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Guest columnists Matt Holloway and Kursten Holabird: Building for our future

  • mactrunk mactrunk

  • This screenshot from a video presentation shows the proposed 105,570-square-foot, three-story new school building in Amherst. The design is by DiNisco Design Inc. of Boston. DiNisco Design



Friday, March 31, 2023

May 2, 2023 is an important date for the future of Amherst. On that date, voters will go to the polls with the chance to steer our community onto a positive and progressive path by voting “yes” for a new consolidated elementary school building. (Early voters can sit back and relax, having made their voices heard well in advance.)

This will be a big investment for the community — the town’s share is approximately $55 million, after we receive about $40 million in funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The impact on the average property tax bill is approximately $480 a year, according to the town’s finance director. The Elementary School Building page has a calculator that individual voters can use to determine their share (www.amherst-school-project.com/faq).

So why is a “yes” vote so important?

For us, an educator and parent of two children under the age of 4 and a union organizer with children ages 13 and 15, it is all about kids, climate and cost. It is about the future of our community and our collective ability to support the challenges and obligations of the future from a fiscal, environmental and moral perspective.

First and foremost, our students deserve a learning environment that is safe, well-lit, and meets the needs of the 21st-century learner. Our teachers and staff deserve working conditions that deliver the same. The Fort River and Wildwood School buildings have famously outdated educational designs, built around open classroom concepts that were problematic from the very beginning, as the NPR article “Open Schools Made Noise In The ’70s; Now They’re Just Noisy” makes clear. Our students and our educators deserve a building that meets their educational needs in a flexible, responsive environment.

Second, our climate goals are very important to us; we are a community that takes action to protect the environment and our planet. Amherst also has a reputation as a leader in progressive responses to social problems. This consolidated elementary school will be our first municipal net-zero, carbon neutral building. Powered by heat pumps and solar panels, with a design focused on community health and well-being, it will become an asset in many ways in light of coming climate challenges.

Finally, and to some most important, is cost. This project is the right financial decision to address two failing school buildings. If we turn down more than $40 million in state aid that will help pay for this project, the full cost of renovating or replacing both Fort River and Wildwood schools would fall entirely on Amherst taxpayers.

Town officials have estimated the costs of getting both buildings up to code and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act as being in the range of $80 million, and that figure doesn’t even begin to address the other problems in the buildings. Moreover, a consolidated elementary school, with a zero net-energy design that generates energy for the grid, is projected to save our community approximately $250,000 a year in utility costs alone, and up to $1 million a year in overhead savings overall.

Amherst school officials will have more funds to dedicate to other operating costs with the annual savings that this project guarantees. This may be important in the current negotiation process with the Amherst teachers and staff. Amherst schools remain an important reason families move to town. Our school buildings need to support this reputation rather than become a reason families turn away from public schools.

It has been a long road from Amherst’s first chance with the Massachusetts School Building Authority in 2015. We are lucky enough to have another chance at state funding for the school that will help our students thrive. It’s crucial that we act now, as a community, and vote “yes” on May 2.

Matt Holloway is an Amherst parent, veteran educator, and Narragansett Regional School District administrator. Kursten Holabird is an Amherst parent and longtime labor union activist. Both are co-chairs of Vote Yes for Our Schools.