Saturday, October 31, 2015

Educational Point/Counterpoint

Amherst Public Schools are nothing if not colorful these days

With all that's going on with the Amherst Public School system -- new school, expanded regionalization, merging Middles School students into the High School, etc -- it's easy to forget teaching, that most basic function taking place in a classroom.

I found this exchange between a former ARMS teacher/parent and Principal Mendonsa interesting.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Thirsty Thursday Party House

203 Northampton Road (Rt 9)  "Everybody into the pool"

This large out of control party disturbing the Rt. 9  neighborhood  (not already disturbed by the high traffic volumes) last night is probably not a good sign going into Halloween weekend.

This morning in Eastern Hampshire District Court all four "college aged youth" took a standard plea that  diverts from criminal to civil with payment of the $300 town noise bylaw fine.

 All four signed a waiver in order to represent themselves.  And they were out in time for a 11:15 AM class

The other "nuisance house" charge was dropped, although if the bad boys repeat this type of behavior before the end of the semester and end up before Judge Payne, that charge will quickly reappear.  And then some.  

Sunderland Barn Fire

Thick black smoke could be seen for miles

If anyone in Amherst looked out their windows this morning towards the northwest you couldn't help but notice the dense black plume of smoke billowing over the farm fields of Hadley and Sunderland.

A barn, mostly used for storage, had caught fire and despite the best efforts of many, many fire departments (including Amherst) the barn was a total loss.

Fortunately there were no injuries.

The morning after

Thursday, October 29, 2015

2nd Chances

 706 South East Street 10:00 PM  (9/1/14)

706 South East Street today:  "Barricaded in our homes"

As a matter of equal parts expediency for the Commonwealth and fairness for a 1st time offender our state in its infinite wisdom came up with the standard 24D disposition for the all too numerous Operating Under the Influence cases that occur in Massachusetts.

Yes everybody -- except perhaps murderers and pedophiles -- deserves a second chance.  Let the first among us who has never driven after having had a few sips too many cast the first beer bottle.

 Ailton Correia (left) with Attorney Fred Chamberland

In Eastern Hampshire District Court today after about 20 minutes of testimony that included a compelling witness impact statement Judge Payne looked at at Ailton Correia and said, "I am going to agree with this plea deal as I hope this incident was only a bump in the road -- no pun intended."

But he then went on to add 50 hours of community service, attendance at "Brains At Risk" program and alcohol screens for the duration of his one year probation.

The 24D all by itself costs $2,587.76
 Standard 24D disposition fees/fines

Although Judge Payne did waive the first four months of $65 probation payments so Mr. Correia could pay restitution of $295.40 for a neighborhood cat that was killed by flying debris.

As is standard procedure the Commonwealth presented the facts to Judge Payne first, which would have been used against Correia had the case gone to trial.

ADA Bob Opsitnik said the car -- a 1998 gray Honda civic -- was traveling south on South East street at a very high rate of speed, lost control over the hill, crashed into a tree and ended up against the front door of a brick house.

A young woman (his cousin) was ejected from the vehicle and ended up screaming on the front lawn.  The driver (Correia) and his passenger were both transported to Baystate Medical Center.   He suffered a broken leg.

An Amherst police officer noticed the driver had bloodshot glassy eyes and the odor of stale alcohol.

Since blood was drawn at the hospital during the course of Correia's treatment, the state requested a BAC test which converted to between .87 and .09 Blood Alcohol Concentration (legal limit is .08).

Defense Attorney Fred Chamberland told Judge Payne his client is a student at Greenfield Community College who worked two jobs up until the time of the accident.  Since he suffered a broken leg he had to give up his job with UPS.

The defense hired two expert witnesses who would have testified that his Blood Alcohol Concentration was between .07 and .08 and the car was traveling at around 50 MPH.

 Janet McGowan, after waiting 3.75 hours, addressed Judge Payne

But Janet McGowan told Judge Payne it was more in the 80-90 MPH range as she described the roar of an engine unlike any she has heard before on her busy street.  And she brought a poster sized blow up of the mangled vehicle that blocked her front door.

 Judge Payne examining mangled car photo

The Judge said, "That looks like more than 50 MPH" as he perused the picture.  He went on to say he lives on a somewhat busy street and he knows the sounds cars make.  "You know the difference between 50-60 MPH and 80-90 MPH ... It's an extraordinary sound.  You can't make that up."

