Truth and consequences

There is a town election coming this Tuesday Dec. 17. Your vote will determine three Proposition 2 1/2 overrides for a total increase to the Average Single Family (ASF) property tax bill of between $570-$657 per year for 30 years. Polls open at 7 am and close at 8 pm.

Here are links for related election information:

Sample ballot: https://www.acton-ma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/6062/2019-12-17-Sample-Ballot

Polling locations: https://www.acton-ma.gov/Calendar.aspx?EID=7641&month=12&year=2019&day=17&calType=0

12/10/19 Special Town Meeting warrant (with explanations of the school building and fire station articles): http://www.acton-ma.gov/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/12633
(The sewer Warrant Article was defeated and thus is not on the ballot.)

If these three capital overrides pass, we are likely looking at average single-family property tax bills of about $15,000 per year starting in 2025-2026. That does not include any additional overrides that might occur in the next few years.

I am concerned that Acton's high taxes may not only further impact our property values, we might start seeing slippage in home sales. People do come to Acton for the schools, but for many, $15,000 per year may be a "deal breaker." There is a danger we may be pricing ourselves out of the market.

I am also alarmed that voters at Town Meeting may have been given misleading information during the School Building committee presentation. I am still working on this issue and have not completely tracked down backup data, but my worry is that the enrollment projections for the K-6 grades were inaccurate. How or why this may have happened is unknown. So far, I have confirmed that the numbers accurately reflect the data used, but the results were shocking to me and I have requested backup. Normally, I would wait a few days to reach some conclusion before publishing, but since the issue could impact some voters’ decisions and the election is in just four days, I felt I had no choice but to publish first and update second.

In short, according to the School Building Committee presentation, they are projecting a Kindergarten to sixth grade (K-6) enrollment in the year 2029 of approx. 3,050 students. This would match the other high point on the graph, in 2005. While predictions are hard to make and their reliability in 10 years is unknown, we have recently just been through a huge drop in enrollment and it seems to me to be unlikely we are at the cusp of a huge increase back to these previously very high numbers. I just don't see that happening, but I could be wrong. The chart used by the School to predict this increased elementary school enrollment is here: Proj_11_2019_STM

In order to gain some confidence in these numbers, I looked at last year's projections (2018). They were much more modest, increasing not 450 students in the 10-year period, but more like 150. Where did the approximately 300 extra students come from all of a sudden? Here is a link to that chart, from the "Budget Saturday" book, Jan. 17, 2019: Proj_1_2019

(For those looking for a few more charts to review, more links below...)

Now, count me skeptical, but it is very convenient that the School would show a chart showing a huge enrollment surge right before the Special Town Meeting to approve a massive Twin School building project. It looks like a tsunami is about to hit Acton and if we don't build this school right away, we will have too many kids and not enough space.

This enrollment projection also jumped out to me because much lower estimates were used by me as a basis for my presentation of why we could build one elementary school instead of two, thus saving a ton of money and likely having no tax override for the school building project. I had used the 2017 projections, which were similar to the 2018 numbers. So I need to get to the bottom of this discrepancy. My Town Meeting presentation is linked below, a presentation I was forbidden from giving.

I am also reminded of the recent history of deliberate misinformation perpetrated by members of the School Committee (some of whom continue to serve to this day.) Going back to the 2017 timeframe, the School held a public meeting when it discussed the unexpected (shocking) departure of our previous Superintendent. Dr. Glenn Brand. We were told the separation was friendly, yet Brand was being given a full-year's salary despite leaving within weeks. An amicable, mutual separation would not include a $200,000 bonus (at least not in the public sector.)

Later, we learned that Dr. Brand had been effectively forced out of his position from within. I won't go into the gory details, but the actions of certain School Committee members were unsupportable. Acton Forum called for the "ringleaders" to resign but three remain in public service, two on the Regional School Committee and one on the Select Board in Boxboro. If you wish to relive one of Acton's worst moments in recent history involving the wasting of about $200,000 of public funds and the breaking of trust between our political leaders and many parents, here is the 2017 Acton Forum article on this debacle: http://www.actonforum.com/story/unredacted-executive-session-minutes-show-how-former-superintendent-glenn-brand-was-pressured-

So in this era of mistrust, we are being asked to trust again that this new school building project is right for our community, and that we should support it with a large tax increase. And then must we also trust that an alarming and unexpected increase in enrollment is shown right before the Special Town Meeting vote? And how convenient that no opposition presentation was given to challenge any of the presenters directly. It sounds to me like the fix was in.

MY PRESENTATION DENIED TO SPECIAL TOWN MEETING (STM)
I am posting my presentation and notes that I planned to present at the STM. In the next day or two, I will write an article to update my experience at the STM and how I believe my right to speech was unfairly taken away by the Moderator. The losers were the Town Meeting members who were deprived of an alternative to consider. There are many places around the world where you choice is limited to what government offers and opposing views are prevented from speaking, and now we can add Acton to the list.

I believe "both sides" of controversial or expensive, long-term proposals must be presented whenever possible, because Town Meeting members are mostly not intimately knowledgeable about the issues being discussed. They should be able to make an informed vote by being presented with the major arguments for and against warrant articles. The School Building Committee made a lengthy presentation, and remarks were also made by the Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen, both of whom had voted to support the school building proposal without a single dissent. There were no opposing presentations.

Contrast this to the third warrant article at STM in which a "con" presentation was allowed. Town Meeting heard a robust rebuttal to the Selectman's article to expand sewers into West Acton. Hearing both sides resulted in a spirited (but prematurely cut off by the Moderator) debate, and that is why people go to Town Meeting. They want to hear various opinions and facts by both sides and that informs their vote. The sewer article involved a cost of $1.9 million, roughly 1.5% of the Twin School project, yet the school project had no "con" presentation at all, despite a willing, experienced, and prepared presenter.

I have to give a special "shout out" to Acton's Finance Committee. They did their usual stellar job of rubber stamping the two major proposals (they did vote against the sewers), which is not unusual. But with no opposing presentation on the North Acton Fire Station proposal, I wanted more information than the one-sided (but well done) presentation by Selectman Dean Charter. On this issue, I was that typical Town Meeting voter and I wanted to hear “both sides” before voting. As a voter, my rights were violated when spoon-fed just one side of the argument.

FinCom reported that their vote to support was not unanimous, so I asked to hear the reasons why some members voted No. The member(s) refused to speak. In my view, this was dereliction of duty. The whole purpose of the Finance Committee is to inform Town Meeting. If a member can't articulate why they did not support a warrant article in committee, and those views are not otherwise represented by a "con" speaker, they have a duty to respond when asked, or give their seat to another volunteer who will. Or they can stay home during Town Meeting because that is how useless most of them appear to be on the stage.

Allen's Powerpoint presentation (PDF format) for the 12/10/19 Special Town Meeting: TM_12102019_Allen_Nitschelm_10_minutes

Allen's Word document (PDF) of prepared remarks: TM_Presentation_10_minutes_TM_Presentation_10_minutes_12102019

Additional enrollment projection slides

Allen's slide of the 2017 Enrollment Projections, which include two previous projections for 2015 and 2016, plus two data pointed added by Allen for 2019 and 2020: Proj_3_2017_AN

Another 12/2018 slide with what looks like slightly different numbers. Some variance may be because children of staff and choice students may be included or excluded for various reasons. Proj_12_2018

This features data from 11-2018, but includes previous enrollment trend lines. Interestingly, the 2018 line is actually below the 2017 projections, which is different than other charts I have seen. Proj_4_2018

Here is the 11-2018 data shown in the Budget Saturday meeting in January, 2019. Proj_11_2018

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