This week’s little drama seems to be revolving around the appearance of the Community Preservation Act ballot question on the October 9 School Committee agenda, followed by the removal of the agenda item.
Let’s set the context. On May 7, after a debate that extended over two nights, Arlington Town Meeting voted 128-77 to place acceptance of the Community Preservation Act on the November ballot. Four school committee members (myself included) are Town Meeting Members, and three of us voted to support acceptance of the Community Preservation Act.
- Bill Hayner (Precinct 2) NO
- Jennifer Susse (Precinct 3) YES
- Paul Schlichtman (Precinct 9) YES
- Jeffrey Thielman (Precinct 12) YES
As the election approaches, the three school committee members who are not members of our Representative Town Meeting (Cindy Starks, Judson Pierce, and Kirsi Allison-Ampe) have declared their support for the Community Preservation Act. The YES website now lists six school committee members as supporters, while Mr. Hayner is the chair of the Vote No committee.
It’s no surprise that members of the school committee, who are well informed on town issues, have taken the time to study the issue and have stated public positions on the November ballot question.
When the preliminary agenda for the October 9 school committee meeting was released, Mr. Hayner (as chair of the school committee) called for presentations about the Community Preservation Act. Joe Curro was scheduled to make the presentation for the YES campaign, while Charlie Foskett was scheduled to make the presentation for the NO campaign. Both of these respected gentlemen have already debated the issue on the floor of Town Meeting (see Dan Dunn’s notes for Session 3, Article 22, of the 2014 annual town meeting), and their learned opinions weighed heavily on the individual decisions we made at that time.
The October 9 meeting already had a crowded agenda, and we were coming in a half-hour early for an executive session. Several of my colleagues and I told Mr. Hayner that we didn’t want the Community Preservation Act presentation added to an already packed agenda.
Arlington Town Counsel Douglas Heim wrote that “a School Committee vote to support or oppose adoption of the CPA is permitted, but is in substance an endorsement rather than a decision or policy within the Committee’s jurisdiction to carry out itself or request the Superintendent implement.” With the Community Preservation Act on the agenda, the committee could have taken a vote to endorse a YES or NO vote on the ballot question. Still, I don’t think it’s a very good idea. The task before the school committee is to make decisions about the future of the school system. not to opine about ballot questions where the policy decisions rest with the Board of Selectmen and Town Meeting.
If the school committee as a government body can, but probably shouldn’t, endorse a ballot question with no direct impact on the schools, then why conduct a debate in the middle of our meeting? A televised debate on the topic is a good idea, but it’s not the job of the school committee to stage it in the midst of our meeting. This is something best left to ACMi or the League of Women Voters, although the League has declared its support for adoption of the Community Preservation Act and urges a YES vote in November.
Which brings us back where we started when this little drama came to light. In stating the ground rules, Town Counsel wrote that: “a School Committee Member, like a Selectman or other elected Town official, may take a position on a ballot question as a school committee member in a variety of formats, including being listed as a supporter by a Ballot Question Committee. However, permit me to note that care should be exercised not to conflate a member’s support for the committee’s support as a body or to use any public resources in advocating a position on a ballot question.”
Mr. Hayner is chair of the NO committee, and he has every right to stand in the public square and make his best argument against the ballot question. The other six members have every right to list themselves as supporters of the ballot question, and have a right to be identified as elected officials when they make that individual endorsement. The school committee, as a body, has not taken a vote on a ballot question that has no direct impact on the schools, nor have we been going around the town stating that the school committee supports the ballot question. It has certainly been noted that six individual members of the committee have endorsed the question, but that’s about it.
As for the school committee agenda, the chair has the responsibility to work with the superintendent to present an agenda to the committee before each meeting. The committee members have a right to respond to a proposed agenda, and request that items be added or deleted from the agenda. If the agenda does not reflect the wishes of the majority of the committee, under Robert’s Rules of Order, the committee has a right to vote to remove an agenda item. After hearing from several committee members, the Community Preservation Act was removed from the final agenda.
Charlie Foskett and Stephen Harrington also made a brief statement in the public participation section of the meeting, as is their right.
Even though it seemed to be a bit of a drama, everything worked the way it was supposed to work.
I am voting YES in November because I believe the small property tax surcharge will lead to spending that makes Arlington a more attractive community, a better place to live, and it will enhance my property values far beyond the cost of the surcharge. That’s why I voted to place the question on the ballot as a Town Meeting Member, and that’s why I will vote YES in November.