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Easthampton voters approve override for new $109M consolidated school

  • Charlotte Goodridge, 3, of Southampton, right, watches as her grandmother Nancy Lafontaine of Easthampton votes May 22, 2018 at White Brook Middle School in Easthampton. Voters will decide Tuesday whether the city should build a proposed $109.3 million consolidated elementary and middle school and close four existing schools, one of which was built in 1896. The sole question is a debt exclusion override that would authorize borrowing for the new school. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Loren Davine of Easthampton, right, supervises her twin sons Drew and Zach, both 8, as they put her ballot into a voting machine May 22, 2018 at White Brook Middle School in Easthampton. Voters will decide Tuesday whether the city should build a proposed $109.3 million consolidated elementary and middle school and close four existing schools, one of which was built in 1896. The sole question is a debt exclusion override that would authorize borrowing for the new school. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Deb Lusnia, center, who is the chairwoman of Committee for Building Easthampton’s Future, celebrates with supporters as she holds results indicating a proposed $109 million school was approved by voters, during a party at the Pulaski Club, Tuesday. Notwithstanding the numbers on the sign, the unofficial vote tally was 2,829 in favor and 2,101 against. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Thomas Brown, center right, chairman of the School Building Committee in Easthampton, hugs John Atwater, another committee member, at the Pulaski Club after voters approved a $109 million school Tuesday. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Emily Miles, left, holds a sign made by Jess Atkins-Barber, right, during a party at the Pulaski Club held by the Committee for Building Easthampton's Future to await override results for a $109 million school, Tuesday, May 22, 2018. Both are second graders.

  • A group celebrates after an override for a $109 million school was approved by voters during a party hosted by the Committee for Building Easthampton's Future at the Pulaski Club, Tuesday, May 22, 2018.

  • Easthampton District 5 City Councilor Daniel Rist, left, talks with Thomas Brown, who is the chairman of the School Building Committee, while waiting for override results at the Pulaski Club, Tuesday, May 22, 2018.



@mjtidwell781
Wednesday, May 23, 2018

EASTHAMPTON — By a substantial margin, voters said yes Tuesday to a new $109 million consolidated school.

In a special election where the sole question was a debt exclusion override that would authorize borrowing for the new school, the unofficial results shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m. showed 2,829 yes votes to 2,101 no — a margin of nearly 15 percent.

The city expects to pay approximately $60 million of the project’s cost, with the remaining financed by the state.

Some 4,930 voters out of 11,982 cast their ballots, a roughly 41 percent turnout.

City Clerk Barbara LaBombard said the results would be certified on Wednesday, but the margin showed a clear winner.

At the Pulaski Club where supporters of the project had gathered to hear the results of the election, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle choked up with tears, calling the vote a “watershed moment” that showed the city’s commitment to education and future growth.

“I’m elated,” she said. “There are folks here from every part of the city. The sheer turnout speaks loudly.”

The override passed in every precinct except Precinct 5, where the result was 572 votes in favor and 610 against.

“A community’s values are shown in its investment in public education, and today Easthampton showed its values,” LaChapelle said. “Easthampton has always stood up for what is best for our community.”

Deb Lusnia, chairwoman of the Committee for Building Easthampton’s Future, which supported the proposal, said she was “beyond excited” when the results came in.

“I’m just so, so happy and relieved,” Lusnia said. “It’s been a long journey and I am so proud of this community.”

‘Right thing to do’

The estimated cost of the proposed 176,155-square-foot school is $109.3 million, with some $59.71 million to be financed through local property taxes. The plans call for a consolidated school for pre-kindergarten through Grade 8 to be built on the site of the White Brook Middle School, which would be torn down afterward. The city’s three elementary schools — Maple, Center and Pepin — would be turned back to the city for reuse or sale to help with costs for the new school.

Lynne Knudsen, a 12-year resident, said before voting at the high school Tuesday afternoon that she feels it’s important to get the local vote out, rather than just participating in national elections.

“I’m on a fixed income, but I think retired people can still manage to live very well in this community,” Knudsen said. “I love living around here and I really hope this passes. It’s important to have a new school and proper maintenance of it, too.”

