New 3-story elementary school to be built at Fort River site

By Sarah Marshall

In a unanimous vote, the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) decided Monday morning to nominate a new, 3-story building at the Fort River School site that will consolidate the Wildwood and Fort River schools as the “preferred solution” to the Massachusetts School Building Association. Once the choice is submitted over the next few weeks as part of the Preferred Schematic Report, DiNisco Design architects will begin designing the building in detail.

The principal reasons for choosing the Fort River site over the Wildwood site were less disruption to students and staff during construction, and more outdoor space available to the school and community.

Three different votes preceded this unanimous decision.

Before voting on the preferred solution, the ESBC voted to eliminate the addition/renovation options (8-1 with 3 absent and one unable to vote because of technical problems). Chair Cathy Schoen explained that this vote, taken at the previous committee meeting, was valid, even though she had thought at the time that a quorum was not present. The chief reason was the high costs of such a project, nearly the cost of an entirely new school.

Second, the committee voted unanimously to prefer a new, 3-story option at either site to a 2-story building.   Reasons for favoring 3- over 2-story options were the smaller footprints (a particular concern at Wildwood), more efficient travel within the building, and the small-school feel allowed by locating paired grades on separate floors. All options would have been designed to fulfill the Amherst School District’s educational requirements, the zero net energy bylaw, and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Third, the committee voted 8-5 to choose the Fort River site. Reasons given by those who favored the Wildwood site included more manageable vehicular traffic, more and safer pedestrian routes, adjacency to the Middle School, distance from a flood plain, and lower cost.

But once the site was chosen, the committee voted unanimously to recommend a new 3-story building at Fort River.

All committee members, including the Superintendent of Schools, the Town Manager, school principals, the Town’s finance director, Amherst School Committee members, Town Councilors, and community members pledged their full support – in advance – to whichever project was ultimately chosen, and reiterated their support after their votes. They committed to building support in the community for the override through education and outreach.

Several members of the public, including more Town Councilors and Amherst School Committee officials, expressed their delight, enthusiasm, and support, as well as their sincere thanks to the ESBC for its extraordinary effort in bringing the community to this point.

Chair Cathy Schoen stated that the committee will have no difficulty in completing the report to MSBA well in advance of the August MSBA meeting, at which it will evaluate our preferred option.

Designing for education

By Allison McDonald

Allison McDonald chairs the Amherst School Committee. She speaks here for herself, as this post has not been approved by the Committee.

The Amherst elementary school building project is at a critical and exciting phase with some key decisions to be made in the coming week. Much of the last two months has been spent developing the educational plan for the school that is a requirement of the MSBA at this phase of the project. The educational plan is a critical component of the project because it describes the activities and the people that make the building a school and is the basis for the detailed space plan.

By starting with the educational plan, we ensure that we are designing to support our educational mission. We ensure that the building is designed to support our commitments to diverse curriculum and 21st-century learning, including project-based learning, art, music, and technology, smaller class sizes, special education programs that enable students to remain in our school community, and a collaborative professional culture. We ensure that the building is also designed to support the professionals who guide our students’ learning.

The Amherst School Committee (ASC) spent the last two meetings carefully reviewing the educational plan and the space plan, and will vote on both on Tuesday, March 8. (The two plans will be submitted to the MSBA by March 15 as part of the Preliminary Design Plan; they are subject to possible revision by MSBA and DESE before we can proceed to the next phase.) We asked questions of nearly every line-item in the detailed space plan to understand how every square foot of space connects to and supports the educational plan. ASC members made clear during that discussion that our goal is to thread the needle of designing for what we need without going too large or too small.

I encourage anyone who is curious to watch the video of that discussion and the thoughtful responses from Superintendent Mike Morris, designer Donna DiNisco, and special education district leaders Dr. Faye Brady and JoAnn Smith. The Superintendent described the hard compromises made to reduce the space plan to the current proposal of 105,750 sq. ft. — including reducing classroom sizes to the minimum possible size per MSBA standards, reducing the gym to a size similar to the gyms in our current schools, and requiring some programs to share spaces. Dr. Morris also said that further reductions in space could not be made without having a significant negative impact on student experience and education.

