Amherst Voters Green Light Borrowing For New Elementary School


Architect's rendering of the proposed new elementary school at Fort River, showing outdoor learning center and basketball courts. Photo: DiNisco Design

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.

Voting DistrictYES NOTOTAL

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.” 

Next Steps
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:

Proposed layout of the new elementary school at Fort River. Photo: DiNisco Design
Proposed site plan for the new elementary school at Fort River. DiNisco Design
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36 thoughts on “Amherst Voters Green Light Borrowing For New Elementary School

  1. It was a great result and an example of what can be achieved when we include differing perspectives in early development of a plan. I was expecting 70-75% support but 82% surpassed my highest expectations! This can be the benchmark to strive for going forward. Include all viewpoints from the beginning and focus on making the plan a great one that can garner widespread support from many constituencies.

    I do take issue with the Town Manager’s remarks that “The voters have again stated their unambiguous support for this important project.”

    By “again,” is he referring to the November 2016 debt exclusion override for the previous iteration of the school project? No one could claim that result was indicative of “unambiguous” support. Recall that that vote was 6,825 in favor and 6,699 against – less than 1% margin. It barely passed, and likely only due to the fact that it coincided with a presidential election with a marijuana measure on the ballot, both of which drew a significant number of college students who likely weren’t following local issues closely. In pure numbers, far more people voted against that previous plan than voted in yesterday’s election. There really is no need for these micro aggressions from the town manager and others. They only go to fan the flames of divide when what we should be doing right now is celebrating EVERYONE that helped get this project to be the great plan that it is.

    While we can’t know for sure, I expect that the 18% that voted No yesterday did so because of the hefty increase in taxation, not because they did not support the project itself.

  2. Agreed Toni. It is perplexing that the town manager would invoke and inaccurately characterize the previous school vote which still divides the town, in the midst of this welcome expression of unity. It is unfortunate that he chooses to passive aggressively resurrect the bitterness and division surrounding that terribly flawed project when we ought to be celebrating this rather unique (for Amherst) outpouring of solidarity and the adopting of a plan to bring us a truly superior school building. We should continue to work together to sustain that positive energy to see this thoughtful project through to completion.

  3. In 2019 the community went through a comprehensive process, with consultants, to ensure there was community support for THIS project before we could get back in the MSBA queue. I can’t find the report from that off hand but here is an article describing it. In an attempt to use this as a way to unite the town, I would ask Toni and Art to assume the TM is referring to this process on “this important project”, and not to the previous project which he did not mention.

  4. What a remarkable result! I’m deeply reassured to see how well we here in Amherst can come together to do something good! I’m grateful to each of the many, many people who contributed to this project and supported it.

  5. Perhaps he just misspoke? We’ve all done that.

    But good work all around!

    I totally agree with bringing in all perspectives and people together early in a decision-making process. I think people raise hard issues and bring in more information and consider more options. Decisions need to stand up to hard scrutiny–especially when you are asking people for their money.

  6. This vote was not only amazing, but shows how high a priority voters place on education, our schools, and climate issues. We should harness this support to get our teachers a fair contract, add sustainability staffing, and bridge long held divisions in our town. Moments like this make me hopeful our town can move in the right direction!

  7. I think a big influence, even for people not aware of the details, was that all sides were praising the collaboration. I think they thought “the collaboration that apparently happened probably indicates it’s a well thought out plan” and they felt confident supporting it.

    That is something to be proud of, in a town where the opposite is our default.

  8. New school proponents learned some hard lessons about the importance of collaboration and applied them well in developing the Fort River plan. We saw genuine democratic compromise on the project’s cost, location and the use of CPA funds to improve the fields.

    It is unfortunate that creation of the plan to demolish the 1993 addition of the Jones Library and invest in a multi-million dollar renovation and expansion did not benefit from a similar spirit of collaboration.

  9. While very excited, relieved and thankful that the new school is happening, a little dismayed about the narrative which is rapidly congealing. The new school proposal, which everyone seems to acknowledge is better than the last one, is not simply a victory for the political action committee, Amherst Forward but a vindication for those few brave, hardy souls who held out for something better in the face of bitter and often personal recriminations. Thank you, Maria , Toni and those others who fought the good fight.

