Council Endorses CHERISH Act in Support of Higher Education


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Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, February 5, 2024, Part 1

This meeting was held in hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here. 

Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg, Ellisha Walker (at large), Freke Ette and Cathy Schoen (District 1), Lynn Griesemer and Pat DeAngelis (District 2), George Ryan (District 3), Pam Rooney and Jennifer Taub (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier and Bob Hegner (District 5). Absent: Hala Lord (District 3)

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

The Town Council expressed its support for the CHERISH Act by a 11-1 vote, affirming the right to higher education for all. The proposed legislation is now before the State Legislature as Senate bill 816 and House bill 1260. The town council’s resolution was sponsored by Councilors Pat DeAngelis (District 2) and Ellisha Walker (at large) with community sponsor Ian Rhodewalt.

The CHERISH Act has 107 sponsors in the Massachusetts legislature, with lead sponsors including Senator Jo Comerford. It includes support for debt-free higher education for vulnerable students, a preference for full-time staff employment (vs. adjuncts),, and state-funded building on college campuses. The house bill is supported by Amherst’sSstate Representative Mindy Domb.

DeAngelis proposed adding two paragraphs to the start of the resolution:

Whereas the CHERISH act establishes a blueprint for a world class system of public higher education that is urgently needed to meet widely shared goals in the Commonwealth 


Whereas, if passed, the CHERISH act would enable people of all backgrounds in every community to build successful and fulfilling lives, address economic, social and racial equity gaps,meet our state’s climate change. Goals create high quality workplaces with fair wages and benefits, to attract and retain faculty and staff. 

These were included as amendments to the motion.

Of the 27 people who spoke during the public comment period, 20 spoke of an urgent need for the CHERISH act [see below]. Several also advocated for the amendment to the act proposed by Representative Natalie Higgins (D-Leominster) to extend the act to make tuition at public higher education institutions free for all Massachusetts residents, not only the neediest. Higgins’ amendment was not included in the resolution proposed at this meeting, but DeAngelis said a second resolution would be submitted to the council if the sponsors agreed.

Council Discussion 
George Ryan (District 3) suggested removing the word “destructive” from the second paragraph that states, “Public colleges and universities educate the majority of students of color and first-generation college students, and given the U.S. Supreme Court’s destructive decision on affirmative action which threatens to undermine access to students of color….”.

This suggestion was withdrawn by Council President Lynn Griesemer before a vote was taken.

Cathy Schoen (District 1) asked about how the proposal would be funded. She noted that the Fair Share Amendment passed in 2022 provides additional state funding for education and transportation, but almost none of the first year of that money was allocated to K-12 education. She wanted to know how the CHERISH Act will affect K-12 education. 

Walker said there were separate funding sources for the Fair Share Amendment and the CHERISH Act, but Andy Steinberg (at large) moved to postpone consideration of this resolution and proposed to add a statement to the resolution saying that the council values all education and supports an increase in state funding for K-12 education. Ryan disagreed, saying he did not see the point of postponing the vote. He pointed out that it was the legislators who needed to think about the funding for the CHERISH act, not the Amherst Town Council, and both our senator and representative support the measure. 

The vote to postpone failed by a vote of 2-10, with only Steinberg and Freke Ette (District 1) supporting it. The original motion to pass the amended measure then passed 12-1. Only Hanneke voted no.

Passionate Pleas for Higher Education Funding During Public Comment
Twenty people spoke in favor of the CHERISH act during general public comment. Most were UMass students or graduates who spoke about the debt they accrued in getting their degrees. Many also advocated for Higgins’ Debt Free Future amendment.

Max Page, President of the Massachusetts Teacher’s Association, said that the measure is one of organized labor’s top priorities. He maintained that higher education is “sorely underfunded” in Massachusetts and noted the inclusion of equitable pay for staff and state funding for university building, in addition to the aid for students. Community sponsor Ian Rhodewalt pointed out that the debt that public higher education institutions incur to build needed classroom buildings and dorms is passed down to students in the form of higher fees. He said that the average debt for a 2023 UMass-Amherst graduate was $36,000. 

Stephanie Marcotte said that she is a graduate of Hampshire College, and her husband graduated from UMass. They are renters in Amherst with a two-year-old daughter and have $227,000 in student loan debt. She said that the $1000 per month they pay toward the loans could instead be invested in their own business or a home. She wants to make sure that their daughter can go to college debt free, and that they can plan for retirement. 

PHENOM, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, released the following statement regarding the CHERISH Act:

On February 5th, 2024, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) and

its allies from the communities of UMass Amherst, Amherst College and Hampshire College

once again called on the Amherst Town Council to support including the Debt-Free Future Act

(H.1339 / S.829) with the existing resolution proposed by Ellisha Walker and Patricia DeAngelis

which supports the Cherish Act (H.1260 / S.816).

Students and community members testified in favor of the Debt-Free Future Act (DFF) because

of its promise to make college truly affordable. Many also stressed the importance of the Cherish

Act, which would dramatically increase public college funding as well as create its own debt-free

college program. But the Debt-Free Future Act would go a step further and make all public

colleges in the state tuition-free, ensuring poor and middle class families alike could save

thousands of dollars every year.

Considering 56 percent of Massachusetts college graduates had student debt in 2019-2020

(averaging over $33,000), we cannot wait any longer to pass both the Cherish Act and the

Debt-Free Future Act and end the student debt crisis. 

“I know multiple students who have had to drop out due to these economic shackles,” said Hampshire College student Liam Love. “My friend Tara worries about her tuition bill having already taken out all the loans she’s allowed,” said UMass sophomore Nick DeBenedictis. “Now struggling to find gainful employment to afford college, what can I tell her?”

While they have admirably passed the resolution supporting the Cherish Act, the Amherst Town

Council has alienated countless students who make Amherst what it is today by refusing to even

consider Debt Free Future. “We students of Amherst make up nearly half of Amherst’s population and we helped vote many of you into office. However, we are still a hugely underrepresented group, noted Kairo Serna, a UMass student as well as a student representative of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. “The Cherish Act and the Debt-Free Future Act are two sides of the same coin that you as Amherst Town Council can advocate for to represent and protect your constituents.”

Other Members of the Public Support More Funding for the Senior Center and a Ceasefire in Gaza
Jeanne Horrigan noted that the Silver Shuttle van at the Senior Center provides transportation for seniors on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., thanks to a donation of a van from  the PVTA. ARPA funds pay the salary of the driver. Since its inception in May 2023, the van has provided over 600 rides. She said that without additional funding, the Senior Center will be unable to continue the service, adding, “This would be very unfortunate, considering virtually every other senior center in Hampshire County has a full-time driver and at least one ADA van.” She asked the council to “please fund this critical service.”

Marc Barrette also spoke in favor of more funding for the Senior Center, noting that the Senior Center is only one of five departments located at the Bangs Center, which is “outdated and not up to code.” He lamented  the lack of a working kitchen, absence of security cameras, lack of ventilation, and an exercise room that is full of equipment, but cannot be used.

During the public comment period, Josna Rege and Jenifer McKenna introduced and read out a pending councilor- and community-sponsored resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza, and Gerry Weiss and Ashwin Ravikumar spoke in favor of it. The resolution was reviewed and cleared at the February 8 GOL meeting and will come to the council for a vote at its February 26 meeting.

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