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Special Town Meeting ’19

I take notes during Town Meeting. They are not official in any way. As I listen to people speak, I type notes. I’m sure that, at times, I mishear or misunderstand the speaker, but my notes represent what I hear at the time. I try to publish the notes every night after the meeting. I do go back and make a few edits as errors are pointed out to me.  Sometimes I relay a quote from a specific speaker. Sometimes I only summarize the discussion. At points I give a purely personal opinion; those are clearly labeled like this: Personal note.

Tonight is the third night of Annual Town Meeting, but as we often do, we inserted a Special Town Meeting into the annual.  There are a couple of reasons we do that.  One reason is that sometimes things come up after the annual warrant deadline, and then you need a special to set a new deadline.  Another reason is that Town Meeting votes only become official once certified by the Attorney General, and that only happens after Town Meeting is completely dissolved.  For the AHS rebuild, for instance, we don’t want to wait until sometime this summer to get the vote certified.  By doing a special, and by dissolving it, we get the vote certified quickly enough to move forward.

Moderator John Leone started calling the meeting to order a minute before 8pm and we started on time.

Town Meeting Member Rieko Tanaka played the National Anthem on the piano, and the meeting members sang along.

Select Board Member Joe Curro introduced the Mayor of Nagaokakyo, Arlington’s sister city in Japan. He gave a short speech thanking Arlington volunteers and host families. The visiting students came on stage and sang a song to us.

The moderator explained Notices of Reconsideration. If you vote on the prevailing side (meaning, the side that won the vote), you can give a notice of reconsideration that night. And then, if there is new information available, then you can move reconsideration of the article at any time. The meeting can choose to take that article up with a 2/3 vote.

We tested the clicker with this question: US Presidents originally lived in the President’s Palace. 55 true, 118 false, 16 abstain. There were several fits and starts during the test vote. As the moderator said – glad that it was a test vote!

Announcements
Bill Hayner announced the elementary school mock Town Meeting and greeted the participants in the audience.

Reports

  • Chairperson Jeff Thielman gave the Arlington High School Building Committee (AHSBC) report.
  • Al Tosti gave the Finance Committee report. He noted the high school project has the unanimous support of FinComm. He gave some high school history: in the 1970s Town Meeting supported a rebuild twice, but it was twice defeated at referendum. The third attempt passed Town Meeting, and there was no challenging referendum. In the end, the town got a lesser project for more money than the original proposal. Don’t repeat that mistake.

Article 1 – Arlington High School

The moderator said that he wouldn’t be taking names for the list until after the main presentation. This was a bit of an unusual choice, but it makes sense to me. The beginnings of presentations are sometimes a bit of a circus with people desperately trying to get the moderator’s attention while the speaker is trying to hold the meeting’s attention. This way the audience, and any potential speakers, will have had the benefit of actually hearing the original presentation.

Jeff Thielman requested a full hour presentation. John Worden asked if opponents “who dare have a contradictory opinion” would be allowed to speak for a similar amount of time. The moderator replied that it is a very important question, and he expected that the meeting will hear everyone appropriate.

Thielman explained the need for a new high school. He went through the process with the state MSBA program. He noted that the site is small, 22 acres, and has a significant grade, and some capped contamination. He talked about the different town departments, such as IT and Comptroller, that have been moved from the AHS building into other town facilities. He talked about the design process and phased building plan.

Principal Janger talked about the good parts of the high school, including being ranked 9th in the state. The expectations of high schools have gone up over the years, from No Child Left Behind and special education needs. He talked about how the proposed design supports the educational mission. He walked through a broad overview of the layout of the school.

Committee Member John Cole talked about the architectural choices in the design, including the central spine of the building. He went into the details about why the recommendation was to rebuild, not renovate. He explained the logistics, the cost savings, and the limiting factors of the old building. He explained how by moving the building forward we can add athletic space in the back. He went into a more detailed view of the phasing of the construction.

Committee Member Ryan Katofsky walked through the environmental sustainability of the building. It’s designed to be a carbon-neutral, all-electric building. It will have a ground-source heat pump and solar panels. It takes advantage of utility programs for funding. He covered other initiatives.

Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine walked through the financial support of the MSBA and the limitations of it. He talked about how expenses will be managed. He shared some of the cost management measures that have already been taken. He explained some of the “bonuses” the town has earned for reimbursement. He gave a benchmark analysis of comparable high school projects.

