WHITMAN — It took several appeals to residents watching at home, Facebook posts by town officials, cell phone calls and a mention in the benediction prayer, but a quorum of 150 was eventually achieved by 8:58 p.m., Monday, May 4 to allow the business of Whitman’s special Town Meeting to convene within the annual.
The special had been posted to begin at 7:45 p.m.
It was almost 8 p.m. when the annual Town Meeting convened, still 17 short of a quorum for the special to vote on about $1 million that had to be moved in that warrant to continue this years’ operations until June 30.
The Rev. Crystal Gardner of the Whitman’s United Methodist Church included an appeal for more voters in her prayer.
“We ask that you give us the 17 people that we need,” she prayed. “If we don’t have the votes, then it’s not your place to complain … we ask that you find it in your hearts to ease on down the road and come to this meeting.”
She also prayed that each article be respectfully analyzed before it was criticized.
“It’s frustrating,” Town Administrator Frank Lynam said after adjournment. “The form of government we have is the ultimate in citizen participation. People who have something to say, can come here and say it. People who want to know what’s going on, can come here and participate. It’s great to watch it at home on cable, but you’re not participating.”
Lynam said sooner or later lack of participation will reach the point where there is not enough for government to work.
“That’s what I’m concerned about because I can see us moving to a representative form of town government and that is not something that people come here and participate in year in and year out want to see,” he said. “The citizens who attended seemed to understand and were comfortable with all of the requests … very few items even had a lot of discussion.”
Voters during the annual Town meeting focused the bulk of discussion on a by-law change regulating open burning devices [See related story above] and a non-binding referendum petition urging the state to discontinue Common Core standards and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing.
“This is to send a message to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and to Gov. Baker,” said Michele Frank of Country Way. “Massachusetts does not want unfunded mandates. We are committed to quality education and want to keep local control.”
State Rep. Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman, said he has three issues with Common Core/PARCC: It was adopted with no public hearings; it was put through via the Governors’ Association and there is a conflict of interest DESE’s Commissioner who is also chairman of the board of the private corporation that developed the PARCC test. He said, while the ultimate decision is up to the state, the ballot question is a chance for the public to weigh in.
Vocal PARCC opponent, School Committee member Fred Small, was among the no votes in the 75-54 vote in favor of the ballot question.
“My fear is that by people authorizing that nonbinding referendum they don’t think they have to do anything else,” Small said after Town Meeting adjourned. “I personally am against PARCC and I’m against Common Core. I am for Massachusetts creating their own superior standards as we had before in our own testing.”
Small urges Common Core/PARCC opponents to write letters to the Statehouse, governor and state Board of Education — as the best method by which they might influence decision-makers on the issue.
“I’ve already written mine and sent them,” he said.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said after the meeting that PARCC has been controversial.
“There are many, many concerns there,” she said. “I don’t think what happened was surprising … and at least people are thinking about student assessment.”
A citizen’s petition to discontinue the Common Core and return to the MCAS test was passed over because Town Meeting lacks the authority to act on educational matters, Lynam said.
Little discussion centered on the fiscal 2016 budget.
Resident Tom Evans of Temple Street questioned what duties the assistant town administrator’s salary paid for and Lynam responded, “Everything I do with a few notable exceptions,” including Greg Enos’ function as town procurement officer.
Another resident questioned spending $7,000 on Annual Town Report books in a tight budget year, noting the same information is available online.
Lynam replied that state statute requires towns to print one for every registered voter in town.
“We do not do that,” he said. “I print 1,000 books. They are displayed and available for people who come to Town Meeting and for people who come to elections.”
He said the typical cost is $5,000 with any remaining money returned to the general fund at the end of the year.
Whitman Middle School teacher Beth Stafford called a question on the school budget for the purpose of commenting on the status of W-H schools’ finances.
“This is short about $1 million, and this has been happening year after year,” she said. “I’m standing up here because I’m making a plea to everyone on all sides — if we could please start to work together to figure out some way to make this community look at the school system … to help it out. Right now we are not at level service for next year — there will be cuts.”
Lynam flagged the line items for salaries of library staff who are members of the SEIU in light of the lack of quorum for the special Town Meeting at the time the general budget was voted.
The recently negotiated collective bargaining agreement was up for ratification in the special’s warrant, as the budget article was drafted on the predication that the contract would be approved. It was approved when 150 people had signed in so the special Town Meeting could be held.
Evans supported the article calling for a one-year capital exclusion vote to raise $836,500 for Whitman’s share of a technology upgrade for the schools
“We’ve built … the high school, renovated our middle school and our elementary schools [but] we haven’t done anything to keep up with technology,” he said. “This would be the first thing we should do. Next year we should support the schools.”
After adjournment Gilbert-Whitner said she was excited to see the technology upgrade pass so easily, while noting it still faces a ballot vote.
“We’ll be making sure that the taxpayers, parents [and] citizens are aware of the importance of replacing our aging technology,” she said of the leadership team’s next task. “If it fails in both towns we just keep limping along with what we have.”
If only one town passes it, she said they would have to look to the October town meetings.