  10. Steve raises an important point. It was infuriating to read the Gazette article’s focus on Amherst Forward, giving the clear message that it was responsible for the vote’s success and giving the impression that it is a political force so significant that it was responsible for mobilizing 82% of Amherst voters. Misleading, biased reporting. There is no place for this kind of divisive politics in our town.

  11. I agree with the above comments. I worked long and hard on the Vote Yes campaign and was not even informed about the gathering at Mexicalito. The amount of work Toni, Maria, and Rudy put into the $700,000 CPA grant was incredible. This was a town-wide effort, not an Amherst Forward project as implied by the Gazette article.

  12. It is great that the vote for the school was so well supported, and gratitude should certainly go to all who worked toward that end.

    So… Thanks!!!

  13. Hi Maura – I was in charge of the election night party and our intent was to invite everyone who volunteered and donated to the campaign in any capacity. We sent an email out Sunday night but I now realize we made an error – we invited all the volunteers who canvased and phone banked, but forgot to include those who volunteered in other capacities. It was a different email list and we forgot to merge the two. This was not intentional and I am sorry for this – your work was critical, as was others. It was truly a town wide effort. We all did our best and got a great outcome.

  14. Unfortunately, however, the election night party was a missed and important opportunity to invite and widely gather the many other individuals and town-wide groups who worked to support the vote. The seeming result, whether due to Laura’s lists or the article based on those in attendance at Mexicalito? Political alliances and divisiveness trumped a community coming together in celebration.

  15. I sure hope we can follow a similar collaborative process to build town-wide consensus on where and how to spur building home ownership projects, develop sensible zoning bylaws based on our built environment, balancing the needs of citizens with sufficient street to ensure safe walking and driving conditions after dark with the desires of star-gazers, maintain stable rents for tenants while ensuring safe and well-maintained rental stock…. I hope you get my drift!

  16. The idea that Amherst Forward deserves credit for the school victory makes me furious and sick to my stomach – literally stomach cramps! This is a profound insult to those of us who have energetically and passionately refused to participate in either of the amherst political action committees and have worked so hard to bring people together – and often rewarded for our efforts with criticism from both sides!!.Shame on Amherst Forward for taking credit for this!!! Both PACs should claim victory and go out of business. If people want to engage in political action committees they should give money to Act Blue or The Movement Voter Project and get involved in real political activity that can have an impact on things that matter – for example protecting the right to vote, comprehensive women’s health care, LGBTQ+ rights, book banning and the words “well-regulated” in the second amendment!! I’m thrilled the new school won and by such a large margin. Let’s toss the local PACs in the trash and move forward.

  17. Jeff Lee said: “It is unfortunate that creation of the plan to demolish the 1993 addition of the Jones Library and invest in a multi-million dollar renovation and expansion did not benefit from a similar spirit of collaboration.”

    Agreed, Jeff. At least one of the Town Council members has pledged to push hard now for the council to support a scaled-down renovation for the library, especially in view of the other capital projects looming.

  18. It was gratifying to see that more than 80% of Amherst voters supported the new elementary school project. In a town that has been polarized on many issues, this was a refreshing change. However, I was chagrined (but sadly, not surprised) to learn that those who worked so hard on the school vote who were not part of the Amherst Forward PAC, were not invited to the election night celebration. The PR campaign giving the Amherst Forward PAC exclusive credit for the vote outcome was fully evident in the biased Gazette reporting. Despite this effort at taking undue credit, the school vote passed primarily because of community collaboration that resulted in a building design that was smart, with light-filled indoor space, expansive outdoor play and learning space, and will be a leader in net-zero energy. Everything the former school project wasn’t. Btw, it’s important to give Town Meeting credit for the foresight to pass the net-zero energy by-law that some in town considered too expensive to implement. There is a lesson here for the Town as it approaches the other capital projects in how to work with input from the entire community for the success of a project and avoid giving the Amherst Forward PAC too much power in decision-making or undue credit for a community’s success.

