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Alex Grant: Can We Talk?

The comedienne Joan Rivers made famous the rhetorical question, “can we talk?” as a lead-in to some funny bit. These days in Longmeadow, it’s a serious question as some have responded to the School Committee’s vote not to renew the Superintendent’s contract with a level of vitriol we have scarcely seen in this town. Is it simply not possible these days to disagree without demonizing those who differ with you? Can we talk to each other anymore?

The anger, the tone expressed by some members of the public at the last few school committee meetings outpaces anything I have seen since I moved to town in 2007. In those dozen years, Longmeadow has seen big and emotional issues come before voters. And in those debates about taxes, budgets, town lands, and the very character of our community, we were able to disagree without this level of acrimony.

In 2007, we voted for a $2.15 million Proposition 2.5 override. It was a vigorous campaign, and it passed by a mere four votes, out of over 4,000 ballots cast. But nobody’s reputation was torn apart, and the losing side accepted the outcome without recriminations.

In 2010, we debated whether to spend over $40 million on a new high school. At the time, it was estimated that the average taxpayer would have to pay $500 more in yearly taxes. The majority of the town listened to Beth Baron, the leader of Lancer Pride, when she advocated for that big-ticket item. Now, some only see her on the School Committee as the perpetrator of a nefarious conspiracy.

In 2013, we voted in favor of an anti-casino resolution at the fall Town Meeting. In 2014, Longmeadow was split on the
statewide referendum to permit casino gambling, knowing that there would be a casino on our doorstep in Springfield. A slight majority of the town voted against casinos, even as the state as a whole voted for them.

I was in the middle of those casino debates, and there were folks in town who had concrete financial stakes in the outcome of these votes. Some residents’ businesses would be affected—some quite positively–by the presence of the casino in Springfield. Through it all, we were able to discuss the pros and cons of casino gambling without making it personal.

In 2015, we went through a round of redistricting for elementary school students. In that debate, the lives of individual kids were being impacted. Parents were concerned, and in some cases distraught, that their children would be taken away from the friends, teachers, and the environment they had come to know. The process, the assumptions underlying the redistricting plan were debatable, and in the view of some, dubious. But the losers to that vote accepted the outcome, did not demand recall elections, and prepared their children for the change.

In the last couple of years, we have had votes on using the Wolf Swamp fields, Turner Park, Bliss Park, and Laurel Park for one form of development or another. We have had votes on whether to spend tens of millions of dollars on a new DPW building and a new Senior Center. These issues struck a nerve with some, but the debates were civil, and it seems that nobody lost any friends over these votes.

These, and countless other issues, have excited the interest, and sometimes the passions, of residents in town. Through it all, we were able to talk about them. Even the hiring of the current Superintendent in 2016, which saw a bloc of parents in favor of another candidate, and which ran afoul of the Open Meeting laws, was a controversy that folks were willing to move beyond. The two School Committee members who did not favor hiring the current Superintendent (Russell Dupere and Michelle Grodsky) were willing, for the sake of looking to the future and not the past, to make it a unanimous vote to hire the current Superintendent.

For some reason, the School Committee’s decision not to renew the Superintendent’s contract has been different. Some folks will not accept that reasonable minds may differ on this question, and they are prepared to take $2 million out of the school budget and to change the town charter as a form of retribution against that decision. They have accused our neighbors serving on the School Committee of bad faith and hidden agendas. This is not who we are. We are better than this, and we have shown it repeatedly.

– Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.