I voted today stickers
We're two days out from the Annual Town Elections. What do voter participation and absentee voting look like in some of Lexington's recent elections? How about campaign finance in this year's contested School Committee race? (Courtesy of Envato Elements)

Good morning and welcome to this week’s LexObserver newsletter.
 

Before we get to the news, we need to warn you: You’re going to hear from us a little more often than usual in the next few days.
 

Tomorrow, you will receive a special Sunday edition focused exclusively on the Town’s referendum about gas-powered leaf blowers. Early next week, we will send out a special Election Results edition following Monday’s town-wide election
 

But, next Saturday, March 12, there will be no regular newsletter. We’ll still be attending some important public meetings next week, but we’re going to take a week off our roundup to do some longer-term planning and big-picture thinking as Annual Town Meeting approaches. We’ll be back in your inboxes Saturday, March 19! And you’re as welcome as ever to share story ideas in the meantime.
 

Now, this week’s news:

 

Week of March 5: Lexington News Roundup

Reported by Sophie Culpepper

NEWSLETTER SECTIONS:
                                   

  • Lexingtonian George Gamota describes heartbreak of Russia’s invasion as a Ukrainian-American, suggests ways to show support.
  • Everybody’s registered, but participation is low: Lexington’s elections through the numbers.
  • At one School Committee forum, new candidates say that more debate is needed on the decision-making body.
  • Third time’s the charm? Lexington Public Schools gets a long-awaited Mass School Building Authority invitation, moving the community one step closer in the long process to a new high school.
  • Update: Lexington’s Mask Mandate will be up for a vote next Tuesday.
  • COVID-19 Weekly Update: After Feb. break, a small increase in school cases; town cases stay their downward course.
  • Community Announcements: Last day of free Town PCR testing, and free rapid tests now available from several public buildings during business hours; Pilgrim Church invites all to Lenten and Easter services; Townwide survey closes March 16.

Lexingtonian George Gamota describes heartbreak of Russia’s invasion as a Ukrainian-American, suggests ways to show support

We’ve included the first third of the following article in the newsletter; you can read the rest directly on our website  see below.

When he was 10 years old, George Gamota was forced to flee from communists for the United States.
 

For Gamota, a Ukrainian-American Lexington resident for over 35 years, the sight of a million refugees driven from their country by a Russian attack on Ukraine evokes his own flight from the same force over 70 years ago, in 1949.
 

Gamota’s early impression of Ukraine, and of Soviet infringement on its identity, were formative. So when Ukraine became independent in 1991, it was “kind of a surprise to many of us in the diaspora, because we really didn’t think that that was possible,” he said. 
 

Still, it was exciting to see – and motivated his family to support their country. Two of Gamota’s three adult sons “decided to see how they can help” and spent time in Ukraine following independence, he said. 
 

Gamota also decided to support his country. But instead of moving, he used his profession as a physicist to support the scientific community in Ukraine – from managing grants for young Ukrainian scientists, to overseeing major programs, to starting a number of small business technology centers. Gamota’s work on these projects led him to spend a lot of time in Ukraine, especially throughout the 90s.
 

His ties with Ukraine run deep. Now, several of his close friends and some family members are scattered in a few different cities across the country, including his daughter-in-law’s brother and family in Kharkiv. Gamota has been in touch with many of them as the war has progressed. “It’s been heartbreaking,” he said.

If you want to read the rest of this story, including George’s suggestions of how to support Ukraine and information about some ongoing fundraising efforts throughout town, you can do that here.

 

Everybody’s registered, but participation is low: Lexington’s elections through the numbers
 

How many residents are eligible to vote in Lexington’s elections this year? 
 

  • A total of 22,696 Lexingtonians, slightly over 90% of eligible voters, are registered to vote this year, Town Clerk Mary de Alderete wrote in an email to LexObserver.

 

  • Voter registration is pretty even across the Town’s nine precincts, she added: 

How many voters have participated in Lexington’s most recent annual local elections?