Still, some are asking us to shrink the space even further. Comparisons are being made to other projects, including the previous Amherst project and a recently completed project in Lexington, suggesting that the proposed space is more than we need. Though total square footage is an important metric for sure, it can’t be evaluated without also looking at the people and the activity (the educational plan) behind the metric.

So, what is behind the difference in size as compared to the previous Amherst school building project? It is the difference in the education plan for these projects, specifically as follows:

  • The current proposed education plan centers project-based learning in all grades, so the space plan has added pull-out project areas within classroom “neighborhoods” to support that (1800 sq. ft. in total)
  • The grade span has shifted from 2-6 to K-5. Kindergarten classrooms must be larger than grade 6 classrooms, so the overall average sq. ft. per student is now larger. (MSBA standards require 1,100-1,300 sq. ft. for kindergarten vs. 900-1,000 sq. ft. for older grades.)
  • With the grade span shift, we also need dedicated space to support the provision of Title 1 academic support and services for children from low-income families in the younger grades. And, because more of our students are from low-income families now (39% vs. 28% in 2016), we have added three rooms for Title 1 services (2,300 sq. ft. in total)
  • The number of students receiving special services has increased (23% with disabilities vs. 18% in 2016) as has the level of need, so there’s increased space to support district-wide special education programs and other services for individual students (2,300 sq. ft. in total).

Excluding these differences, the total square footage per student is almost equal to the previous project.

The differences between the proposed plan and Lexington’s Maria Hastings Elementary School are due to differences between the education plans; more specifically, the difference in students for whom the buildings are designed. For example:

  • 39% of Amherst students are low-income and our elementary schools are considered Title 1 schools; 10% of Maria Hastings students are low-income and it is not a Title 1 school. Our plan includes dedicated space to provide Title 1 services for our students (2,300 sq. ft. in total).
  • Twice as many students at Fort River and Wildwood have disabilities than do those at Maria Hastings. (23% vs. 13%, or approximately 160 vs. 80 students). Our proposed plan must have space to accommodate the special needs of a much larger number of students than Maria Hastings.

This table summarizes the differences among the three school plans:

Factor2016 Amherst2022 AmherstMaria Hastings
Grade span2-6K-5 (K needs more space)K-5
Title 1 need28% of district students39%Not a Title 1 school
Students needing special services18% of district students23%13%

Some have asked about reducing space that is “for adults.” Our education plan describes a collaborative professional culture and deep family engagement to support the high-quality education we provide. So, the plan includes space for educators and staff to work directly with individual students, to collaborate with each other in supporting individual students, and to meet with families and caregivers.

The attention to the space plan is important since it is a significant contributor to the total cost to the town and its taxpayers. But space is just one factor — where we build, how we build, how much the MSBA will fund, when we build, and how we finance the project are other critical contributors to overall cost.

The ASC can help by ensuring we are not “over designing.” We also need to ensure the building is sized for our students, the educational programs they need, and the staff who support them. In other words, a building that supports the high-quality education we currently provide for our richly diverse student community for the next 50 years.

Editor’s note: The Amherst School Committee posts meeting notices, packets, video links, etc. at

The next two years, part 1

By George Ryan

Now that the new Council has chosen a Council President (Lynn Griesemer) and Vice-President (Ana Devlin Gauthier) and Griesemer has made appointments to the four standing Council committees, I thought I would dust off my crystal ball and look ahead at some of the key issues and challenges that will face the Town and its elected representatives over the next two years.  In today’s post I discuss two issues, and subsequent posts will address other pressing challenges.

A new elementary school. The Elementary School Building Committee and the Amherst School Committee are conducting outreach to get community input on a proposal for a new elementary building that will combine the Fort River and Wildwood school populations.

Funding for a new or renovated school will come from two sources: a grant from the funding agency, the Massachusetts School Building Association (MSBA), and money from the town that will be borrowed and paid back over 30 years. The town’s portion will exceed what can be paid for from its cash flow or regular budgets, so a “debt exclusion override” is anticipated.  Such debt is temporary, raising property taxes only while the debt is repaid. It does not permanently increase the Town’s tax collection.

