Amherst voters speak: 82% say ‘yes’ to funding new elementary school

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-02-2023 11:44 PM

AMHERST — By an overwhelming margin, town voters turned out in force Tuesday night to give their blessing to a $97.5 new elementary school to replace the aging Wildwood and Fort River schools. More than six years after a previous elementary school project failed to gain town approval, voters endorsed this project by a 3,272 to 731 vote margin, authorizing a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion to borrow money to build it.

“We just won this by 82%,” said Kursten Holabird, chairwoman of the Yes for Amherst campaign.

“I’m thrilled,” said Cathy Schoen, a town councilor and chair of the Elementary School Building Committee, who was getting hugs and congratulations after the results were announced. “This shows the Amherst voters understand it’s a real investment in our future — for our kids, for our climate, and for our community.”

Schoen noted that her committee will now forge ahead on the project, meeting twice a week for the next two months to iron out various aspects of the new three-story, 105,750-square-foot building to serve 565 K-5 students at the current Fort River School site on South East Street.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority has pledged a construction grant that could cover as much as $40.5 million of the costs, with $5 million in reserves committed to the project by the Town Council. The new school will be town’s first net-zero emissions building.

The plans call for consolidating the students and staff from the 1970s-era Fort River and Wildwood school at the new building on the Fort River site. Sixth graders at those schools, as well as at Crocker Farm, the town’s third elementary school, would all move to the Amherst Regional Middle School, either in 2026 or sometime earlier.

Both Wildwood and Fort River schools were built using an open classroom model, that limited the natural light available and created additional noise, and both are in need of significant repairs.

Vote Yes for Our Schools, a ballot question committee that organized in late January, helped galvanize widespread support, including from the business community.

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In promoting the project, the committee cited the project’s educational benefits, such as natural daylight and flexible classroom and other learning spaces that will fully accommodate all students, including those with special needs; the operational savings of $250,000 a year from efficient heating, cooling and ventilation systems; and the meeting of the town’s net-zero building goals through an all-electric system that reduces Amherst’s reliance on fossil fuels.

The last effort to replace the schools was a $66.37 million twin school project at the Wildwood School site, with Crocker Farm becoming an early childhood education center. With groups organized in support and against that project, critics called it a megaschool, voters narrowly passed the debt exclusion in November 2016, but Town Meeting failed to achieve the needed two-thirds majority to authorize borrowing for the project.

On Tuesday night, Holabird was ecstatic over the results.

“An amazing, amazing night,” she exclaimed. “A long time coming, and a tremendous amount of work.”

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