Columnist David Mednicoff: Reasonable parents oppose Amherst school plan

  • Amherst Town Meeting members vote by voice Jan. 30 on a revote of the proposed $67.2 million school project. Seconds later, they voted electronically. The project failed again. A referendum will be held March 28 on reversing the representative Town Meeting vote. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Several years ago, my brown-skinned son was attacked at his elementary school without provocation. The school’s principal, knowing my son and the other student for a long time, intervened usefully, supporting my son strongly, disciplining the other child, calling me personally, and mediating a reasonable reconciliation later.

At a larger school, and one that had not known the children for years prior to this incident, staff would be much less likely to appreciate the situation’s nuances, and I might fear that my son could receive less caring treatment, in part because of his skin color.

My daughter, now in high school, has expressed clear feelings about how important to her well-being she found attending an elementary school that was small, close to a neighborhood model, and free from disruptive relocation from a different lower-grade school.

As a public policy professor, I appreciate that individual experiences may not represent full debate on a contested public issue. Nonetheless, my multicultural children’s clear ideas about what has made their primary education work connect with the articulate, diverse arguments many friends and neighbors have made against a plan to reconfigure completely Amherst’s elementary schools that was never the optimal choice of teachers and parents, and that has been voted down twice by Town Meeting representatives.

Proponents of the school reconfiguration plan have forced a townwide vote to overturn two prior votes by Town Meeting, upping the stakes. Each effort to overturn the votes of our elected representatives against funding a particular, problematic version of new elementary schools has made more difficult a plan that might retain the successful features of current elementary schools and achieve broader support.

The school issue is now also used to justify changing Town Meeting to a less representative, less diverse governance structure, precisely when democratic processes nationally are at risk. Some proponents of the rejected plan seem hostile toward, and misrepresent the arguments of, well-meaning opponents. This is disheartening. In fact, it pains me deeply to be on the opposite side of this issue from people whom I respect and consider friends, and who share my commitment to our schools.

Yet, several factors make me overcome my discomfort to speak up against the current plan. First, this plan raises sufficient risk of worsening school equity and environmental issues to outweigh unproven claims that an entirely new configuration of schools that are further away for most residents offers advantages over the high-quality education our students currently receive.

Second, plan proponents have not argued convincingly that eliminating K-6 education is useful, or that a revised plan is impossible. Rather, there have been consistent moves to defeat the prospects, and thereby raise the costs, of an alternative that could preserve small, K-6 schools.

Finally, the process through which the plan emerged as the favored option appears to many of us who tried to weigh in much earlier during deliberations as weighted against evidence and stakeholder preference for a different plan.

This last point matters because my best sense is that vocal opponents of this plan advanced alternatives and compromise that would retain K-6 schools and address both equity and funding issues at a stage in the process when cost-effective consensus was easier. Because these efforts were dismissed, and because some supporters seem incredulous that opposition to the current proposal to completely restructure elementary education can be principled, genuine and grounded in shared zeal to fix our schools’ problems, Amherst residents face a terrible choice between an unproven plan riddled with problems, and delay and less-certain funding to recraft the plan to preserve responsive K-6 education.

I regret being forced into this choice, at odds with dear friends. Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable being pushed repeatedly to endorse a plan that many caring families truly, and thoughtfully, believe to be against the long-term educational interests of our town’s children.

I hope that fellow town voters will stand up for school reform that enjoys broader support, and that supporters of the plan can accept that an inclusive process for a better plan honors their commitment to good Amherst schools more than continuing revotes on a flawed proposal.

David Mednicoff, of Amherst, is a lawyer, a professor in the University of Massachusetts School of Public Policy and director of Middle Eastern Studies at UMass.