veto.

Should we be bound by a financial obligation imposed by an alleged supermajority of 35%?

Should we grant veto power to 4% of the district?

More important, if you are a large non-member municipality, would you join a district where a collection of tiny towns can impose a multi-million dollar assessment on your city or town?

We are required by law to use one town – one vote of each town meeting or city council, to approve the budget. Shouldn’t the other step, at the school committee level, be weighted by enrollment?

Shouldn’t it be like the Connecticut Compromise in our Constitution, where half of the decisions were based on the population and the other half were apportioned equally among states?

The current Minuteman agreement worked when it was written in 1970, but that was long before Proposition 2 ½ gave towns the right to reject regional school budgets.

That was long before the 1993 Education Reform act reallocated Chapter 70 funding within regional school districts.

Times change, circumstances change, and we must construct a new agreement that aligns with our current reality.

I urge your support for this new agreement, because it is better than what we have now. I cannot, in the future, support a new building under the terms of the agreement before us tonight.

It does not go far enough to align votes with the fiscal impact of the project. It does nothing to attract new cities or towns. It does not bring our cost of any new school down to a reasonable share.

What’s reasonable? I want 20%. I can live with 25%. Don’t ask me to go much higher.

Half of the towns, 8 towns, combined send a total of 54 students to the school. That’s 12.5% of the member town enrollment. Towns that send a half-dozen students to the school shouldn’t expect to have a bloated share of the decision making power in the district. We should allow them to leave the district and cap their non-member enrollment at current levels, particularly if the change in governance makes the district more attractive to the large non-member communities.

We shouldn’t let one small town delay the ratification process until they become the last town to ratify this agreement, which is why I enthusiastically support Mr. Foskett’s sunset provision.

We shouldn’t be afraid to insist on a price tag, and a vote proportionate to our enrollment, before we agree to build a new vocational school.

We shouldn’t be surprised if the Minuteman towns, acting on their own, cannot come to terms with an agreement that will allow for a new school without intervention from the state.

We know that the state can use a variety of sticks and carrots to bring some very large non-member cities, like Watertown and Waltham, into the district.

Those chapters of the Minuteman story, however, remain to be written. They are for another time. What is before us tonight is a proposal to take one step forward. It is a small, incremental improvement. We should take this step. Please support Mr. Foskett’s amendment and the revised regional agreement with your YES vote.

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