Callahan: School project is too expensive for Amherst

Op-Ed published in Amherst Bulletin on March 23, 2017

On March 28, Amherst voters will decide whether the town should borrow $66,369,000 for two co-located, Grades 2-6, elementary schools on the Wildwood site in North Amherst.

Those in favor of incurring this debt emphasize the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s (MSBA’s) commitment to reimburse $34.4 million, which they say leaves Amherst’s share of the cost to be only $32.8 million. Not exactly; not by a long shot. First, that $34.4 million is the maximum that may be reimbursed by MSBA; frequently reimbursements are less than the maximum.

Second, this accounting does not include the interest on the amount to be borrowed, estimated by the Amherst Finance Committee to be $21.3 million. For this estimate, the committee assumes a 25-year bond with 5 percent interest. Their conclusion is published in a report on the town’s website: “The Town’s actual cost would thus be approximately $54.1 million.” This is 65 percent more than the $32.8 million touted by the referendum proponents.

The new school project is alarmingly expensive. Indeed it is the most expensive new elementary school funded by the MSBA, even with all dollar amounts adjusted for inflation. The construction cost of $441 per square foot is $50 more than the average for buildings of similar size and enrollment. In particular, the per-pupil cost is by far the most expensive; for Amherst, the cost is just under $90,000 per pupil, with the next highest per-pupil cost around $80,000.

Furthermore, other costs associated with this school proposal are neither determined nor allocated. The educational plan’s regrouping of grades for the town will put all the younger students, through first grade, at Crocker Farm School, and this school will have to be renovated for the smaller children. The decommissioned Fort River School will likely need to be renovated for repurposing or demolished. The intersection of Strong Street with East Pleasant near Wildwood will have to be reconfigured and rebuilt. These additional costs must be added to the net $54.1 million estimated by the Finance Committee.

The division of the elementary grades between two schools, one in the north of town, one in the south — with long bus rides for many children twice a day — will lead some parents to enroll their children elsewhere, with significant loss of revenue for the Amherst school system. MSBA money comes with strings attached; by accepting it, the town will lose small locally centered elementary schools for “at least 50 years,” as stated in the referendum. Years hence, the unpalatable elementary school structure will not be improved by a memory of financial support from the commonwealth.

In addition to the new school, three other major capital projects are currently being proposed for Amherst. Their costs, without consideration of any interest on borrowing, are: a new fire station ($13 million), a new Department of Public Works facility ($38 million), and an expansion and renovation of the Jones Library ($36 million). The Finance Committee states that the impact of these projects on taxpayers “will need to be paid for by some combination of another debt exclusion override or the Town’s existing capital budget.”

In addition, repair and reconstruction of many roads and sidewalks has been deferred for years and will be a significant future infrastructure cost.

The tax rate in Amherst is the second highest in the 69 communities of Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin counties. The debt exclusion, already approved, allows Amherst taxes to be raised beyond the Proposition 2½ limit. The Finance Committee says that if this referendum passes, “The actual impact on tax bills will change with time: payments will be highest in the early years of the bond repayment period and lower in later years.” For example, the tax increase for the $300,000 median house value will be $400.

With higher taxes, some will find Amherst has become unaffordable; there will be more foreclosures and tax liens (95 homes in Amherst since Jan. 1, 2015); and the inevitable higher rents will push out young families and cram additional students into housing units to cover the rent increases.

The Finance Committee addressed the elementary school situation in the context of the town’s resources. Their conclusion: “If funding for this project is defeated, either by voters or Town Meeting, options for addressing the schools’ needs are available.”

The referendum asks, “Shall this Town appropriate the sum of $66,369,000…?” This is too much money for a plan with too many problems and for a plan that too many people don’t want. Please vote “no.”

Felicity Callahan, of Amherst, has been a Town Meeting representative from Precinct 9 for 30 years and has three children who graduated from the Amherst schools. She is a mathematics instructor at Holyoke Community College.

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