The Amherst School Board (ASD) Ways and Means Committee released a report regarding the warrant article to build a new facility at Wilkins and whether or not it is the best educational and fiscal value for Amherst. The facilities within the Amherst School District consist of the Clark school building, the Wilkins school buildings, and the Amherst Middle School building (AMS). For this analysis, the ASD Ways and Means Committee examined the Wilkins school located at 80 Boston Post Road and AMS at 14 Cross Road; they did not consider the Clark school. This will be the largest elementary school in the state of NH!
The complete report can be located at:
W&M has sought to understand why advocates for the proposed schools were supporting it, especially since it has been the only option brought before residents. To that end, they had interviews and conversations with administrators, principals, members of the Amherst School Board, members of the Building and Grounds (JFAC) team, and members of the public. ASD Ways and Means reviewed the reports from JFAC along with working materials and previously unreleased files from JFAC. The following are critical highlights - please read the full report followed by overall conclusions!
WARRANT ARTICLE REVIEW
The cost of the Warrant Article is $54,250,179. The total costs related to this article is $103,384,725, which includes the cost of construction as well as the cost of financing the project. Only the lower cost of construction is stated on the warrant. This is misleading to voters.
The reason for the additional $49,134,546 are the interest payments at the projected 5.75% rate. There are two ways that the article could be financed. If it is financed with level principal, the total cost would be $92,267,687. If it is financed with level debt, the total cost would be $103,384,725.
Paying less to the bankers for financing this project would be beneficial to the Amherst taxpayers overall, but the ASB has chosen the more expensive level-debt option. The previous warrant article that was defeated last year was level principal.
The average homeowner in Amherst has a property value of $482,000. For this homeowner, this warrant article will translate to a tax increase of $839/year for the next 25 years under the expected level-debt scenario.
ASD BUILDING REPAIR & MAINTENANCE HISTORY
Residents have been told that our schools are rundown and at end of life. However, per the following table and graph, a review of the previous 10 years voted (either proposed or default) budgets reveals that there was a reduction in the funds allocated for maintenance and repairs starting in FY2018. These data are in stark opposition to the claims that budgets were decreased prior to FY2018 and that the buildings were in disrepair.
Also, in FY19, there was a $310,000 warrant article approved by the voters to fix the fresh water system in the Amherst Middle School Building. While the specific areas of heating systems, plumbing, and painting may appear to have some increase in spending beginning with FY2018, it is minor compared to the major reduced spending of the building repairs. In the case of electrical repairs, it appears there was no plan in the budgets from FY21 to FY23.
The creation of the Capital Reserve Fund (CRF) appears to collect a certain amount of the unspent balance, rather than return those funds back to the taxpayers. How does this plan predict, with accuracy, the unspent balances five years in advance to fund the CRF? Prior to this, ASB would specify maintenance and repairs in each year’s proposed budgets, and the voters would vote on the proposed budget. There was a Building Maintenance Trust that was funded with a much smaller amount of the unspent balance, but this trust was specifically to cover any emergencies that arose. The CRF allows the Board the option to choose what to maintain or repair and when. Excluding all maintenance and repairs from the proposed annual budgets removes an element of choice from the voters.
Coincidentally to the FY18 cuts to repairs and maintenance, the Joint Facility Advisory Committee (JFAC) was formed in an agreement with the Amherst School District (ASD) and the Souhegan Cooperative School District (SCSD) in September 2017 to plan ASD and SCSD facilities needs and keep tax impacts somewhat consistent. One conclusion to be drawn is that we needn’t have been put in this position if our schools had been adequately maintained over the years. It may be quite likely that they can be refurbished and brought back to a high working level for a lot less than $103M.
There are no adequately detailed cost designs and estimates for potential cost-effective alternative facility plans. The proposed new construction warrant article may not be the most cost-effective way to solve space issues. A requirements document for the new school project should be based on reasonable projections for future needs and aligned with an established education philosophy with features that are adaptable to the changing educational approaches we will undoubtedly face over the next decades.
Before residents are asked to choose a single high-cost, high-stakes construction investment:
Broader, evidenced-based discussions regarding educational practices, plans, and how buildings might best support them should be led by the incoming superintendent and involve everyone in the community.
The complete costs of undertaking the new elementary school construction project and the cost of ownership across its life cycle should be calculated and presented to taxpayers.
Other viable design options should be thoroughly explored, costed, and discussed with the community.