If the MSBA approves the school proposal, Town Council will to vote to put on the ballot a debt exclusion for voter approval.  At the moment, the best guess for when such a vote would take place is March/April of 2023.  A majority vote on the Council would put a debt exclusion on the ballot, and if a majority of voters approved it, a super-majority of Councilors would be required for the actual borrowing.

It will be critical that Council votes unanimously to put the debt exclusion on the ballot.  But equally critical will be the willingness of the Council to convince Amherst boters to approve it. It is always a tough sell to persuade voters to increase their taxes.  There is no question that Amherst needs a 21st-century school – the question that will likely be answered in the coming year is whether this Council will take a strong position in support of our children’s future.

Addressing the Housing Crisis. It is no secret that there is a housing crisis in Amherst.  Demand far outstrips supply, the cost of rentals has skyrocketed, it is increasingly difficult for first-time home buyers to find homes they can afford, and conversion of single-family and two-family homes into student rentals continues to be a lucrative option for many investors.


In response to this crisis, Town Council adopted a Comprehensive Housing Policy in September 2021 that identified five primary goals in the area of housing.  The first two involve promoting more pathways to home ownership by increasing the supply of diverse housing types and increasing the supply and variety of affordable and market-rate rental housing.  The question is whether this Town Council will take steps to begin to address these challenges.

The policy identified strategies for increasing housing supply, but it will take leadership from the Council (combined with pressure from the community) to ensure action. Some possible priorities for the Council:

  • While it is easy to blame the University for our housing crisis, there are real possibilities for collaboration with UMass for off-campus housing development employing the P3 model (public-private partnership) now in use on campus.  Will the Council pursue this?
  • There are also real possibilities for redevelopment in the center of Town that could provide substantially more housing units for senior citizens as well as transitional housing for those experiencing homelessness.  Will the Council explore this?
  • Money has been set aside for consultants to create design guidelines for future development in our downtown and village centers. Will that happen soon?
  • And there are zoning reforms that could increase housing opportunities:  allowing duplexes by right in all residential zoning districts, raising the current cap on the number of units allowed in apartment buildings, and adopting some form of overlay district in the BL (Limited Business) zone adjacent to our downtown to increase density and create more affordable units.  These were high priorities for many of us in the previous Council.  Will there be the same sense of urgency in the new body?

Amherst elementary school building project: update

By Allison McDonald and Cathy Schoen

The Amherst elementary school building project is now in a busy and exciting stage and a lot of work is happening over the next several months. There’s a lot to keep up with and it can be hard to follow what’s going on or to know when decisions are being made! In this column, we hope to help you learn about the work that’s happening and how you can participate in the process.

Our goal is to have the elementary school open for learning in the fall of 2026. We have multiple major milestones to meet and key decisions to make along the way. Many key milestones will need to be met within the next 12 months. Three of these are:

Preliminary Design Plan: This is when we define the options we will study, including whether to build a completely new building, renovate an existing building, or a combination of renovation and addition. We’ll also outline what locations we’ll consider (including what criteria we’ll use to decide) and describe the education program for the school.

The education program provides detailed information about our students and their needs, as well as the programs and activities that we value and that will define the school. Questions such as where our specialized programs and the Caminantes dual-language program will be located will be defined in the education program.

Our goal is to complete this Preliminary Design Plan and submit it for review and approval by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) by March 15.

Preferred Schematic Report: This is when some key project decisions are made for the project, including location and whether we will build a completely new building or some combination of renovation/addition with an existing building.

DiNisco Design, the design team for the project, is currently gathering detailed information about the Fort River and Wildwood locations, assessing the condition of those buildings, and preparing preliminary estimates to evaluate and compare options.

Our goal is to decide on our preferred option and submit the Preferred Schematic Report for review and approval by the MSBA by the end of June, 2022.

Schematic Design: After the approval of our Preferred Schematic Report, our design team will prepare detailed plans for the building. This final schematic design will enable a comprehensive cost estimation and budget, and will form the basis for the MSBA’s final determination of how much of the project cost they will fund.

Our goal is to complete and submit the Schematic Design for review and approval by the MSBA by the end of December, 2022.

