Results from Lexington’s third town-wide survey to gauge resident priorities and perceptions of Town performance suggested that, despite most Lexingtonians feeling generally satisfied about life in the Town, respondents share concerns about a loss of community in Lexington – from a lack of gathering places downtown, to a desire for more diversity in housing types, to senses of disconnect, lack of information and apathy about voting in local elections.
The Vision for Lexington Committee conducts this survey every five years with the goal of informing Select Board, Planning Board and School Committee planning and decision-making, as previously reported. In the survey, residents can rate the importance and performance of Town “areas of interest” such as economic development, public education, climate and environmental health, physical character and diversity, equity and inclusion.
This year, the survey received the highest number of responses yet – nearly 10% of the Town’s population. Respondents were representative of the Town in most categories, but included an overrepresentation of white respondents and those who speak English at home and underrepresented Asian and South Asian respondents.
In interviews, Select Board, School Committee and Planning Board Vision for Lexington liaisons all praised the survey’s increased participation rate compared to both 2012 and 2017. Planning Board Chair Bob Peters called the response rate “really fantastic,” but pointed out that the survey reflected more engaged Lexingtonians, citing the disproportionate number of survey respondents who reported voting in the March 2021 Town election compared to the Town’s turnout for that election.
Big-picture resident feedback
Residents rated public education as the most important “area of interest,” with 83.6% of respondents finding this category “extremely” or “very” important, followed by 83.5% finding the same of Town Government. On the other hand, only 61.1% of respondents called diversity, equity and inclusion “extremely” or “very” important.
“That should not be interpreted to mean that DEI is not important,” study co-author and Center for Social Research Director Marian Cohen said in a presentation of results. “It’s simply a matter of relativity – so relative to the other broad categories, this one was considered to be least important by respondents.”
As for performance across categories, Town services received the highest rating, with 60.6% of respondents saying that the Town was doing an “excellent” or “very good” job delivering services – a result Select Board member Mark Sandeen said “was very gratifying to see.”
On the other hand, 52.4% of respondents said the economic development performance was “fair” or “poor.” Despite being rated the most important category, public education also found many performance detractors, with 50.4% saying that the Town does a “fair” or “poor” job.
“Except for economic development and public education, the ratings tended to be more positive than negative,” Cohen said. (Both economic development and education were also among the areas of community life most heavily and directly impacted by the pandemic.)
Reactions to education
Kathleen Lenihan, a School Committee member and liaison to the Vision for Lexington Committee, said that the need to improve LPS communication stood out to her across survey results related to education.
In some sense, Lenihan noted that communication is a constant work in progress. “[Communication] is not one of those things where it’s like, ‘oh, well,…we’ve done communication, check, and we crossed that off the to-do list;’ it’s more like a brush-your-teeth sort of thing that you always have to do,” she said. But in the most recent survey results, “it seemed to me there was a little bit of a disconnect from all the wonderful things that are happening in LPS and how people are feeling about [the school district].”
Beyond the survey results, recent debates over elementary school start times revealed the communication disconnect some community members feel with district leadership.
Lenihan added that a lack of information about LPS for individuals without children in the schools creates a whole other set of challenges, especially due to the decline of traditional local newspapers like the Minuteman. “I think we’re really feeling the pinch of that – of people feeling a little disconnected,” she said. “We live in an age of this instant communication…five seconds after a missile falls in Poland, I’m reading about it [on] Twitter, but yet, it can be hard to find out what’s going on in your own town.”
Among more specific respondent critiques of LPS, 60.6% of respondents said the Town was doing a fair to poor job on delivering public education cost-effectively. To Lenihan, this was a surprising result; “we stay on top of the budget, and we do our best to deliver education cost-effectively,” she said, citing the example of Lexington’s per-pupil expenditure compared to peer communities. In 2021, the most recent year with published Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) data, Lexington spent $21,429.38 per pupil – less than Brookline, Wellesley or Newton, but more than Belmont or Winchester, for instance. To Lenihan, the disconnect between Lexington’s per-pupil expenditure figure and a public perception of poor cost-effectiveness provides another indication of a communication issue.
Respondents also identified school buildings as an area where LPS could stand to improve. A similar percentage (57.1%) responded that the Town did a “fair” or “poor” job providing state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and learning – something Lenihan linked to the district’s acute need for a new high school, especially because LPS elementary school buildings have either been rebuilt or significantly renovated in the past decade. LPS is currently completing steps required by the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s eligibility period after the district’s third Statement of Interest was accepted into the competitive process in March. By completing all required steps in designated MSBA processes, the Town hopes to receive an approximately 25% reimbursement for the hefty cost of building a new high school.