  19. Not to be the skunk at a very well-deserved party, but I’d just like to add a cautionary note about numbers. As with the library referendum vote, it’s important to present numbers in the right context. It was not 80% of Amherst voters who voted in favor of the override, but rather 80% of those Amherst voters who went to the polls and cast their ballots. I’m glad that the override passed, but as a now outside observer, I was struck by the relatively low turnout for this override when compared with the vote for the previous plan in 2016. In 2023, voter turnout was just a hair over 30%; most precincts were in the 25% to 30% range, with only Precinct 5-B topping 40%. In contrast, in 2016, only Precinct 4 (typically a low-turnout precinct) was under 60%; all other precincts were in the 60% to 75% range. But again, context: In 2016, registered voters numbered 22,228, likely indicating the presence of many students who registered to vote in Amherst, and the fact that it was a presidential election like no other. In 2023, registered voters were considerably fewer in number (13,551), it was a spring vote, and only one question was on the ballot. Nonetheless, the turnout percentages seem telling. While the 2016 presidential vote was certainly consequential, it would seem that an override vote that will result in a substantial increase in local taxes would also be consequential, and would attract more voters than those who came out on Tuesday. The blame for voter apathy was placed squarely on Town Meeting, yet even something like an override that has such direct and measurable consequences for residents does not seem to generate the increased level of voter interest and participation that was promised to the town by charter proponents.

  20. 30% turnout is not close to a majority of registered Amherst voters. 80% of 30% = 37.5. Curious what the other 62.5% of registered voters think and why they neglected to vote? Is there more to this story than meets the eye?

  21. I think it was closer to 24% (3,272) of the 13,551 currently registered voters that voted in favor of the school override.
    5.7% voted No.
    70% did not vote.

    Some of the Gazette/Bulletin headlines claimed the vote “cleared by 82% margin.” I think the margin was 64%, no? (82-18)

    A graphic on the Vote Yes Facebook page claimed “Over 82% of Amherst voters turned out today to vote in favor of a new elementary school.” I think that infers 11,112 Yes voters?

    Regardless of how voting results are presented or misrepresented, of those who voted this week, the support for the school project was overwhelming. Voter apathy is an issue in many places. Until election days become public holidays and people are required to vote / incentivized to vote, I think we will continue to see low turnout in local elections. Form of government doesn’t appear to have an effect.

    P.S. Thank you Steve Bloom and others for publicly acknowledging the role I and many others played in getting to this point. It has been a labor of love for the past six years and continues again on Wednesday with the site and building design subcommittee meetings. We achieved a major milestone but the work is not yet done.

  22. Amherst Town Meeting voting down the 2016 plan in a bond authorization vote, which is supposed to be a “can we afford the bond” vote, when all other entities had voted yes, has ended up costing Amherst taxpayers at least $22 million ($22 million in building costs, plus the cost of extra operating costs over those 7 years, plus addition interest costs).

    They were warned this would happen. It did.

    2023 School Building Plan:
    Total cost: $98 million
    Amherst share of cost: $55 million

    2016 School Building Plan:
    Total cost: $67 million
    Amherst share of cost: $33 million

    I hope it was worth it. It’s not at all clear to me what’s better about this 2023 plan from the 2016 plan. We could have done a lot with that $22 million.

  23. As long as we’re rehashing old grievances, let me remind people (again) that the vote then went to the town as a whole, which reproduced the same result with the same margin.

    And, while the differences may not be clear to Mr. Hood, it’s apparently clear to a lot of other people, who approved the new plan.

    Rather than blame people who didn’t like the old plan, maybe we should blame the people who put forward an unpopular and poorly vetted plan first.

    No, wait, that would be rehashing old grievances ….

  24. “vote then went to the town as a whole, which reproduced the same result”
    As you know, that required a 2/3 vote, and 56% supported it. So, Town Meeting thought they knew better than: the entire town, the school committee, the school building committee, the finance committee.

    “it’s apparently clear to a lot of other people”
    What was apparently clear is that we had no choice at that point and would have voted for a cheese sandwich to get the schools replaced. Comparing the vote in 2023 and 2016 is apples and oranges, including turnout and what was on the ballots.

