Opinion: More Money for the Library but Not for the Schools


Photo: istock

by Art and Maura Keene

The Town Council Meeting of June 17 (see also here) was a massively frustrating meeting for us. We sat through sanctimonious discussions about funding the track and the school budget with some councilors swatting away reasonable questions, concerns, and objections to their pre-established positions as if they were troublesome insects. The dramatic disdain and disrespect that Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), in particular, showed toward the Regional School Committee (RSC) was appalling.

Several councilors offered contradictory pronouncements, saying for example that we must trust the judgment and promises of the Jones Trustees because they are elected officials, and sink even more money into the blighted Jones library expansion project, while also arguing that the School Committee cannot be trusted (even though they too are elected officials) and demanding austerity for the schools.

The track at Amherst Regional High School has now been in terrible condition for at least five years, preventing the conduct of home meets. It could have been fully repaired at least two years ago, but was delayed by a restriction imposed by the previous RSC requiring the inclusion of an artificial turf infield. This, in spite of a powerful scientific and medical consensus that artificial turf – which contains the forever chemicals PFAS  – poses a substantial threat to public health and the environment (see also here). This, in spite of warnings from state Senator Jo Comerford that she was promoting legislation to ban in Massachusetts the sale of all products containing PFAS (including artificial turf). This, in spite of the fact that all four Boards of Health in the regional school district condemned the use of turf. This, in spite of the fact that three of the four towns pledged to not help fund the track and field repair if artificial turf was to be installed. 

The aforementioned restriction demanding turf was eventually lifted by the RSC in January 2024, but Councilors Hanneke, Pat De Angelis (District 2), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) voted in the minority on June 17 to keep another restriction in place that would require that the track be reoriented in a north-south direction, potentially delaying repairs further if that option proved unaffordable. The reorientation is actually a good idea and has consensus support from the RSC and Town Council. But while the town currently has enough money to repair the track without reorientation, they are $1 million  short of what they need to do the repair with the reorientation.  

Oddly, Hanneke, who has been vehemently critical of RSC budgeting, and Devlin-Gauthier, accused the RSC of being irresponsible regarding the RSC’s hesitancy to embrace the north-south reorientation and said they didn’t trust the RSC to make that decision. The RSC has in fact expressed support for the reorientation, but with concern for the cost, particularly during an ongoing nasty battle over the operating budget.

It was Hanneke, along with Councilor Andy Steinberg (at large), who spent the last few weeks in both Town Council and Finance Committee, excoriating the School Committee for poor planning and profligate spending as the RSC attempted to fend off significant cuts in staffing and programming in the regional schools.

The compromise 6% budget increase requested by the RSC and approved by the other three towns in the district, was approved by the Town Council at their meeting on June 24, but not without strong objections from budget hawks. That budget still results in the loss of seven full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers including four part-time language teachers (essentially gutting the middle school language program), two restorative justice (RJ) coordinators (resulting in the elimination of RJ at both the high school and middle school), other counselors, and an AP math and AP science teacher, in addition to numerous other losses.

These councilors are so mistrusting of the RSC that they have approved a letter of reprimand to the School Committee –  noting their displeasure with the RSC’s unwillingness to accept the Town Manager’s recommendation of a 4% budget increase and warning that the schools will have to embrace austerity in the coming year. That letter, harsh in tone and in its demands for austerity, was approved 8-4 by the council on June 24. 

Eight of these councilors (Pat DeAngelis, Ana Devlin-Gauthier, Freke Ette, Lynn Griesemer, Mandy Jo Hanneke, Bob Hegner, George Ryan and Andy Steinberg), had no such reservations about extending carte blanche to the Jones Library Trustees (see also here and here) who have given us a project that is shockingly over budget and considerably inferior to the one that was promised (see also herehere, here, and here). The councilors have stated at multiple meetings that since the Jones Trustees are elected officials, that they, the town councilors, and we, the public, have no business telling them what to do or questioning their judgment.  

And these same councilors who have taken on the mantle of austerity warriors, constantly reminding us that these are challenging times and that there is just no more money for teachers, or roads, or seniors, or firefighters or teens, or DPW workers, or more town hall or CRESS staffing, argue that we have to pour more money into the Jones expansion project, most recently another half million dollars or more to pay for drafting new plans to significantly degrade the building by eliminating many sustainability and historic preservations features.  And, they also argue that we must trust that the Jones Trustees will raise the money that they have promised, to cover their share of the costs, even though the Jones own treasurer said that they are unlikely to be able to do that (see also here), and even though they are already almost a million dollars in arrears in their promised first payment to the town.

To come full circle, the same way that town elected officials prevented the necessary repair of the track for years in order to pursue an unrealistic and unachievable outcome with stubborn, tone-deaf resistance to an overwhelming body of evidence and an emerging local, state, and national consensus regarding the health hazards of artificial turf, and without doing any of the due diligence that would have readily revealed the folly of their restrictions as well as reasonable and more expedient alternatives; that debacle shares a kinship with the way the Jones Trustees and the majority of the Town Council are obstructing acceptance of the fact that the Jones project has become unaffordable. And they reject meaningful consideration of the possibility of a modest and affordable repair and space repurposing option.

The town would do well to explore real, trustworthy, and up-to-date cost estimates for affordably fixing and improving the Jones, compiled by an independent, non-partisan source, instead of dismissing the possibility of their existence. And while they are at it, they should take a serious look at all of the ways that cutting staff and programming in the regional schools will inflict long-lasting harm on our kids, and seek creative alternatives to accepting the necessity and inevitability of such cuts.

Art Keene is a resident of District 3, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UMass, and the Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy. His four children are graduates of Amherst Regional High School. He was head coach of the ARHS girls cross country team for 17 years.

Maura Keene is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist at BayState Health Systems. Her four children are graduates of the Amherst schools. She has lived in Amherst since 1982. She is a frequent contributor to the Amherst Indy.

Spread the love

3 thoughts on “Opinion: More Money for the Library but Not for the Schools

  1. Excellent article! It is our town council who should be reprimanded for their poor judgment in spending! I am really frustrated with the governing body of this town…. So much hypocrisy: they claim they favor affordable housing, but pass intrusive, expensive bylaws that will ultimately hurt low income residents. They say they care for our residents and stakeholders, but slash funds for the most vulnerable (schools and student athletes). Sad state of affairs 😔

  2. So much money for the library when Comcast costs $60 a month and a VPN is free. Everything you need is on the web.

  3. I was also struck by Councilwoman Hanneke’s distrust of the RSC and complete faith in the Jones Trustees. There is a hope that the teen center at the new library will be a gathering place for teens. We know that the new track will benefit teens. Given that the town already funds the vast majority of the Jones budget with only a small portion of the budget coming from the endowment, I believe that rather than trusting the Trustees to act in citizens best interest, the Town Council should take on a more active role in managing the proposed expansion as well as exploring the options to repair the existing space. Again, as has been pointed out in a previous article, only the most urgent repairs need to be made right away. I am concerned that the library Trustees do not seem to be making a good faith effort to explore the repair option (based on their meeting on 6/17.) It is telling that the number of visitors to the Jones has decreased significantly since the pandemic. Many of us learned how to access the library resources virtually. I continue to be surprised that council members are spending so much time and energy considering the Jones expansion project when residents have been clear that a new DPW and a new South Amherst fire station are higher priorities.

Leave a Reply

The Amherst Indy welcomes your comment on this article. Comments must be signed with your real, full name & contact information; and must be factual and civil. See the Indy comment policy for more information.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.