WVN #236: SchoolCom rejects closure criticism
- Dear Wayland Voter,
An extraordinarily large crowd pummeled the School Committee
with objections to the partial closure of Loker School, accusing
the Committee of sloppiness at best, lying at worst. The
Committee stood firm.
Also in this newsletter: Field House renovations and problems
with Board of Selectmen broadcasts.
SCHOOL COMMITTEE STICKS TO CLOSURE PLAN
The School Committee listened to harsh criticism from an
overflow crowd of angry parents Monday night, then reaffirmed its
decision to shut down part of Loker School by fall.
The parents introduced videotape showing Cherry Karlson of the
Finance Committee assuring the selectmen on March 26, 2007,
that spending $735,000 on repairs to Happy Hollow School
made sense because "we were told it would remain open."
Complaining citizens interpreted this as indicating a "side deal"
to spare Happy Hollow from closure.
Committee members repeatedly denied there was a deal, and
member Jeff Dieffenbach said, "I don't think the tapes show
anything." Members' comments occasionally drew snickers from
the crowd. Some parents could be heard in the halls later
maintaining that there had to be a deal.
The matter is not as simple as it may seem. There is no record
of a vote involving Happy Hollow. An agreement made in private
would have been illegal, and parties to an illegal agreement
would be unlikely to admit it. Furthermore, the Committee's
denials are consistent with events going back at least two years.
More on that below.
So many citizens showed up that the crowd had to be hastily
moved to the large hearing room, occupying most of the chairs
in a room that can hold hundreds. Dozens remained an hour for
a second chance at public comment after the Committee's
decision, something that hasn't happened in recent memory.
The meeting lasted nearly 3-1/2 hours.
PARENTS: CREDIBILITY, OVERRIDE ENDANGERED
Speakers, including some who said they had no children at
Loker, declared the Committee had lost credibility with voters
and endangered passage of the property tax override on the April
"We feel manipulated," one speaker said, adding that the recent
formal process to select Loker as the site for all Wayland
kindergarten classes was a sham to legitimize a decision made
A traffic consultant hired by Loker parents, Michael Abend, listed
seven reasons why Loker was a safer and better choice than
Happy Hollow. He said the Committee had misinterpreted his
earlier report to soften his conclusions. "Happy Hollow has clear
safety deficiencies," Abend said.
One speaker said the Committee had violated its own policy on
school closures. That policy specifies a comprehensive closure
study and encourages the Committee to seek outside expert
advice and public participation before making a decision.
By ignoring that process, speakers asserted, the Committee's
choice of Happy Hollow for grades 1-5 means that students will
have a smaller cafeteria, smaller playgrounds, longer bus rides
and more traffic problems. The partial closure means that Loker
will probably close completely should enrollment drop farther,
some said, leaving Wayland without advantages that Loker
presents in the long run. (The plan is to have 600 students at
Claypit Hill and 400 at Happy Hollow. The town will be divided
into two elementary districts instead of three, resulting in
dislocations for many students.)
Committee member Dieffenbach defended the partial losure as
simply saving taxpayers money by acting a year before the
change would otherwise be made.
Committee members consistently denied that they came to a
closure agreement outside of public meetings. Member
Heather Pineault said that when Loker parents approached her
about the allegations in January she didn't know what they were
talking about. "None of us were a party to making a deal," she
So where did the FinCom member get the assurance that Happy
Hollow would remain open to justify the high price of repairs?
About two years ago Superintendent Gary Burton told the
Committee that, should Wayland face the choice in years to
come of closing a school because of declining enrollment, he
preferred that Happy Hollow remain open, assuming that the
roof and windows were replaced. He called the kitchen and
auditorium preferable to Loker's. The Committee didn't question
Burton's judgment then or later, and Burton repeated at this
week's meeting that he had always favored Happy Hollow.
When an override loomed in late 2005, one scenario to deal with
a budget shortfall was closing Happy Hollow. When parents
complained to the Committee, that option seemed to be taken off
the table. A subsequent override passed, and in April 2007 Town
Meeting approved the Happy Hollow windows.
CLOSURE BACK IN PLAY
In October 2007 the Committee approved a $538,000 contract for
Happy Hollow windows. As the Committee began discussing
how to cope with a possible failure of a 2008 override vote,
Burton predicted that one school might close as early as 2012.
Converting Loker to kindergarten-only in the mean time was
discussed, but there was a consensus that nothing needed to
be done immediately.
When Loker parents complained, Burton appointed a committee
of school officials to study long-term closure possibilities.
Immediately reconfiguring Loker didn't come up until the
Committee began dealing with Finance Committee budget
guidelines and saw a need to cut about $100,000 from its
preferred budget. The possibility of cutting skiing and some of
the other 51 sports teams brought angry parents to the
Committee. Committee Chair Barb Fletcher said it was time to
reconsider reconfiguring the schools. She estimated the
immediate savings at $400,000, more than enough to save the
teams. (Loker parents say there wasn't enough research to
derive an accurate figure.)
When it decided to make Loker all-kindergarten, the Committee
acknowledged that the decision had been quick. Loker parents
aired their views for three hours at a Committee meeting on Jan.
