Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Historic Cold Month

February has been a good month for remembering & honoring cultures that help make our little college town what it is today.

We started February with the 2nd annual St. Brigid's Day to remember the Irish in a way as diametrically opposite as possible to the unsanctioned Blarney Blowout, and today it was the 3rd annual flag raising combined with a well attended ceremony at Town Hall to remember Black History Month.

Although it was bitter cold and the ceremony was advertised as an outdoor event, about four dozen citizens crowded into Town Hall to hear Jim Wald read the Select Board proclamation and poet Xinef Afriam perform a passionate piece remembering 150 years of black suffering.

The crowd did brave the weather, marching slowing out of Town Hall and assembling on the front steps while singing the black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice & Sing."

Friday, February 12, 2016

No Ballot For You

Helen Berg collecting signatures last weekend

After a brief conversation with the Town Clerk this afternoon Select Board wanna be candidate Helen Berg was satisfied with most of the names disqualified from her nomination papers, but she remained  adamant about only two of them which she will attempt to appeal to a higher authority.

Berg had handed in her papers on the final day less than an hour before deadline with 64 names.  The Town Clerk's office disqualified 16 of those names for a variety of reasons leaving her just two shy of the 50 needed.

There is no option available to appeal the Town Clerk's decision to the Board of Registrars or any other local authority other than bringing a lawsuit before a Hampshire Superior Court judge.

Last year Vince O'Connor and Mary Wentworth tried to have signatures thrown out from School Committee candidate Phoebe Hazzard because multiple signatures appeared to have been signed by the same person.

The Board of Registrars does get involved with a properly filed challenge/appeal over nomination signatures but does not get involved if it was the Town Clerk who threw them out.

Berg came in a distant third two years ago for Select Board and threatened a lawsuit because the Town Clerk did not put the names on the ballot alphabetically (where her name would have been first).

Turns out the town had been granted special state legislation in 1975 to allow names to appear by drawing from a hat, letting luck be the deciding factor.  That applies only to town wide contests.

The 20 Charter Commission candidates still fall under normal state guidelines, so their names will appear alphabetically on the March 29 ballot.

Taking On Water

Maria Geryk, Sean Mangano, Mike Morris at last night's Finance Committee meeting

Amherst school officials gave the Finance Committee a sneak peak at their fiscal 2017 Elementary and Regional School budgets, both of which are described as "level services," and both of which require sizable cuts simply to attain that treading water status quo:

$428,897 from the elementary schools and  $280,823 from the Region.

 Charter Schools cost as much as employee Step/COLA and projected raises next year on Elementary budget Control Accounts

And in both cases the number one cause of budget strain comes from the competitive drain of students by Charter Schools, mainly Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley, which is now a full service grades 1-12 enterprise.

 PVCIC recently added $10 million building addition

For the Region (grades 7-12) this year that includes 90 students and at the elementary level another 86 -- all of them at the high average cost per student, where Amherst is in the top 10% statewide.

 Charter School impact on Amherst elementary schools

If a student leaves Amherst via Choice it only costs us $5,000 but if they go to a Charter School or Vocational School it costs us $18,000.

And to make matters worse the state is considering lifting the cap on Charter Schools while reducing dramatically the reimbursement formula to public schools who lose students to Charters.

All in all a lose/lose proposition for an already ailing public school system once the proud flagship of education in the Happy Valley.

PVCIC recently added a $10 million addition to their nearby facility while Amherst is gambling on a two-for-one mega school that could very well be turned down by the voters because of expense, adding significant costs to Amherst's already sky high property tax burden.

School  Library supporters crashed the FinCom meeting

About a half-dozen disgruntled citizens showed up to the Finance Committee meeting last night to complain about the 3 library paraprofessionals facing the budget ax, but Chair Kay Moran told them the Finance Committee has no line item authority and simply votes the bottom line provided by School Administration.

$40,000 was recently shifted from the elementary schools operating budget to capital (paid by the town) so that alone will cover half the cost of the three library paras if approved by Town Meeting.

And the town did recently renew the lousy 3.5 year "Strategic Partnership" with UMass that provided $60,000 this current year and $120,000 next year in reimbursement money for the 56 students in our expensive public schools coming from tax exempt family housing at UMass.

