Council Removes Restrictions on Funding for High School Track. Consents to Jones Library Redesign Expenditure


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Report on the Meeting of the Town Council, June 17,2024. Part 2

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

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

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

The high school track and field and Jones Library projects again dominated most of the council’s time. The council voted 10-3 to remove the funding restrictions that had required the track and field to be reoriented to a north/south direction, with Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) voting no. This leaves the school committee with multiple options for completing the project.

Late in the meeting, Cathy Schoen’s (District 1) motion, postponed from June 3, to advise the Town Manager not to enter a new contract with the architects to redesign the Jones Library expansion plan before rebidding in the fall was defeated 4-8-1. Schoen, Jennifer Taub and Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ellisha Walker (at large) voted for the motion and Hala Lord (District 3) abstained.

Debate over Whether Council Should Mandate Change in Orientation of Track and Field
All councilors, school committee members, and members of the public who spoke, strongly agreed that reorienting the track and field to a north/south direction was the optimal choice. However, the regional schools are $1 million short of funds for this option (option 3C in the design). Two major sources of allocated funds, Community Preservation Act (CPA) monies and free cash, had stipulated that the project include the reorientation. But even with those funds now liberated, the project remains $1 million short. If the remaining funds cannot be secured by the time the construction contract needs to be signed in the fall of 2024, the project would likely be delayed even further. 

Newly proposed option 3c with a new grass athletic field. Photo:

The Finance Committee voted 4-1 at their meeting on June 11 to recommend that the Town Council retain the restriction for the free cash funds with Andy Steinberg (at large), Bob Hegner (District 5), Walker, and Hanneke voting yes, and Schoen no. The debate centered on whether the council should leave the final decision on the track and field design to the Regional School Committee (RSC) or should put constraints on what the committee could do. 

Town Councilors voted unanimously to not commit more free cash to the project. They encouraged the RSC to apply for more CPA funds from all four towns in the school district. Leverett and Pelham previously voted down contributing CPA funds to the project because the design had required artificial turf for the infield, which they would not support. Shutesbury did not vote, but sentiment at their 2023 town meeting was against artificial turf. CPA funds cannot be awarded if another funding source has been secured. Therefore, if any portion of the additional $1 million that is needed to complete the project was funded by money from reserves or free cash, the schools would be ineligible to apply for CPA funds.

In order for the project to be completed by fall of 2025, the final design must be completed over the summer and a construction contract signed in the fall. The money must be secured by the time a contract is signed, which is before the other three towns’ annual town meetings. Amherst’s share of the $1 million shortfall is $800,000. Councilors suggested that even if aspects of the design are deferred, such as some sidewalks, fencing, and lighting,  the cost still exceeds available funds. 

Councilor Viewpoints
The councilors were presented with three options for the high school track and field:

*Option 1B ($1.7 million estimate) is to enlarge the track to eight lanes and do minimal upgrading of the enclosed field.

*Option 1D ($3.4 million) is to enlarge the track and totally redo the enclosed field, improving the soil and drainage.

* Option 3C ($4.4 million) is to reorient the track and field to a north/south direction, which would add a second playing field to the west. The north-south reorientation is favored by many to prevent glare from the sun affecting players on the field. 

All options include Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) improvements. At the time of the council meeting, a restriction requiring a north/south orientation had been attached to both the $800,000 in CPA funding and $900,000 of free cash from Amherst. 

Below are selected comments from councilors.
Hanneke summarized the recent timeline: “[The RSC] got the cost estimates for the different options a month and a half ago. Option 1B [only redoing the track and making minor improvements to the field] can be done within the existing borrowing authorization of $1.5 million. Option 1D [totally redoing the field, but without reorientation] can be done if the restrictions are removed. The RSC said, ‘We need more money for Option 3C [reorientation], so we’re going to ask the town of Amherst for more money, but we also want those restrictions removed, so that money can potentially be used for 1D.’ They have told us they need to know our answer by next week, so they can make a decision on which design to go with. They don’t need to fund that design plan until December. If we remove the restrictions, can we trust them to go with 3C?”

