Ethical dilemmas

I attended the Special Town Meeting which saw an overflow crowd, made up by my estimate of about 60% parents who came to approve the school building project and 30% of voters who were against marijuana shops opening up in Acton. Because of the crowd and some technical glitches, the meeting started past 8:30 and as they were wrapping up the vote on the third article, I was heading home (past my bedtime) and it was close to 11. I will have to check with Charlie to see how late they stayed and whether or not they finished their agenda.

The school building project presented an interesting ethical dilemma. We have fifty-year-old elementary school buildings which need to be renovated or replaced, and we are in the pipeline for some state building aid. If we approve the funding of the study, we begin a long, rigorous, but highly controlled process which would likely result in a $100-120 million new twin school project, $50-55 million in state aid, and a $500 per year property tax increase. If we vote the project down, we would lose our place in line (and maybe not even get back on the list) and the project could be delayed another year or two, or we could do it ourselves more quickly, but the tax increase would likely be much higher or we would have to make compromises, perhaps by refurbishing instead of building new.

There were other risks to waiting. Interest rates could rise. State reimbursement aid could be cut. Construction costs rise over time. So if we need new school buildings, waiting would seem not to be a good option. The Feasibility study was approved by the Town Meeting with a 1,000-yes to 100-no vote.

For me, this was a real dilemma, and I ended up speaking against the motion and voting no. While I am in favor of doing something to replace the old schools, and would support a good plan, I believed the conduct of our school leaders has been so deplorable that it required a No vote, despite the costs and despite the risk.

In debating one of the proponents online, I used an analogy about sexual harassment to illustrate the dilemma. Is it OK to overlook personal or professional unethical behavior for the greater good? That seemed to cause some offense (I guess it is like using a Nazi analogy which is now verboten) so let me try a different one.

We have a policy of not paying terrorists ransom. I support that concept, but I am sure that if your (or my) child were held by terrorists and demanding payment, no sum would be too large. In other words, our ability to think objectively gets recalculated and distorted when our family is directly affected.

We have many public policy debates like this. We saw another example just last night during the marijuana debate. The majority of Actonians voted to legalize pot, yet we don't want it sold in our community. Inconsistent? Yes. Understandable? Yes.

I voted against the legalization of pot, but I also believe in the free market and allowing people to sell legal products. But I was able to rationalize a vote to ban pot shops in Acton because there are none. Had we had shops in place, I would have voted to allow them to stay (or paid them to move.) The pot shop moratorium was approved by a vote of 800 to 200, and I didn't hear the results of Article 6, the non-binding resolution to ban pot shops, but I'm guessing it was also approved.

For the school building's Feasibility study, there is a more important principle at stake than a school building, no matter how decrepit. It is the principle of honest and ethical elected representatives who we must be able to trust because they are effectively making all the decisions. Our "rubber stamp" at Town Meeting relies on the ethical behavior of our leaders. And to me, when there has been a clear and provable ethical violation, the leaders must be gone. I won't repeat what our school committee leaders did, because we have covered it extensively here on Acton Forum, but the bottom line was they lied and intentionally misled the public about the reasons and circumstances regarding former Superintendent Glenn Brand's departure, and their deception was discovered and made public. The question is whether the public takes action or allows them to conduct business as usual.

Being on the losing end of a 1,000 to 100 vote is sobering, but given my track record, that really isn't so bad. Sometimes it is 1,000 to 1. But let me try to better explain my reason for voting against the motion.

Think of it like a case of zero tolerance. Let's say you had a star athlete on the high school football team, and the team was going into the state championship, the high school superbowl. They were playing at Foxboro stadium and they expected 100,000 spectators. The school district would be receiving millions of dollars in revenue and friends and relatives have come for miles to all witness and celebrate the game, the team, the school, and the town.

But on the eve of the game, the star quarterback is accused of skipping his classes, which violates the strict school policy that student-athletes must attend class if they wish to participate in extra-curricular sports. (I believe this is an actual policy, but if I am misstating it, forgive me.) The high school principal learns of this clear cut violation which would absolutely prevent the quarterback from playing, thereby leading to a certain loss if not a forfeiture of the game itself and a cancellation of the superbowl. Should the principal enforce the rules or give the quarterback a pass (sorry) and allow the game to go on as planned?

Last night, Acton voters approved allowing the quarterback to play.

I could give many more examples but there is a common theme. When you have rules of conduct and you allow people to break them because the "greater good" is achieved, you end up destroying those rules which are there for good reasons. There are many unintended consequences of this which cannot easily be measured, but perhaps the biggest is having people realize (and have proof of) that ethical laws and norms are bendable or breakable when expediency requires it. And while the rules apply to you and me, they don't apply to everyone else equally.

I'm glad the school building project was not delayed or cancelled, but I would vote No again if asked.

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Comments

Tactical dilemma

I voted NO for the same reasons as Allen but did not have to resolve any ethical dilemmas because I do not consider remaining on the MSBA list to be an unqualified financial benefit, as I will explain later in a separate Acton Forum article.

