Columnist Jon McCabe: Approving Amherst school project shows vision

  • Supporters of the proposed $67.2 million school project greet Amherst Town Meeting members Jan. 30 as they enter Amherst Regional Middle School for a revote, which failed. Voters will attempt to overturn the representative Town Meeting in a referendum March 28. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 3/15/2017 8:34:16 PM

Two clichés come to mind as I consider the major capital projects facing Amherst — the co-located elementary school program, the Jones Library upgrade, the South Amherst fire station and the Department of Public Works depot.

First, there are two things you can’t avoid, death and taxes. Second, you can pay now, or you can pay later.

As a former library trustee and member of the Joint Capital Planning Committee here in town, I had the privilege to serve several years with other elected town board members and distinguished employees — such as the late town manager John Musante, and our former finance director Sandy Pooler — as we struggled to figure out how to prioritize and fund these important infrastructure/service upgrades.

On the planning committee, after listening to much public testimony, and spending many hours sharpening pencils, most of us concluded that though all four projects need not be undertaken simultaneously, all four are crucial to our town, and need to be done sooner rather than later if we intend to remain a desirable place to live.

We also determined that the order of priority could follow naturally in accordance with the availability of state funding. It makes sense to think of state funds for school and library services as important subsidies to the town’s capital needs as a whole.

Due to its tireless and visionary work, our elected school board was able to secure state funding first — a $34 million grant to fund more than half of the co-located school program designed to replace two of our dilapidated elementary schools. The school building project was the result of hours of public meetings and the considered opinions of a variety of educational and architectural consultants and experts.

The proposed solution is creative, feasible, and yes, affordable. I have heard opponents of the plan bemoan the fact that we will have to borrow $33 million in capital funds to match our generous state grant. If you go to the Save Our Small Schools website, there is much screen space given over to concern, dare I say, fearmongering, about taxes.

In response, may I remind you of cliché 1: Like death, taxes are an unavoidable part of life, the price we pay for civilization. According to reliable data from our annual five board meeting presentations, it is estimated that the school building project will cost the average household (home value approximately $303,000) somewhere between $275 and $300 annually in increased property taxes until the bond is paid off.

Of course, we would all prefer not to pay this increase if it could be avoided. But the truth is it cannot be avoided. The schools are in terrible disrepair, have outlived their useful life, and because of this it would be more expensive to renovate the existing structures to the standard of the proposed new program, than to start fresh. Talk of renovating our schools on the cheap is misguided. Professionals who have examined this option agree: small bore renovation will not last, and will not provide the building quality our kids deserve.

Enter cliché 2: You can pay now, or you can pay later. We have a good plan. It need not be perfect to be actionable, and even alterable in the future. We have secured the $34 million state grant. Interest rates for the required $33 million in town matching funds are still at historic lows. But rates are climbing as we speak. That average tax increase of $275 to $300 per year per household is almost certain to become much less affordable if we wait.

Then there is the old bugaboo of inflation, again currently at historically low rates. To project out, you have to apply inflation to the project as a whole.  At 2 percent, the cost of the delayed project will increase at $1.34 million annually. If inflation rises, so will the annual cost increase of the total project. That goes for a project approved March 28, or one approved next year, or two years from now. Do the math. You can pay now or you can pay later.

Our elementary schools are just one essential service that Amherst must upgrade, if we intend to remain a desirable town in which to live. The same goes for our main library, fire services, and public works. You can pay now, commencing ASAP in a staggered way as state and town funds are secured and plans completed.  Or you can stubbornly refuse to invest in our kids and ourselves. This town cannot sustain a total refusal to invest in these services, but if we drag our heels every step of the way, we can certainly force ourselves to pay much higher taxes down the road.

I suggest we start by saying “yes” to Amherst’s school project on March 28.  Let’s show some vision. Let’s invest in ourselves.

Jon McCabe is an educator, writer and artist who lives in Amherst.

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