Later she added, “In my mind the RSC committee actions speak louder than words. In February they ask us to remove the restrictions for a north/south project while saying they want a north/south project. They did not apply to any CPA committee, despite our pleading to apply to CPA out of cycle. They instead asked us for free cash, and they still haven’t applied to any of the four towns for CPA.”

Walker: “Mandi Jo ended with, ‘Do we trust them?’ Of course, we trust them. They’re elected officials. It’s in the purview of the school committee to make that decision. And then I’m also thinking of the unintended consequences the vote might have if we do not remove the restrictions and the RSC does not have enough money for option 3C, despite trying to pursue it seriously. They have a timeline. We would then be locking them into doing the least favorable option. I’m troubled by locking them into having to decide an option that they do not want just because they don’t have funding, or don’t have enough time.”

Taub agreed with Walker, saying: “If we don’t lift [the north/south restriction], we may get option 1B.”

DeAngelis said that Option 3C “creates a situation in all of the fields that integrates them — there’s this extra playing field. It improves the number of athletic events that can happen there. Mostly, though, it will empower our athletes. They’re winning using terrible facilities, but what can they accomplish by the transformation of these playing fields? I feel like lifting that restriction leaves us without the kind of playing fields that I think we really need to have.”

Devlin Gauthier: “I want to clarify, I don’t see this as an issue of trust. I see it as an issue of logistics, and I just logistically do not see how we can reasonably get close to 3C by next week. December maybe. We don’t want to go through permitting twice and need to be confidently pursuing one direction…I don’t see how we’re just making a false choice by removing that restriction, and we may as well just vote 1D. How are we not kidding ourselves with this?”

George Ryan (District 3): “I’m hearing overwhelmingly that the right decision is option 3C, and if I had some confidence that this case would be made in the strongest possible way to the school committee, then I would, somewhat reluctantly, say, ‘Let’s remove the restriction and let the school committee make its decision.’ They are the elected body, and ultimately, it is their call.”

Schoen: “I don’t think we should say there is only one solution. There’s a timeline ticking here, so putting a restriction on isn’t necessary, since the intent is to go in this direction. But if they members of the RSC] discover they can’t, I want to leave the flexibility for the middle option, which gives us an eight-lane track and a great field.”

The RSC plans to make its decision at its June 25 meeting.

Public Forum Advocates for No More Delay
Longtime coach and teacher Liz Haygood said, “I feel like this is beating a dead horse. I have attended so many meetings in so many years about this topic. If you could see the look on our kids’ faces when they enter another school’s facilities and compare it to ours. Their self-esteem tends to wane just a little bit before they have to go out there and perform their best. We don’t want to do that to our students. Some of the poorest towns and cities in Western Massachusetts have better facilities than we do. We need to put our money where our mouth is, and we need to do it now.”

High School Principal Talib Saddiq said, “I’m hoping that you’ll do whatever it takes to get the track project moving forward. Probably a more diverse population of students run track than participate in other sports. They make connections that last a lifetime. They’re in school more often. These kids who went to nationals, some of them may never have a home track meet. We talk about equity. This is another example of how it’s not happening.”

RSC member Jennifer Shiao noted that “these restrictions have not served us well. They locked us into an option [artificial turf] that met with much resistance and was ultimately not feasible. Financial delays have resulted. It’s time to work within our means while striving for the best possible project. The RSC is very aware of the strong preference for option 3C. We are also cognizant that we are still $1 million short. We will need to deliberate and decide what is possible and desirable. It’s our responsibility as the RSC to balance the risks and benefits of each approach.”

Maria Kopicki cautioned, “There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle to secure the $1 million necessary for option 3C. Some are beyond our control, and there are always unexpected curve balls. If anything goes awry so that we cannot bridge that gap by the fall and the restrictions are still in place, we would either have to settle for option 1B or we would have to do this whole dance over again.”

