By Anastasia Ordonez
The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) isn’t known for giving many second chances. So when they decided in 2019 to consider funding Amherst’s elementary school project after we had declined their help just three years earlier, it was a welcome surprise.
But this decision wasn’t just good luck. We worked hard to get the agency to believe in us and have more to do before our town must vote to fund our share of a new school in November 2022. We really can’t afford to lose this opportunity again.
Most folks in town are familiar with the events that led to our failed elementary school construction project almost five years ago. For years, school district leaders had called attention to the many problems with the Wildwood and Fort River elementary school buildings, some of which were present at construction and have worsened with age. Annual applications to the MSBA, the state agency charged with funding capital improvement projects in our state’s schools, were repeatedly denied until late 2013, when the agency finally accepted Amherst into its project pipeline.
Unfortunately, despite a win of the popular vote in 2016 to accept the debt that would pay for our share of the project, Town Meeting declined to formally sign off on funding. Project supporters tried twice to overturn the Town Meeting decision, including through a town-wide referendum, but lost in the end. We had to notify the MSBA that we were turning down their support.
Amherst’s governance changed dramatically soon after. Many residents were outraged at the lost school project, and they organized to enact a new Town Charter and replace Town Meeting with a 13-member Town Council. People rallied around the banner of the lost school project and other lost or shelved capital projects, resulting in dramatic leadership change for our community.
Meanwhile the new superintendent and School Committee reapplied to the MSBA, knowing that state funding for either school renovations or new construction would be critical. In 2019, following an intense public engagement process that resulted in general consensus around a new project, the town received word that we had been accepted into the pipeline. The MSBA didn’t want to take a chance that they would lose money on Amherst again, but they commended us for working toward consensus and were willing to formally explore helping us pay for a new school.
That’s not the end of this story, though.
Local and state public bodies – including the School Building Committee, Town Council, Amherst School Committee and the MSBA – will solicit community input, exchange information and vote on many project details over the next few years. There are some things we have control over, like an educational plan, but there are some things the MSBA controls and we only get a minor say in, like the choice of design team.
The MSBA recently took a big step forward by confirming the School Building Committee’s choice of contractor that will manage this construction project for us. But one of the most important sequence of votes will come next year when the MSBA will decide whether to enter into a Project Scope and Budget agreement with our town. After that we must vote to fund our share, in much the same way we did in 2016.
This town-wide vote is a big deal. As I explained two years ago, the MSBA estimates that projects like this one take five to seven years to complete from when the Eligibility Period first starts. In our case that was May 2020 so, realistically, we can’t expect our children to start in any new school until at least 2025 — a full 18 years after we first filed an application with the MSBA. We’ve lost a lot of time getting to this point, and we can’t afford to lose any more. Not only will construction costs continue to go up, but our children and educators deserve better schools right now.
“Remember the time the ceiling in the library fell down with a crash?” a sixth grader asked while reciting a poem onstage at his recent graduation from Fort River Elementary School. The smile froze on my face at those words. I remember the many instances that our public school buildings have failed our students – the hours of class time lost during heatwaves when the schools’ coolers wouldn’t turn on, the loss of library time when falling ceilings have rained on school books, the loss of concentration when children can’t hear their teachers in acoustically lousy open classrooms.
The MSBA expects our community to show we’re serious and won’t renege on our end of the bargain this time around. But most important, while that graduating sixth grader is too young to remember the first application to the MSBA and will never step foot in a new Amherst school, we must pass this vote for future students so they have a healthy, inspiring place in which to learn every day.