Opinion: Regional School Committee Shirks Fiscal Responsibility And Defies Boards Of Health
On Thursday, January 12, the Regional School Committee (RSC) met to determine whether the required funds had been raised in order to advance the Amherst Regional High School Track and Field project using an artificial turf field. Their vote in March 2022 stipulated that an additional $2.2M (to add to the $1.5M approved from taxation) must be raised by 1/16/23, meaning that the Amherst Hurricanes Athletics Boosters needed to fundraise $331,000 by that date. Instead, the RSC voted (6 in favor, 2 opposed, 1 absent) to give the Boosters until the last day possible (1/16/23) to “attest” that they have raised the funds.
On the night before the vote, representatives of the Boosters, who have steadfastly refused to provide fundraising updates, finally reported to School Superintendent Morris and School Finance Director Slaughter that they had not met this goal (see table below). This information was shared with RSC members on the morning of the meeting but not made available to the public until during the meeting.
The document states that the Boosters have received $81,398, well short of the $331,000 required. No other documentation was provided: no accounts showing that these “received” funds exist and no promissory notes.
Booster representatives Mary Klaes and Angela Mills further stated that they have been “negotiating” with various businesses about providing “in-kind” construction services. Slaughter reported that he had spoken with “Bond Counsel” who that advised him that “in-kind donations are acceptable in the same way as pledges of actual dollars”. However, the original motion, that has been the basis of the decisions of multiple municipal bodies, never mentions “in-kind” donations. This also raises legal questions around un-elected, un-appointed, non-employees negotiating with businesses to provide services outside of the normal bidding and procurement process. RSC member Irv Rhodes expressed some hesitation about this process but fellow member Sarahbess Kenney stated that, in her personal and professional opinion, she “has no qualms at all” and committee Chair, and Assistant School Facilities Director, Ben Herrington stated that “it wouldn’t be unprecedented”. However, they did not offer any evidence for these claims and neither Superintendent Morris nor Finance Director Slaughter offered any further explanation.
After the fundraising information had been reported and discussed, Amherst RSC member Jennifer Shaio made a motion to rescind the original vote that requires 1) that the project include artificial turf (Option 3) and 2) that the additional funds must have been raised or the project reverts to Option 1, which provides only for a resurfacing of the track. Her motion also called for approval of Option 2 which would include reorientation and expansion of the Track and Field with a natural grass field inside the running track, and that costs substantially less than Option 3. The amount already secured and pending from Community Preservation Act requests (~$3.6M) would nearly cover the original estimated cost of Option 2. By contrast, the artificial turf option that some members of the RSC are clinging to would still be at least $2.3M short of the updated cost estimate ($5M to 6M per Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman). This figure does not account for the specific materials the Boosters have been promising, the replacement/disposal costs that would incur every decade, the specialized maintenance equipment that would need to be purchased, or the testing for chemical contaminants, such as PFAS, in the materials, soil, and water. This motion did not pass (2 in favor, 6 against, 1 absent)
Morris, Slaughter, and RSC members were also silent about the recommendation by both the Amherst and Pelham Boards of Health against the installation of artificial turf. Indeed, the Superintendent has thus far not responded to a record request asking 1) whether the District has committed to using the products the Boosters are promising and 2) for evidence of the many unsubstantiated claims contained in the Boosters’ fundraising materials about these products.
The RSC could pivot now to a more affordable grass field option that would provide a dramatically improved track and field for students and the community, without the risks, controversy, and far higher costs of an artificial turf field. They have instead chosen a path that will lead to a protracted battle and delays with no end in sight in the vain hopes of finding millions more dollars during trying economic times and with a queue of several other large capital projects.
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When it comes to fundraising for large public projects in Amherst, there seems to exist a peculiar dichotomy: That which is promised, and then that which is delivered. About 20 years ago, there was a proposal to install lights at the baseball diamond on the corner of Triangle and Mattoon Streets. My memory of it is somewhat vague, but the gist of what I remember is this: A private group had promised to raise money — perhaps $60,000 — to purchase and install the lights. Based on this promise, the lights were installed. I do not know how much was eventually raised, but from what I heard, it was the town that paid for the majority of the project. To my knowledge, there was no public acknowledgement that this had been done.
In 2008, there was a proposal brought forth to secure $400,000 in CPA money to purchase the two Main Street lots in front of the Henry Hills house. I was the Planning Board representative to the CPAC at the time. I had always doubted the estimated valuation of $200,000 per parcel given by the assessor for what were 0.28 acre parcels on a noisy and unattractive stretch of the street, and had repeatedly asked that a formal assessment be done, since the town could not pay anything over the assessed value. This was finally done very late in the process — in fact, the actual figure was not presented until the night that the article was to come before Town Meeting. As I had suspected, the assessed value was well below what we had been told: $128,000 per parcel. I did finally vote in favor of the article. The very next day, I was appalled to learn that, at a Select Board meeting right before Town Meeting, that body had been informed that while the town could pay no more than the assessed value, that amount was not acceptable to the property owner, and that an additional $90,000 in private fundraising would be needed to secure these parcels. None of this information was presented to either the members of the CPAC, nor to Town Meeting. To my knowledge, no money was ever raised for this project, despite assertions of how important it was to the town’s history, and the parcels were eventually sold to Amherst Media for their new headquarters.
Given its own history of opacity regarding amounts actually raised, both in prior years and now as the library seeks to raise an unprecedented amount for its renovation and expansion, the Jones Library appears to be following a similar playbook. It has been difficult to know exactly how much money has actually been raised, and a number of reasons have been given as to why the amount currently raised appears to have fallen short of even the original amount promised — including the peculiar idea that it won’t be until shovels actually break ground that the floodgates will open and the money will pour forth.
And now yet another ambitious fundraising project — the money for the artificial turf field — seems to have fallen well short of its goal. Most of the largest donors are listed in the EXPECTED, rather than the RECEIVED column; other amounts appear so tenuous that they are not even listed.
Falling short of one’s fundraising goals is nothing to be ashamed of. It is the same with overly ambitious goals. However, when unrealistic expectations are marketed as both a vital and stable source of a project’s overall funding, then there is a problem, because it will be the taxpayers who will be left to pay the price of not heeding reality.