Decision day nears: Belchertown voters to decide on new Jabish Brook school at special election Monday

Voters in Belchertown will vote in a special Town Election on Monday whether to fund a new Jabish Brook Middle School, which is depicted in this rendering.

Voters in Belchertown will vote in a special Town Election on Monday whether to fund a new Jabish Brook Middle School, which is depicted in this rendering. CONTRIBUTED/SKANSKA

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 06-14-2024 5:50 PM

BELCHERTOWN — When Jennifer Whitehead heard that the now-closed Taggell School hindered her child’s ability to learn in the first two years of his schooling, it nearly broke her heart.

The sound the lights made, the slippery long hallways and the constant echoing all impacted her child’s focus and played a role in his behavioral issues. Whitehead said the teachers in those two years were some of the best he ever had, but as behavioral experts told her during her son’s individualized education plan meeting, their determination couldn’t make up for the building’s poor educational environment.

Meanwhile, retired Spanish teacher Carol Mierzewski, who began her 35 years of teaching on the second floor of Jabish Brook Middle School, sweating for three years in a room with a tar roof and no windows. She has been a champion of education her whole life, but now that she’s a senior on a fixed income, the spike in taxes needed to pay for the project worries her.

“You’re throwing around thousands of numbers and it scares the bejeebus out of me in terms of the tax rate,” she said. “This poses a big question in terms of can we (afford the tax increases) because I don’t want to be forced to move.”

These are just two of the many reasons residents are lining up either for or against an effort to build a new Jabish Brook Middle School — plans that will be on the ballot at a special election Monday when voters will decide whether to fund the $122.6 million project, of which the town would be on the hook for $74.8 million, or 61%, of the total cost. The state would kick in the remaining balance of $47.8 million.

Voters will decide whether to support or reject funding for the new three-story, 113-square-foot school on the same North Washington Street site where the current building is located. Should a majority of voters say “yes” to the Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override, it would then go before a special Town Meeting on June 24 for final approval, where it must pass by two-thirds. If the “no” side wins on Monday, the project in its current iteration dies.

Whitehead and Mierzewski shared their thoughts at a recent community forum hosted by the School Committee and the JBMS Building Committee earlier this month in the middle school auditorium. The project will also close Cold Spring school, the most expensive school for the district to operate, and redistribute the grades taught there among the remaining buildings.

At the recent forum, the committees, along with Skanska, the owner’s project manager for the project, said the project will cost no more than the budgeted $122.6 million. The Massachusetts School Building Authority’s reimbursement rate will be no less than 39%. The MSBA will vote to finalize these numbers on June 26, two days after the Town Meeting vote.

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If voters approve the project, the owner of an average single-family home valued at $380,000 will pay an additional $815 a year in property taxes.

For, against

While most of the residents who spoke at the forum agreed that the current building’s leaking roof, lack of fire suppression and high summer temperatures pose a public safety threat to students, residents remain divided on whether the proposed building is the right solution.

“I view this almost as a false dichotomy of where our only choice is keep life support going on this decrepit nasty, whatever pile of bricks we have here, or the very, to me, opulent overdesign, extravagantly designed, school system,” said Michael Hofler, a Planning Board member.

The cost is a root of residents’ objections and cause of concern for many others, including Town Manager Steve Williams. With town revenues unable to keep up with growing expenditures, Williams worries that the town budget is nearing a fiscal cliff that will force a Proposition 2½ override to fund the general budget or the elimination of services, personnel or programs.

“When I think about the welfare of our taxpayers, at what point do they no longer live in Belchertown because it’s become unaffordable?” he said. “We do not have a plan yet on how we address our capital needs. We need to figure that out. It’s going to result in some sort of a Proposition 2½ override.”

In the past seven years, the School Committee has received a total of $877,000 for capital improvements, though the figure was zero in many of those years. Many of the items for Jabish Brook on the fiscal year 2024 School Committee’s Five Year Capital Improvement Plan were the same on the plan for fiscal year 2015.

“We don’t even have consistent money come in, if not it’s very small, for capital improvements, so they’re just going to continue to deteriorate,” Superintendent Brian Cameron said.

Other options

Residents on social media and during the meeting asked why other options, such as a simpler building or adding onto an existing building, weren’t considered by the School Committee as a viable replacement for Jabish Brook. Cameron noted that the committee investigated two buildings in one project: Jabish Brook and Cold Springs.

“At the same time we do this, we can close Cold Springs, which is the most expensive school per square foot to maintain through school department. So we were saying, ‘Hey, this is a win-win,’” he said.

Cold Springs is in worse condition than the middle school. According to the Director of Buildings and Grounds Eric Lebeau, its old-style underground tunnel heating system lined with asbestos is completely failing, making the building very expensive to operate.

If the new middle school comes to fruition, the School Department will close Cold Springs and redistribute the grades among the remaining buildings, saving the department between $450,000 and $500,000 per year in operating costs.

“Cold Springs is where our youngest kids go. Just bringing it back to being about the students, we’re putting our babies in that building,” School Committee Vice Chair Ruby Bansal said.

While looking into other options, two members of the Citizens for Jabish Brook Middle School, Melissa Shaink and Mike Knapp, asked if the town could postpone the Town Meeting vote until September, when the Massachusetts School Building Authority finalizes its reimbursement rate and more residents are home to participate in the meeting.

“The timing of these votes is really making it difficult for the town to arrive at consensus over what to do,” Knapp said, noting that people are unsettled about the uncertainty of what the state might reimburse the town for the project.

Williams said it’s possible to postpone if a Town Meeting member makes an motion to recess with a proposed date 120 days within the MSBA’s meeting on June 26. This is only a viable option if the vote passes during the special election on Monday. However, to reschedule will cost the town an additional $26,000.

“I’ve been having conversations with people that are really worried about this tax increase and what it’s going to do to them ... and then I thought, ‘OK, so what’s next? What’s next after that happens?’” School Committee Chair Heidi Gutekenst said. “I am terrified that this building won’t be usable. And then what are we going to do with our students?”

Polls on Monday open at 8 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. at the Belchertown High School gymnasium.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.