Snyder's Sandwich: Did Special Town Meeting Vote Blindly Last November?

Mark SnyderGENE M. MARCHAND/ENTERPRISE - Mark Snyder

I have to give a little background here. I was an elected Town Meeting member in Stoughton for 20 years, and an elected Town Meeting member in Randolph for a decade before that. In Stoughton, I served a full nine-year term on the finance committee, three as vice chairman. So, I’m not exactly in virgin territory when trying to understand municipal budgets, and Town Meeting politics.

But, when I picked up my warrant for the Special Town Meeting on Monday, November 18, last year, I was shocked at what little information it offered. 

Article 1, which passed 424-134, was for appropriating $650,000 for repairs to the “A” Wing at Sandwich High School, in part, for preparing the area to house the 7th and 8th graders in the new STEM Academy. 

It was stated that $150,000 was going toward new science labs, and engineering and art spaces.

It was also stated that an estimated 500 students would be moved from Forestdale, Wing and Oak Ridge to this new location, freeing enough space to prepare for the eventual closing of the Wing School. 

Richard Canfield, superintendent of schools, told Town Meeting voters that this is, “Phase I to 7th & 8th Grade SHS Stem Academy.”

He also noted that, “Out-of-district migration of students results in a loss of $4 million to the district.” 

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I wanted to know why so many students were going to private schools, Sturgis Charter Public School, and Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School. That will have to wait for a future column, and a discussion with school officials and parents.

I searched through the warrant’s appendix for additional information. Where was the list accounting for the $650,000? How long would it take for the work to be complete? Was there going to be required completion dates in the Request for Proposals (RFP), to help mitigate added costs? I searched through what usually is the appendix of a warrant for details. None were offered. I found a Table of Motions for Town Meeting Time, 3rd edition, a glossary of terms, and a “Talent Bank” sheet looking for volunteers. 

No details were contained in the warrant.

Back in Stoughton, Town Meeting members would not have voted on any question, without additional materials provided—in print and in their hands.

So after that first motion passed, with little opposition—and $650,000 of borrowing—I looked at the second article, which was for $980,000 for repairs to the high school swimming pool, and “associated mechanical equipment.” 

I know that a well-managed swim program can make money. I also know a poorly managed one can lose money, and result in a pool that is no longer operable.

Many people attending the meeting wore Save Our Pool shirts, or had jackets indicating they were swimmers, divers or parents of one or the other. The line of speakers was mostly parents of athletes and athletes. They are the ones who should have advocated for this, and they did a great job, with enthusiasm and emotion. 

A couple of speakers asked sensible questions: Would the pool be open to the public? How often and at what cost? How much would be saved from the current costs from renting other facilities for practice and meets?  Who would be in charge—recreation or school department? Would they work together? The answers were few and far between. It seems the vast majority of the hundreds gathered voted with the feel-good, emotional side of the brain.

Who would want one of these great kids to lose their sport’s home facility? 

Maybe it could damage their chances of attending a good college on scholarship. I get it. But, it still hit the bean counter side of my brain the wrong way. I heard one speaker say that it would cost just $40,000 to plug the leak.

Chairman of the board of selectman Jim Pierce told me that information wasn’t included in the warrant because, “The engineering reports and bid specs for both the window replacements and the pool repairs were available on the town website.  Much of the information was included in board of selectmen agenda packages. There was discussion at several televised board of selectmen, school committee and finance committee meetings.  The rationale for choosing the more expensive of two options for pool repairs was discussed in the selectmen, school committee and FinCom televised open meetings. It was clearly stated multiple times that the article dominated by the window sill replacement included $150K in capital expenses to ready the “A” wing for STEM. We can lead the taxpayers to information, but we can’t make them listen, watch or read.”  
The last sentence is the key. You DO need to lead residents to things. I had no idea they were there. Not everyone has the time to attend all these meetings, watch them later on Sandwich Community TV, or have the mental recall to remember the details from all articles in the newspaper. Reports, bid specs, et cetera should all be included in the warrant, putting the information at voters’ fingertips. Voters should be educated and prepared to vote intelligently. I’m hoping that those interested enough to show up will also be interested enough to pick up warrants early and read them, to be prepared for meetings. In this case, the hard work of those supporting the pool project paid off. It’s always nice to see our youth get politically involved and learn a lesson or two. There is much value in that.

