Amherst approves school project by 23 votes

  • John Jackson gets an assist from his daughter Anna, 6, while casting his ballot in Amherst's precinct 3 Tuesday evening. (Gazette Staff/Kevin Gutting) —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts student Matthew Parkllan, 20, talks about the election issues outside of Amherst's precinct 3 Tuesday evening. (Gazette Staff/Kevin Gutting) —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • John Jackson, holding his son Arlo, 3, talks about the Amherst Schools issue after voting in Precinct 3 Tuesday evening. (Gazette Staff/Kevin Gutting) —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts senior Marisa Duplisea, 21, talks about the issues outside Amherst precinct 3 Tuesday evening. (Gazette Staff/Kevin Gutting) —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts senior Rachael Flynn talks about the election outside of Amherst's precinct 3 Tuesday evening. (Gazette Staff/Kevin Gutting) —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • John Jackson and his children, Arlo, 3, and Anna, 6, wait in line at Amherst's precinct 3 about 6 p.m. Tuesday. (Gazette Staff/Kevin Gutting) —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Andy Steinberg, left, and Tim Sheehan, a fourth grade teacher at Fort River School in Amherst, chat at The Pub in Amherst while waiting for results on Question 5 on Tuesday. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

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    Ken LeBlond, with the "Yes on 5" steering commitee, updates a vote tally board at The Pub in Amherst at 9 p.m. Tuesday noting that results from four precincts were still delayed. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

@cmlindahl
Published: 11/9/2016 12:43:49 AM

AMHERST – By a razor-thin margin of 23 votes, voters Tuesday approved the Proposition 2 ½ debt-exclusion override to fund the construction of a new elementary school complex.

The proposal calls for construction of two co-located elementary schools that would house all Amherst students in Grades 2 through 6 on the current Wildwood Elementary School site on Strong Street. That school, as well as Fort River Elementary School, would be closed, while Crocker Farm Elementary School would be turned into an early education center housing younger grades.

In total, 6,627 voted yes on Question 5 and 6,604 voted no. Now, Town Meeting voters must also approve the project by a two-thirds vote for the project to move forward.

School officials and proponents of the project say the plan would replace a poor learning environment at the outdated Wildwood and Fort River schools, improve educational equity for underrepresented children, including those with special needs and economic disadvantages.

Opponents, led by the group Save Amherst’s Small Schools, say the plan is a flawed one because it trades the smaller neighborhood schools for a centralized facility. Some are in favor of scrapping the plan and re-entering the state school building process to renovate Wildwood and Fort River.

The project’s total estimated cost is $67.2 million. The state has agreed to fund $34 million of that cost, leaving town taxpayers to pay $33 million.

Both SASS and the group supporting the school project, Building Opportunity for Learning and Diversity, aggressively vied for the support of year-round residents and college students alike during the election.

Outside Precinct 3’s Immanuel Lutheran Church late Tuesday afternoon, two SASS members hoped to get a last-minute edge with voters.

“I represent a group of parents and teachers who are encouraging people to vote no on this,” SASS member Tom Jamate told UMass freshman Andrew Palmer. “It’s billed as a two co-located schools — it’s really a one-school structure.”

The 30-second conversation was enough to convince Palmer, 18, who said he had not previously heard anything about the proposal. Palmer said he was particularly concerned about the planned closure of two neighborhood schools.

For information-hungry journalism major Joseph Carstairs, 22, the SASS pitch was good enough. “I’m really for community-based things,” he said of his reasoning. So he voted no.

“I had no idea there was a 5 and 6,” he said, referring to the two local questions. “I wish they had more information on it so I could understand what was going on.”

John Jackson said he voted no on Question 5. His two children go to the Smith College Campus School. But for those who choose to educate their kids in public school, he said neighborhood schools rather than a centrally located one are the clear winner.

“It’s better for the kids and the parents,” Jackson said.

In line at the Precinct 3 polling place, Chris Blount, 43, said even though he has two kids in the town’s elementary schools, he still hadn’t made up his mind. He was waiting to read the exact language on the ballot.

“I worry about the size of the classrooms getting too big,” he said. “I want to see exactly how it’s written — then I’ll make a decision.”

Senior UMass student Marisa Duplisea drew on her experience in Hudson’s schools — which include a building that houses grades 8 through 12 and preschool. “I didn’t have any problems with the way our school is,” she said. She voted yes.

She added that older buildings can be a detriment to learning. “It’s a lot more conducive to learning to be in a building that’s a little newer,” Duplisea said.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com


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