Jeff Theilman explained the cost of “no vote” to the town. We would lose state money, and have to fund the renovations ourselves. Doing nothing is not an option, he said, because the current building is failing. He relayed a cautionary tale from Lincoln who rejected MSBA plan, and had to pay it alone. He played a “flythrough” animated video of the proposed building. He closed with an appeal to build a school for the town’s future.

Senator Cindy Friedman spoke on behalf of Representatives Garballey and Rogers. The three of them enthusiastically support this project. She explained how competitive the state funding process is, and how unlikely and expensive it would be to forgo the state grant. Of the 18 that towns that skipped the grant in the last few years, none have succeeded in getting funding later.

At 9:31 we took a break.

At 9:40 we were back in session.

Joe Tully supports the rebuild. He asked about whether the school was being built for a big enough population. Timur Yontar is in favor. Adam Pachter is in favor. He argued: just because the committee didn’t agree with you, it doesn’t mean you weren’t heard. It doesn’t mean there is a conspiracy against you. It was a very cogent point. Patricia Worden is opposed to the plan. I read Patricia Worden’s screed before the meeting started. I shook my head at the falsehoods, distortions, and repetitively-used incorrect numbers. Two quick examples of her legerdemain: The proposed high school has a price tag of $291m, not the $308 million she cites over and over; she says in 2016 the project was promised “not to exceed $150M” – a promise never made; and a third bonus item – no one gets to pull a $29M renovation-cost prediction for Fusco and Collomb out of thin air and be believed. Later in the night, during the presentation, I was struck by the careful detail of the AHSBC pricing benchmark slide, which includes multiple footnotes about the data that was used, its limitations, and the underlying assumptions. My point: One set of people here is using facts and should be taken seriously. Similarly, some of the opponents to the project are reasonable people making reasonable arguments who can disagree reasonably. But some of the opponents just can’t be taken seriously. Michael Ruderman is in favor of the project as just and right for the next generation of students. He also had a question about the reimbursement rate. Greg Christiana is in favor of the proposal, and explored the cost of saying no. John Deyst is in favor; it’s good for our students and our real estate prices. David Baldwin, town resident, is opposed to the project; he argued that the current buildings have too much historic value to be demolished. Gordon Jamieson moved to terminate debate. I overheard the moderator say there were 15 people on the list. 166-50-3 debate was terminated. 208-10-2 it was approved.

Article 2 – no action

Article 3 – Zoning Consultant
JoAnne Preston is opposed to this expenditure. She thinks that more volunteers should be used, and fewer consultants. Beth Ann Friedman is also opposed and thinks the work should be done by the planning dept. Al Tosti spoke in favor of it. Daniel Jalkut terminated debate, and it was approved 192-20-2 I was on the list to speak, and I had some strong words, but I’m glad I didn’t get to the mic – it wasn’t necessary.

Article 4 – Real Estate
Town Counsel Doug Heim explained that it is landlocked. It’s an artesian well. The next-door neighbor has filed a complaint against the town. The town would like to not disclose the assessed value because it is subject to negotiation. Paul Schlichtman thinks the parcel is otherwise worthless and thinks this would be an excellent use of it. And also took the lead in the 2019 humor category by opening his speech with “Well, well, well. . .” Ted Sharpe is in favor, but does not want extort beyond its reasonable value. Michael Ruderman is in favor of the disposition. It was approved 218-0

Article 5 – Residential Design Guidelines
Director of Planning and Community Development Jenny Raitt explained that many towns and cities have design guides. The recommendation is to develop guidelines for R0, R1, and R2 parcels. The current process is imprecise and this would help add rigor to the process. Sophie Migliazzo noted that this was a 9-5 vote and wondered who was opposed to it. Pat Hanlon talked about how this was a tool for evaluating tear downs. Ted Paluso supports this expenditure. Ed Trembly asked if we know who the consultants would be – no, because there is a competitive bid process. Karen Kelleher is in favor. Brian Hasbrouck is in favor. Ethan Zimmer asked whether these were enforceable like zoning – the answer is it would likely be advisory to the ZBA as guidelines, and something would come back to Town Meeting in the future. Paul Schlichtman moved to terminate debate, terminated on voice vote. 197-6-3 approved.

