If you left or tuned out of this past Monday’s epically long Board of Selectmen’s (BoS) meeting early, then you missed an informative and often tense discussion over the town’s elementary school plans.
The penultimate agenda item focused on whether the BoS would support a Citizens Petition for a non-binding referendum about keeping Wellesley a 7-elementary-school town rather than eliminating one under the Hardy-Hunnewell-Upham plan that’s been taking shape for years. Backers of the petition are looking to get the referendum on the March ballot.
The petition text was proposed as follows: “Do you believe the Town of Wellesley should keep our current seven neighborhood elementary school model by rebuilding and/or renovating the Hardy, Hunnewell and Upham Elementary Schools, instead of closing one school and redistricting all of our elementary students into six schools? Please vote YES or NO.”
The BoS voted 4-1 against the petition as worded, which means that as things stand, this question will not appear at the polls on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.
However, should the request receive signatures from 10% of Wellesley’s registered voters (approximately 1,800 signatures) by Feb. 4, 2020, the ballot question must by law be permitted to appear.
During Citizen’s Speak, Wellesley resident Mari Passananti, said that the plans for a new Hunnewell School represent an “extravagant, ludicrously priced plan” which “eliminates green space.”
“By 2021 I’m highly confident that every registered voter in this town will understand that a vote for the massive tax hike will also equal a vote to close the Hardy School, and that is what I think many people at Town Meeting didn’t totally grasp,” Passananti said. “That vote for a big Hunnewell was a vote to close Hardy…Don’t let a School Committee and a Superintendent with a Father Knows Best attitude push through a contentious proposal.”
BoS Secretary Jack Morgan in comments addressed to Passananti said, “You are casting aspersions on our Superintendent as well as our School Committee. We have talked about the decline in civil discourse here in Wellesley. You are disrespecting the School Committee, this Board, and the 80% of Town Meeting members who voted in a way that you didn’t want.”
After some more back-and-forth, Passananti said, “If you turn us down, we’ll get the signatures we need and the question will appear on the 2020 ballot. You have a chance to stand up for democracy. Please do so. The citizens deserve a vote.”
Wellesley resident Lauren Duprey said, “We like having these small schools,” and voiced concerns about the increased traffic that could result with a larger Hunnewell School.
Jonathan Gerbode Grant, a Wellesley resident since 2015, voiced frustrations about not knowing what was going on with the process. “I haven’t had time, and someone hasn’t been reaching out to me somehow. We need to think about the methods of how we’re communicating with the town.”
Chair of the Wellesley Republican Town Committee Carl Nelson weighed in and said that he was there to support approval of the referendum on the ballot.
A total of six residents exercised their right to air their views during the Citizen’s Speak part of the BoS meeting set aside for discussion of the referendum.
BoS members speak
Once all citizens had a chance to speak, the meeting was opened to the BoS for comments. Regarding talk about Hardy closing, Morgan said, “There’s only one entity in town that can close a school, and that’s the School Committee. Town Meeting can’t vote to close a school.”
Morgan said a referendum question should be based around the actual proposal. The wording he said would more accurately reflect that proposal was, “Should the Town rebuild at least two schools: Hunnewell and either Upham or Hardy, and rebuild the third school if the K – 5 enrollment increases to 2,350 students on a trending basis and/or if the current school configurations are limiting educational needs.”
Elementary school student enrollment for 2019 – 2020 is at 2,094.
Elementary school student enrollment is expected to decline through Fiscal Year 2021 – 2024.
Selectman Beth Sullivan Woods suggested that the BoS could partner with proponents of the ballot question to try and reach a compromise in which both sides could agree on the wording. “To me, having competing questions on the ballot sounds like perpetuating the confusion, so if we can avoid it that would be preferable.”
Selectman Lise Olney pointed out that there is a reason that Wellesley is governed by Town Meeting. “I don’t feel like good governance comes from ballot referendums. We have representative government because long ago we decided that we were going to elect people who were just our neighbors to make studied decisions about what happens in our community.”
Selectman Tom Ulfelder said that a school could be built in addition to Hunnewell and one other school, but that “would be predicated on enrollment rising to a level where it can be filled and wherefore there is a cost/benefit to operating that school.”
As Ulfelder was talking about Wellesley as a model in special education because of the way the district treats children and families facing challenges, he was interrupted by a resident who insisted to be heard, saying that she’d had her hand up for 15 minutes. After being asked a couple of times by BoS Chair Marjorie Freiman to please come to the microphone, it became clear that the speaker, who did not identify herself, wished the Board to halt the school talk and allow the next agenda item — that on the Climate Emergency Resolution — to go forward. She said it was getting late, and there were several young children in attendance.
Everyone wants their turn
Ulfelder said, “The thing is, we have other mothers here who are paying babysitters. We’re sorry this has gone on…”
Whoops. Interrupted again, this time with a scolding. “I beg your pardon if I’ve upset you, but I think we all have a voice as well. Just one of your citizens. One of your voters. Wanted to raise an issue.”
Freiman said, “This issue we’re talking about here is as important as the climate emergency. I understand it’s running late, but we’re having a very important conversation.”
Frieman decided to let the kids come up and limit their comments to two minutes each. Three college-age students briefly spoke. Freiman thanked them on behalf of the BoS for their involvement in important community initiatives, then asked if there were any other young people who would like to speak.
“There were a couple of younger students, but they had to leave,” she was informed.
Finally, the BoS voted on whether it supported putting the petition as proposed by the citizens on the ballot. The vote was 1 to put the petition on the ballot, and 4 not to do so.
From here, the citizens who put forward the referendum question say they will seek the signatures they need to ensure that the question is added to the ballot at the March 17, 2020 polls.
Hunnewell, Hardy, Upham Facilities projects, Town of Wellesley overview