My dilemma is how to show to Acton residents -- all of them, not just parents of school-age children - that allowing the present school committee to continue "business as usual" makes our school system vulnerable to losing its reputation for excellence, an achievement which took decades of hard work by top-level staff, competent school committee members, and community support.

To avoid losing this achievement requires finding and appointing an experienced, highly regarded and competent permanent Superintendent. It is highly unlikely that the best candidates will be interested in applying to work for this school committee and that this school committee would hire them if they did.

This is a much bigger problem than any of the building issues. There is not much time, the school committee plans to appoint the next Superintendent by the end of March 2018. It is unfortunate that many people, especially parents, probably went home after the town meeting last night feeling that the schools' problems are being solved. They are not.

Charlie Kadlec

CharlieAF

I agree

I agree with you and also voted NO. I left the meeting with a clear conscious knowing that I voted based on my values and principles, which include honesty. I was unimpressed with the how the moderator interpreted a Personal Attack when one citizen called for resignations from the School Committee. Does the Moderator even understand that it is perfectly reasonable to ask for an individual's resignation from a board or committee? That is NOT a personal attack! His comments were enough to deter and frustrate me from making my prepared statement, which was: Please do not vote YES until the Chair of the School Committee resigns. Based on his logic, I would have been shut down and then said something out of frustration I may have regretted. Thus, I remained seated. I think more people would have spoken up if the Moderator was more moderate and believed in free speech.

Scott Smyers lives in Acton.

Personal attacks

Hi Scott,
I agree. Asking for the resignation of elected officials is not and should not be viewed as a "personal attack." But it was clear to me that I would be shut down had I asked for the resignation of the School Committee Chair, which I had been prepared to do. So, Mr. Ashton, mission accomplished.

That being said, I am not complaining. I feel like I expressed my views in an article a week in advance, it was widely read, and people had the opportunity to attend, speak, and vote.

But clearly, the Moderator's rules and conduct, along with the late start and crowded venue, made it hard to get up and speak. We had 1,200 people there and only four or five spoke? That is pretty weird and troubling. But as I've said before, the goal of TM is to approve the leadership's agenda and if they can do so without real debate, all the better.

Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and publisher of the Acton Forum.

School Building

I was also at Town Meeting, was impressed by the turnout but disappointed by most of the arguments, pro and con, for the School question. I think all people there were in favor of better facilities for the students, but to put a $100+ million project in the hands of a crew that could not manage a 1000 person crowd is dubious at best. The massive cost overruns that happened in Newton (originally priced at $60M, completed at $197M) could happen in Acton as well! And yet not a single person voiced concern, and no one on FinCom or BOS said that there would be mechanisms in place to prevent this.

School building

I too voted No on Article 1 despite the rather moving (pun unintended) movie about the current state of the Douglas building facilities. I wavered only momentarily after the screening.

It is somewhat telling that nearly a hundred folks voted No despite knowing that the need for some sort of building overhaul is essential.

It is baffling that Yes votes were being solicited with the argument that it will not immediately raise taxes, so what have we got to lose? It appears to be called a "feasibility study" only to check some MSBA boxes, and a design for a new school seems to be the expected outcome.

To me, a civil engineer, it was further frustrating to see $1.3MM being pledged to evaluate two sites that both have known issues. There was no discussion about the other sites that might be considered if both the Gates and Conant properties were found unfit for the new school.

I work in Newton, so I know all about their somewhat recent high school rebuilding project and its costs. And as an added concern, they seem to have taken their high school Yes vote as a mandate to similarly tear down and rebuild all their elementary schools. Two down, eleven more to go!

Time limits and real debate

Hi,
Thanks for your post. You are right about the lack of debate at Town Meeting. Unfortunately, this is by design.

I think Peter Ashton runs an excellent meeting, but he has reinforced and confirmed the flaws that do not allow for real debate. Proponents are given huge advantages, contrary arguments are very difficult to make, opponents are never given equal time or stature, and I could go on. I have written extensively about this issue, including examples of what I see as mistakes happening because of this, but our town leadership believes in controlling all of this and tilting the playing field in their favor. I think this comes not out of malice but because they figure they work hard on all this and their voices and opinions and recommendations should carry much more weight than the poor slobs (like me) who just show up at Town Meeting to express concerns.

I guess the good news for you is that future plans and appropriations will come back to Town Meeting for funding. But one of the hidden benefits to how leadership does this is they will overtly and covertly use last night's approval to convince people to vote for future approvals.

But in theory, you could get involved, and if you felt that a future plan was ill advised, you could ask for time at the podium, prepare a presentation, and make your case. I have done this, and I can tell you that while this may give the appearance of equal opportunity and fair play, it does not.

Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and publisher of the Acton Forum.

Tax increase

I was also in the meeting last night and heard 500 dollars increase per household per ANNUM, not monthly. Can you double check that please?

typo fixed

Thanks for catching that, I'll fix it! Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and publisher of the Acton Forum.