After Amherst Referendum for School Building Project Falls Short, Town Meeting to Vote on Wildwood Boiler, Fort River Study (UPDATED)

A plan for a $67 million consolidated grade 2-6 elementary school fell short of legal thresholds needed to pass in a town-wide referendum on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in a session that begins April 26,  Amherst Town Meeting will vote on whether to replace the boiler at Wildwood, and on conducting a feasibility study on the Fort River site and building. (The school items are on the warrant under Article 15/Joint Capital Planning Committee):

According to results posted by the Amherst Town Clerk’s office yesterday, there were 2,750 “Yes” votes for the school building project, plus 2,150 “No,” and 18 blank ballots, for a total of 4,918. (See the posted document here):

The Yes campaign won a simple majority of 600 votes, but fell short of two thresholds. The referendum, which sought to overturn a Jan. 30 vote of Amherst Town Meeting, would have required a 2/3 majority of all who voted for passage.  A minimum of 2,983 people voting “Yes,” would have been necessary, equal to 18 percent of the town’s 16,569 active registered voters in January.

Last November, voters narrowly approved a Proposition 2 and 1/2  debt override in the townwide election, but the project failed to garner a two-thirds majority at Town Meeting. After the project failed a second time at Town Meeting in January, the school district received an extension until March 31 from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.  Plans for consolidated elementary schools in other towns – including Wellesley and Ipswich – are also the subject of local controversies.

It is unknown whether the Amherst Public Schools will seek, or if the MSBA would grant any further extensions, and if the community overall has the stomach for any further campaigning or debate. However, Kevin Collins, director of the Red Barn Music School, has launched a petition drive to try and force a third Town Meeting vote on the issue.  Collins posted on his public Facebook page this morning that he has “only 148 signatures to go.”

Under state law, if the town receives a warrant article petition on which 200 signatures can be certified, it must hold a special Town Meeting within 45 days. Town Meeting members must be granted 10 days notice of such a meeting under town regulations, meaning it is likely none could be held at least until the second or third week of April. The regular spring session of Town Meeting is set for April 26.

The state would have paid about half the school building’s capital cost, although Amherst would have paid loan interest calculated by the Finance Committee of $21 million, putting the town’s costs, with no overruns, at $54 million.  The MSBA doesn’t fund preschool operations and couldn’t have subsidized 30 new preschool seats proposed by the School Committee in association with the building project. Amherst would also have been directly responsible for demolition of  Fort River and any remediation of that site; and any changes to Crocker Farm to re-purpose it solely for use by small children in preschool, kindergarten and first grade.

In a separate but related matter, a state grant program supporting preschool classrooms that integrate children with and without special needs has been withdrawn for fiscal 2018, signalling a loss of $75,000 for the existing preschool classrooms at Crocker Farm.

Select Board Chairwoman Alisa Brewer said today that she believes the MSBA expects Interim School Superintendent Michael Morris to inform the authority of Amherst’s status on the school building project this week.

Given the possibility that the referendum would not pass, Morris recently proposed a feasibility study on renovating Fort River, or building new at the site. A related warrant article ultimately seeking $115,000 for the study will appear on the Town Meeting warrant next month, Finance Committee Chairwoman Marylou Theilman has said. Initially, Morris had proposed a larger, $700,000 study including schematic design elements.  Fort River’s boiler system was replaced in 2011, while a much older system remains at Wildwood.

“Yes for Amherst” argued that Wildwood and Fort River are in poor shape and need rapid replacement, because of a 1970s-era “open-classroom” design, and concerns about air quality.  Save Amherst’s Small Schools claimed that Amherst’s system of small K-6 elementary schools is successful, and can be preserved with a better, more fiscally-responsible improvement plan.

Here is a breakdown of how Amherst’s 10 precincts voted on the referendum question:

Precinct No Yes
Precinct 1 135 164
Precinct 2 280 348
Precinct 3 107 133
Precinct 4 73 86
Precinct 5 196 253
Precinct 6 262 459
Precinct 7 363 316
Precinct 8 379 636
Precinct 9 254 245
Precinct 10 98 106

Here is a link to the town maps, showing areas of Amherst outlined by voting  precinct:

Although the “Yes” vote prevailed in eight of 10 precincts, by varying margins, Precinct 7, which includes neighborhoods adjacent to Crocker Farm, and Precinct 9, which is the neighborhood immediately surrounding Wildwood, voted against the plan. It would have led to building of a 750-pupil school on the Wildwood site for grades 2-6 townwide, while Crocker Farm would have been converted to a townwide facility for preschool, kindergarten and first grade.

Although the referendum failed, the School Committee candidate who favored it most loudly, Peter Demling, won the race against Jennifer Page by 66 votes. Page had said she preferred K-6 schools, but would accept the referendum’s outcome, and work to bring together divided factions. Over 500 votes in that race were listed as “blank.”

Incumbent Eric Nakajima, who has quickly risen to become chair of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee during the six months since his initial election, also beat back a challenge from Bob Greeney.

Voter’s choices for the Jones Library Board of Trustees indicate more support for rebuilding the library than its preservation.  Incumbents Lee Edwards, Alex Lefebvre, and Chris Hoffman, all of whom favor expanding the library, will remain on the board. Three “Save Our Library” challengers – Ed Wilfert, Kitty Axelson-Berry, and Terry Johnson – each won well over 1,000 votes but still did not succeed in toppling the incumbents.

Amherst Select Board incumbents Andrew Steinberg and Constance Kruger won re-election.

The library project, now pegged at about $36 million, would expand the library on its site of just under one acre downtown.  If a state grant is received and private fundraising efforts succeed, Town Meeting would be asked to approve spending of about $16 million next fall.

Tallies of votes for Town Meeting members are now on the website, although winners have not officially been identified.

Precinct 1

Preinct 2

Precinct 3

Precinct 4

Precinct 5

Precinct 6

Precinct 7

Precinct 8

Precinct 9

Precinct 10

This post will be updated as new information becomes available.

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