Looking directly at Correia Judge Payne told him he was, "Extraordinarily lucky.  You could have killed a person instead of a cat."

When adding the extra 50 extra hours of community service Judge Payne said he wanted it to be dealing with people who have suffered traumatic brain injury, maybe Wounded Warriors for instance.  That way he can see the consequences of a serious accident.

Finally Judge Payne suggested Correia meet with Janet McGowan and her husband to apologize for the disruption he brought to their lives that night.

A disruption that today, over a year later, still lingers.

There They Go Again

Katherine Appy (4th from rt), Vira Douangmany Cage (2nd from left)

The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee has been cited yet again by the Attorney General's office for violating the Open Meeting Law.

Or maybe I should say just Amherst School Committee Chair Katherine Appy was cited since the AG used the term "individual violation".

Interestingly the violation is a result of Ms. Appy thinking that Regional School Committee Chair Trevor Baptiste overstepped his bounds when he announced to the committee he was going into "mediation" with the NAACP over a "breach of contract" from a 1993 consent agreement.

Regional School Committee attorney Regina Tate thought no such breach occurred. 

That 20+ year old divisive issue related to discipline meted out to non white students at a higher rate than white students.  An old issue that apparently never seemed to go away.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Town Gown Collaborative

Steering Committee sat at tables forming a U

The University Town of Amherst Collaborative (UTAC) met for the first time today in the Amherst Room on the 10th floor of the tax-exempt Campus Center.

But the one hour meeting had a distinct air of deja vu as the committee co-chairs are once again Associate Vice Chancellor for University Relations Nancy Buffone  and interim Town Manager Dave Ziomek.

Amherst Select Board Chair Alisa Brewer and UMass Chancellor Subbaswamy also sat at the head table although the Chancellor is not listed as a member of the Steering Committee.

The idea for UTAC came out of the successful Town/Gown Steering Committee which met for just over a year with the stated goal to increase cooperation and collaboration between the town and UMass, our number one employer.

In addition to the UTAC Steering Committee, which will also have an undergrad and grad student by next semester, there are three independent subcommittees focusing on economic development, housing, and cultural arts/entertainment.

Chancellor Subbaswamy, who would like to see Amherst become "Cambridge West" (without the traffic and tall buildings) acknowledged he would be hiring a couple hundred more employees down the road.

He would also like to think those new employees could afford to live and recreate in Amherst, not that he has anything against nearby towns.

Interim Town Manager Dave Ziomek said it's not just about increasing the vibrancy of our downtown but also the Village Centers and he pointed out how North Amherst is growing with the recent opening of the Mill District.

Mr. Ziomek stated the town is still in the search phase for an Economic Development Director -- a top recommendation of the Town Gown Steering Committee -- and he would keep everyone informed through November and December.

But, he was optimistic they would find "the right person for Amherst.'

Nancy Buffone concluded the meeting on an upbeat note:  "It's going to be a lot of fun."

UTAC subcommittee members

Blinded By The Light

Newer of ye old landfills catching some rays
Note thick tree line buffering landfill from Logtown Road neighborhood on left

'Twas NIMBY business as usual at the 2nd town sponsored public forum on planned solar array projects at the two closed landfill sites, both located off Belchertown Road in East Amherst.

 Crowd was not overly friendly to concept of solar on ye old landfill

While the 3.4 megawatt project on the newer of the old that will generate $128K in electrical savings and $45K Payment In Lieu Of Taxes annually for 20 years seems to have almost universal support, the older unlined landfill with a ritzy neighborhood next door continues to draw fire.

 The project will have plenty of oversight

Despite presentations outlining the rigorous testing and oversight the Department of Environmental Protection requires for landfills, neighbors were not convinced the solar project could be safely constructed on an unlined landfill with a cap that is not perfectly impermeable.

They even hired their own environmental consultant who concluded the sky is falling, the sky is falling.  

Interim Town Manager Dave Ziomek 

Standing exactly where deceased Town Manger John Musante stood only six weeks ago, interim Town Manager Dave Ziomek started the proceedings by acknowledging his friend and colleague: "John was passionate about making Amherst a green community and solar was one of his biggest priorities."

 One of the many symbols of Amherst's commitment to being a "green community"

Back in 2011 NIMBYs tried to sabotage  a warrant article allowing Town Manager Musante to enter into a solar deal on ye old landfill by adding a pair of poison pill amendments.  They both failed in one of the most lopsided defeats in the 250+ year history of Amherst Town Meeting.

