New school cost concerns surface at Amherst council meeting


Staff Writer
Published: 3/3/2022 10:46:27 AM

AMHERST — While a new elementary school must have enough space to meet the educational needs of its students, the project should also be done at a cost the community can afford, according to some town councilors.

For At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker, who also serves on the School Building Committee, a target for how much the town is willing to spend should be developed.

“My concern is the cost of the project,” Walker said during an hourlong public meeting Monday in which the Town Council discussed the school project for the first time.

The meeting came in advance of the Amherst School Committee’s March 8 vote on the educational program, from which the space needs for the new building will be derived, and a March 9 public forum on the project.

Walker said her worry is that, although she supports the concepts of equitable education embedded in the project, if the price tag is too high it could force residents of more limited means out of town if they can’t afford higher taxes or increased rents.

The latest plans from DiNisco Design show a 105,750-square-feet building, with 30 classrooms, serving up to 575 children from kindergarten through fifth grade. The school will be built at either the Wildwood School site on Strong Street or the Fort River School site on South East Street, though it’s not yet known if it will be a two- or three-story building.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said the session was designed to help councilors understand the role they will play in determining how to fund the project. A Proposition 2½ debt exclusion will be going to voters, likely in March or April 2023, with the exact timing to be decided by the council by end this year. The project needs a simple majority to be approved, followed by a two-thirds vote of the council to authorize borrowing.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who chairs the building committee, cautioned that the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which has accepted the town into its funding program, will not participate with the project if it doesn’t meet the district’s educational needs, and that the plan must be good for current and future students.

Initial cost projections are expected to be unveiled later this week, though the town won’t know what MSBA’s share of the costs will be until at least June.

The last project, a $66.37 million twin school to be built at the Wildwood site, was supported by voters but failed to clear the two-thirds vote necessary at Town Meeting in 2017. That project was slated to receive $34 million from the MSBA.

The expectation is the Finance Committee will have conversations about costs and tradeoffs that may have to be made with the project, Griesemer said. Those decisions could include whether there is leeway in meeting the net-zero bylaw, where buildings must produce as much energy as they use.

For instance, geothermal may be the preferred means of eliminating fossil fuels from heating and cooling the building, but that has more upfront costs, Schoen said.

In addition, having multiple stories could be a less expensive option because the building would have a smaller footprint, limiting the significant costs of installing the foundation, Schoen said.

At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said the council will need to analyze all aspects of the project to make sure it can get the backing of a majority of residents.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said she wonders if the plans already don’t have enough space, pointing out that one art room may be insufficient and, in a COVID world, may be unsafe for those using it. “I think we need space, students need space, they need air,” Pam said.

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg, who chairs the town’s finance panel, said the town is already setting aside some money in a reserve account as a way to moderate the impact of the project on taxpayers.

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