Amherst voters overwhelmingly approved a debt exclusion override that will allow the town to borrow funds to construct a new elementary school at the site of the current Fort River School. The debt exclusion was the only item on the ballot for the special election on May 2. Unofficial vote counts recorded a 30% turnout (4043 voters) with 81.7% (3272) voting in favor of the debt exclusion. A breakdown of votes by district is listed in the table below. The town is now authorized to levy additional property taxes beyond the limits of Proposition 2 ½ to pay for the annual debt service costs for construction of a new elementary school.
The town expects to borrow ~$50 million of the project cost, which will be repaid through property tax increases over a 30-year period. The anticipated annual tax increase for the average home in Amherst (not including the expected annual proposition 2 1/2 tax increase) is $457. The town will receive a grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) of approximately $40 million. In addition to the state grant, $700,000 in Community Preservation Act funds has been committed to the project for playing field improvements at the Fort River site, which are a part of the project plan. The town also anticipates approximately $1.6 million from utility incentives for incorporating the highly energy-efficient ground source heating and cooling system. The anticipated cost of the school is $97,492,297 and that amount was appropriated by the Town Council on April 3.
The New School
The proposed new Fort River Elementary School will replace both the Wildwood and Fort River Elementary Schools with one new school at the Fort River site. The School District plans to move the sixth grade to the Middle School. The new three-story school will serve 575 children in grades kindergarten through 5th grade.
The school will have 21st Century learning environments, with flexible teaching spaces in daylight filled classrooms and shared spaces. It will be home to Special Needs and the Caminantes dual language programs. The cafeteria will include a stage and connection to music rooms. The design will allow for secure after-hours use of the community spaces (cafetorium, gym, library). The building will have safe entrances/exits and be fully accessible. Site plans provide for outdoor learning as well as play. The project will restore and improve drainage of Fort River’s community fields for recreational use by children and the broader community.
Reflecting Amherst’s climate goals, the building will be highly insulated and use all-electric and renewable energy systems. It will be a net-zero building using ground source heat pumps for heating, air, and ventilation and on-site photovoltaic system for renewable energy.
Joyful Reaction To Election Results
Upon hearing the results of the vote, Town Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) said, “This is a significant moment in Amherst’s history. The affirmative vote for the new elementary school is a clear statement of our community’s support for education and the environment.”
Town Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1), who also chairs the Elementary School Building Committee, stated, “With the positive vote, we can move forward to build a school for our children, our climate, and our community’s future. The school will be an exciting learning lab for the next generation about the environment and renewable, clean energy. On behalf of the Elementary School Building Committee, I thank voters for the strong endorsement and willingness to invest in our shared future.”
“We’re so grateful to the dozens of volunteers and town officials who worked tirelessly over the past few months to educate voters and encourage a yes vote for a new school, as well as the hundreds more who made donations, hosted lawn signs, wrote letters to the editor, and talked with their neighbors,” said Matt Holloway, co-chair of the Vote Yes for Our Schools committee. “This campaign demonstrated that when we come together as a community, anything is possible. We look forward to the start of construction so that our students and educators can soon enjoy this long-awaited school building.”
Superintendent of Schools Mike Morris added, “I am overjoyed at the level of support for this building project because of the enormous impact it will have on the education of the children of Amherst.”
Town Manager Paul Bockelman concluded, “The voters have again stated their unambiguous support for this important project. The Town will now take advantage of the $40 million grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority and will move immediately to the final design of the building and surrounding grounds. This is going to be an incredible, net-zero energy school that will be a valuable resource to the entire community for decades to come.”
The Elementary School Building Committee will be working through the summer reviewing designs and engaging members of the elementary schools and the broader community in this process. Three additional subcommittees will be appointed to provide additional input on the design. Construction is expected to start in the fall of 2024 and the new building is expected to open for the fall term of 2026.
Information on the Elementary School Building project can be found here: https://www.amherst-school-project.com/