Amherst council raises concern over bearing brunt of track expenses

The Amherst Regional High School varsity athletic track and field.

The Amherst Regional High School varsity athletic track and field. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-26-2024 2:01 PM

AMHERST — Members of the Amherst Town Council are expressing concern about being asked to appropriate more money for a preferred track and field overhaul at Amherst Regional High School, when no similar requests are being made to the other towns in the school district.

Being short of having enough money for significant changes to the track and field, at an estimated $3.36 million price tag, the Regional School Committee is making three appeals to the Town Council, including having Amherst offer an additional $756,160 for the project, and lifting restrictions on previous appropriations, including money from the Community Preservation Act that requires synthetic turf and free cash that requires the field to be reoriented from an east-west direction to a north-south direction.

But a similar request for additional municipal financial support has not been made of Shutesbury, Leverett and Pelham officials.

“It’s extremely frustrating that the School Committee seems to have given up on asking the other towns for any portion of it,” said At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke.

Speaking to interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter, who was present at the meeting to make the requests on behalf of the School Committee, Hanneke said it appears the regional panel has given up on seeking any money from the other towns, and didn’t approach them over the winter, in advance of their annual Town Meeting sessions.

Hanneke said it’s a “frustrating excuse” that other regional partners have Town Meetings and can’t vote appropriations throughout the year without calling a special session.

Slaughter acknowledged it was a question of timing and not delaying the project any further, with hopes to design and permit the renovated track and field so it is ready to bid early in 2025 and construction can take place after next spring’s sports season.

If no changes are made in the existing funding and restrictions, the school district will move forward with cheaper projects, Slaughter said. Those don’t redo drainage or irrigation and feature a more modest approach that also don’t reorient the track.

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The Town Council agreed to refer the matter to be discussed and debated by the Finance Committee, with a recommendation due back by June 17.

Like Hanneke, District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier showed annoyance at the process.

“Our form of government should not box us in to paying an unequal proportionate share of these projects,” Devlin Gauthier said. “That’s insane.”

But at the same time she worries about the possibility of scrapping the project should reorientation not happen, and would oppose that.

“I can’t support this if we keep it in its current orientation,” Devlin Gauthier said. “It does not work when it’s east-west facing, we only benefit one sport.”

District 3 Councilor George Ryan said that a 2019 master plan to improve the track and field has reorientation as a significant element. “This is an opportunity for us to make an investment in our future, and once again, we’re probably not going to do it,” Ryan said.

Ryan said Amherst needs to be firm with smaller towns about providing more money, otherwise the project lacks vision and doesn’t address the issues the master plan tried to address.

At least one councilor, though, appeared to be satisfied with any project that will make the track and field useful.

“I think it’s extremely important to move forward with the money we have, not to hope there’s somehow another $700,000 lying in wait out there,” said District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen.

Schoen said she is not worried about reorienting the track because that has potentially dire consequences, contending that will destroy two other fields in the process. Schoen said that a priority should be supporting the operating budget for the regional schools.

District 5 Councilor Bob Hegner, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he, too, is concerned that only Amherst has been asked for additional funding for the project.

At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker said she would love to see the project move forward as soon as possible and Amherst officials should find ways to approach the other communities for more financial support.

The Hurricanes Boosters could “boost” their efforts at fundraising, too, said District 4 Councilor Pam Rooney, who said that a grass field, fully rebuilt, could be successful for student athletes.

District 2 Councilor Pat De Angelis agrees that Amherst needs to aggressively approach other towns about financial support because the track and field is a worthy investment, because athletics can be empowering for some students and their education.

“It’s an important and valuable change for our community and the other towns in the region,” De Angelis said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.