Annual State Of The Town Address Finds Much To Celebrate In Amherst

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Amherst Town Hall. Photo: Art Keene

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council , December 19, 2022. Part 1

This meeting preceded the regular council meeting. It was conducted in a hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here. One member of the public was briefly in the audience at the Town Hall, 16 were present on Zoom, and others were watching on Amherst Media Live Stream.

Present
Councilors in the Town Room: President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Anika Lopes and Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5)

Participating on Zoom: Michele Miller (District 1), Ellisha Walker (at large), and Dorothy Pam (District 3). Absent: Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

The annual “State of the Town” presentations were given by Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry, and Amherst School Committee Chair Allison McDonald. Chair of the Elementary School Building Committee Cathy Schoen (District 1) then gave a three-dimensional presentation on the design for the elementary school that will replace both Fort River and Wildwood schools. The five PowerPoint presentations as well as Bockelman’s remarks can be viewed here

Griesemer Thanks Town Staff And Residents
Griesemer began by commending the excellent work of the Town Manager, Clerk of the Council, town staff, volunteer members of committees, Amherst Media, and “residents who challenge us every day to find a path forward, often when we don’t agree”. She highlighted the accomplishments of the council, including approval of the 2010 Master Plan, filing legislation for rank choice voting, redistricting, accepting the Climate Action and Resiliency Plan and community choice aggregation, and welcoming the new solar installation behind the  north transfer station. The town also welcomed a new dog park  and created the departments of community safety responders (CRESS) and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. She pointed to  work on revision of water and sewer regulations, acceptance of flood maps and a floodplain bylaw, as well as ongoing discussion of a solar bylaw  and a change to trash hauling. She gave special praise to the Health Department and its work on tracking COVID-19 and vaccinating residents.

She cited future challenges moving forward on capital projects, promoting housing affordability, racial equity, and social justice, increasing transparency, encouraging resident engagement in town government, and making council meetings shorter. She concluded by saying, “I am honored to be president of the council, but I am aware that I serve at the pleasure of the council.”

Bockelman: Debate Is Part Of The Process
Bockelman began his presentation by noting the controversy surrounding the building of Town Hall in 1889. The project only succeeded because the old building burned down, he said, “but in building it [Town Hall], the Town projected a sense of optimism, stability, and durability. Built with brick and granite, they were constructing a building — the largest in town — for the long haul. Town leaders had an eye toward the future.” He added that getting things done in local government is hard “but I have to say, the town where only the ‘h’ is silent takes debate on nearly every issue to a new level.” He said he tries to remain positive and remember all the positive things happening in the town, asserting that the state of town is “Strong and Resilient”.

He listed dozens of achievements that the town has accomplished over the past few years, including the Kendrick Park playground, the Groff Park spray park, the dog park, the solar farm on the landfill, the DEI department, CRESS, and a new elementary school. He also cited the many grants procured by town staff and the cooperation with the Business Improvement District and the Chamber of Commerce. He stressed that Amherst’s finances are strong and ended by thanking the town employees who filled in for vacancies on the staff.

Jones Library Director Touts Plans For Expansion 
Sharon Sharry, Director of the Jones Library for the past 11 years, praised the library’s ability to adapt to maintain services during the pandemic by offering outdoor and virtual programs. She stressed that racial equity is a priority for the library, evident in the library’s participation in the Juneteenth celebration on the Common and sponsorship of a discussion group on Gerald Walker’s book How to Make a Slave.

Moving forward, Sharry said that this is the first year that electronic media purchases exceeded the purchase of print material, and the library is continuing the regular weeding of its collection. Most of all, the library trustees are moving forward with plans for renovation and expansion of the Jones “at a cost of $15.8 million to the town”.

Schools Meet Diverse Needs And Cope With Tight Funding
Amherst School Committee Chair Allison McDonald noted that of the 990 elementary students in Amherst, 55% identify as BIPOC, one in four have a first language that is not English, and over half have special needs. She highlighted the bilingual Caminantes program, which now has students in kindergarten to grade 3, and a new math program introduced this year. She also noted that the schools continue to maintain an excellent reputation, with a student to teacher ratio of nine to one. This year the schools will be planning for the sixth grade to move into the middle school.

The 1,250 students in the regional schools, the middle school and high school have a similar profile. Half identify as BIPOC and one in five has a disability, she said. She said that the schools are strong in academics and electives: two-thirds of students take AP courses, and 80% take courses in the arts.

Schoen Presents A Virtual Tour Of The Proposed New Elementary School
DiNisco Design, the designers of the elementary school to be constructed at the site of the present Fort River School, provided a three-dimensional presentation of their design, showing the exterior and interior layouts. Elementary School Building Committee Chair Cathy Schoen said the net-zero school is estimated to save $250,000 a year in energy costs. The flexible design allows for future customizing of classrooms as well as for  community use of the larger spaces. The school is expected to be financed by a combination of a state grant and a debt exclusion override scheduled for next spring. The building is projected to open in the fall of 2026.

New Public Safety Officers Sworn In Prior To Council Meeting
Prior to the State of the Town report, Town Clerk Sue Audette conducted a swearing in ceremony for firefighters/paramedics Audrey Bulger, Cassandra Cote, and Alex Gicewicz; police officers Glenesis Saenz, Joshua Santos, and Dylan Tucci; CRESS responder Tia Atwell; and Human Resources Director Melissa Loiodice-Walker. 

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