Mary Klaes, president of the Amherst Hurricane Athletic Boosters, noted that the boosters have been working on this project since 2018. She stated that they are advocating for the reorientation, despite its higher cost, because it would benefit the most people. She urged the council to appropriate funds to make it work.

Schoen’s Motion to Prevent Harmful Changes to Jones Library Redesign Defeated
As with the track and field decision, the autonomy of other elected boards came into play when the council discussed Schoen’s motion, which had been postponed from June 3, to advise the Town Manager not to sign a contract with Finegold Alexander Architects (FAA) to redesign the demolition/expansion project in the hope of receiving a more reasonable construction bid in the fall. Schoen noted the severe adverse effects of the proposed design changes on the library and stated that the cost savings would not come close to covering the $7 million shortfall of approved funding in relation to the one bid obtained. She pointed to the replacement of synthetic slate roofing with asphalt that would have to be replaced if solar panels were added, changing brick siding to fiber cement that needs to be repainted at intervals, having the town pay for needed upgrades to the library’s water/sewer line,, retaining single-paned glass on the windows of the original building, and destroying and discarding historic interior woodwork, which might jeopardize the $1 million National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant awarded to the project. She pointed out that all of these changes are irreversible (except for the deferred landscaping). 

The council voted 4-8-1 to defeat Schoen’s motion. Although some of the councilors voting against it did not approve of the cuts, they felt they should defer to the Jones Library trustees. Devlin Gauthier said, “Personally, I can’t stand the value engineering that’s on that list, but I didn’t run to be on the library board of trustees.” 

If the second round of bids for the project (expected in September after the redesign) comes in at more than $46 million, the council must appropriate additional funds by a two-thirds vote.  The lone bid that the town received when it put the project out to bid in March came in at $55 million.

Here is a sampling of comments from the councilors on both sides of the vote.

Mandi Jo Hanneke said: “The town’s residents elected the Jones Library trustees to steward their endowment and their building. We, as councilors, were not elected to overstep and step into their authority. The charter gives all authority to sign contracts to the Town Manager. I truly believe this motion oversteps the delineation between our authority and the Jones Library trustees and the Town Manager’s authority. I may not like what the Jones Library trustees have voted to do, I’m not sure I do. I don’t know whether it gives the project a high enough percentage of success, but I was not elected to make those decisions.”

Pam Rooney pointed out elements of the redesign that have not been mentioned, such as the replacement of the “curtain” windows on the new addition with “storefront” windows. She said the curtain windows are an integral system that increases insulation and the integrity of the glass front. “I would much rather see some of those dollars [for a redesign] be put toward a repair project.” 

Andy Steinberg mentioned the 2017 Western Builders repair plan and its update by Kuhn, Riddle Architects in 2020, and the uncertain cost of repairs today. “I am concerned that ultimately we’re going to be faced with a very difficult decision, and what the trustees are suggesting is that this [redesign] will provide more information if we have to make that decision as to what our options really are, as opposed to what people, off of really the backs of envelopes,pretty much are telling us. And I think that’s not a responsible way to go about making a decision.”

Jennifer Taub stated, “We were elected to be responsible fiduciary managers of taxpayer funds, and although the trustees have said that they will borrow or they will take $550,700 from their endowment [for redesign fees], the library director said the money would be paid back to the endowment as the capital campaign raises that money. They have a lot of money to raise, and contributions from individual donors has not been robust. And since the town and the taxpayers will be taking out the loan for the full amount, if the capital campaign does not reach their goal plus this extra half million dollars, the town will be left holding the bag.”

