School maintenance costs provide evidence that Town Meeting is failing us

Bennett Hazlip

It’s not what Town Meeting has done that’s the problem. The problem is what it hasn’t, can’t or won’t do.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette’s recent article, “Amherst faces big bills for upkeep of schools,” is maddening, partly because it’s so predictable.

Those of us who supported the school buildings project wanted to provide our children and their teachers with safe, healthy, up-to-date buildings that are conducive to learning. We warned, over the course of a long campaign to merely convince our town to accept $34 million in state matching funds, that the costs of delaying would be significant.  We didn’t have an official estimate of those costs.  But common sense would lead anyone who had set foot in either building to conclude that the costs of upkeep and maintenance would be large.

Now, we have a tally.  “Significant” is not quite a dramatic enough word in describing the costs.  From the Gazette article:   “A review of the condition of Amherst’s three elementary school buildings shows that the town will have to spend more than $1 million per year for the next four years, and more than $3 million in fiscal years 2022 and 2023, to maintain them, according the facilities department analysis.”

Looking for some context?  Amherst’s building repair/maintenance budget for the entire town (which includes the schools) only just recently started topping $1 million per year.  Now the schools alone will require more than that total budget.  That’s a big deal.

Curiously, the campaign against the proposed charter has decided that the schools may be a winning issue.  It took out an ad in the Amherst Bulletin last week to name forty – forty! – Town Meeting members who oppose the charter updates but voted in favor of the school project.  Well, as my grandmother would have said, bless their forty little hearts.  Maybe the next time they join our fellow parents and students at Fort River School for a gathering in the library on a rainy day, they can bring their own buckets to catch the water falling from the ceiling.  Because as we all know by now, Town Meeting members voted against funding the project just after voters voted in favor of it.

Now we know the real financial costs of Town Meeting’s failure to approve: $34 million in state aid lost and another $10 million in maintenance costs over the next six years – all while we wait for another chance to replace these buildings. Even if the state aid comes back, Amherst still loses $10 million to maintain buildings that will be torn down, instead of putting that money to use in other buildings in town. What a reckless, fiscally irresponsible vote from Town Meeting.

The Gazette article quotes a Town Meeting member who suggests that the School Committee “should have seen that the project would fail to gain enough votes.”  It is a striking contrast to read these words from a Town Meeting member and leader of the anti-school buildings campaign just after reading comments from an actual School Committee member who took the time to serve on the committee – a thankless but absolutely vital job.  It’s a lot easier to wave around your strong opinion when you’re an unaccountable Town Meeting member, beholden to no one.

Opponents of the charter have claimed many times that unhappy school building supporters are trying to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” In this reading, we’re guided by a blind, irrational rage at Town Meeting as a result of its vote to overturn the popular decision to support the buildings and act fiscally responsibly.  This is a typically condescending view.

We saw up close how Town Meeting doesn’t work.  Town Meeting has done a great job patting itself on the back for its “net-zero-building” vote, and for its appropriation of some smallish amount of dollars for the North Amherst Library.  But when it comes to the big things – schools, libraries, public works buildings, taxes, zoning – it appears utterly unable to get its act together.

And that has consequences for all of us.  While Town Meeting members are eagerly participating in democracy camp twice a year, the rest of us are wondering what in the heck is going on in our town.  It’s a great town, but we have some big issues to address – now.  And the occasional government of Town Meeting isn’t up to the job.

Bennett Hazlip is a nine-year resident of Amherst and father of two children who attend Fort River School.

Comments 9

  1. Bennett is right. I am a 5 year resident of Amherst and my daughter goes to Fort River Elementary School. The opponents to the Charter change may claim that supporters of that badly needed new elementary school and the supporters of the Charter Change are “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”. in trying to end the town meeting form of government… but the reality is that the Town Meeting took our children’s needs and hopes and dreams for a better education and threw them away like garbage. That’s right. Garbage.

    Maybe the Town Meeting used to be a responsible deliberative body but in the 5 years I have lived here, it has a developed a cancer at it’s heart… a cancer of a small mean-spirited group of firmly entrenched power brokers who ruthlessly run the decent town meeting members and game the system in secret, out of the sight of the residents who trusted them. And like any cancer, they slowly spread and eventually kill the entire body.

    They say you can tell what a person’s character is truly like in the way they treat a waiter or waitress in a restaurant. I would take that thought one step further. You can tell what a person’s character is truly like in the way they treat a child. And that hardcore cancer that runs town meeting has treated our children vey badly… and will continue to treat them badly unless good people stand up and vote “YES” on the Charter Change and save the hopes and dreams of our children from ever being treated like garbage again.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful piece, Bennett. This constant restating that the schools were defeated three times does not make it true. On Nov 8, in a fair and legal election, the voters accepted a 5% override in the amount of $68 million for two co-located schools. The schools PASSED.

    Yet we keep hearing the override failed, over and over, in the newspaper. People look to the newpaper for the truth, a living history. Because in a democracy, the fundamental duty of a free press is to educate the voters. Not gaslight them.

    Let’s be real. It will take Amherst 50 years to recover from this tragedy. Under state law, only the voters in an election can accept an override, not Town Meeting. The schools PASSED. The election was stolen from us, and, as Bennett points out, our children and grandchildren were robbed of their future. There is only one thing left that we can do about it, and that is vote on March 27.