Article 6 – Mugar Application Process
Taking this article up was going past 11PM! I approve. We want to get this done. By getting it all done tonight, we can dissolve the special town meeting.  Town Counsel Doug Heim explained that town meeting had already approved money for this, but it had carefully been spent.  We have ongoing legal costs in the fight with Mugar.  On voice vote, approved near unanimously.

We dissolved the Special Town Meeting.

Comments

Comment from Adam Auster
Time: April 30, 2019, 8:28 am

Are the people who voted against funding for consultants the same ones who opposed the zoning articles because they needed more expert review?

In any case, the attempt to demonize the MAPC is both odd, off-putting, and funny. I guess some people love a boogeyman.

Comment from Eric Helmuth
Time: April 30, 2019, 9:56 am

Glad to have Rieko in the piano-playing rotation!

Comment from Patricia Worden
Time: April 30, 2019, 10:19 am

Before accusing others of misleading statements you should check sources – for example look up the record of previous Town Meeting votes and also material published by The AHS Building Committee before accusing me of “distortions.” The “screed” you referred to as I made clear when I sent it was not meant to be an account of the project today but rather to describe the project history as it existed in September of 2018 which, of course, is not the same ass the project trajectory of April, 2019. I standby my remarks about the totally misleading “benchmark slide” and suggest you look into that more closely. Most egregious of your attack on my remarks was the statement “no one gets to pull a $29 M renovation cost for Fusco and Collomb out of the air and be believed.” That $29 M is the AHS Building Committee’s own published figure for estimated Historic Building renovation:
http://www.arlington.k12.ma.us/administration/ahsfacilities/pdfs/ahscostcomparisonsummary06-19-2018.pdf

Are you suggesting that the Building Committee should not be believed?

It is indeed alarming that a member of the Select Board is so unfamiliar with published material on important issues before us.

Patricia W.

Comment from Grant Cook
Time: April 30, 2019, 12:52 pm

Dr. Worden, I’ve read your handout materials, and you throw out that $29M number for Fusco, but never mention that just renovating Fusco and Collomb would not be enough.. those are a small portion of a 400,000+ sq ft. facility that needs more space to serve the needs of the large student population today in our elementary schools. You also fail to mention that those builds would take longer and deprive the students of key facilities liek a gym and a theater for portions of the project. That is a disingenuous approach, failing to tell the full story through omission of some key data.

You’ve referenced the Robbins library expansion, throwing out the cost # as some sort of comparator. That build began in 1992 – 27 years ago. Comparing cost without adjusting for 27 years of cost inflation in construction costs is mathematical malpractice.

You live so close to the High School.. I assume you walk by it frequently. But its not a set piece for a painting – its a working, breathing facility for, in just a few years, close to 2000 kids and staff – out of respect for those kids, perhaps you should look more deeply and step inside… its pretty dismal in there.

Comment from Aram Hollman
Time: April 30, 2019, 5:48 pm

I was disappointed, but not surprised at last night’s vote favoring the proposed high school rebuild.

I support building a new high school, not another renovation. After 100 years, it’s time. I don’t care about historic columns or a reduced front lawn.

My objections are twofold: excessive cost and excessive size. Last night’s dog and pony show doesn’t change that. Indeed, what was omitted from the comparisons to other high schools being built, and purporting to show that the cost is reasonable, makes the difference between reasonable and excessive.

1 comparison in the past: Newton North, completed only 8 years ago. 1800 students when first occupied in 2010, now at 2100 students and still growing. 420,000 square feet.

Arlington: 1325 students now, designed for 1755 students. 413,000 square feet.

Newton North: 12 vocational programs, requiring large shop spaces.
Arlington: 0 vocational programs (students go to Minuteman).

Newton North: A swimming pool.
Arlington: No swimming pool.

Arlington’s future full build population of 1755 students is 400 less than Newton North has -now-, and Newton North’s population is still increasing. Arlington has -no- vocational programs and -no- swimming pool. Why is the proposed new building almost as large (98%) as Newton North?

Arlington and Newton North are both high-performing schools, with high graduation rates, and grads who go on to top colleges and universities. Both have include multiple theater spaces, a preschool, and special education space. Both schools make extensive use of technology. While education requirements -have- changed over the last 20-30 years, they have not changed that much in the last decade. In short, this is an apples-to-apples comparison.

So again, why the same size? Size is the single-biggest determinant of building cost. And volume is the single-biggest factor in heaing and cooling. What’s the point of an energy-efficient building which is expensive to run because it’s too big?

