Longmeadow Daze: Budget Showdown a Test of Political Education…
Longmeadow Daze is an occasional series reporting on and analyzing Longmeadow government and politics.
UPDATED 4/28/12 2:02 PM: Previously omitted budgetary data has been added for clarity; Edited for grammar/clarity; New photo added.
LONGMEADOW—Too many young people take little or no interest in politics. A substantial number get involved in presidential elections or a Senate race. A few diehards may find their way into statehouse races. Even fewer will seek public office and channel it into a base of power within the very bedroom community in which they grew up.
Michael Clark, the chairman of the Longmeadow School Committee, has not just taken a leadership role in the school system from which only recently emerged. He has become one of the go-to Democratic activists in Western Massachusetts. Longmeadow Democrats are honoring him Sunday with their annual Achievement Award.
But even as Clark, 23, receives awards, he is leading one of side of a political battle that has split town government. A confrontation over school funding will go to voters early next month. On some level, the stakes could not be much higher, not just for Clark politically, but for the schools in this town of 15,000 that has the means to have some of the region‘s best, a fact Clark emphasized in interviews and School Committee meetings.
What makes the dispute all the more dramatic is how small, relative to the FY 2014 school budget, the sum in question is. The figure represents 2% of school spending and even less under proposed compromises, a testament to how tight budgets are across the town.
Clark’s first bid for elected office failed three years ago, in part because Longmeadow voters balked at someone so young passing by-laws and setting tax rates. “I would have the same concerns,” he said, his young age somewhat obscured by a goatee of stubble.
People Clark‘s age do make their mark in their hometowns. In his cohort are elected figures like Mike Fenton in Springfield, Alex Morse in Holyoke and Jake Oliveira in Ludlow. But few in their 20’s have built a town-wide base the way Clark seems to have. Working as a barista at Longmeadow’s Starbucks, Clark encountered, or rather served, many of the town’s players and residents, including all those interviewed for this article.
Candy Glazer, the Longmeadow Democratic Town Committee chair, says Democrats to which she has introduced Clark, are often “quite impressed” at what he has accomplished. “I am always delighted to introduce him as Longmeadow’s [School Committee] Chair.”
In an interview at his old store, which he left after beginning full-time work at a recycling company in East Longmeadow, Clark gestured to the drink bar. Where he used to serve caramel macchiatos and frappaccinos was also where his political career began.
Glazer, a fixture in state Democratic politics for years, most recently serving as a convention delegate and Electoral College elector for President Obama, remembers meeting and speaking with Clark at Starbucks. She agreed that it was the perfect spring board for Clark’s political career.
Clark ran for Select Board after hearing coffee drinkers worrying aloud about rumors that the High School rebuilding project would shut the senior center or library. Clark said to one regular he knew, “I’ll stop the library from closing.” She took Clark to Town Hall that day to sign him up for the election.
Clark dove into the race with reckless abandon. His campaign was announced in The Reminder featuring a clean shaven, serious and suited headshot with a mop of wavy hair more reminiscent of a fashion magazine than the local weekly. He attended Select Board meetings and candidate forums, ultimately getting the support of Rep. Brian Ashe, who only knew him as a barista. Ashe, remembering his thinking at the time, said, “This is what communities need, home grown people who really understand [it] from the inside.”
In the end, however, he lost by 353 votes coming in third in a four-way race for two open seats. The next day he had to open the coffee shop.
But public office in Longmeadow would come soon enough. Shortly after the election he was appointed to the Finance Committee, an advisory board that analyzes the town budget. In 2011, Clark ran unopposed for an open School Committee seat. “I like to think I scared people off,” he said.
Other doors opened, too. Clark began attending Longmeadow Democrats’ meetings where Glazer introduced him to James Goodhines, then preparing a run for District Attorney. Goodhines let Clark help out on the D.A.’s election. “We were happy to have him,” he said. Clark learned the ins and outs of traditional campaigning while bringing his generational familiarity with electronic and social media.
While Goodhines would not win the Democratic primary for D.A., he did win Longmeadow and Clark became a key player among town Democrats. Glazer credited Clark with boosting the town committee’s voter outreach through social media, “I give him a lot of responsibility.” Clark reminds her of another recent alum of the Longmeadow Democrats, Eric Lesser, who served in the White House under Obama and is now completing his studies at Harvard Law.
By 2012, political opportunities abounded. Besides volunteering for Richard Neal and Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns, Clark worked on Kevin Sullivan’s Governor’s Council race and was even offered (but declined) a paid position with Sam DiSanti’s campaign.
