Amherst HS track and field project funding gets nod

Amherst’s Finance Committee is advising the Town Council to rescind and replace a previous $1.5 million borrowing authorization for the track and field project at the regional high school.

Amherst’s Finance Committee is advising the Town Council to rescind and replace a previous $1.5 million borrowing authorization for the track and field project at the regional high school. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-12-2024 3:11 PM

Modified: 03-12-2024 4:58 PM


AMHERST — Even with questions about whether there is sufficient money to fix the deteriorating track and its interior field at Amherst Regional High School, Amherst’s Finance Committee is advising the Town Council to rescind and replace a previous $1.5 million borrowing authorization.

The 3-1 vote in support of the measure is in response to an Amherst Regional School Committee vote this winter to rescind and replace the borrowing authorization, a vote taken as a way to give more flexibility to a project that had mandated use of artificial turf. That vote gives the Amherst Town Council and officials in Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham 60 days to respond.

Despite its vote to support the measure, Amherst Finance Committee members expressed concerns last week that $1.5 million may be insufficient money to even reorient and rebuild the 25-year-old track, let alone overhaul the interior playing field with a grass or synthetic turf surface. The full project has been estimated at a cost of around $4.74 million.

Still, the majority of councilors who serve on the Finance Committee said they felt the rescind-and-replace measure was the best option.

A final decision on the design of the track and field project is now open until Nov. 30, at which time the school district may have sufficient money to do a more elaborate project. That has included fundraising by the Hurricane Boosters and includes reorienting the track to north-south, expanding it from six to eight lanes and rebuilding the interior playing field, with either grass or synthetic turf, and assorted other improvements.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said she likes the way the borrowing authorization is worded, that having at least $1.5 million will be sufficient to build a new track, even if there is no assurance that the interior playing field will also be rehabilitated at the same time.

“I think we need to allow that flexibility,” Schoen said, given that the poor condition of the track, which has prevented the high school from hosting meets, needs to be addressed immediately.

“The track is totally unusable,” she said.

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Voting down the rescind-and-replace measure would mean no money is available at all. “If we remove it, it may be quickly replaced with other capital needs,” Schoen said.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke was the lone vote against the measure, saying she did so with a “heavy heart” because the school needs a rotated track with eight lanes but that she couldn’t recommend borrowing when updated cost figures appear to show there won’t be enough money to even cover a non-rotated, non-expanded track.

Hanneke said the $1.5 million construction estimate is three years old and doesn’t factor in inflation or supply chain issues. In addition, she said, the town invested in a downtown field master plan and should only approve spending for a preferred plan.

Instead, Hanneke called on the school committee to revote the project when there are updated cost estimates and allow the borrowing authorization to be brought before town meetings in the smaller member towns.

At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said voting down the rescind-and-replace measure could cause a big delay and increased costs.

District 5 Councilor Robert Hegner said it was a tough vote. “I agree with the sentiment that we want to keep this moving, and to delay will only wind up costing us money,” Hegner said.

Bernie Kubiak, a non-voting resident member, also supported the measure and suggested avenues for additional funding, such as dipping into Community Preservation Act accounts.

“There’s no good reason the other communities can’t pull appropriations from CPA and get them through Town Meeting. There’s plenty of opportunity to do that,” Kubiak said.

Kubiak said he would appreciate more precise plans but recognizes that won’t happen right away, adding that he finds it unfortunate the school committee has allowed the good to be overcome by the perfect.

SLR Consulting of Springfield is currently evaluating the track and field site, considering the field surface and installation techniques and providing other options, as well as less-expensive cost estimates, before the school district goes out to bid. That information will be presented to interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter.

Kubiak said he wants to give the superintendent room to move the right project forward. “I have a great deal of trust in the school administration to come up with a plan for this,” Kubiak said.

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