I know there are lots of very strong feelings about the override on both sides -- those who feel it is "disgusting" if you don't support the override, and those who feel you are "idiotic" to support it. I disagree with both of these views -- I think deciding to vote for or against the override this year is very tricky, for many reasons. That is one of the reasons I haven't taken a position on this vote (like the majority of my Amherst School Committee colleagues) -- and I'm someone who can afford to pay higher taxes, has three children in the public schools, and works nearly a full-time volunteer job as a member of School Committee. I believe there are legitimate reasons to vote "yes" (concern about reduced electives in the high school, concern about a reduction in intervention/special education support in the elementary schools, concern about reduced police/fire services). And I believe there are legitimate reasons to vote "no" (concern about decision-making processes in our schools and how additional funds would be used, concern about whether providing more money will reduce the incentive to look for cost-efficiencies, concern about those in Amherst who really can't afford to pay higher taxes). I see both sides -- and I feel that many thoughtful, smart, and caring people are legitimately struggling with how to vote -- and I am sad by the attacks from both sides on those who feel differently and even those who are undecided.
I saw two letters in this week's Bulletin/Gazette that I think do a great job of expressing the ambivalence I hear from so many, and I'm posting those below (with thanks to Jim Brissette and Andra Rose for their contributions). These two letters are the most thoughtful views I've heard on the override expressed thus far, and although one is "pro" and one is leaning "con", they both are respectful of those who feel differently, which I really appreciate.
To the Bulletin: There are many voters in Amherst, such as myself, who are deeply conflicted about the coming override vote.
On the one hand, an override seems needed in these troubled economic times to balance our budget and preserve a decent baseline of services for all our community. The town has also taken great strides to promote sustainable development and find efficiencies throughout government. On the other hand, the town still hasn't taken on the fundamental basis of our structural deficit: that more than 70 percent of the town's budget is for employee wages, health insurance and pensions. From COLAs to the recent superintendent's salary, our "structure" still seems unsustainable to many in Amherst. This has nothing to do with job performance, as I have the highest respect for our town employees and officials; it simply is about finances and a sustainable town budget.
As an example of my frustration with our not tackling the structural deficit, please consider the following: As a member of Amherst Town Meeting for four years now, Town Meeting has passed without discussion for four straight years a $3 million or so appropriation for our town's employee/retiree pension obligations. We have also battled over the closing of the War Memorial Pool (yearly cost about $50,000), closing the Jones Library on Fridays (about $14,000), and the elementary school music programs (about $180,000). If we had reduced this pension obligation by just one-twelfth each year - perhaps by limiting the pension contributions we pay to higher-salaried employees - we might well have saved about $250,000 each year - or about $1 million dollars over four years (more than half the proposed override we now face). Even if we had been able to save "just" $250,000 over the four years, it would have been more than enough for this fiscal year to fund all three of the items cited above - services that most voters in Amherst hold dear because they benefit our children and our community as a whole.
Although I currently lean toward a no vote on the override, a very hard thing to admit to in Amherst, for the reasons stated above, I am still not sure how I will vote on March 23. I want to vote yes.
I hope in the coming days before the election, I and others who are undecided can be convinced to vote yes: by additional, concrete steps being taken by the Select Board and town manager to truly address the fundamentals of our structural deficit.
To the Bulletin: We only have two answers to choose from on the override question on the ballot March 23: yes or no.
Are you one of the many people who will vote yes, but reluctantly?
Yes, you want to keep music strong and electives varied in the high school, but you still have questions about the school budget.
Yes, you know the town has made a lot of cuts, but you don't want your vote to be taken as a blank check to be spent no matter what happens with state aid.
Yes, you want to save the elementary schools from the worst cuts, but you still want to see structural changes and transparency in the budgeting process.
Yes, you love Amherst, but the override doesn't solve Amherst's need for economic development.
These important issues still need our attention. So yes, keep pushing for change, but vote yes.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.