Amherst can expect a significant bump in the state grant for the elementary school building project, following a vote by the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s (MSBA) Board of Directors on October 25 that approved higher-than-typical increases in funding limits.
The MSBA bases school project grants on square footage using a set per-square-foot funding limit. In December 2022, the MSBA increased that limit from $360/sf to $393/sf, or 9% more, which resulted in an estimated $2 million more state funding for Amherst’s Fort River project. This latest bump will see the rate jump to $516/sf, a 31% increase. The actual adjusted grant amount for Amherst won’t be known until the district submits project information to the MSBA and the existing funding agreement is amended to reflect the new limits. In the MSBA memo posted after the meeting, Amherst is listed as one of nine school projects that will share ian additional $110 million.
Whether or not the larger grant will result in a reduced tax impact for residents will depend on a number of factors, particularly the actual cost of the project, which is as yet unknown because construction bids have not yet been solicited. Bid documents are expected to be published in two packages – a smaller early bid package to be advertised this December for early site preparation work to begin in March 2024, and a main construction package to be advertised in July 2024 for work to begin at the end of August 2024.
With the estimated construction cost for the school project currently at $769/sf, according to data on the MSBA website, this latest funding limit increase brings state reimbursement much closer to the current cost of construction.
Amherst entered into a project funding agreement with the MSBA in April 2023 for the $99 million project, with an estimated maximum facilities grant at that time of $39.6 million. A town-wide debt exclusion override vote in May 2023 to approve borrowing passed with an overwhelming 82% support from those voting. In addition to authorizing the appropriation for the project, the Town Council authorized the transfer of $5 million from town reserves for the project, most of which is expected to be recouped through energy rebates from Eversource and the federal Inflation Reduction Act. Formerly, third-party funding such as rebates, grants, state or federal funding, or donations reduced the amount of MSBA grant funding, but the policy was changed in June and Amherst will now be permitted to retain all funds received from a third party, which can be used to reduce the amount needed to be borrowed, and potentially the cost to taxpayers.
Accelerated Repair Program
In addition to the newly-increased square footage funding limits, the Board also voted to reinstate the Accelerated Repair Program (ARP) from January 2024, with a budget of $150 million, double what it had been. The program, which is for funding smaller capital projects such as replacement of school roofs, windows, or boilers, was paused in October 2022 to redirect limited funding to whole building projects that were experiencing soaring costs due to high inflation.
The reinstatement of the repair program is more good news for Amherst as the Regional School District has been applying for many years for replacement of the middle school roof. Work began this week on substantial emergency repairs to the roof to fix leaks. Former ARP applications were unsuccessful as program funding was allocated to schools with the oldest roofs and Amherst missed the cut-off. With double the funding available, and the middle school roof turning 30 next year, the chances of a successful application should be much improved.