  • Lexington’s voter registration numbers may inspire confidence – but voter participation rates for the past five years are not quite as impressive, even falling below 10% in 2018 (a year when no major races were contested). In 2020, the highest year of turnout in the past five years, no major townwide races were contested, either – but several Town Meeting precinct races were. This year’s voting rates may get an additional bump from the much-debated ballot question, on top of the contested School Committee race.

 

In July 2020, Massachusetts passed a temporary law allowing “no excuse absentee voting” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, greatly facilitating voting by mail. But the state did not pass an extension to that temporary law this year – so absentee voting is more limited this year, requiring voters to satisfy one of three key conditions. How many absentee voters does Lexington expect this year?

  • “As of [March 4], we have had 605 requests for Absentee ballots for the Annual Election,” de Alderete wrote in an email to LexObserver yesterday. Last year, there were significantly more requests: 1,611, according to de Alderete. As the previous question’s numbers indicate, the increase in mail-in voting did not necessarily correspond to an increase in local voter turnout. The previous year, there were 618 requests, she added – so it looks like this year’s numbers are lining up to resemble those for 2020’s townwide election, which took place a few months prior to the statewide temporary expansion of vote-by-mail eligibility.

 

This year, the School Committee race is contested, along with the Precinct 2 Town Meeting race – but the Select Board, Town Moderator and Planning Board elections are all uncontested. When’s the last time those races were contested? 
 

  • The Select Board election was last contested in 2019, when Mark Sandeen beat Matthew Cohen for a one-year term; the Planning Board election was contested last year, in 2021, when Melanie Thompson and Michael Schanbacher were elected to serve, with Leonard Morse-Fortier coming in third. The Town Moderator election has been uncontested for several years, with incumbent Deborah Brown filling the role since 2009.

 

Across Lexington’s nine precincts, there are a few Town Meeting precinct races that are not only uncontested, but don’t even have enough candidates running to fill the available seats. Is there a way to fill those empty seats?

  • Yes. We previously reported that in Precincts 1, 4, 8 and 9, there are one to two fewer candidates than open seats for each race. (Precincts 3, 5, 6 and 7 are uncontested, with the number of candidates running equal to the number of open seats.) But, for anyone in those precincts with fewer candidates than open seats – you can write your name in on the ballot on Monday to throw your hat in the ring. This is how a number of Town Meeting Members have been elected in previously elections, too.

 

What do we know about fundraising and spending in the contested School Committee race?

  • All candidates are required to file campaign finance reports, including one eight days before the election. In the contested School Committee race, both new candidates raised and spent substantially more than this year’s incumbent, according to these reports.

 

  • Incumbent Eileen Jay’s eight-day campaign finance report shows she raised $4,818 between Jan. 1 and late February 2022, and already had a balance of $1,115, but reported no fundraising or spending for 2021 in her year-end report. Most itemized donations were close to $100, with a handful below that and a few above $200. (Donations $50 and under do not have to be itemized.) Jay’s campaign reported spending just $15 during the most recent reporting period, leaving her with $5,948.

 

  • Salvador Jaramillo, as a new candidate, started from scratch. His year-end report shows that in the final month of 2021, he raised $5,885, a sum which included a few larger donations in the $500 to $1,000 range. After spending about $30 in that period, he raised another $3,135 over the past two months – and spent $7,709 of his funds over those two months on campaign materials such as flyers, ads and mailers. His expenses left him with an end balance of $1,277.81.

 

  • Larry Freeman also began from 0 as a new candidate. He raised and spent the most in this election cycle of any of the three candidates, slightly exceeding Jaramillo in both donations and expenditures. In the last few months of 2021, he raised $3,576, per his year-end report. He had a few donations of $500 to $1,000, but most donations fell in the $25-$100 range, and even donations below $50 were itemized. During that fundraising period, he spent $2,016.44 on e.g. yard signs, fees, postage and thank you cards. In the past two months, Freeman raised another $6,390, and spent $6,792.42 of total campaign funds on materials including ads, signs and postage. His expenses left him with an end balance of $1,157.14.

