A total of 593 voters turned out last night for Concord's Town Meeting at . After some time dedicated to thanking recent retirees and those moving on from Town government positions, Town Meeting formally changed to Special Town Meeting where four of the eight special articles were tackled.
Article 2 – Land Acquisition – 51 Brooks Road
After postponing discussion on Article 1 – Sale of Conservation Restriction for the Former Landfill Site at 759 Walden Street due to the Board of Selectmen needing more time to develop their presentation on the issue, Article 2 was discussed. Article 2 sought to authorize the selectmen the sum of $695,000 to purchase land on 51 Laws Brook Road next to the popular . Town Manager Chris Whelan spoke concerning why the selectmen were seeking the acquisition saying that purchasing the lot will help, “reorganize parking and possibly add space for picnics." "It's a good site for affordable housing, although it is not determined what to do with the land if purchased," Whelan said. The Public Works Commission and Community Preservation Committee were also in favor of the article.
Article 2 passed overwhelmingly. Money for the purchase will be coming from the Community Preservation Fund, other available town funds, or from a bond through the Treasury Department. Decisions over what to do with the land, and the old home that rests on it, are expected to be discussed by the selectmen and other town officials during the summer and fall months so the question can be placed to a vote at next Town Meeting.
Article 3 – Retain Current School Transportation Department (By Petition)
The cause of much debate at Town Meeting and a few stones slung at the School Committee, Article 3 examined keeping the school transportation system in-house for another year instead of outsourcing its busing.
Susan Kalled, the article's petitioner and presenter, summed up much of her argument to keep the current bus system in place when she stated, “outsourcing is a poor bargain for taxpayers.” Kalled also mentioned that despite public criticism, the School Committee had already been in talks with Turner Construction to give them access to use the Transportation Building and Maintenance Facility in back of CCHS in lieu of busing.
The Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee recommended no action on this issue. However, due to public pressure, and create an advisory committee to study a long-term solution for busing students. “We should have handled the [busing] situation better,” School Committee member Peter Fischelis said, adding that the School Committee will now be looking at a, “fully-vetted long-term solution” to keep busing district-run.
Citizens comments revolved mostly around support for Article 3 and expressed disdain for how the School Committee handled the situation, some people saying they thought the School Committee had flipped-flopped on the issue at the last moment due to public outcry and originally intended to outsource busing.
Article 3 passed with about a dozen nays against.
Article 4 – Citizen Committee to Study School Transportation (By Petition)
Another heated discussion followed with this tie-in article to Article 3. Article 4 sought to have a seven member committee be established to access the school busing situation in Concord. Of this potential committee, four were to be appointed by Town Moderator Eric Van Loon, and three by the School Committee.
Petitioner and presenter Phebe Ham explained the purpose of the advisory committee would be to, “take the time to do a detailed analysis to keep our [busing] system in house compared to outsourcing it.” Calling the 55-year old bus service, “outstanding” in terms of quality and safety, Ham took a jab at the School Committee by saying their actions on the student busing issue were, “snap decisions.”
School Committee member Pam Gannon responded to Ham by stating, “we have been accessing options for several months,” and also mentioned the School Committee has been “carefully listening to the community.” Gannon explained that the School Committee had recently issued a survey to parents asking them if they would support paying a fee to keep student busing in-Town versus outsourcing it and removing the potential fee. The School Committee is still waiting on the results of the survey. “In the end, transportation is a decision made by the School Committee and we will take it under the highest care,” Gannon said.
After several amendments were brought up and shot down to rearrange the language in the article, the most important of which tried to give the School Committee control over establishing the entire advisory committee, Article 4 easily passed.
Article 5 – Reinstitution Comprehensive School Budget Information (By Petition)
The final item of the night was a vote whether or not to bring back a detailed Concord school budget for citizens that hasn't been around since 2001. Based on the town budget books, Article 5 sought to return the popular “Rainbow” Books to the public sphere that detail the current budget and past expenditures.
The School Committee supported this issue and encouraged feedback from citizens concerning how best to detail the budget.
Article 5 passed overwhelmingly. It was noted that the books will be available at CCHS and the Town House, but only upon request. It was also stated that there could be a minimal fee involved for those requesting the text, although the issue couldn't be determined until the school budget books are created.
Town Meeting and Special Town Meeting continues at 7 p.m. tonight at CCHS.