“I’m really hoping that when we have a new high school, people will be excited about that and conclude that we really are providing state-of-the-art facilities,” Lenihan said.
Survey respondents’ desires for state-of-the art facilities and cost-effective education could be somewhat at odds, Lenihan observed. “At the end of the day, we have to decide what’s important, and we need to prioritize and work to make it a reality,” she said.
A smaller number of respondents suggested that the Lexington school system was “too woke” in qualitative comments. Lenihan interpreted the word “woke” as a pejorative, and said this vitriol is “just sort of part and parcel of living in the United States right now.”
“I know people in Lexington can…think you’re somewhat insulated…from that vitriol [but] there’s no part of the United States that’s completely immune to that,” she said. “I wasn’t terribly surprised by it…but it doesn’t change the mission of LPS; it doesn’t change our commitment to DEI work.”
Lenihan was especially glad to see results showing a majority of respondents (55.7%) saying the LPS does an excellent or very good job attracting and retaining high-quality educators.
Working toward a diversity of housing options
Over 60% of Lexingtonians reported moving to the Town for the public schools, and close to 40% also identified location as a key factor in choosing Lexington.
“Several respondents…specifically mentioned…that while housing and the Town Center drew them here initially, and they’ve lived here many years, neither of those would have drawn them here now,” Cohen said.
While 70.2% of respondents said that they are “extremely” or “very” satisfied with life in Lexington, almost a quarter of respondents said life in Lexington was worse now than it was five years ago. Members pointed to too much construction, a lack of gathering places and “mansionization and a lack of diversity in housing stock” among factors making life worse.
Sandeen said that the Select Board is focused on Lexington’s need for more diverse and affordable housing options. Specifically, he pointed to the Board’s establishment of an Affordable Housing Trust Study Committee earlier this year, which succeeded in developing an article passed at Fall Town Meeting to establish an affordable housing trust. The Select Board also supported the transformation of LexHAB from a quasi-municipal organization to a nonprofit, another article approved at Fall Town Meeting with the goal of enhancing the flexibility and efficiency of Lexington’s tools for creating more affordable housing. The Select Board is also channeling some Town ARPA funds into affordable housing, Sandeen added.
Peters, the Planning Board Chair, said that the development of a diversity of housing options is the Board’s central focus because it is in the early stages of planning to comply with recently finalized MBTA communities multi-family zoning requirements. The new law will require MBTA communities, including Lexington and other communities serviced by bus lines, to establish at least one zoning district “of reasonable size” where multi-family housing is permitted by-right. The Planning Board intends to bring a proposal for such a district to Spring Town Meeting next year; the Town must comply with the law by the end of 2024.
At its regular meetings for the next couple of months, the Planning Board is allowing for informal discussion and public comment to generate ideas and engagement to shape its proposal for the multi-family zoning district. “We’re really trying to get board consensus and take really significant public comment and engagement” before the public hearing process on any specific proposal begins, Peters explained.
In late October, with this same goal, Planning staff organized an in-person workshop attended by about 80 community members to collaboratively map out possible locations for the new district. The number of people who attended that meeting, to Peters, “represented that it is a concern for the community and there is a lot of interest in the subject.”
At this workshop, many attendees identified Lexington Center as a possible area for a multi-family zoning district. “The Center jumps out as one of the hotspots…nearly all of the  groups…identified the Center as a likely option for potential housing,” Peters said, adding that the Center is served by two MBTA bus lines.
While it’s too early to know where the Planning Board will propose the district, and the community input process is still ongoing, this potential location for multi-family zoning could have the added benefit of creating additional foot traffic for the Center, Peters noted – which could address another community challenge respondents emphasized in the town-wide survey.
“The other aspect that I think impacts housing, and where we haven’t…as a town, made significant progress on, is the vibrancy of Lexington Center,” Peters said. “It may be that a component of mixed-use [zoning] that includes a housing element is something that we’d be looking at.”
Peters anticipates having additional participatory workshops; the Oct. 25 session was a “first step,” he said. “The more the issues are discussed, and folks understand the challenges in coming up with a coherent and compliant plan, I think the better off we are in getting the result that folks are comfortable with.”
In the town-wide survey, respondents were also asked to choose between where they would prefer to allocate resources if faced with potentially “competing” priorities. On balance, residents favored supporting schools over supporting municipal services; increasing commercial density to reduce reliance on residential property taxes over keeping current zoning; preserving available open spaces over creating affordable housing or recreation fields; and regulating residential land use to ensure a diversity of housing options over limiting land use regulation.