    ‘poorly vetted plan”
    Definition of vetted: “make a careful and critical examination of (something).”
    That was absolutely done. You just didn’t like the result.

    Not sure why the Amherst Forward bashing is going on. That group pushed very hard for both the 2016 and 2023 plan. What’s the problem?

    How does this 2023 plan meet what Save Amherst Small Schools wanted? The only part is keeping K-6 (well, K-5) instead of the PreK-1, and 2-6 configuration. That’s worth $22 million?

    BTW no PreK with the 2023 plan. The 2016 turned Crocker into a PreK-1 early learning center and research shows early learning is critical.

    At any rate, $22 million down the drain. Closing Marks Meadow to save $800,000/year, which was a big deal, now looks like peanuts.

    You can call it rehash. I call it history.

  25. “$22 million down the drain” is at best an exaggeration, since it ignores US dollar inflation, which has totaled about 27% over 2016-2023.

    In fact, if the Town invested its reserves in an S&P 500 index fund in 2016, each invested dollar NOT SPENT THEN would now be worth nearly $2.50, and the same is true for an individual taxpayer, so one might reasonably argue the 7 year delay was fiscally prudent.

  26. OK so $16 million is not a lot of money? And you are ignoring this part: “plus the cost of extra operating costs over those 7 years, plus addition interest costs”. And the town does not use reserves for school building, so that is nothing to do with this.

  27. Might it be enlightened or even just sane to recognize that Amherst residents willingly pay extra (property) taxes in order to support infrastructure services like education (schools), family quality of life and senior living. Isn’t it a wise and noble thing to look long-term, pro-active and invest in the young and families? I know of no place in America, Canada, Singapore or New Zealand where communities lost money in investing in the future of our children. The return payback is enormous not to mention the bragging rights leading the way where neighboring communities try to keep up. It’s not complicated. Now on to senior life.

  28. Mr. Hood may be unable to see the benefits of this plan over the previous one, but for other Indy readers who may be curious, here are some of the reasons that I believe this plan is far superior:

    Longer grade span (doesn’t separate K-1 across town but instead keeps K-5 together)
    Smaller enrollment (575 vs 750 students)
    Innovative curriculum (Caminantes dual-language program for 2 of 5 classes per grade – was developed after the last project failed)
    Net Zero building – all-electric school with on-site solar panels to generate the energy needed over a year (vs two oil-fired boilers in the previous plan)
    Much larger site allows for extensive green space for kids to play, basketball courts not inside a bus loop, etc. (vs barely any green space in the previous plan)
    Outdoor learning classrooms, gardens, and a nature trail
    Retention and vast improvement of 4+ acres of heavily-used community athletic fields
    Two entrances/exit points (vs one at Wildwood for all cars and buses for ~1000 people)
    Fewer buses needed, fewer miles traveled, less GHG emissions.

    Had the previous project moved forward, we would have been paying the operating costs of running a huge oil-powered building, spewing GHG into the air for generations to come. And in my opinion it is very likely that the Fort River property would have been sold for development and the highly-valued community athletic fields would have been lost, or at the very least, not improved with sub-surface drainage, which we will get in this plan.

    The cost of this project could have been less had progress been quicker or the building smaller (the initial target budget was $80 million but was not stringently kept to) but we are where we are. You could look at this as good timing in that the Inflation Reduction Act and other energy incentives now exist that we can benefit from, and the new energy stretch code coming this summer will force the design team to develop a tighter building envelope than would otherwise be proposed.

  29. Those are really good points, thank you Toni.

    Most of the benefits cited are due to the fact that the Fort River site was somehow declared viable, whereas in 2016 it was said it was not due to flood zone. I always liked the FR location better, but we were told it was not possible. The other thing that helped was simply time passing, such as Net Zero becoming possible.

    Really only these two are issues from 2016 are not related to the site or time passing:

    1. Longer grade span (doesn’t separate K-1 across town but instead keeps K-5 together)
    I see pros and cons to that. I thought a pro to the 2016 plan was that same grade teachers were in the same building for collaboration, and also if you needed to run a special program for, say 5th graders, you only had to run it in one building, not two.