Patrick Brough, a member of the School Building Committee who has been active on social media in responding to concerns and questions about the proposed school project, said maintenance is something he’s focused on, too.

He said he would like to create a small committee specifically focused on maintenance of the new school, bringing together stakeholders, janitorial staff and administrators to keep up the new building and avoid the disrepair that brought the city to such an expensive vote this time around.

“Our community has told us this is the right thing to do,” Brough said after the results were announced. “I’m more excited than I ever thought I could be.”

Precinct 3 City Councilor Thomas Peake said he was “ecstatic” at the results of the election.

“It was necessary, it was the sensible choice,” Peake said. “Now it’s up to us to uphold the city’s trust, which they’ve just given us.”

The project’s estimated tax impact is $2.98 to $3.84 per $1,000 of assessed value, or an extra $680 to $877 annually for the average homeowner.

Last week, the City Council eased the tax burden for low-income, senior homeowners by increasing an annual rebate from $700 to $1,000 for those who qualify, and lowering the age threshold from 70 to 65.

There is also a resolution before the City Council’s Rules and Government Relations Committee directing the city to set aside 50 percent of the revenue received from the recreational marijuana sales tax for a fund that would provide additional tax relief for seniors 65 and older.

Opposition

During the day, small groups of supporters held signs outside the polls.

Outside the high school, under a light drizzle, Brian Smith was the only person holding a “vote no” sign Tuesday afternoon.

Smith said he has concerns about property taxes being raised to pay for the new school and never lowered back down again. Born and raised in Easthampton, he went to White Brook Middle School and the former Easthampton High School, and said that with the way technology is advancing, he wonders if there will even be a need for brick-and-mortar schools in 10 or so years.

“If they had maintained the schools like they were supposed to, we wouldn’t be here today,” Smith said.

At White Brook Middle School, his father, Steven Smith, also held a “Vote No” sign.

The elder Smith said this was the first time he had done anything like sign holding for an election, and said he felt the vote was too one-sided.

“There’s no one here in opposition except for me,” he said. “There are a lot of people being affected by this in a lot of different ways.”

Smith said he’s upset that the project would increase taxes above the limits of Proposition 2½. He said that throughout the day, he spoke with elderly people who were “terrified” of being forced to sell their homes because of the tax increase.

He also said he didn’t feel there was enough opportunity for public input, even including the public forums, and expressed concerns about the Committee for Building Easthampton’s Future. The citizens group raised $7,057 from January to May 4 of this year in support of the project, according to a campaign finance report filed on May 21.

While there was no organized opposition to the school proposal, residents raised concerns about the quality of soil at the building site and the burden of such an expensive project on seniors and others living on fixed incomes, especially while the city is still paying off the construction of Easthampton High School, which opened in 2013.

At the polls

Volunteers at the polling places said there was a steady stream of voters all day, not too crowded, but enough to keep the voting machines in use throughout the day.

“I graduated from these schools, my dad graduated from these schools, and I want my kids to graduate from these schools,” said Ashley Kiss as she finished voting at Easthampton High School.

“I came out to vote today, I won’t say which way, but I came because I care about this city and the way I see it, these things really do matter and they affect people’s lives,” said Jon Battey, who has lived in Easthampton for 10 years.

School Committee Chairwoman Cynthia Kwiecinski said she was cautiously optimistic the project would pass.

“I think the School Building Committee did an awesome job getting information out to the community,” Kwiecinski said. “And we in the school district have done everything we can to get people out today to vote.”

Rachel Ackmad and her daughters, Abigail and Amelia, stood outside White Brook where the twins are currently in seventh grade. Holding “Vote Yes” signs, the 13-year-olds described problems they had experienced at Maple Elementary and issues such as hot and noisy classrooms at their current middle school.

“I hope it does pass,” Amelia said. “Because White Brook is really bad.”

Cecilia Darby, a paraprofessional at Maple Elementary and resident of Easthampton for three years after growing up in the Pioneer Valley, said the vote was a tough decision.

“I don’t feel the new school is perfect, but I don’t think the current schools can support quality education,” Darby said. “When I’m trying to teach math to my students with special needs in a hallway, there’s a point where it doesn’t matter how good a teacher I am anymore.”

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.