School vote fails at Amherst Town Meeting

  • Supporters of the proposed $67.2 million school project greet Amherst Town Meeting members Monday as they enter Amherst Regional Middle School for a revote. It failed again. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Becky Demling speaks during a special Amherst Town Meeting held for a revote of the proposed $67.2 million school project. It failed again. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amherst Town Meeting members receive their electronic voting devices Monday at Amherst Regional Middle School. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS


  • Amherst Town Meeting members Janet and Albert Chevan look over materials Monday before the start of a special Town Meeting for a revote of the proposed $67.2 million school project. It failed again. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amherst School Superintendent Michael Morris speaks Monday during a special Amherst Town Meeting held for a revote of the proposed $67.2 million school project. It failed again. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Diana Stein speaks during a special Amherst Town Meeting held for a revote of the proposed $67.2 million school project. It failed again. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amherst Town Meeting members, above, vote by voice during a special Town Meeting held Monday at the Amherst Regional Middle School for a revote of the proposed $67.2 million school project. Seconds later, they voted electronically. Far left, acting school Superintendent Michael Morris and, left, Rebekah Demling speak during the meeting. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS PHOTOS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/30/2017 9:24:59 PM

AMHERST — An effort to convince two-thirds of Town Meeting members to support a $67.2 million elementary school building project failed for the second time Monday night.

While 123 members voted in favor of the project, 92 cast votes against, meaning the measure fell 21 short of the two-thirds threshold needed to authorize the borrowing. The project failed by a wider margin, 108-106, in November, less than a week after a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion passed by a narrow majority of voters at the Nov. 8 election.

Precinct 8 Town Meeting member Rebekah Demling, who led the petition drive to collect more than 200 signatures to force a second vote on the project, said she understood it was an uphill battle to convince enough members of the legislative body that the plan was the best one for Amherst.

“I’m disappointed so many did not listen to it being the most affordable option,” Demling said, adding that she hopes those who opposed this plan will come together on a new project.

Maria Kopicki, who led a group opposing the plan called Save Amherst’s Small Schools, pledged that she would be involved in efforts to bring a new project to Town Meeting.

“I’m looking forward to working with all concerned parties to build better schools for the town and our kids in a way that garners the broad support that it deserves,” Kopicki said.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority was set to provide $34 million, meaning taxpayers would cover about half the cost of moving forward with a plan that would have created two 375-student schools at the Wildwood School site on Strong Street for Grades 2-6, and turned Crocker Farm School into an early childhood education center. Fort River School would have closed.

No Plan B

Parents, teachers and children packed the middle school auditorium Monday, filling the upper level seating. Prior to the meeting, many held signs outside the building and advocated in favor of the project.

Demling, a parent of three children and a preschool employee at Crocker Farm, said the problem with voting the project down is there is no Plan B. “The bottom line is these buildings need to be replaced through whatever means we can explore,” Demling said.

But Kopicki said there were too many risks in abandoning the K-6 model in use at the three school buildings. “This project, this building, this restructuring of our elementary schools, is something we’d have to live with for a half-century or more,” Kopicki said.

Acting Superintendent Michael Morris said after the vote that he will send a letter to the MSBA explaining that the vote failed, but that the town intends to reapply for funding in April.

Discussions are expected to begin at the Amherst School Committee’s meeting in February about how to proceed. Morris said officials could contemplate a building project without state support.

“We may have to advocate for another way that’s not just contingent on MSBA,” Morris said. “That’s a very expensive road.”

Earlier, MSBA informed Morris that it would not allow modifications of the educational plan, approved in January 2016, which prevented Town Meeting from considering an alternative project that would have meant construction of twin, K-6 elementary schools at the Wildwood site.

Eric Nakajima, a member of the School Committee, pledged that the committee will have a collaborative process moving forward.

Even those opposed to the project acknowledged that both Wildwood and Fort River, which date to the 1970s and use an open classroom model that increases noise in the building and limits natural light, need to be replaced. In addition, without the building project, the town anticipates having to spend $400,000 for a new boiler at Wildwood and $1 million for a new roof at Fort River, just to keep the buildings functioning.

Former Fort River principal Russ Vernon-Jones, of Precinct 5, said he didn’t want to dismantle the existing K-6 education.

“We can’t afford to build for an education plan that will not work best for our teachers, our students and our families,” Vernon-Jones said.

Bonnie MacCracken of Precinct 6 said her research into foreclosures and liens on properties shows that many residents can’t be burdened by the increased taxes from the school project.

“I am not against change or new schools, I am only against building a school that people cannot finally afford to pay for,” MacCracken said.

Those who supported the project, such as Chris Riddle of Precinct 2, noted the possibility that federal aid will dry up under President Trump.

“This is not a time to be saying no to $34 million,” Riddle said.

Tim Sheehan, a teacher and member of the School Building Committee, said the project would have helped staff to deliver high-quality education and eliminated distractions and a bad learning environment for children.

“We can’t continue to put off the inevitable,” Sheehan said.

Chris Eggemeier, a sixth-grade teacher at Wildwood, was one of 187 teachers who signed a petition endorsing the plan.

“The teacher support for this project is real,” Eggemeier said.

The project also had support from the Select Board, with member Andrew Steinberg stating that Amherst can’t move forward with projects without MSBA support, and that it could be five more years before the town is accepted back into process, and eight years before any new building is opened.

“We cannot place another generation of students in substandard buildings by delaying this project,” Steinberg said.

Finance Committee member Tim Neale said the plan was fiscally prudent, with estimates that the failed project would have cost taxpayers $32.8 million, while it would cost more than twice as much, or $69 million, to renovate both Wildwood and Fort River, and $77 million to build new schools at both sites.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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