June dates set for big school vote in Belchertown

Belchertown residents will decide in June whether to approve funding for a new Jabish Brook Middle School.

Belchertown residents will decide in June whether to approve funding for a new Jabish Brook Middle School. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By Emilee Klein

Staff Writer

Published: 03-03-2024 1:47 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Voters in June will get their say whether to authorize funding for a new $121 million Jabish Brook Middle School, now that the Select Board has selected dates for a special election and special Town Meeting to take place about a month after the town’s regular annual Town Meeting.

The special election on June 17 will consist of a single ballot question about building a new middle school to replace Jabish. If the project is approved by majority vote at that election, the question will advance to a special Town Meeting scheduled for a week later on June 24. In order to advance, two-thirds of voters must vote in favor.

The Select Board opted for the June votes in order to spread out elections and town meetings this spring. The town’s regular Town Meeting is scheduled for May 13.

“2024 is a very busy season,” Town Administrator Steve Williams said. “It would be a real burden for the clerk’s office to try and run this many elections back to back to back so it’s best to spread them out.”

Additionally, Superintendent Brian Cameron and School Committee Chair Heidi Gutekenst report that the town will not have enough financial information to present to voters should the school building vote happen earlier. That’s because the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is expected to fund about 30% of the project, is expected to give its final estimate of financial reimbursement in the beginning of June.

“We’re not going to have the information for the public to make an educated guess at the end of May,” Cameron said. “I would not feel comfortable being part of it not having the accurate information for citizens of Belchertown to make this huge decision.”

Gutekenst said putting the election before the special Town Meeting allows the town to cancel the meeting or end it early with limited people if the project doesn’t pass at the polls.

Select Board member Lesa Lessard Pearson questioned the dates due to the inconvenience, but Select Board Chair Edward G. Boscher said options for the town were limited after the MSBA told officials the vote needed to happen in June or July.

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Voters must approve the project for the town to keep its place in the MSBA program, according to Cameron.

After weeks of deliberation, the Select Board decided to use $44,000 in ARPA money to fund the special election meeting. While the Select Board agreed ARPA funds are preferable for town projects, members were unable to identify other sources of funding in the budget.

Plans for the new Jabish Brook detail a three-story building for 475 students. Each floor is delegated to a specific grade, with sixth grade on the bottom floor, seventh grade on the second floor and eighth grade on the top floor. The lower floor will also include a gymnasium and administrative offices.

The price tag for the new building is estimated at $117 million to $121 million, with about a 30% reimbursement from the MSBA, cutting the cost to taxpayers by about $31 million. The MSBA board of directors in December voted to have the Belchertown project go to the schematic design stage.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.