George Ryan made three claims. “First,” he asserted, without citing evidence, “if this rebidding process fails, we will pay substantially more than $15.8 million just to repair the existing building. Any claims to the contrary are fantasy. Second point: some people have conveniently forgotten how this process began and why it began. It was about space and programming, not about the slate roof, not about brick or siding, not about solar panels. It was about the need for the Jones to meet the demands of a ‘21st -century’ library.” Calling residents who disagree “naysayers” he said, “In all the comments you’ve been getting from some of the naysayers, you won’t hear a single word about the children’s room and the need for space. You won’t hear a single word about the teen space; you won’t hear a single word about expanding and providing space for a dynamic ESL program. You’re not going to hear a single word about a visible and accessible space; nothing about a permanent and public home for our Civil War tablets; nothing about a humanities center. Third point: It’s rich this evening that I was being schooled earlier on not overstepping my place and instructing the school committee on what they should do. I heard the argument, and even though I have some grave reservations, I voted with the majority. But now, apparently, I’m supposed to go the other direction. I’m supposed to take the role of the trustees and tell them what to do.”

Ellisha Walker countered, “I don’t believe we’re overstepping our authority here because as a body we are allowed to advise the Town Manager. And I think that’s what this motion is aiming to do. A portion of the funding is coming from the town, and so when we are looking at the funding and considering how to use town money, it’s important for us to consider the value of what we’re spending our money on, what we are getting for our dollars. While I don’t know for certain that a repair option would be more inexpensive, I think it’s reasonable to think that is possible if we are as creative about where we’re finding our funding as we are for the renovation and expansion.”

Freke Ette contrasted this discussion to the track conversation and the flexibility the vote gave to the RSC. He said, “When we come to the Jones Library, we are not having that kind of conversation. At the previous meeting I mentioned that there was no basis for comparison, and that hasn’t changed, despite the 200 or so emails that I’ve gotten. We still have not scrutinized how much the repairs will cost.” He continued, “What we’ve heard is that this motion is a recommendation. If it is a recommendation, we wouldn’t have been deluged with all the emails that were pushing for this particular motion to pass. We need that flexibility. We need that deference. I think it’s a disservice to the Town Manager to just say that it is a recommendation. This motion restricts the manager from doing his job. I think it is a disservice to that office. It sets a bad precedent.” 

Hala Lord, the only councilor to abstain, said, “I was left with a lot of questions after our last meeting, so I scheduled, or I was blessed to have, a tour of the Jones Library by Co-chair of the Friends of the Jones Library Kent Faerber and one of the trustees. I saw what repairs would be needed. I saw the dreams for the programming and the ADA accessibility, and I got some of my questions answered, but I’m still left with some very important ones that I think our taxpayers need some clarity on. I hope to continue to dig deep and get answers.”

As of this writing, there has been no information as to whether the Town Manager has signed the new contract with FAA or an amendment to the town’s existing Memorandum of Agreement with the library.

In public comment, Toni Cunningham, Jeff Lee, Maria Kopicki, Rita Burke, Janet Keller, and Arlie Gould spoke of the problems that would be raised by investing more money in the vastly over-budget project. Shalini Bahl Milne and Erika Zekos spoke on behalf of continuing the expansion project.

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1 thought on “Council Removes Restrictions on Funding for High School Track. Consents to Jones Library Redesign Expenditure

  1. Jennifer Taub is spot on stating as a Town Councilor, “We were elected to be responsible fiduciary managers of taxpayer funds,” as is Ellisha Walker in declaring that the council is not “overstepping our authority because as a body we are allowed to advise the Town Manager.”

    The Jones Trustees own the building yet have never been able to maintain it properly and will never be able to maintain it in the future without Town money.

    Residents might be interested in knowing that of the library’s FY 2025 Operating Budget of $2,959,762, the Jones will only provide $469,929 ($354,619 from their dwindling endowment, $115,284 fundraising and $26,000 from the Woodbury Fund endowment). Other funding resources come from the state aid and miscellaneous sources. The rest, a whopping $2,302,071, is provided by the Town. This year’s increase is 4% higher and will no doubt continue to increase each year.

    Given that the Trustees (1) have failed to meet the first deadline of the Memorandum of Understanding and are $900,000 short without explanation; given that they have just dipped into their dwindling endowment to pay increasing architectural fees; and (3) given that fundraising for the project in the community is virtually at a standstill, Town Councilors have every right and, in fact, an obligation to direct the Town Manager and also provide suggestions for the Trustees to find a path through this ill-planned project.

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