 

  • Stay tuned for tomorrow’s newsletter, which will include a look at campaign finance numbers related to the gas-powered leaf blower referendum.

At one School Committee forum, new candidates say that more debate is needed on the decision-making body
 

  • We’ve already covered a couple of School Committee forums where candidates shared their perspectives with voters on many issues of interest to the Lexington community. On Monday, we attended a virtual forum organized by Lex Go Back to School, a group of roughly 250+ parents formed in January 2021 to advocate for a return to full-time school. The group “remains committed and engaged on a whole range of school issues,” according to their description in an email about the forum.

 

  • As at previous forums LexObserver has attended and covered, candidates described some of the personal and professional experiences they bring to their candidacies, and answered questions about challenges such as addressing mental and social-emotional health at LPS and how district leaders should navigate pandemic-related decision making. Among candidate responses, one area of discussion shed light on a bigger-picture dimension of this year’s School Committee race: Both new candidates believe more debate and dialogue is needed on the School Committee, and described this belief as central to their motivations as candidates. That said, the voting record of the incumbent running includes some votes where she has dissented from her colleagues, one indication that unanimous agreement is not necessarily a given in the culture of the current School Committee. 

  • The dialogue on the current School Committee has not necessarily changed as circumstances change, according to candidate Salvador Jaramillo. “Diversity of thought,” perspectives and life experience are critical on this kind of decision-making body, he stressed. Jaramillo, who is a sophomore at Harvard and graduated from LHS in 2020, said he entered the current race because he has beliefs and is willing to fight for them – and, he is not afraid to ask or answer the tough questions, which “makes us better candidates, and a better community as a whole,” he said.

 

  • In a similar vein, candidate Larry Freeman commented that one of the things he loves most about Town Meeting is the “robust debate.” While some may believe this is negative, he acknowledged, he believes it’s great – citing his experiences entering Town Meeting intending to vote one way on an article, but ultimately being persuaded by debate to vote the other way. Freeman stressed that he does not oppose School Committee members or the Superintendent individually, and faults the intentions of no one. Rather, he said that students can be negatively impacted by School Committee decisions when there is insufficient dialogue and debate, or a resistance to discussing unpleasant truths. Freeman also stressed that he is uniquely positioned to observe and understand this because he is the only candidate among the three running who currently has children attending LPS, though Jaramillo attended LPS and has a younger brother in high school, and Jay’s children previously graduated from LPS.

 

  • Incumbent Eileen Jay, who has been a member of the School Committee for six years, has examples on her voting record of dissenting from her colleagues. She has given a direct example of a time she voted differently from her School Committee colleagues at a previous forum – citing her vote in favor of some homework for older elementary school students to ease their transition to the homework required in middle school. During more recent COVID-19 decision-making, Jay was also the sole dissenting vote in a consequential fall 2020 decision related to pandemic policies: At the Aug. 25, 2020 School Committee meeting, she voted against hybrid learning at the high school level based on concerns about the value of that model “given the risks to everyone and compromises in education,” per meeting minutes. All four other School Committee members voted in favor. In Monday’s forum, Jay said that debate and deliberation do happen on the School Committee, and that members are always free to voice concerns and disagreements.

Third time’s the charm? Lexington Public Schools gets a long-awaited Mass School Building Authority invitation, moving the community one step closer to a new high school
 

  • At their meeting Wednesday morning, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Board of Directors voted to invite Lexington into its eligibility period, along with 16 other districts – an exciting first step toward a new high school.

 

  • Lexington had previously been rejected from this rigorous, competitive process at least twice, and just under 1/3 of the 58 districts which applied for this invitation in 2021 with a Statement of Interest were accepted.

 

  • What happens next? Last month, Superintendent Julie Hackett sent a letter to the community outlining some next steps if Lexington were accepted, including voting for feasibility funding at Annual Town Meeting, creating an educational plan, and site development and control. In her March 2 community update, she called this “the first step in a 5+ year school construction process, marking the very beginning of the journey into the MSBA’s capital pipeline.” 