Naturally NIMBYs instantly went to Plan B: file a lawsuit, which resulted in "death by delay".

A neighbor brought up that lawsuit at the public forum last night and Finance Director Sandy Pooler stated the town never lost faith in their position that the landfill project was legal and this time around the town would see it through.

In other words, "Go ahead, make my day."

 Ye old landfill

Amherst Town Meeting, which starts November 2, will vote on the same warrant article overwhelmingly passed in 2011 to allow Interim Town Manager Dave Ziomek to enter an agreement with SunEdison on net metering credit purchase and for Payment In Lieu Of Taxes on the solar array on the "new" landfill.

The only question now is will the town be bullied and bluffed into dropping the solar array project on ye old landfill.  Again.

Hadley, our farm community next door, had no problems with this solar array on E. Hadley Road

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Crossing The Educational Rubicon?

Superintendent Maria Geryk gets into testy exchange with a parent

The reorganization of the entire Amherst elementary public education program for at least the next 50 years drew a limited audience yesterday afternoon, at most a dozen-and-a-half concerned parents.

Maybe because, as school officials seem to think, busy parents are not paying attention; or maybe because they feel their input is only so much blah, blah, blah that allows school officials to check off a box in their search for state reimbursement.

For instance in response to my question about what happens if the School Committee votes "No" to the administration's wish for a new Mega-School to replace both Wildwood and Fort River, Assistant Superintendent Mike Morris said he would lock himself in his office the next day to come up with another plan.

Which of course means that going into the November 3rd School Committee meeting school administrators do not have a Plan B.

Another parent poninted out that no  figures have been presented to  show what it would cost simply to renovate or replace Wildwood. After all the endeavor is called, "Wildwood School Building Project".

Thus the School Committee is voting on the prefered option without facts and figures related to any of the other options. In other words a stacked deck.

If you're a betting person and want a really safe bet ... put your money on the Amherst School Committee voting yes to the "Education Plan" that requires a $20 million Debt Exclusion Override, or a $200/year increase in taxes on a median Amherst home for thirty years.

Whether the taxpayers of this town pass that Override question at the ballot box, however, is not nearly so certain.

Twitter profile
 Lead architect has good taste in musicals at least

The Merriest Maple Of All?

Huge Norway Maple is located dead center on historic North Common

Citizens may want to bring their sunglasses to this year's Merry Maple tree lighting ceremony on December 4th -- the 40th anniversary of the happy wholesome family event.

Because for the first time in memory the holiday tree chosen for illumination is the original BIG tree in the middle of our historic North Common. 

Since the creation of the Business Improvement District the lighting of the Merry Maple did improve somewhat with the addition of lights, and the town has also improved the electricity on the town common somewhat to avoid short outs that would suddenly darken the tree.

But nothing that compared to the original Merry Maple of the bygone days when town center had a hardware store, grocery store and a locally owned drug store.

Or maybe that's just my selective memory.

 Merry Maple appeared for six seconds in movie "Silent Night, Lonely Night"

Of course I do also remember when the Merry Maple was lit up in the spring of 1968 for the filming of  "Silent night, lonely night", which strikes me as a little longer than 40 years ago.

Party House(s) of the Weekend

265 North East Street

This weekend set a new a record for Party House incidents so far this semester.  Two.  Yes, nothing compared to the bad old not so long ago when four or five Party Houses resulting in arrests disturbed the peace quiet of numerous neighborhoods all over town.

But still enough to make me worry about this upcoming Halloween weekend -- especially considering the presence of a top ingredient for potential explosiveness:  good weather.

The winner out of the two Party Houses would have to be 265 North East Street, from sheer size alone.  And of course all the things that go along with a crowd that large in a house zoned for a  dozen.

Both APD and AFD were tied up dealing with the party crowd thus leaving the rest of the town less protected.

Click to enlarge/read
ETOH = dangerously drunk
In Eastern Hampshire District Court on Monday all four defendants had their criminal cases converted to civil with payment of a $300 fine for Town By Law "Noise" violation,  the unlicensed keg charge was "placed on file" until 5/15/16 and the "Nuisance" charge they were found "not responsible."

