Vote on elementary school project is not likely before 2023

By Sarah Marshall

A town-wide vote on raising taxes to help pay for a new elementary school is unlikely to occur next November during the state and federal election. The vote may come in a special election in the spring of 2023, and the new school could open in the spring of 2026, according to a draft timeline for the construction project.

Donna DiNisco of DiNisco Design, the architect for the project, explained the process during the Elementary School Building Project Committee’s meeting on December 2. The Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will provide significant funding, must vote to approve the schematic design before the Town can hold a vote, she said. And so the schedule must include adequate time for careful planning, community engagement, feedback, and involvement of several committees so that a solid cost estimate can be provided to MSBA. The current schedule shows a submission to MSBA in January 2023, and a vote by the MSBA in March.

The process will kick off next month with development of the Educational Plan and a program of community outreach. The Educational Plan, which itself must be approved by MSBA, is the foundation of the entire project, identifying all the programs offered in Amherst schools and their space needs. The design of the ultimate building, including layout, room sizes, etc., must support this Educational Plan.

At the moment, no decisions have been made on whether one of the current sites of Wildwood and Fort River Schools will be the site of the new school, and whether new construction is preferable to renovation and addition. Anser Advisory Management, the project manager, stated that it will develop descriptions of the options, drawing on past studies as well as new work, so that the community and decision-makers can weigh the tradeoffs and arrive at a preferred option. Future uses of whichever site is not chosen for the new school will also be open to community discussion.

DiNisco Design and Anser Advisory will speak at the December 14 meeting of the Amherst School Committee. We will post information about the meeting, as well as a link to the new project website, on our “On our radar ” page when they are available.

7 thoughts on “Vote on elementary school project is not likely before 2023”

  1. These are my predictions:
    The educational plan that is developed will include non-traditional spaces and an overall school layout that totally ignores the possibility of future change. Sound familiar?

    The architectural team and building committee will cover the same ground that the previous architectural team covered in exploring if either of the existing schools could be renovated and expanded, or if a totally new school was warranted. The previous study made it clear that renovating the existing building was not logical. Should the renovation route be chosen, the only part of the existing building that would remain would be the exterior walls, and those would make it difficult to accommodate the new educational plan. I have spent countless hours in Wildwood, and as a designer, I can tell you that it makes absolutely no sense to reuse any part of the existing building. The new architectural team will come to the same conclusions after spending tens of thousand of dollars to do so.

    The site chosen for the new school will be Fort River for no apparent logical reason. The obvious choice for a new school is the Wildwood site. It is part of the existing educational campus, is centrally located, and maintenance personnel are located nearby at the Middle School. The Fort River site is in the flood plain of the Fort River, and is less centrally located. It would make a great site for a new DPW headquarters as there are few residential properties nearby and the site is flat. In an ideal world, the town would close both Fort River and Crocker Farm and build a new school that would accommodate the entire grade school population on the Wildwood site. This would lead to long term efficiencies and savings with the consolidation of all school facilities in a highly energy efficient structure located in the center of town. I have never witnessed Amherst doing this kind of long term planning and then actually carrying it out if they did.

    Conclusion
    Amherst has a very poor track record when comes to initial school design and ongoing building maintenance. Fort River and Wildwood were poor designs from the get go, and when the educational plan for which they were originally designed changed, the schools could not be reconfigured successfully. The middle school looks and feels like a prison. The windows on the first floor are narrow vertical slits more akin to a prison, and the classroom windows on the second floor are not much better. Some of the classrooms have no windows at all. Parts of the exterior stairs are crumbling and the landscaping in the front of the school is compacted. The high school is a hodgepodge of multiple additions. The latest one was finished in 1998 and suffers from a poor cafeteria design. Most towns would have raised the building at some point and built a new school rather than add on to something that had outlived its usefulness. And, virtually all of the school properties have poorly maintained athletic facilities, parking lots, and landscaping.

    Will DiNisco and the school building committee create a design that inspires children, is easy to reconfigure, is comprised mostly of traditional classrooms, and looks like a building that kids would enjoy to be in and around? It remains to be seen, but I hope so. DiNisco’s school designs, at least the ones on their website, show very corporate looking school buildings. I encourage the school building committee to push DiNisco to design a building that is not only energy efficient and easy to maintain, but also appeals to and is designed for kids of a grade school age. I also encourage DiNisco to step out of their comfort zone and meet the challenge. They certainly have the skills to do so.

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  2. In my experience, the time to get going is now. The 2016 schools override vote (actually three) was obfuscated by the fact that each time the ballot (two elections and a town meeting vote) was for something different (for, against, and the bond authorization) but the language we voted on was the same. May the gods-that-be bestow upon us ballot language that withstands the coming onslaught.

    I know this sounds trivial but in the month I spent standing in front of Town Hall talking to people and collecting signatures (in order to get one more vote by Town Meeting), I found that people had no idea what they had actually voted for. Because each of the three ballots had the same exact, word-for-word language but with a different outcome.

    I don’t know who writes these things, but it seems they are skipping steps. The ballot should be designed with the final objective in mind. The challenge is to design the ballot question and word it in such a way as to obtain a clear, conclusive result.

    This sounds much easier than it is in practice. Careful attention must be paid to avoid sentences with multiple meanings; ones containing technical jargon; and lengthy, difficult, or sensitive questions. It must take into consideration demographic and cultural differences. It is not uncommon to inadvertently introduce bias in the question design through the wording or ordering of the segments. To counter this tendency, the ballot should be reviewed by a diverse group.

    Care must be taken to see that all the possible response alternatives are included in the review and that these alternatives do not overlap or conflict. This is why you hire someone and why they get good money, because they do not pinch pennies and skip steps. This is not a DIY project and I think this is what got us in trouble last time.

    And these things take longer than you think, because the time to start was six-months ago. And if not six months ago, now. That is how overrides are won, by starting NOW!

    Kevin Collins
    Amherst

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  3. The entire experience, from the thorough planning that went on for the first plan, through the assurances we were given if we voted the first plan down, through the current process for a second plan, that entire experience, and the time it all takes, needs to be uppermost in the minds of voting parents of school-age children, whenever those telling us to “start again smart” and singing the praises of delay to do more thinking and planning begin to do their thing…..as they inevitably will. There will always be people loudly urging delay for ANY major public undertaking in Amherst.

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  4. Thanks, Sarah. Any guesses on the timeline beyond that? If we vote yes in 2023 when a new school may open its doors? For context I was pregnant in 2016 when we voted on this last time and my daughter will be 5 and entering K in 2022. I really hope she will get to experience a new school but it seems possible she won’t!

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