The Wellington victory: turning a page

By about 4:00 PM on Monday I became deeply convinced that, contrary to all signs leading up to the election, we were going to lose the vote on Wellington Elementary. There was lots of anecdotal evidence floating about to support this: Wellington poll counters (including me) had been tracking our supporters since the polls opened at 7:00AM, and by late afternoon not enough of them seemed to be showing up to give a clear edge over all those “other” voters whose intentions we didn’t know. Ominous. Even worse: it was a gorgeous day — the perfect weather to saunter down to your local polling place and cast a vote. That was going to level the playing field against the motivated Wellington supporters in what we already expected would be a close election.

By 5:00pm, I started thinking about what I’d write here about the loss. My leading candidate for a blog heading: “Dumb and Bummer,” was going to lament a decision that just didn’t make a darned bit of sense. (That entry is now being saved for a melancholy occasion to be named later.) More import: I was thinking about what a loss on the Wellington would say about the direction in which our Town of Homes was heading. What other priorities might fail to win the approval of voters who couldn’t see clear to OK’ing an elementary school that would save them $80,000 a year in maintenance costs, even with a $12.4m sweetener from the State on the table? Was it realistic to even hope for an Prop 2 1/2 override in the Spring to address the town’s structural deficit? As I watched my daughter try out the viola and cello at an information session on Belmont’s elementary instrumental music program, I wondered if these, too, were programs that could be saved in a town unwilling to make even a basic investment like replacing a decaying school building.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry. Belmont voters turned out in solid numbers to pass a Proposition 2 1/2 override to pay for construction of a new Wellington School: with 5,871 voters going to  the polls, 65% of them voting in favor of the debt exclusion, with a surge of voters late in the day putting the YES vote (way) over the top. While the  numbers weren’t huge (around 35% turnout), the outcome was — with the close defeat of the last Prop 2 1/2 effort (for road reconstruction) still fresh in everyone’s mind, 65% in favor sent a clear message that Belmontonians value education, take the town’s reputation and tradition of supporting its schools seriously, and can imagine a future more than a year or two distant. As someone put it so eloquently at the victory party last evening, the outcome proved, above all else, that we’re not dumb. Voters in town did the math and knew a good deal when they saw it. The margin of victory suggests it was more than just moms and dads out voting on Monday – folks across the political and demographic spectrum voted for Wellington. In the end, Monday’s election was a matter of stepping through the door that had opened up for us, and step we did.

I won’t be the first to note that this is a project that has been a long time coming here in town — put on the back burner as more urgent capital projects took precedence, then mothballed as the State reworked its process for funding school construction. Its success at the polls today, in the face of a stiff headwind of a bad economy, is the culmination of years of planning by Pat Brusch, Joel Mooney, Mark Haley and all the folks on the Wellington Building Committee, as well as the tireless efforts of my fellow School Committee member Karen Parmett to keep the Wellington on the radar and, of course, the whole Together for Wellington crew, led by Anne Helgen and Laurie Slap, but encompassing the work of so many other outstanding volunteers.

Many in town have been looking on with dismay as deficits have grown, infrastructure has worsened and the social fabric in town has come to resemble the bottom of Underwood Pool: old timers versus newcomers, seniors vs. young families, and so on. The prevailing political wisdom is that Belmontonians wanted things this way — that we’d rather have disintegrating roads and school buildings and a patchy pool than pay higher taxes. The decisive vote in favor of a New Wellington yesterday doesn’t disprove such theories, but it does make them look a bit more like theories than irrefutable laws.

In the short term, the vote puts an end to a years-long game of three dimensional chess that those desirous of any change have had to play — an end to the constant worry about whether pushing for _x_ will “sink the Wellington?!” With the Wellington vote a matter of record, expect a more full-throated debate about what kind of town Belmont can and should be. If nothing else, the Wellington may remind us all that investing in our public schools and investing in the future of Belmont are things that are just…good, and enrich us all far beyond the meager costs we pay (around $1 a day, on average, for the new Wellington school). I wasn’t out looking, but I’d be surprised if local realtors weren’t talking up the vote to prospective home buyers today, as they will in the months and years ahead. That’s good news for all of us in what is still a tough housing market.

Even better: the Wellington is good news for the beleaguered Wellington students, who have put up for years with the quirks and failings of an aging building. If all goes according to plan, in a matter of months, those students and the rest of us will get to step through another d00r: the front door of a brand new, state of the art elementary school that provide students with an outstanding learning environment, save us money, and serve Belmont faithfully for generations. YES!