Amherst teachers union to residents: Don’t vote for new school until contract reached

  • This screenshot from a video presentation shows the proposed 105,570-square-foot, three-story new school building in Amherst. The design is by DiNisco Design Inc. of Boston. DiNisco Design

Staff Writer
Published: 3/24/2023 5:07:29 PM

AMHERST — Voters should not cast ballots in favor of the $97.5 million project to build a new elementary school until members of the Amherst Pelham Education Association reach a new contract with the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees, according to a statement issued by the union Thursday.

Hours before a mediation session was scheduled at the middle school, with offers and counteroffers to be made by the sides in separate rooms, the union urged residents to hold off on their support for the May 2 debt-exclusion override vote.

“The Executive Board takes no position on the new Amherst Elementary School Building Project, and in fact urges voters to withhold a yes vote until the School Committee comes to an agreement with educators on a fair contract,” reads the statement sent by middle school teacher Claire Cocco, who handles communications for the executive board.

Anastasia Ordonez, a spokeswoman for the Yes for Amherst Schools campaign, said sympathies are with the teachers, paraeducators, clerical workers and other members of the union, and the hope is that the lingering contract talks won’t affect the community’s support for the project.

“Our teachers deserve decent work environments, so we hope the contract issues can be resolved without jeopardizing $40 million in state funding to replace these dysfunctional and costly buildings,” Ordonez said.

The project calls for a 105,570-square-foot, three-story building to be constructed on the site of Fort River School on South East Street. Planned for a fall 2026 opening, the school would replace both Fort River and Wildwood schools, both 1970s-era buildings, and serve 565 K-5 students.

Yes for Amherst Schools has organized to advocate for the project and is beginning to put out green lawn signs around town. Already lawns around town are dotted with Support Amherst Educators signs.

Ordonez said in addition to the campaign signs, volunteers are calling voters every Thursday and knocking on doors every weekend, and more than 200 pledge forms from voters have been collected.

Amherst School Committee member Peter Demling posted on his Facebook page that the school project vote transcends local political divisions and differing views on the state of contract negotiations, including the fiscal constraints he believes the district is under.

“But there is no debating the fiscal and educational catastrophe that will befall our town and schools if the vote fails on 5/2,” Demling wrote. “This is not hyperbole. I am not exaggerating to make a point. I say this rather to underscore the real and serious consequences of failure that we all must have eyes wide open to right now.”

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said a vote against the debt exclusion will not produce more funding for teacher salaries or for the schools. In fact, it would have the opposite impact. “We value our children, and we value our educators. And we need a 21st-century elementary school building so they can teach and learn successfully,” Bockelman said.

As it stands now, without using reserves or finding other sources of funding for the new school project, property owners could see a $478.24 increase in annual property taxes for the average home valued at $446,953. That estimate is based on the town picking up more than $50 million of the total project cost, with the remainder coming from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

On Friday morning, Bockelman, Superintendent Michael Morris and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who chairs the Elementary School Building Committee, participated in a Cuppa Joe community meeting at the Bangs Community Center.

“This is a real investment in our kids, climate and community,” Schoen said of the project.

Schoen said the project will provide an environment for learning that hasn’t existed at Wildwood and Fort River schools, where there is minimal natural light and limited opportunity for hands-on projects. Though larger, the building will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% and will be an after-school resource for the community.

“For me, this is a real wise investment, not only in the future, but in the present,” Morris said. He notes that the current buildings are in poor condition, with roofs and other aspects that will need significant repairs.

Those who are concerned about the costs are pushing the Town Council to put up to $10 million in reserves toward the project. Schoen is proposing $5 million in reserves that would be reimbursed through various green aspects of the project, while At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker is seeking the larger amount. The Town Council could make a decision on that spending April 4.

Toni Cunningham of North Amherst said she supports use of $10 million in reserves to offset some of the costs, and Maria Kopicki of South Amherst said the town needs to apply some of the $24 million it has in total reserves.

“I think people want to support the school,” Kopicki said. “We need to take this action to support the people in this town.”

Adrienne Terrizzi of the League of Women Voters of Amherst said her organization supports the project, but there are concerns about the Prop. 2½ debt-exclusion passing, and use of reserves and other sources of money could help fixed-income senior citizens and low-income families to stay in town.

Schoen said consideration for reserves and finding financial support through the help of the legislative delegation, Rep. Mindy Domb and Sen. Jo Comerford, is essential.

“We have to go after other money,” Schoen said.

This story was republished on March 30 to correct the amount of state funding the town might lose.

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