The comparisons made to other area high schools with comparable costs, purporting to show that Arlington’s cost is reasonable, are also misleading.

Belmont: Will be grades 7-12, not 9-12.

Somerville: Has extensive vocational programs on-site, where Arlington does not. Also sits on a far more challenging site than does Arlington. Campus is much smaller than Arlington’s, and is bounded by streets, parking, and Town Hall. Building takes up most of campus; what little is left is for parking. Building is at the top of a steep hill. All of it will have to be replaced in situ; there is no other place to move it.

Arlington’s high school will be for 4 grades, not 6, like Belmont. Again, Arlington doesn’t have Somerville’s vocational programs. Arlington’s campus is much larger than Somerville’s, and doesn’t face Somerville’s topographical challenges.

The communities differ. Newton and Somerville are both have more than twice Arlington’s population, and (unlike us) a significant business tax base.

In Arlington, demand, school costs, housing prices, and rents will all continue to push each other upward; all are both causes and effects of each other. The Master Plan’s polite, well-meaning rhetoric about Arlington being a welcoming diverse community will be increasingly contradicted by an inconvenient truth called financial reality: Arlington is becoming a gated community, where the gate is the income needed to live here and gets higher each year. It’s hard to portray a community as welcoming when already, too many people have said they they won’t be able to continue to afford to live here. This includes people who attended Arlington schools, or whose kids attended Arlington schools.

Every dollar spent on the building is a dollar either -not- spent on something else, or not spent at all. While a building is important, Arlington’s teachers are even more critical to education. It will increasingly difficult to pay them what they’re worth.

Or perhaps not spent at all. For all the rhetoric about fiscal prudence, Arlington has been increasing its spending by 4.5% per year, while increasing revenues by only 2.5% per year. The difference creates a widening deficit. With this year’s proposed $5.5 million tax override, we will spend more than we take in for the next 4 years. To do so, we will spend down a major portion of our free cash, our Override Stabilization Fund (our piggy bank), from its current $26 million down to zero. 4 years hence, we will face an $18 million deficit and will need another override. This time, the piggy bank will be empty. (Source: Finance Committee Report to Town Meeting, page D-2.)

Again, the issue is -not- whether we need a new high school. We do. The issue is how much it should cost, and the effect our choices have on the entire community.

We’re engaged in a vicious circle: Rising home prices require us to spend more on schools, which attract more people, which push up home prices, which require more school spending . . .

That can’t go on forever. It will make Arlington less and less affordable for those wishing to live here, and will push out people who have lived here a long time and have them replaced by people with higher incomes. Call it economic cleansing instead of ethnic cleansing.

Welcome to Arlington, a municipal country club. Dues-paying members only please.

Comment from Grant Cook
Time: April 30, 2019, 7:21 pm

Aram, you mention differences between NN, Somerville, and us.. and don’t call out our own unique cost drivers. NN was greenfield site – built in one phase, with no students. We are a 3 phase built. We have facilities that NN and Somerville don’t have, like the district offices and the preschool facilities.

In the end, the people with far more expertise in school construction – a skill of people on the BC posses in many cases as well – is the MSBA. They have no interest in throwing good money after a poor design. They are supporting our design plan here

Comment from dunster
Time: April 30, 2019, 10:50 pm

Adam – There are a lot of education opportunities for MAPC and the ARB. I think they need to get better at the real politik of zoning. They need to get better at defining the problem and the solution, and then doing the education and persuasion. You’re not wrong, though.

Dr. Worden – Thank you for explaining where that $29M figure comes from. I now understand: What you did is pluck two line items from a $333M package and pretend you had a real solution. In your theory, where does the heating for newly-renovated Fusco and Collumb come from? Where are your contingency costs? Where are your inflation estimates, your modular costs, your management and design costs? You call knowledge level “alarming” but I don’t think that’s the problem here. As another speaker last night said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”

Aram – I appreciate many of your arguments. I think your cost arguments are too strongly anchored to older data points without sufficient indexing. And in your section about fiscal prudence, you lament that town expenses are increasing faster than 2.5%, but you don’t acknowledge that our student population is up by more than 25% over the last few years. There is no way to hold cost increases to the (arbitrary) 2.5% benchmark while student populations are growing so fast. There are more factors than that, obviously, but you only need one factor to break the budget.

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