Cost divides town into camps over new Jabish Brook school project

A sign supporting funding for the Jabish Brook Middle School in Belchertown.

A sign supporting funding for the Jabish Brook Middle School in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

A sign not supporting funding for the Jabish Brook Middle School in Belchertown.

A sign not supporting funding for the Jabish Brook Middle School in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

A front view of the proposed Jabish Brook Middle School building front entrance. 

A front view of the proposed Jabish Brook Middle School building front entrance.  —CONTRIBUTED/SKANSKA

An overhead view of entire new building site, including the overlapping soccer baseball field on the right.

An overhead view of entire new building site, including the overlapping soccer baseball field on the right. —CONTRIBUTED/SKANSKA

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 05-22-2024 8:09 PM

Modified: 05-27-2024 8:59 AM


BELCHERTOWN — While driving to Town Meeting earlier this month, Lynn Sikes noticed signs punctuating the lawns of homes, urging residents to vote “yes” or “no” on a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override to fund a new $122.6 million Jabish Brook Middle School.

Knowing little about the project — which wasn’t on the Town Meeting agenda but is subject to a townwide vote on June 17 — Sikes asked officials from several municipal departments for information about the plans and its cost.

Based on these inquiries, the Belchertown resident concluded that the project’s price is too high and its design too fancy.

“I’ve come away that this is ridiculous. My vote is ‘no,’” said Sikes, who has compiled a sheet of bullet points explaining her decision.

“Additional driveway, outdoor cafe, regulation size gym, STEM courtyard. For a middle school, it’s over the top,” Sikes said. “It’s a burden that should not be placed on the town. (A middle school needs) teachers and paraeducators that are wonderful and experienced and we have that, but yet they are laying off 17.5 of them. We need teachers, not a courtyard.”

Proponents of building a new middle school counter that the existing 60-year-old building is in desperate need of repairs, to the tune of $87 million to $89 million. They contend that now is the ideal time to build a new school, given that the Massachusetts School Building Authority has agreed to fund about 40% of construction costs, or $47.9 million. That would leave the town on the hook for $74.6 million.

“If we take advantage of this now we have the ability to shape the next 50 years for students in Belchertown,” said Kathyrn Walkfield, a member of the Citizens for Jabish Brook Middle School, a committee advocating for the project.

With less than a month before residents head to the polls to decide whether to fund the new school, two camps are feverishly making their cases. Lawn signs have popped up on both sides of the issue throughout town — white for those in favor, yellow for those against — seeking to entice voters to their side.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Hampshire Mall sells for fraction of assessed value at $7M
Hampshire College to cut benefits as enrollment for next school year comes in below projections
Child porn case against former state police captain from Amherst inches ahead
Overcoming addiction: Day treatment center opens in Northampton
Area property deed transfers, June 20
Northampton school spending advocates eye ‘mountain of cash’ in reserves; city officials warn of slippery slope

Here’s what’s on the table. The proposed Jabish Brook Middle School project is a three-story, 113,000-square-foot building that would be built on the same property at 62 North Washington St., directly adjacent to the current school.

The new school building, under the direction of project manager Skanska and designed by LPA|Architects of Worcester, will house 475 students in grades 6-8. Each floor in the school would be dedicated to a specific grade, with sixth grade on the bottom floor, seventh grade on the second floor and eighth grade on the top floor. The bottom floor will also include a gymnasium, a library/media center, space for the music department and administrative offices.

The current school, built in 1964, suffers from a variety of safety, structural and functional issues, officials have said. The roof has deteriorated and leaks, requiring replacement. Thermal comfort remains a major issue and without an HVAC system, students swelter in the heat. The building also lacks a fire suppression system and houses old electrical and mechanical systems not up to code.

High cost in question

According to information from the JBMS Building Committee, the town will take out a 30-year, $76 million bond. During the construction phase, there would be incremental increases to cover the cost of the short-term borrowing beginning in fiscal 2026 (July 1, 2025), but the full amount of the building project is most likely to be assessed in fiscal 2029.

Despite the building’s unsafe condition, the high cost has many residents questioning the proposed project. 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.

“We have money we pay into the CPA, stormwater bill, our excise taxes, where is all of this money going? There’s just no more money to be had from the taxpayer’s pocket,” resident Tracy Mahue said. “We need to look at repairing the school that we didn’t take care of.”

Sikes questions whether the state will actually reimburse what it says it will. She says the design exceeds the state requirements for a middle school. These exclusions mostly involve the full-size gymnasium, special education classrooms and music rooms, she said.

Supporters, like basketball coach Melissa Shaink, say the community specifically asked for a full-size gym because the current Jabish Brook gymnasium is used by recreational leagues throughout town. Many of the junior varsity high school sports teams also use the middle school’s soccer and baseball fields.

“From October through the end of March, that gym is used and it’s used every day after school,” she said. “Practices are ending at 9 p.m. or 9:30 p.m., depending on the day.”

Mike Knapp, a member of the Citizens for JBMS, added that the expanded music space was a specific request from parents and music staff who feared that less space would force the school to downsize their program.

JBMS Building Committee Member Lynn Raymer added that some of the outdoor spaces that opponents object to, like the STEM courtyard, were not additional spaces added to the budget, but rather adding some seating areas to existing outdoor spaces.

“It’s not like we’re building an amphitheater. We’re not building stages. We’re not building extra things outside to compensate for outdoor classrooms,” Raymer said. “We’re not asking for an auditorium because we believe that the gym will fulfill that additional need or purpose.”

The tax increases are of great concern to Steven Connors, president of a 55-and-older condominium community called Summer Hill Estates. Many of the residents in his community are on fixed or limited incomes, and they’re already struggling to pay the current annual tax bill of $5,839, he said. Even the allowed yearly increases of 2% or 2.5% push their tax bills toward unaffordibility, so any further tax increase puts those who live in the Belchertown senior community in a tough position.

“We live in a condominium community, so we have to plow our own streets. We don’t get any town services other than fire and police. We have to pay extra for that through our condo fees. Now you’re going to add $550-$600 a year on our taxes,” Connors said. “When people live on Social Security or pensions, that’s only enough to pay taxes and buy food.”

Sikes, Mahue and Connors all point out the contradiction of building a new school after the district eliminated positions for next fiscal year. The music and athletics departments that asked for extra space are losing staff next year, shrinking their programs, they said.

“We’re laying off teachers, we’re cutting programs. All the parents were upset about gym and art and music being cut, and now we’re going to build a school,” Mahue said. “The building isn’t the education. The teachers we laid off are the education.”

Rather than build a new school, opponents of the project want to explore a bare-minimum renovation of the current building using the School Committee’s Five Year Capital Plan from fiscal year 2024, which costs significantly less than the $87 million proponents say is needed to fix the school.

Other opponents on Facebook suggest pushing students into an extension of the high school since enrollment shows a declining trend over the next 10 years.

Yet Shaink notes that any money for repairs will likely have to come from the town’s operating budget.

“If we don’t vote yes, the money has to come from somewhere. We don’t have it. So it’s gonna come out of the regular town budget, which could possibly mean staff cuts, cuts to programs and the town. That’s concerning,” Shaink said.

The JMBS Committee will hold a public presentation at 6 p.m. Thursday at Jabish Brook Middle School, where members will outline the project, its price tag and how that would impact taxes.

If the project is approved by majority vote at the election on June 17, the question will advance to a special Town Meeting scheduled for a week later on June 24. In order to advance, two-thirds of voters must vote in favor.

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