BELCHERTOWN — In a decisive election on June 17, Belchertown residents firmly voted against funding the construction of a new middle school at the Jabish Brook property on North Washington Street.

In the final count, the ballot question of whether to approve a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override necessary to build the new school received 2,539 votes against and 1,548 in favor, roughly 62.1% to 37.9%, according to data from the town clerk. With 4,088 participants, the voter turnout was 33%.

The June 17 election was the first step in the required process to approve the new school plan, for which the town’s statement of interest was first submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Authority on April 17, 2020. The project then formally began in early 2023, the Jabish Brook Building Committee said.

The Jabish Brook Middle School project proposed a new 113,900-square-foot building to educate 475 students in grades 6-8 at the current school’s property. With this new building, Cold Spring School was to be closed. Overall, the $122 million project was listed with a 39% reimbursement rate from the MSBA, resulting in a $74.6 million cost to the town or an estimated annual tax increase of $815 for the average accessed home value, the Building Committee stated.

Initially, a June 24 Town Meeting was scheduled to finalize the project’s approval if the election vote passed. At a subsequent emergency Select Board meeting on June 21, town counsel Greg Corbo explained that because the special Town Meeting warrant was already executed and posted by the constable, the meeting technically could not be canceled and must be convened. However, without a quorum, the meeting could be simply adjourned with no actions taken. In the event of a quorum, the issue could be suspended indefinitely. Questions were raised about the proposed article or an amended one passing, but Corbo said those actions would have no impact and would largely be “advisory” because the previous vote on the Proposition 2½ question at the town election had failed. The Town Meeting took place after Reminder Publishing’s press time and further coverage will be available in a future issue of The Reminder.

For its part, at a June 20 emergency meeting, the Jabish Brook Building Committee voted to not continue with pursuing the project.

In reflecting on the vote at its June 20 meeting, the committee agreed that the vote likely failed due to concerns about the cost of the project in the current financial landscape. They also stated that misinformation about the project on social media may have impacted residents’ votes.

While members suggested different components of the project that could be removed to reduce the cost, the committee overall agreed that eliminating components to reduce the cost could negatively impact the project’s intended educational benefits.

Furthermore, members noted that a modified project may not alter enough votes to change the final outcome, that the town may not have enough funds to fully complete the needed steps for a modified project plan proposal, and that any modifications to the project could lead to a reduced reimbursement rate from the MSBA.
In an interview prior to the emergency meeting, Jabish Brook Building Committee Chair Heidi Gutekenst told Reminder Publishing that if the town decided to pursue any further renovation or construction projects at the Jabish Brook property, then it would under the oversight of the Select Board.

While the Building Committee did not formally dissolve at the June 20 meeting, Gutekenst stated that another emergency meeting would be called soon for this purpose. Williams at the June 21 Select Board meeting reiterated that the committee would likely dissolve because their charge was specific to the project and any future planning on the school would require either a new committee or collaboration between the School Committee and Select Board.

Gutekenst emphasized that she was “really glad” with the high voter turnout at the election, regardless of the vote’s result, and that she hoped residents would continue to stay involved in the project if the town decided to pursue other efforts.

With the vote’s rejection of the MSBA-reimbursed project, the town will have to wait until the agency is accepting applications again before another project could be submitted, Gutekenst said. She highlighted that the organization historically does not approve new projects after a previous proposal was rejected for at least 10 years.

During discussions prior to the election, the Building Committee stated that a base repair of the middle school without state funding assistance would cost the town an estimated $88 million. Gutekenst told Reminder Publishing that the town could decide to pursue this type of project in later vote, but that the town currently was not under any state regulated obligations to make improvements to the middle school.

Reminder Publishing Managing Editor Chris Maza contributed to this report.