By Sarah Marshall
Perhaps I should not be surprised, but as the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) and the Amherst School Committee (ASC) methodically move through the process of designing a new or renovated school, some voices are already sounding the alarm about the size and/or cost of the project.
I very much want a new school (to house the Wildwood and Fort River students) that will pass muster both with the Town Council and the voters, who will be asked to support a debt exclusion override in a year or so. So it is vital to develop a proposal that is neither extravagant or unreasonable, and is strongly supported by Town Council.
But it is too early to argue that we are on course for a too-big-and-too-expensive elementary school. I hope everyone will calmly follow the process, contribute their ideas, hopes, and concerns, and avoid premature judgments.
So where are we in the process?
First of all, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) specifies the sequence of work that must be conducted in order to qualify for partial state funding for the school. While some residents may wish the process unfolded differently, it is what it is. In brief, this is my understanding of where we are and what will happen next.
MSBA will contribute money only to a school that adequately provides space for the district’s educational program. Therefore, step 1 is defining that program, and you can view the draft here. The school committee is scheduled to vote on the educational program on March 8. Step 2 (which happens in conjunction with step 1) is to propose the space required to carry out that program. (Larger spaces are fine but MSBA won’t pay for what they don’t agree is required.) The types of spaces include, for example, the core academic classrooms, special education rooms, a “cafetorium,” music and art rooms, etc.
Step 3 is making very rough cost estimates for the seven options under study (more on that below). Step 4 is choosing the preferred option – that decision is scheduled to happen in June. Step 5 is designing the building and getting a detailed cost estimate. Step 6 is securing funding through the override. We are in the midst of steps 1 and 2.
Last week, at the Feb. 8 meeting of the ASC, the DiNisco Design team presented the draft educational plan and an early draft space assessment. Most of the conversation focused on a table of space numbers that are, on their face, confusing or worrisome. One of the confusing aspects of the table is that space needs labeled “MSBA guidance” are, according to the architects, incomplete, not specific to Amherst, and not determinative. That “guidance” does not, for example, include space for some programs required by law and that MSBA will fund. By comparison, however, the draft space needs for our educational program look excessive. Donna DiNisco, principal at DiNisco Design, assured the committee that the MSBA is aware of the deficiencies of the guidance, that the parties will come to agreement about the allowable space, and that the eventual design will not exceed MSBA space limits.
Because the educational program drives the decisions about space, and the space requirements will strongly affect the cost of construction, members of the public are encouraged to submit thoughts about the draft educational program, or the project more generally, to the ESBC or the ASC in the next few weeks. You can email the ESBC chair, Cathy Schoen, and the ASC chair, Allison McDonald. Here are links to websites for the school project and the school committee.
If you want to watch the presentation and discussion of Feb. 8, begin at about minute 40 of this video. Also, see our “On our radar” page for details of a live Community Chat about the project next week.
End note: Two enrollment options are under study, per MSBA’s authorization: a 165-student school at Fort River (does not address the Wildwood school at all), and a 575-student school at either the Fort River or Wildwood sites. The seven scenarios that must be evaluated before June are:
- For the Fort River-only school (165 students), the three options of renovating the existing school, renovating and adding to the school (add/reno), and new construction.
- For the 575-student alternative, four options will be studied – add/reno and new construction at each site.