After Sullivan narrowly lost the primary, Clark began to help Rep. Ashe. Ashe faced a tough race after redistricting. While confident he would win, Ashe said some of his colleagues on Beacon Hill were worried. “There was concern I was susceptible,” to defeat after his narrow win in 2010 over Marie Angelides. She would return, now a Select Board member, in 2012 after a scandal-ridden Republican primary.
Clark, along with the rest of Ashe’s team, took a data-driven approach to the campaign. He explained that the campaign coordinated with Elizabeth Warren in the precincts that would help Ashe and then made strategic strikes on Longmeadow precincts Ashe lost in 2010. The gambit worked, bringing Ashe a commanding victory, winning all Longmeadow precincts and the other three towns in the district.
Clark also claims a broader impact. At his five-year reunion, he said former classmates told him they cast ballots for Obama because of the things Clark shared on Facebook.
Partisan politics have not inhibited Clark in town affairs. He appears to have a decent relationship with Angelides, who supported a compromise in the school budget battle. Asked if he had any enemies, Clark cheekily replied, “I’m a consensus-builder!” But consensus has its limits, something the budget battle has laid bare.
The School Committee in a town like Longmeadow features many parents, seeking a bigger role or greater control over their children‘s education. Many have no background in education. Clark did have some background from his time on the Finance Committee but had to learn the rest on the job. “He did not take the position on the school committee to pad his resume,” said Goodhines, a parent of Longmeadow schoolchildren.
On the Committee, Clark rose quickly, becoming chair after only a year. Only a few years ago his youth was a liability, now it is an asset. Ashe, who also has children in Longmeadow schools said it is important, “To have somebody who went through the school system, knows the physical ailments of the building, the strengths of the faculty.”
That sentiment was echoed by School Superintendent Marie Doyle, who with Clark led a revision of the School Department’s social media policy. For the first time, clear rules about boundaries between teachers and students in this new medium were established along with more common sense communication policies for the modern age. The policy received accolades and interest from school committees across the Commonwealth.
The conflict began earlier this year when the Select Board’s proposed budget reduced the schools budget by about $700,000. The Board said it actually level-funded schools. The Committee countered that it was in fact a cut in light of inflation and new contracts. The Board insisted that the town has other services that need funding, particularly roads. The schools would have to live with the consequences of the contracts it negotiated. Longmeadow has fully exercised its Proposition 2 1/2 property tax increase so additional revenue is not an option.
Clark and his committee fought back, gaining press in The Reminder and blasting social media missives to rally parents against the cuts. He, his colleagues and parents reduced one Board meeting to standing room only. Parents vigorously and loudly denounced the Board’s actions and the impact on class sizes and programs.
The Committee was willing to negotiate, however. Clark and his colleague James Desrochers met with Board Members Paul Santaniello and Mark Gold and a compromise was fashioned with both sides meeting in the middle. But in the end, Santaniello joined Richard Foster and Mark Barowsky to kill the deal. Gold and Angelides voted for it. The Reminder quoted Santaniello as saying the compromise would come at the expense of other town services. An email to Santaniello was not returned as of posting time.
At last Monday‘s Committee meeting, Clark informed his colleagues. “When the Select Board voted to not increase our budget in the next fiscal year…we reached out in the spirit of collegiality to seek a compromise,” he said. The compromise failed, “not for lack trying, but rather because a 3 of the five members of the Select Board decided not to support [it].” He then announced that he and Desrochers would bring the compromise, which represented half the original amount in dispute, to the May 7 Town Meeting and urged residents to support it.
“He has gone through the levels of compromise,” Goodhines said, “but they just cannot get to where the needs of School Committee are being met by the Select Board.”
Reflecting on his rise and public service in the town, Clark lamented that more people do not contest elections or even volunteer for appointed boards. “I wish more people had an interest. It is important work and it needs to happen,” Clark said, specifically noting the workload and zero pay of the Committee.
While it remains to be seen if Clark will succeed at Town Meeting, he has the support of those he has met along the way regardless of the outcome of the budget.
“He has definitely grown,” Ashe said in light of how far Clark came from that 2010 race and earning the support of the School Committee. Goodhines noted that the work on the school’s budget is no easy feat, being 2/3 of the town’s finances, “It is about as difficult a topic you can find in a town like Longmeadow.”
Glazer, noting that Clark’s impending award is not just about the Democratic party, but about service to the town as well said, “I’m glad that we’re recognizing him.”