 

  • Districts that successfully complete requirements within the 270-day eligibility period can then receive an invitation from the same body into the Feasibility Study phase + authorization of a Feasibility Study Agreement, establishing some reimbursement for the expensive project.

 

  • A new high school is an enormous financial undertaking, likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars – so a key goal is for Lexington to receive some funding support from the MSBA, which, as Hackett wrote in her update, “translates into a substantial amount of additional funding for a new or renovated high school, significantly lessening the school construction burden on taxpayers.” Being invited into this eligibility period moves the district one step closer to this goal.

 

  • Lexington High School’s current facility challenges are related to “existing overcrowding” and “system and program deficiencies” per the MSBA introductory description at the meeting.

 

  • Several Town leaders attended Wednesday’s meeting. Superintendent Hackett said she was “so thrilled” to be at the meeting during brief remarks prior to the vote. Current facilities, including science labs, are very old, and the building is especially inadequate for students with disabilities, she added.

Update: Lexington’s Mask Mandate will be up for a vote next Tuesday
 

  • Last week, we reported that Board of Health Chair Wendy Heiger-Bernays and Superintendent Julie Hackett were both willing to reconsider Lexington’s local mask mandate for the Town and for LPS sooner than its original end date of March 15 in light of a change in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance. The CDC previously continued to recommend universal masking in schools, contradicting state-level guidance. But Feb. 25, the CDC released new guidance bringing the two back in line – recommending that individuals in areas deemed low or medium risk, true of all counties in Massachusetts, can go mask-free indoors including in schools.

 

  • This week, the Board of Health set a date for the reconsideration – they scheduled a meeting for next Tuesday, March 8. Superintendent Hackett wrote in her March 2 community update that “If the local case counts remain low and our metrics continue to improve, I plan to ask the Board of Health to lift the mask mandate.” She called the 13 cases recorded as of March 1 “promising” in this update; as of Thursday, LPS had recorded 19 students absent who had tested positive – higher than the 9 positive cases detected the week before February break, but still relatively low. At the town level, cases recorded this week continued their steady decline for the 7th week in a row, with 21 new cases as of Thursday, compared to 31 new cases the week of Feb. 24. More on case counts in our regular update below.

COVID-19 Weekly Update: After Feb. break, a small increase in school cases; town cases continue downward trend

Community Announcements

  • Final chance for Free Town PCR COVID testing today, and free at-home rapid test kits now available: Between 9:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. today, Lexington residents can get a free PCR test at the LPS Administration Building thanks to town American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. You can find out more and register here. Also thanks to ARPA funding, residents can now pick up a free at-home rapid test at the Town Office Building; Fire Department; Police Department; Community Center; Visitors Center; or Public Services Building. The kits are available during regular business hours while supplies last, and the Police Department is open 24/7. The Office of Public Health can be contacted with questions at 781-698-4533.
  • From Lisa Boehm — Lenten, Easter services at Pilgrim Congregational Church, United Church of Christ: All are welcome to attend the Pilgrim Church Services for Lent and Easter at 55 Coolidge Ave or on Zoom. The Lenten theme is Creation Care, Climate Justice, and the Renewal of the Earth. Upcoming services include Sunday mornings through Lent, morning and evening Bible Studies, including a March 30 session with local climate activist Fran Ludwig, and other contemplative and celebratory services in April. For more information and Zoom links to services, you can email welcome@pilgrimcongregational.org. 
  • Townwide survey closing soon: We reported in January on some of the ways the Town-wide survey conducted every five years can inform town decision-making. The Town announced that this year’s survey is closing March 16. You can fill out the survey, which should take about 20 minutes, here.

That’s a wrap for today. Was this roundup useful to you? What do you want to see in this email next week? Let us know, and please ask your friends to sign up and donate too! Reach out to sophie@lexobserver.org with tips and questions anytime. As always, you can also check out and share our website, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages. Thanks so much for reading and have a great weekend….we’ll be back tomorrow!
 

With gratitude,
Nicco Mele, Sophie Culpepper, Sarah Liu, Vivian Wang and Seiya Saneyoshi
LexObserver Team