Dylan Estes, age 21, arraigned before Judge John Payne
Dylan Naples, age 21
William Nadai, age 20
Greg Gagnon, age 22

 233 Strong Street
Jake McDermott, Ryan Grady and Daniel Legmann stand before Judge John Payne with their private attorney

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hurry Up & Wait

108,000 square foot, Wildwood Elementary School, built 1970, enrollment 412

For many parents with children in the Amherst public schools the "Wildwood School Study" only appeared on their radar recently.  Mainly because the name implies only the Wildwood Elementary School would be impacted and a lack of effective outreach from school officials.

But now of course everybody is aware that the "Reconfiguration" model is the preferred plan by administrators which means the new construction of a Mega-School that is really two schools in one.  Thus ailing Fort River is also impacted in the most major way possible.

As is Crocker Farm, which will go from preK-6 to only preK & 1st grade while the new Mega-School will handle all students grades 2-6.

The reason the administration wants to maximize the number of students in the new Mega-School is funding, as the state MSBA program will cover 58% of the cost (even though many people thought it would be as high as 68%).

 Assistant Superintendent Mike Morris (rt) presenting to Wildwood Building Committee 10/15

At the most recent 10/15 Wildwood School Building Committee meeting Assistant Superintendent Mike Morris went through pretty much the same Powerpoint presentation he gave to the School Committee on 10/20.

All except the most important slide with the recommendation for the new Mega-School rather than simply renovating or replacing Wildwood at 40% less cost.

Since the construction of a Mega-School is  twice as tricky as constructing a regular sized school to replace Wildwood (or renovate it) I'm surprised the Wildwood Building Committee was not given a heads up at that 10/15 meeting.

Since it was less than a week away from the School Committee presentation obviously school administrators had by then made their major decision.

In other words, why not put the Mega-School plan on the table and let the Wildwood Building Committee vote on it before presentation to the School Committee?

Timeline for Mega School

According to the Timeline the School Building Committee does have to vote on the plan prior to submission to MSBA but now the die is cast in favor of a Mega-School.

Which is of course a LOT more expensive than simply replacing/renovating Wildwood alone at $12 million vs $20 million.  School officials have certainly failed to learn from history.

The original 6/14/94 Debt Exclusion Override to renovate the Amherst Regional High School passed Town Meeting and Select Board muster with ease, but failed at the ballot box by 73 votes the first time around, 1979 to 1907.

Less than six months later, after extensive public outreach, Town & School officials brought the Debt Exclusion Override back and it passed 2,786 to 2,161.

Interestingly we are still paying for the $26 million ARHS renovation from all those years ago as well as the $4 million Crocker Farm school renovations.

And the town is facing three other major building projects in the very near future: new South Fire Station & DPW building and the Jones Library expansion.

Current Town Debt
At the most recent Finance Committee meeting Sandy Pooler, Finance Director, said the new DPW building may come before Town Meeting this spring while the Mega-School will not be ready for a Town Meeting vote for a full year (fall 2016).

Thus there's an advantage for a project to come first, before sticker shock can set in. The problem comes for the project that goes 4th after the other three have been approved and town officials do the math on how much that's going to cost.

My biggest fear is the desperately needed new South Fire Station goes dead last.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


July 2015
This morning (Click to enlarge)

Having run a small business for 28 years I appreciate just how demanding a mistress she can be (or "mister" for you daring female entrepreneurs).

The vast majority of start-ups fail to celebrate their 5th anniversary, and if you calculate the average pay an owner takes over that short lifetime it probably works out to far below minimum wage for all the hours invested.

Yes downtown rents are a tad expensive.  But like most things in life, you get what you pay for.

With the right product, a strong business plan and a little luck of the Irish a small business can do more than just survive in our downtown.  They can downright thrive.

Pine Street Speeding To Finish (Finally)

Pine Street is east/west connector to North Amherst center and Cushman Village

Thanksgiving will be especially thankful this year for those of you who live in North Amherst and the many of you who travel through there routinely:  Pine Street, the expensive forever project, may now be completed this year rather than next spring. 

Pedestrian crosswalk with lights may be completed this year

The sidewalk and crosswalk contiguous with Simple Gifts Farms and pretty much dead center in the busy roadway was going to be delayed due to crops in the field. 

But this week the project rolled ahead and DPW Chief Guilford Mooring reports, "a rush of activity to be done with Pine Street so the sidewalk at the farm will probably be paved next week, as long as the rain holds off."

Click to enlarge photos
Sidewalk switches sides due to utility poles in the way (too expensive to move)