Amherst Town Meeting rejects school building project

  • Ken LeBlond, with the "Yes on 5" steering commitee, updates a vote tally board at The Pub in Amherst at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, noting that results from four precincts were still delayed.

  • Kathleen Traphagen talks about campaign strategies on the last days of early voting at UMass.

  • Fort River Elementary School

Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2016 12:17:32 AM

AMHERST — A $67.2 million project to build two elementary schools on Strong Street, and create an early childhood education center at Crocker Farm School, was soundly defeated by Town Meeting Monday.

Needing a two-thirds majority to authorize $33 million in borrowing, the proposal failed to even get a majority of the vote, losing 108-106 after three hours of discussion.

Critics of the plan, which would have created two, 375-student schools on the current Wildwood School site at 71 Strong St., cited a range of concerns, including losing walkable, neighborhood schools, loss of educational equity among all socioeconomic groups and damage to the environment.

“With school consolidation, communities are harmed,” said Eve Vogel, a Precinct 3 Town Meeting member who spoke against the project as being detrimental to children and families.

Joanna Morse of Precinct 8 called for a more educationally sound plan to be brought back before Town Meeting, observing that the larger school would likely increase the discipline rates for minority students.

“Smaller schools, where kids are known, are much safer for kids of color,” Morse said.

Acting Superintendent Michael Morris, who led the School Building Committee and did outreach to the community for several months, said he was disappointed in the outcome on behalf of those who use the buildings.

“I’m sad for teachers and students,” Morris said. “They deserved better than what we can give them now.”

The vote came even though voters townwide approved the Proposition 2½ tax-cap override Nov. 8, with unofficial results showing a 122-vote margin in favor, 6,818 to 6,696. The project also had endorsements from the School Committee, Select Board and Joint Capital Planning Committee.

Under the plan, all children in Grades 2 to 6 in Amherst would attend one of the new schools, with Crocker Farm School being converted into an early childhood education center, and Fort River School being closed.

In the aftermath of the vote, it appeared the promised $34 million in state funding for the project from the Massachusetts School Building Authority was gone.

Select Board Chairwoman Alisa Brewer said the state commitment has ended. “That contract is over,” Brewer said

But she added that Morris would likely contact state officials within the next 10 days to determine if there is any way an adjusted plan could be brought forward.

Rather than concerns about costs, Brewer said, she observed a vote that was made by people who didn’t trust the school administration, the School Committee and the process.

School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Appy said the plan would have maximized potential for students and teachers and promoted equity by ensuring all students thrive in schools with more common spaces, fresh air and natural light than the 1970s-era Wildwood and Fort River schools.

“Here is a great opportunity right now to accept almost $34 million of state aid to bring our schools into the 21st century,” Appy said.

Fort River needs a new roof at a projected cost of $1.25 million, and Wildwood needs a new boiler at an estimated $400,000 cost.

School Building Committee member Irv Rhodes, who previously served on the School Committee, said adding 30 slots to the free preschool at Crocker would be an income raiser for people who don’t have the means to pay for it.

“Here we have the opportunity to give a large segment of our community free preschool education,” Rhodes said.

At the beginning of the session, Morris said other options are significantly more expensive and that he hoped the vote would turn out differently than the presidential election, where the candidate with more votes didn’t win.

“I hope, unlike the results of the presidential election, the popular vote will prevail,” Morris said.

But Maria Kopicki of Precinct 8, one of the leaders of the Save Amherst’s Small Schools group, said a K-6 twin school option would have been a fair compromise and would have prevented opposition from parents concerned about their elementary school-age children being split between two schools.

Sylvia Brandt, a Precinct 8 resident, said the plan would have created both economic and environmental health disparities. She argued that 23 buses would bring all children to the same school, creating a concentration of pollution that would trigger asthma attacks and increase the risk of cardiovascular issues as children are less able to walk to school.

“This plan is quite simply an affront to environmental justice,” Brandt said.

Also using an environmental argument was Merrylees “Molly” Turner of Precinct 1.

“The greenest building is the one that is already built,” Turner said. “It takes energy to construct a new building. It saves energy to preserve and reuse an old one.”

Lisa Kleinholz of Precinct 6 said her children attended Fort River in the 1990s, and the school needed to be fixed then.

“I think we desperately need a healthy environment, and Fort River was not a healthy environment. It was terrible — there were mold problems, there were leaky roofs,” Kleinholz said.

Wildwood Principal Nick Yaffe called it a “moral imperative” to replace both Wildwood and Fort River. “This can’t wait,” Yaffe said.

Others disagreed. Benjamin Davidovitch of Precinct 3 said approving the plan would have had a profoundly negative effect on many families, while Toni Cunningham of Precinct 3 said she worried about children and families falling through the cracks with the larger school.

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




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