Mr. Pierce also said to Snyder’s Sandwich, “We are by law required to commission an engineering study to estimate the cost of the repairs.  Once we have that, BEFORE we can go out for bids, we have to go to Town Meeting for authorization to spend the money. We MUST get approval to spend enough to meet the engineering estimate. Of course, all the contractors then know how much was appropriated. Then, we go out to bid. It’s a bit like playing poker where everyone else can play their cards close to the vest, but yours have to be face up on the table.”

After Article 2 passed with ease—and Town Meeting had borrowed a total of $ 1.6 MILLION, I left. I told people at the table out front that I could not believe how much money had been spent with so little information. Unfortunately, hundreds of other Town Meeting attendees—most pool supporters—also took off after Article 2 and Mr. Pierce said it was disappointing to see very few people there to hear all the other articles, which concerned police, zoning, boat operations on Sandwich waterways, et cetera.

I really appreciate Mr. Pierce taking the time to try to educate me. With my brain, it will be a tedious process for him. I, in turn, will try to educate my readers. For instance, would you like to know Sandwich’s long-range plans? A summary is found in the Annual Town Meeting warrant (last May’s, it ran from pages 63-68) and on the town’s website (www.sandwichmass.org). Meeting minutes are also on the website, and it’s a good way of finding out what went on. It’s a treasure trove.    

Next Week: Why does Sandwich have the highest tax rate on Cape Cod? We’ll fill you in next Friday, right here in Snyder’s Sandwich.

Rumblings Around Town

FOOD & BOOK SERIES: Reading and eating are two of my favorite things to do.  Titcomb’s Bookshop and Momo’s Food Emporium have combined to present a “food and book” series that commences on Wednesday, February 26, at 6:30 PM. There will be a reading and discussion of “Yes Chef” by award-winning chef and author Marcus Samuelsson. The amazing cooks at Momo’s will offer a cooking demonstration and samples of the delicious cuisine featured in the book. Cost of attendance is $36, and includes the book. It’s almost sold out already. The limit is 25. You must make a reservation by calling 508-888-2331.

VALENTINE’S DANCE: The Sandwich Recreation Department is running a very cute event. It’s their Annual Father/Daughter Valentine’s Dance Party, for young ladies, ages 5-10. It will be held Saturday, February 8, from 6 to 8 PM at Oakcrest Cove on Quaker Meetinghouse Road. Cost is $25 for father and daughter and $10 for each additional daughter. Fee includes admission, refreshments, a flower for each girl, and a professional DJ. Dress however you would like, or wear your best dress or suit.

SIGN-UP FOR STEM PRESCHOOL: STEM Preschool is starting September 2 at the Hundred Acre School at Heritage Museums & Gardens. The program’s tuition is $11,400 per student. It is for ages 4 and 5, and will focus on science, technology, engineering and math, and be offered with children’s learn-to-read programs. Call 1-508-888-3300 x158 for more information.

TACKLING TOWN NECK BEACH EROSION: The Town of Sandwich has submitted a $5 million grant application to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grants Program for a Beach Restoration and Resiliency Project. This grant would help fund a substantial beach renourishment project at Town Neck Beach. Town manager George Dunham writes on the town’s website, “The application highlights the extensive ongoing efforts of many people, including our local and regional elected officials, as well as numerous Town staff and our consultants, the Woods Hole Group. The town is hopeful for a successful outcome from this grant application, and will continue to pursue other additional funding opportunities to protect this critical natural resource in Town.”

Mark Snyder, who has written more than 1,870 articles in newspapers and magazines, and published three books, is the CEO of PMPNetwork.com, the Internet’s entertainment superstation. Have a story idea? He can be reached by e-mail at snyderssandwich@aol.com, on Facebook (Snyder’s Stoughton), and on Twitter (MediaMan2009). Write him via snail mail at Box 639, East Sandwich.

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