At UMass, Amherst elementary project foes, proponents vie for students’ early votes

  • Voters line up at an early voting location in the Student Union at UMass Thursday afternoon, including Alexis Glynn, front, and Sean Murphy. Early voting has been brisk on the UMass campus. Carol LOLLLIS

  • Students wait in line on one of the last days to vote early at UMass on Thursday. —Gazette Staff/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vince Wurster talks about campaign strategies on the last days of early voting at UMass on Thursday. —Gazette Staff/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kathleen Traphagen talks about campaign strategies on the last days of early voting at the University of Massachusetts on Thursday. Gazette Staff/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vince Wurster talks about campaign strategies on the last days of early voting at UMass on Thursday. —Gazette Staff/CAROL LOLLIS

@cmlindahl
Published: 11/3/2016 10:30:05 AM

AMHERST — As hundreds of University of Massachusetts Amherst students streamed into the Student Union to grab lunch Thursday afternoon, many exercised their last opportunity to cast a ballot at one of the town’s early voting locations inside.

And for those outside campaigning for or against the proposed Amherst elementary school building project, Thursday represented the last — and possibly only — chance to persuade the bloc of student voters who knew nothing about Question 5 on next Tuesday’s local ballot.

The question asks voters to consider a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override to pay for two co-located elementary schools that would house all Amherst students in Grades 2 through 6. Critics say the plan is a flawed one because it trades smaller neighborhood schools for two larger ones. Proponents say the plan would appropriately replace the poor learning environment at those schools and increase equity.

“Someone was just saying to vote ‘no,’” Talore Gray, 25, said as she waited in line to vote. “I have to read the question before I decide.”

Prior to speaking to a member of Question 5 opposition group Save Amherst’s Small Schools, Gray said she hadn’t heard about the proposal.

Representing the other side, Building Opportunity for Learning and Diversity members were also electioneering outside the Student Union.

“The ballot item doesn’t really go into what it will mean for our district,” said Marla Jamate, who was campaigning for SASS. “The ‘yes’ people and the ‘no’ people want them (students) to go into the booth with some knowledge of the question.”

Thursday was the last day of early voting at UMass and several Hampshire County towns — Southampton, Cummington, Huntington, Williamsburg and Worthington. In Amherst and all other communities in the county, early voting will end Friday.

By Thursday morning, about 15 percent of the state’s 4,534,974 registered voters, or about 680,000 people, had participated in early voting, according to the secretary of state’s office. But as voters are presented with their last chance to vote before Election Day on Nov. 8, participation is expected to increase.

During the first three days of early voting at UMass, some 1,000 people cast ballots. Based on the long line starting from the time polls opened Thursday, Student Government Association President Anthony Vitale expected that the total number of early votes cast at the university could reach 2,000. “Early voting has been a great success for the students,” he said.

That success was seen elsewhere in the region. As of Thursday morning, some 20 percent of Southampton’s 4,598 registered voters had cast their ballots early, according to Assistant Town Clerk Lucille Dalton. And in South Hadley, about 25 percent of the town’s 11,000 registered voters had went to the polls as of Wednesday afternoon.

Campaign strategies

With such a large number of people casting ballots at a central location, those campaigning Thursday outside the UMass Student Union hoped to convince undecided minds.

Jamate said she found that UMass voters — made up of people from states and towns near and far — were very receptive to the needs of local schoolchildren.

“They are remarkably concerned about the Amherst public school students, even if they didn’t grow up in Amherst,” she said. “It is fairly easy to persuade them to vote no.”

Jamate said she spoke to voters about how the new school plan would eliminate neighborhood schools in favor of two co-located ones that would require them to be bused to a central location. Many fondly remembered their own small elementary schools, she said.

She said that often persuaded them. But sometimes she would mention how students’ rent might go up due to the increase in property taxes associated with the override.

Kathleen Traphagen, of pro-project BOLD, said she started with basic talking points that grew more complicated with voters’ interest after asking if they were aware of Question 5.

Her opening line: “We need new schools for Amherst kids.”

She’d continue, telling voters about the existing elementary schools’ open floor plan — asking them to imagine being in a class having to listen to their professor and three others.

But like Jamate, Traphagen said it wasn’t hard to convince students that her opinion was the right one.

“They can understand that schools that work for students are a common public good that are worth paying for,” Traphagen said.

That argument worked for freshman Alexis Glynn.

“I think more schools are always good,” she said. Glynn, 18, of Southwick, was particularly swayed based on her opinion that early childhood education is crucial.

Town Meeting member Hilda Greenbaum in July voiced opposition to putting the school project question on the presidential election ballot. That would lead to comparatively uninformed college students voting on a matter in which they had little stake, she said. Reached Thursday, Greenbaum reiterated that stance.

The town should have held a separate election to decide the ballot question, she said, in order to ensure a measure of voter intent on the question. Because even she — someone who keeps up on town politics — still hasn’t made up her mind on Question 5.

Staff writers Caitlin Ashworth and Emily Cutts contributed to this report.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com




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