    2. Smaller enrollment (575 vs 750 students)
    Yes, but the 575 is in one wing and the 750 was in two. In my view the “mega” label was ridiculous.

    So I don’t see #1 and #2 as a necessarily plus. And there is still no PreK. But I do see all the other things you mentioned as big plusses.

    I also found out that the average tax bill is increasing by $133 more that for the 2016 plan ($451 versus $318). That is not as much as I thought, so not so bad: $22 million extra costs sounds bad, $133 extra property tax does not.

    I am told there are various reasons for that, including:

    $5 million of reserves was used to help pay for the $55 million cost (I had not known that). Of course, that extra money spent, and therefore gone, which is not great, but at least it lowered the tax burden some.

    The Town has had tremendous growth in larger developments since 2016 adding to tax base.

    Most of this was unknown back in 2016, so I still think it was a mistake for Town Meeting to vote it down, but the outcome does seem pretty good.

    Thanks again for that info.

  30. I forgot to address the point about preschool. I have written about efforts to expand preschool in Amherst over the past few years, for example:
    In Jan 2020:
    In June 2021:

    The gist of it is that offering childcare for birth to three year olds was identified as a higher priority than increasing preschool (3-5yrs) access; the Crocker Farm location is less than ideal as a site for meeting the needs of children with disabilities and trauma (limited or non-accessible parking for families, inadequate space for children to engage in therapy or have a quiet, calming space, etc.); the current hours offered at the district’s preschool do not meet the needs of working families; and Mike Morris had said that he does not have an operational funding source to fund the staffing of additional preschool classrooms.

    Hope was pinned on Build Back Better providing federal funds for universal preschool to fund expansion in collaboration with Head Start/Early Head Start, which would require radically expanding hours to meet the federal specifications. Unfortunately, it failed to win sufficient support in congress and the Inflation Reduction Act does not include funding for universal preschool.

    ARPA funds ($300,00) were earmarked for expanding Early Childhood Education slots. An RFP was issued last fall but only one response from a private in-home daycare was received. I don’t think the Town moved forward with it.

    Another $150,000 of ARPA was earmarked and has been spent/encumbered for “Funding for the Amherst Public Schools to provide consultative services for providers of preschoolers in community programs; funding for additional subsidies for after school programming.”

    So while yes it is correct that the previous plan had extra classrooms for preschool, to my knowledge there was no funding for staffing those classrooms or for increasing the hours to meet the needs of working families, nor would it address the greater need for care for 0-3 year olds. The current plan could have included preschool, had the district leadership wanted that. I had advocated in the beginning for two equal-sized ~450-student PreK-5 schools, which would have increased the number of preschool classrooms (and renovated/expanded Crocker Farm, outside of the MSBA project) but district leadership did not pursue it. Again, no funding for staffing and for increasing the hours to full-day. Kristen Hayes recommended partnering with Head Start/Early Head Start and/or local private preschools as a better way to increase access.

  31. Thanks for bringing up the issue of preschool here in Amherst Toni, I graduated from the Crocker Farm PreSchool program with many connections that still hold strong in high school today. At a recent School Committee meeting, Peter Demling suggested raising the cost of pre-K education in our town significantly,

    He suggested making the “levels” steeper, saying “We should expand these grades so if your at 110% of the AMI you pay the full price, rather than a discounted rate.” He also referred to the cost Pre-K child care as a “relatively nominal cost (for families).”

    110% of AMI is $67,000 per year, that’s roughly 4,000 more than the average teacher salary in town ($64,000), meaning teachers in the ARPS system would likely get minimal to no discount on preschool for their child under Demling’s suggestion.

    The current pre-K set up at Crocker Farm runs from 8:30AM-2:30PM. That leaves kids ages 2-5 alone at home if their parents/guardians work from 9-5 or 7-3.

    In addition, the preschool teachers and para-educators at Crocker Farm are often not paid a living wage, with salaries for a Pre-K para-professional starting at $19,000 per year.

    I wonder if we could restructure our town budgets to provide free Pre-K to working and middle class families instead of increasing costs when the Town Council has already made decisions that raise taxes, water/sewer rates and housing prices, without covering basic services such as road repair and safe Fire/EMS staffing.

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