Around Amherst: High school sleuths point out $2M mistake in town budget

STAFF PHOTOWEB ONLY

STAFF PHOTOWEB ONLY STAFF PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-17-2024 11:43 AM

AMHERST — Members of Sunrise Amherst recently uncovered a $2 million discrepancy in the fiscal year 2025 municipal budget when it was released on May 1, showing how the same vehicles for various departments were listed for purchase two years in a row through the town’s capital program.

In advance of the Town Council’s first glance at the spending plan earlier this month, Sunrise Amherst teenagers spent several days examining the budget, with the proposed spending plan totaling 292 pages and the proposed capital improvement program another 29 pages. They then published an article about their findings on the Amherst Indy website.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he applauds their diligence, but that doesn’t mean an additional $2 million has been discovered to support town, school and library operations.

Sandy Pooler, the town’s former finance director who is providing consulting expertise, offered an apology to councilors. “I made a mistake in putting out the capital budget — not in the numbers, but in the words,” Pooler said.

He explained that the Joint Capital Planning Committee turned in the correct document and then he put pages in the budget book that made it appear that the town would be spending the same money twice. “I just dropped the ball and just didn’t update those properly,” Pooler said.

The article explains what high schoolers found: “Particularly concerning was that the same vehicles bought in FY24 are being re-proposed as FY25 purchases. Specifically, the FY24 Capital Improvement Program funded the replacement of 9 different town vehicles, and yet these exact same requests appear again in the FY25 Capital Improvement Program.”

Artist visits Crocker Farm students

Gasps of awe came from fifth grade students at Crocker Farm School as New York City artist Adrienne Ottenberg unfolded several large silk and cotton banners, each revealing an image of a woman with a map embedded in their clothing.

One was a portrait of Dora Welfowitz, among the 146 garment workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Washington Square in 1911. Her dress shows a fireman’s map of where hoses, bags of sand and fire equipment were located at the time.

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“I just wanted to honor her, to make people think about her and how something like this could happen,” Ottenberg said, adding that the tragedy had a great impact on laws related to fire safety.

A few weeks after the students completed “The Memory Project: Books, Women and the Environment” in librarian Waleska Santiago-Centeno’s class, inspired by Ottenberg’s “28 Remarkable Women … and One Scoundrel” at The Museum at Eldridge Street in New York City, they got to meet the artist.

Ottenberg explained that she was inspired by the setting of the synagogue built in 1887 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her mixed media portraits, printed on silk and cotton banners, focus on women who lived or worked near there at the turn of the 20th century.

Ottenberg, who considers herself an illustrator and cartographer, said she loves maps because they tell stories. She chose the silk and cotton fabric because it appears more ephemeral, less permanent and lets light through. Then she drew her women from photographs, using crayons and putting them into Adobe Illustrator. It took her a year to make the 29 portraits.

“As an artist I’m interested in things that are beautiful. It’s called aesthetics,” Ottenberg said.

Other banners she showed included Elizabeth Tyler, a pioneering Black registered nurse, embedding a comet into her clothing because she was someone who Ottenberg said was both beautiful and passed through the sky quickly; and Mabel Kittredge, who thought up the idea of hot lunch for school kids.

Ottenberg’s visit to Amherst was a big deal for Santiago-Centeno, who had her students make similar banners from paper bags, with women featured in picture books. “I think I’m more excited than the kids,” she said.

Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Celebration

In honor of Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the town’s Human Rights Commission is putting on live entertainment, food and activities on the Town Common on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The event will feature performances by Shaolin Hung Gar Chiu Mo Kwoon, Filipino Dance Group and East Culture Inc.; craft activities by the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts and Amherst Recreation; face painting by Jane Li; and vendors including Casa De Pinta and Grace Li. Local restaurants will be providing food.

Sene-Gambian Scholars talk

The high school’s Sene-Gambian Scholars, who recently returned from a three-week exchange trip to The Gambia and Senegal, will make a public presentation about their experience on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

The conversation with the community takes place at the high school cafeteria. Light refreshments will be served.

Black and Afro-Indigenous History

“Centering the Black and Afro-Indigenous History of Amherst” is the focus of a dinner and presentation program at South Congregational Church, 1066 South East St., on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.

The family-friendly dinner will featured authentic 19th-century New England fare, which will then be followed at 7 p.m. by a presentation with slides and music by Anika Lopes, milliner and founder of the Ancestral Bridges Foundation, and Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker, a physician, artist and community advocate.

The event is part of the church’s 200th Anniversary Arts and Social Justice Series.

Free-will donations at the door are suggested for the talk, while the admission for the dinner is $5 per person up to a maximum of $15 per family. Dinner reservations are required and can be made by calling 413-253-2977 or sending email to office@amherstsouthchurch.org.

Meetings

TUESDAY: Joint Town Council and Finance Committee budget hearing, 6:30 p.m.