Belchertown voters resoundingly strike down override for new middle school

Belchertown voters at a special town election on Monday shot down a debt exclusion override to build a new Jabish Brook Middle School. The measure was defeated by a margin of 62% to 38%.

Belchertown voters at a special town election on Monday shot down a debt exclusion override to build a new Jabish Brook Middle School. The measure was defeated by a margin of 62% to 38%. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 06-18-2024 3:12 PM

Modified: 06-18-2024 4:40 PM


BELCHERTOWN — Residents shot down the proposed $122.6 million middle school building at Monday’s special election, bringing the project to an end and denying a $47.9 million grant from Massachusetts School Building Authority to offset the cost.

The vote to approve a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override for funding the Jabish Brook Middle School building project lost by just under 1,000 votes, with 2,539 votes against to 1,548 votes in favor of the new school. The ballot question required a simple majority to pass.

“I was really disappointed. I expected the town to come through and they didn’t,” School Committee Chair Heidi Gutekenst said. “I think financially it’s a rough time for people, and I think that people were really worried about the personal impact. I don’t think anyone was like ‘Oh, who cares about the schools,’ but when push comes to shove they couldn’t connect the finances with the hit they would take personally.”

If passed, the town would have borrowed $74.6 million and paid it back over 30 years. The average home in Belchertown, costing $381,000, would have seen a $815 annual increase in taxes.

Resident Lynn Sikes, who voted against the override, said she thinks the vote failed because “the proposal came in way too large for a middle school” and the cost burden on taxpayers dissuaded support. She added that she was “disappointed that we did lose out on MSBA funding that would have come in at a smaller scale where it wouldn’t have been such a burden and the results would have been different.”

Sikes added that earlier communication with residents on the details of the project would have led to a less expensive proposal that people may have been more willing to support.

The special Town Meeting scheduled for next week to further discuss the project has been cancelled. Officials will need a quorum to quickly convince and dissolve the meeting, and no vote will occur.

“The building committee will meet again on Monday because we have the option to decide if we want to try again and how we would try again,” Gutekenst said. “In my head, it wasn’t a close margin so there’s no point in that.”

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The vote also means Belchertown is out of the MSBA grant program and will need to reapply. While Superintendent Brian Cameron said at a June 5 public forum that the district can ask MSBA to “keep them on the books” for this project, it would still be at least a decade for MSBA to accept Belchertown back to the program.

Belchertown first applied to the MSBA’s grant program in 2020, and since then established a Jabish Brook Middle School Building Committee to plan the project with owner’s project manager Skanska and architectural firm Lamoureux Pagano Associates.

In March 2022, residents approved $990,000 to fund a feasibility study to investigate the condition of the current building and possible design options for a renovated and new school. The feasibility study estimated that the current building required $89 million in renovations to repair the mechanical and heating systems, fix the roof and bring the building up to code.

Ultimately, the Building Committee landed on a 113,000-square-foot, three-story building to accommodate 475 students in grades 6-8. The design separated spaced used by community members, such as the gymnasium, from educational spaces, and divided each grade by floor, with universally utilized classrooms

Gutekenst said that both Jabish Brook and Cold Springs School, which would have closed as part of the project, would remain open and operational despite the structural issues, aging mechanical and heating systems, hazardous materials and public safety concerns around the buildings.

Since the town did not allocate any capital money for the schools in the upcoming fiscal year, and rarely gives the School Committee funds for capital projects, Gutekenst looks toward the town for next steps.

“I believe we will need to take some kind of loans out for certain repair and then we will have to revisit building something down the road when we have more ducks in a row,” Sikes said.

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