Editorial: Amherst school plan deserves support

  • Supporters of the proposed  school project greet Amherst Town Meeting members Jan. 30 as they enter Amherst Regional Middle School for a revote. It failed again. Voters Tuesday will decided a referendum in an attempt to overturn Town Meeting’s action. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, March 23, 2017

We urge Amherst voters to turn out in big numbers Tuesday and support the much-debated plan to build two co-located elementary schools. This is the last chance for Amherst to take advantage of $34 million in state financing that would pay about half the cost of the project. If it is not approved by the end of March, the state money will be lost.

The challenge for proponents of the new schools is to get as many supporters as possible to the polls because a successful vote faces two hurdles. First, supporters must secure at least a two-thirds majority of those voting, the same proportion that representative Town Meeting twice has failed to meet.

Second, supporters must get at least 2,983 votes in favor of the project while maintaining that two-thirds majority margin of victory. That’s because the town charter specifies that a referendum to overturn Town Meeting action needs support from at least 18 percent of the town’s registered voters, who currently number 16,569.

This is the fourth vote on the $66,369,000 project in the last five months. Voters Nov. 8 approved a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override 6,825-6,669. But Town Meeting on Nov. 14 voted 108-106 against authorizing borrowing for the new schools, which was 37 votes short of the necessary two-thirds. The measure again failed to win Town Meeting approval Jan. 30, though it drew 123 votes in favor and 92 against, but was still 21 short of the two-thirds threshold.

Supporters then collected more than 1,000 certified signatures to force the referendum March 28, the date of the annual town election.

There are many reasons to approve the plan to build two new schools, each serving about 375 students in Grades 2 to 6, at the site of Wildwood Elementary on Strong Street. If voters turn down the $34 million state grant, the town would need to start over, adding years and expenses to the planning. And there is no guarantee that the Massachusetts School Building Authority would help pay the bill for the next project.

If the new schools are approved, the outdated Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools would close. They were built in the 1970s using the open-classroom model that is now regarded as educationally unsound. Students and teachers in both buildings have long coped with the distractions caused by multiple classrooms sharing the same space, separated by partial walls that do not fully contain noise.

In addition, natural light is limited in many of the classrooms and other spaces at both schools, and the buildings are not energy efficient, have air quality problems and do not meet the Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility regulations.

If the new schools are not built, Amherst would be faced with expensive renovations, including replacing the roof at Fort River, which is estimated to cost $1.25 million, and buying a new $400,000 boiler for Wildwood.

The co-located schools in an energy-efficient building would save the School Department an estimated $500,000 annually once it was completed in 2020.

Finally, if the project is approved, Crocker Farm will become an early learning center for children in pre-kindergarten through Grade 1. The plan would open spaces for another 30 preschool students at Crocker Farm, and school officials expect many would be from low-income families.

Voters Tuesday will make the final decision on this school project which resulted from nine years of study, has the unanimous backing of the Select Board and support by four of five School Committee members. State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, former state representative Ellen Story and her successor, Solomon Goldstein-Rose, all of Amherst, have urged approval of the plan. It is the quickest opportunity for Amherst to ensure that its elementary students will be educated in 21st-century schools.

A second ballot Tuesday lists the names of candidates for town offices. There are five townwide races that will be decided, as well as contests for Town Meeting members in eight of 10 precincts.

Incumbent Select Board members Andrew Steinberg and Constance Kruger face a challenge from Robert Greeney, who also is running against Eric Nakajima for a two-year seat on the School Committee. Peter Demling and Jennifer Shiao Page are the candidates for a three-year school board term.

Three trustees for Jones Library also will be elected. Alexandra Lefebvre, Christopher Hoffman, Cathy Axelson-Berry and Terry Johnson are vying for two, three-year seats, while Lee Edwards and Edwin Wilfert Jr. are contesting the two-year term.

With so much at stake, Amherst voters have plenty of reasons to go to the polls Tuesday.