22. The Committee formally voted for the 2-1/2-school plan on
Jan. 29 and the next day presented the budget to the FinCom,
which expressed satisfaction. The next week the Committee
began a public reconsideration of which school to downsize. The
parents produced Abend's traffic study and a wide-ranging
29-page study asserting that Loker was the better choice for
grades 1-5 and the long-term efficiency of the schools.
At Monday night's meeting Committee members defended the
late public process, saying its validity was shown by the fact that
three members changed their vote after hearing new
What did Cherry Karlson's "we were told" mean? Though some
Loker parents suspect a conspiracy, other explanations suffice.
Some Wayland public officials know one another very well and
often have worked together as members of other groups, such
as the PTO. Call it what you will, there was clearly a shared
atmosphere, an expectation, a presumption that Happy Hollow
would remain open. Why else push for $538,000 for
energy-efficient windows during difficult fiscal times?
The path the School Committee took is consistent with the
members' denial that there was an earlier formal agreement. It
is not consistent with a picture of the School Committee as a
governmental body guided by a long-term vision, following its
own formal guidelines with a comprehensive, transparent
process involving expert consultants and the public. First,
members reassured Happy Hollow parents (many of whom live
in a voting precinct that has been less supportive of recent
overrides than some others). They accepted the
superintendent's opinions unquestioningly. Recently they
reassured supporters of Middle and High School athletics. But
you can't please everybody all the time. Now Loker parents
believe they are taking the brunt of a carelessly made decision.
Some argued on Monday night that the only way the Committee
can regain the trust of voters is to rescind the decision and start
over, insisting on businesslike research and hard numbers. The
Committee says it won't do that.
One parent told the Committee, "You have a huge PR problem
on your hands."
-- Michael Short
Monday, March 17, 7:30 p.m., Town Building. Finance Committee
public hearing on the fiscal 2009 property tax operating override
of $1.896 million and debt exclusion of $1.896 million. Q&A will
follow FinCom presentations. (An operating override increases
taxes permanently. A debt exclusion lasts for the life of the loans;
new debt is added as old debt expires.) The questions are on
the April 8
FIELD HOUSE RENOVATION
This week's School Committee meeting might have been an
unpleasant evening for officials and parents alike, but there was
a piece of good news. The Committee voted to accept the gift of
renovations to the main playing surface in the High School Field
Residents raised funds to pay the entire cost, estimated at more
than $500,000. The bleachers will be replaced and a new
synthetic surface installed which Doug Sacra, an architect and
Wayland resident, says should last for decades. The new floor
and bleachers should be ready in late October.
Because the new bleachers will be long but not tall, the floor can
be opened up for more than 1,000 people for Town Meeting and
The aging Field House still needs a new roof and other
This is the latest example of a trend, here and elsewhere, of
private funds supplying amenities that budgets can't cover. Last
year the Boosters raised at least 70 percent of the cost of
artificial turf at the football field.
CITIZENS DESERVE TAPED MEETINGS
If you follow the Board of Selectmen meetings on television, have
you noticed recent technical problems? Like most of the
Take it from Jim Mullane, program manager of WayCAM, the
cable channel which broadcasts the meetings along with a
variety of other local programming: viewers notice. And when
something goes wrong they bombard him with puzzled or angry
WayCAM isn't always the problem. Human error accounts for the
most serious recent mishaps.
When Wayland began broadcasting and taping selectmen's
meetings, Jeff Ritter was the town's administrative executive
and generally took care of the broadcasts without any difficulty.
When Town Administrator Fred Turkington replaced Ritter, with
bigger title, salary and responsibilities, he inherited the job of
pushing the buttons to record and broadcast. Since then, there
have been notable glitches.
The most serious recent problem came on March 3, when a
genuine technical problem knocked the live broadcast off the air.
That in itself wasn't a huge problem, because WayCAM tapes
for rebroadcasting. But this time there was no tape because
somebody had stopped the recording. The meeting was, by the
way, a significant evening that the selectmen might have been
proud to show to voters.
This is important because video and audio recording has
become increasingly important in recording government action
in U.S courts, legislatures and public meetings. Wayland offers
good examples of its value. Just this week, Loker parents
introduced taped evidence from a Board of Selectmen meeting
during a presentation to the School Committee.
When Selectman Bill Whitney was accused of failing to disclose
a potential conflict of interest, there was no written record.
Without the tape of his statement during a meeting there would
have been no proof that he had obeyed the law.
Of course recording can work against officials as well. WayCAM
tape once disclosed that the selectmen had never taken a vote
that was recorded in minutes.
Why do the selectmen and their top employee seem careless in
maintaining an important record? Nobody expects a town
administrator to be omnicompetent. Delegation would be
reasonable. WayCAM is a volunteer organization and says it
can't spare someone to oversee every selectmen meeting.
Meeting a need to keep the public informed doesn't appear to
be exceedingly difficult. The selectmen are responsible for
seeing that somebody does the job properly.
One more point: The record should be permanent. The tape
used in the School Committee meeting this week came from a
citizen. The WayCAM original had been taped over for a later
meeting. Surely WayCAM can find a way to maintain an archive
for a reasonable period.
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Michael Short, Editor