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School referendum fails in Amherst

  • Claire Bertrand, right, updates a tally board as Johanna Neumann looks on during an election night gathering Tuesday at The Pub in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Interim Superintendent Michael Morris and Johanna Neumann chat while waiting for election results Tuesday at The Pub in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Johanna Neumann, from left, Claire Bertrand and Dave Follette handle voting results Tuesday during a gathering at The Pub in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Peter Demling, left, and Christopher Hoffmann chat while waiting for election results Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at The Pub in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • From left, John Olver, Katherine Appy and Maryann Grim chat while waiting for election results Tuesday at The Pub in Amherst. JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Olver, left, and Bernie Kubiak view election results during a gathering Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at The Pub in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ellen Story applauds for election results during a gathering Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at The Pub in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2017

AMHERST — Supporters of a $66.37 million plan to construct twin elementary schools at the current Wildwood School site failed to secure enough votes to overturn two previous Town Meeting votes that rejected funding for the project.

At Tuesday’s town election, 2,746 people voted in favor of overturning the Town Meeting votes while 2,147 voted against the measure, based on unofficial results provided by the town clerk. The referendum thus failed to get the two-thirds supermajority it needed to authorize borrowing for the project, and also didn’t achieve the 2,983 “yes” votes mandated by the provisions of the town government act.

Those who spent the past several weeks on the Yes for Amherst campaign expressed disappointment in the outcome. The result ensures that Wildwood and Fort River schools, which are more than 40 years old and use an open classroom model, will still be used for the foreseeable future.

“This was a chance for equality for everyone,” said Astrid David, whose son attends Fort River School. “Children will continue to go to schools that are way below the minimum standards they should be.”

The open classrooms create additional noise, limit natural light and are not up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

Peter Demling, who appeared to win a seat on the School Committee narrowly over Jennifer Page, said the vote could create drastic changes in the schools, especially as town money will have to be poured into Wildwood and Fort River to keep them as functional learning environments.

“This is now a different financial reality for our schools,” Demling said. “We will have to deal with the reality that those schools need work.”

Without the structural and operational savings the co-located schools would have brought, it’s likely that the elementary schools will face bigger classes, fewer music and art classes, and fewer intervention specialists, Demling said.

The silver lining, he said, is the renewed involvement and passion for schools exhibited by parents.

But part of the controversy was that the twin schools would each house 375 students and encompass Grades 2-6, with Crocker Farm becoming an early childhood education center. This concern about the loss of neighborhood schools drove the Save Amherst’s Small Schools group, which opposed the plans.

Page said she hopes all families will be able to provide input on future plans for elementary education.

“I appreciate all the effort that went in on all sides,” Page said. “I see how dedicated and passionate people are about schools.”

At the polls Tuesday morning, Alexandra Monesson-Olson, a mother of two young children, was one parent who came out to support the referendum.

“I think it’s important for all to have equal access to resources and efficient learning environments,” Monesson-Olson said.

Her oldest child, who is 4 ½, will be at Crocker Farm School next year, but a likely move by her family will put her children at Wildwood for their elementary years.

Johanna Neumann, who led the Yes for Amherst, said a “48-hour drill campaign” included phone calls, emails, text messages and knocks on doors, as well as leaving behind behind Post-It notes. These robust measures, along with the expertise many people brought to the campaign, got the referendum to 56 percent support.

“We certainly got every vote we could,” Neumann said.

The referendum vote favored the school project by a much wider margin than in November, when the Proposition 2½ debt exclusion passed by 6,818 votes to 6,696, or just over 50 percent.

Superintendent Michael Morris, who was present at The Pub where supporters gathered, wouldn’t comment on the results or the next steps. The project was slated to receive $34 million from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which now has to be relinquished.

The schools and town can submit a statement of interest to the MSBA next spring for Wildwood or Fort River, after the School Committee agreed to forgo the February deadline so the Yes for Amherst could attempt the referendum.

Those who advocated for the project were joined at The Pub by retired U.S. Rep. John Olver and retired state Rep. Ellen Story, both of whom endorsed the project.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.