To Peters, respondents choosing open space over affordable housing in one question, yet also prioritizing a variety of housing options over free-market real estate, aligned with his perception of community priorities. “I think…that represents the two minds, or schools of thought, in town – that preserving open space is very important…and at the same time, we see the mansionization, which is really changing our neighborhoods as well,” he said.
Since the Town has an excellent track record with conservation, and with purchasing privately held land for conservation, “conservation is always at the table when those discussions are under consideration for potential town purchase,” Peters said. On the other hand, Peters has observed that “housing and affordable housing advocates like the Housing Partnership Board have not had the same opportunity to be in the mix from the beginning.” Peters credited the Housing Partnership Board and other housing advocates “for bringing that issue forward and attempting to get recognized as a significant stakeholder when there are potential land acquisitions.”
Another recent zoning initiative championed by the Planning Board that embodied this balancing act: Open Space Residential Development zoning, or zoning intended to simultaneously preserve open space and encourage denser development. The Planning Board brought this zoning article to Town Meeting twice; after failing narrowly last fall, Town Meeting passed the measure in the spring.
“The message we’ve got from the survey, and that we hear all the time, is that there is a regional housing crisis,” Peters summarized.
He also witnesses, and thinks about, the ramifications of this crisis in his personal life. “My daughters – one lives out of state, and one is moving further out of the city in order to find housing that’s affordable and meets the requirements of their budget,” he said.
Creating a more vibrant Town Center
Within the area of economic development, more than 85% of respondents singled out having a “vibrant downtown” and “support for small businesses” as extremely or very important factors. But 57.6% of respondents said that Lexington’s performance on this front was “fair” or “poor,” even though respondents also found this to be the most important component of economic development in 2012 and 2017. (LexObserver previously reported on some of the challenges of Lexington Center for small businesses.)
The desire for a more vibrant downtown stood out to Sandeen among big-picture survey takeaways. “From the Select Board’s perspective, this is something we’re very focused on working on and enhancing,” he said, “and would love to hear ideas from people who have suggestions about how to improve the vibrancy of the downtown area.”
For instance, the Select Board approved the Economic Development Office’s request for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for an event series downtown earlier this year. The next event, “Lexington Winter Garden,” is just a few weeks away. From talking with residents, Sandeen has heard that the events are having the intended effect: Attendees are “going and visiting stores after the event, so it seems like there are some good things there in terms of drawing people into the Center.”
That said, Sandeen agreed with Peters that “there are some longer term structural things we should be thinking about,” such as the possibility of mixed-use development in Lexington Center.
Participation in civic roles such as volunteering for Town boards and committees, organizations and school roles has declined compared to previous years, according to the survey results.
Additionally, when it came to voting, a total of 93.6% of respondents said they are registered to vote, but 35.8% said they did not vote or did not remember voting in the March, mostly for reasons “that relate to a sense of disconnect from the community,” such as issues not mattering, not thinking voting mattered and distrusting governmental entities.
“It is notable that Lexington residents had a commitment to their community in the past, but that the commitment appears to be waning and is now more consistent with general patterns nation-wide,” Cohen and co-author Ruth Remington wrote in the survey.
For Sandeen, making progress in encouraging broader community participation aligns with the Select Board’s years-long goal of reforming boards and committees.
Sandeen praised the volunteer spirit and expertise of the Town’s many residents who give their time to various boards and committees. That said, four or five years ago, the Select Board identified a challenge with equity in the committee appointment process: “What was happening was those committee members were nominating their friends, and…it wasn’t reflective of the town’s diversity…in the demographics,” he said. The Select Board has attempted to remedy this problem by recruiting members more widely, including by advertising the open positions through Town newsletters and other sources.
This strategy appears to be succeeding at diversifying Lexington’s board and committees, Sandeen said – and he hopes these shifts will ultimately spread to make the Town’s top elected leadership more diverse: “The hope is that when you have those leaders operating in a volunteer organization and a volunteer committee, that many of them will step up to run for Planning Board or for School Committee or for Select Board.”
Cohen said that moving forward, it will be important to encourage community members to have a greater voice in Town activities and decision-making, and for more people to run for public offices and volunteer for boards and committees.
Despite Lenihan’s concerns about a shortage of robust community sources of information, “Lexington is filled with super smart people who are good at rolling up their sleeves and fixing things,” she said. “So I will choose to have confidence in our ability to work this out.”