School Committee candidate Vince O'Connor will be filing a "citizens petition" for Town Meeting calling for greater Payment In Lieu Of Taxes from all three institutes of higher education who dominate day-to-day existence in our little "college town."

 Comparison of local public schools losses to Charter Schools (Amherst second from lowest)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Night Of Their Own

Town Meeting Coordinating Committee discussed upcoming town election & Town Meeting this afternoon

Since the race for Charter Commission has a large field of 20 candidates vying for only 9 seats and since this process is not exactly routine, the League of Women Voters will host a candidates night in the Middle School auditorium on March 14 at 7:00 pm.

This public forum on the Charter Commission is in addition to their usual candidates night for town wide offices (Select Board, School Committee, and Library Trustees) which will be held March 22 in the Town Room at Town Hall.

In addition the TMCC will sponsor a bus tour on Sunday April 24  for all Town Meeting members to peruse sites around town related to Town Meeting articles.  The 40 seat bus is provided by UMass at a cost of $200 but UMass Community Relations office is picking up half the cost.

Amherst school buses had been used in the past but they are not handicapped accessible and the UMass bus has room for two wheelchairs. 

$40,000 Budget Shift

Joint Capital Planning Committee this morning

The Joint Capital Planning Committee heard today about the high cost of Information Technology with town IT Director Sean Hannon requesting $298,800 in gadgets, wiring, phones and copiers and his schools counterpart Jerry Champagne seeking $247,000 for FY17, which begins July 1st.

The town has roughly 250 computers and part of the upcoming budget request will replace 40 of them.  Interestingly with all the terabytes of vital information that needs safe storage, the town does not currently use "the cloud" but relies on physical servers, like Hillary Clinton.

Currently all data resides at the Police Station with a back up server at Town Hall.  But for additional security Hannon is requesting $20,000 for another "disaster recovery" server located a lot further away in case a calamity should wreak havoc at both the Police Station and nearby Town Hall.

At Tuesday night's controversial School Committee meeting where three library paraprofessional were verbally handed pink slips, much to the dismay of parents and library lovers, Rick Hood wondered why "wireless WiFi upgrades" were coming out of the operating budget and not capital.

At Superintendent Maria Geryk's request Champagne moved the $40,000 item to his joint capital budget request, which if approved by JCPC and Town Meeting would give the elementary school budget an extra $40,000 to apply towards the library paras.

The JCPC was unanimous in affirming the $40,000 can come into the mix as capital, but they did balk at giving the item special treatment by changing their process and taking a vote now on recommending the item to Town Meeting.  Normally the Committee hears all requests from all departments over a two month period before taking a vote.

That vote will take place either March 10 or more likely March 17.  And I'm pretty sure the School Superintendent will benefit from the luck of the Irish.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

DUI Dishonor Roll

Once again, thankfully, we had a sub par weekend for drivers taken off the road under police escort and charged with impaired driving.  Only one arrest by APD and one by UMPD. 

So far 2016 has been a lucky year for the rest of us Amherst drivers. 

So far.

Eliza Ann Thornton, age 18
 Click to enlarge/read
 William Os, age 23, stands before Judge Charles Groce

Click to enlarge/read

In Eastern Hampshire District Court on Monday William Os was appointed a public defender (and charged $150) and will appear for pre trial on March 21. 

Ms.Thornton discussed accepting a standard 24D disposition with the prosecutor but first has to find out if her insurance will cover the damages to the town guardrail.


No breathless last second candidates showed up a minute before 5:00 PM

The die is cast, the Rubicon has been crossed and Amherst voters will have enormous choices in the only race that matters this coming election, Charter Commission.

The nine member committee will decide the fate of town government for the next few generations. Well, actually, the voters will decide that. Because no matter what the Charter Commission comes up with after a year of deliberation the voters must approve it at the annual election in 2017.

I asked the Select Board on Monday night to place on the March 29 ballot a non binding advisory question asking the voters if it's time to retire Town Meeting. This was done 15 years ago and the voters said "yes".

Maybe even throw in a question about retaining a Town Manager. If the voters say "yes" it might make the potential candidates for a new permanent Town Manager feel a little more comfortable applying for the $155,000 job.

And for sure these questions should be asked of the 20 Charter Commission candidates who will all do doubt give the stock answer that their mind is open and they have not decided one way or the other.

Which only makes you wonder why they ran for the job in the first place.