    And if you feel, like I do, that we deserve a retraction and correction of the recent Gazette article that says “The town recently saw three failed votes to authorize borrowing for a $66.37 million project”, feel free to write to Dusty Christensen and Dan Crowley, Editor

  3. I am glad that these issues are being looked at by school administration. The costs of replacing roofs on town buildings is a normal expense, as is regular maintenance and repair. Our town capital budget anticipates these costs (or many of them) and the budget is built for about 10% capital costs, which include repairs. The rainy day fund is more than full and has been used in the past for a large roof repair to the high school. I would be interested in learning more about the annual maintenance costs of our school buildings — and if maintenance has been unnecessarily deferred.

    In Town Meeting the term ‘deferred maintenance’ comes up a lot and I’ve wondered why. As a homeowner, I know repairs are more expensive if they’ve been ignored for years. Is this the case? (I also live in a house which is over 215 years old, so know you can get a lot of use out of an old building–even one originally built without indoor plumbing and electricity or boilers.) Also interested in learning more about the costs of new roofs for the 2 elementary roofs and the basis of those numbers. Have bids gone out or if these are just estimated costs?

    Also interested in hearing how these estimated school maintenance costs would be affected by renovation or additions, etc. A new roof with skylights would add daylight to the elementary libraries and inner classrooms, so re-roofing would be a perfect time to address this important issue. I think the Fort River School Building Committee will be looking at these issues and hear that they have not gotten these numbers yet.

    Janet McGowan
    ex-Fort River parent
    Town Meeting member, Precinct 8

    1. Thank you for reminding us once again of your “over 215 year-old house.” This is the second time I’ve heard you invoke this house, which must be quite something. The first time was just after the school buildings project was killed once and for all in the wake of Town Meeting’s inability to vote on funding buildings that the “regular voters” of the town had voted to support. That time, we heard of your lovely historic home as part of an argument for constructing school buildings that are “really built to last – not for 50 years, but for 200 years!”

      Sounds great! We should look into that the next time the state agrees to give us $34 million. If there’s any extra cash left over from making sure those buildings meet the rigorous net-zero standards Town Meeting just mandated, of course.

      In the meantime, it sounds like this is a huge opportunity for us to finally get skylights for my kids in these failing buildings. Maybe I’ll even be lucky enough to have the roof of my car get rusted out. I’ve always wanted a convertible.

    2. Do you think the folks who run our schools are stupid? Repairs have not been ignored. The buildings exceeded their useful life and were slated to be torn down. Why would you put a new roof and furnace on a building that you had been planning to tear down for the last ten years? How can anyone be so glib? Don’t you have any idea how much this screws things up?

  4. Town Meeting’s decision about new elementary school buildings reminded me of a man who drives a 20-year-old Toyota with 250,000 miles on it. It’s rusting out, exhaust is coming in, and it needs new brakes. A kindly relative who owns a car dealership offers to sell him a brand-new Nissan at half price, but the man says, “No, I only drive Toyotas.” Then he discovers, too late, that his repair bills are enormous — and after a few years, he has to junk it anyway.

  5. That comment from “Town Meeting Member, Precinct 8” reminds me of Donald Trump a few days ago looking to place blame elsewhere on the fact that a mentally disturbed person was able to obtain a gun after he signed an executive order making it easier for mentally disturbed people to obtain guns.

    It also reminded me of Donald Trump bemoaning the plight of the Dreamers who will be facing deportation on March 5th after he signed an executive order ending the DACA program, removing those innocent young people’s safety net and wondering how they got into this sad situation, shifting blame to anyone and everyone else.

    Hmm, I guess what I mean to say here is that Town Meeting Member Precinct 8’s comment reminded me of… hypocrisy.

    Where was all this concern for the buildings our children spend 5 days a week in when town meeting sentenced them and another generation of children to having to continue to attend those same schools that make learning more difficult for them? Where was the concern for all the kids, who, through no fault of their own, are having difficulties learning because of those open classrooms and whose lives have been made much harder by the town meeting basically saying, “No… we don’t care”.

    And even now, the concern expressed in that comment is not for the children who are still struggling to learn in those open classrooms… it is to see if there is blame that can be assigned to some poor school administrator who is in charge of maintenance or anyone other than the town meeting itself. Look at that comment again. Do you see the word “children” anywhere in it? No, but you see plenty of references to money and suggesting blame.

    The town meeting members who voted against that school are still treating the needs of our children like garbage. Remember that on March 27th. It may be your last chance to do something good for the kids in town that they can’t do for themselves.

  6. Janet anyone who has looked an any of the blog posts or basically anything on the Internet related to the charter vote will be very aware that you are pro town meeting. Your insistence that somehow the school vote wasn’t a horrible decision by town meeting against the will of the town is at best a massive straw grasp and at worst a fabrication. Unless you have some good ideas on how to avoid this happening in the future, I really think you have said enough.

  7. I went back to that postcard that told us that Everything You Love About Amherst is at stake on March 27, if you vote against Town Meeting. I agree that Town Meeting has made some really good decisions about things I love–go War Memorial Pool!

    But the postcard is completely silent on the things we don’t love, or things that are controversial. A note to Not This Charter–If you want to own the things we love, then you also need to own the things we don’t love.

    Town Meeting seems completely incapable of addressing our problems, our warts, our quirks. Look at the completely chaotic discussion about downtown zoning. After many zingers, four camps have emerged: 1) love the downtown buildings, love the charter, 2) love the buildings, hate the charter, 3)hate the buildings, love the charter, 4)hate the buildings, hate the charter. You could substitute “school vote” for “downtown buildings” above (or “Jones library addition”, or “DPW building”, or almost anything). That’s no way to run a town.

    I want a legislature that will take responsibility for the good, the bad, and the ugly–not just the easy stuff. I want a legislature that will own its decisions (downtown parking district, design review board, school vote) and responsibly review by laws that don’t seem to be working. I want some tough love. Please vote yes

Leave a Reply

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