These three big milestones and decisions need input and feedback from our school and town community. There are multiple ways for the community to engage throughout this year. Here are some:

  • Visioning Workshops: these sessions enable participants to offer input to help guide the development of the education program. The aim with these workshops is to identify priorities that build on the current curriculum and aspirations for programs. Three workshops have been held in January with the community, teachers, and staff; a fourth workshop is planned for February 17.
  • Community Forums: forums are a way to hear updates about the project and to ask questions or provide feedback in real time. Forums will be held several times throughout this year with the first happening on February 3, this Thursday, 6:30-9:00 p.m. Here is the Zoom link for that meeting, ID: 921 7679 9133.
  • Project Website: the project website is a one-stop spot to find all the information about the elementary school building project. Details about participating in the Visioning Workshop and Community Forums can be found there. It is also where to go to ask questions, give feedback, or share ideas at any time throughout the project. The Building Committee and the project team will be “listening” and responding through the tools on the website.
  • Public Comment: community members can offer feedback during public comment at meetings of the Building Committee or the Amherst School Committee. Find out how on the project website.
  • Email: questions and feedback are always welcome through email! Send email to the Building Committee at or to the Committee Chair, Cathy Schoen at

We are at an exciting phase of the project. We have the opportunity, as a community, to create and invest in an inspiring, climate-resilient elementary school building that supports excellent education both today and for decades to come. We hope that many people across the Amherst community will participate and help us make this happen.

Cathy Schoen is a member of the Amherst Town Council-District 1 and Chair of the Elementary School Building Committee. She can be reached at Allison McDonald is Chair of the Amherst School Committee and can be reached at

From the editors: The next meeting of the Elementary School Building Committee is this Friday, February 4, from 8:30-10:00 a.m. Here is the Zoom link. On the agenda: DiNisco Preliminary Findings Report to Committee: Review Existing Conditions & Site Analysis for Both Sites, Review Preliminary Alternatives Diagrams on Both Sites; Revised Priority, Evaluation Criteria/Options: Decide on Method for Ranking; Upcoming ESBC Schedule and Agendas for Preliminary Design Program Submission: DiNisco Present Plans for Feb 18, March 4, and March 11, March 11 Target Date for Committee Review and Vote on Preliminary Design Program; Report of Net-Zero Subcommittee Meeting of Jan. 13.

Please share information about the project with your friends and neighbors.

New website for the elementary school building project is launched today

By Sarah Marshall

Track the progress of the elementary school building project, milestones, opportunities for public involvement, read agendas and important documents, and learn about the project team at the new website.

We will add this site to the project information under the Town Government 101 page.

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.

Elementary school building projects kicks into higher gear

By Sarah Marshall

With the announcement of a designer for the elementary school building project on November 18, DiNisco Design, the project will move forward more rapidly now and with plans for robust public engagement. The winning firm was chosen by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Designer Selection Board with input from the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC).

The next step, hopefully to be taken before Thanksgiving if the parties come to an agreement regarding DiNisco’s fee, is to launch a website for the project, designed and managed by Anser Advisory Management, the owner’s project manager (OPM). Residents will be able to

  • watch videos of presentations and meetings,
  • ask questions and provide comments,
  • see a detailed timeline of the process,
  • learn which decisions are the responsibility of which parties (e.g., the building committee, Amherst School Committee, Town Council, or the MSBA),
  • be alerted to the opportunities for public input, and more.

We will update the links on the Elementary School Building Project page, found under Town Government 101 in this site’s menu, when they are made public.

The Town hopes to be able to put a debt exclusion on the November ballot, since turnout for federal and state races should be relatively high, but if necessary the Town can call a special election at any time.

Members of the ESBC expressed enthusiasm for DiNisco’s proposal, presentation, and previous work, noting their net-zero experience and student-centered approach. Committee Chair and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen and District 4 Councilor Stephen Schreiber described their visit to one of the two completed schools in Springfield designed by DiNisco (the firm is now designing a third school for that city). They noted that the school was lovely and that facilities staff spoke highly not only of working with DiNisco to design the school but of the school building’s actual performance.

A joint meeting of the ESBC with the Amherst School Committee, with attendance by Anser and DiNisco, was tentatively scheduled for December 14. A goal of the joint meeting will be to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the parties for steps such as developing the education plan (that drives the design) and site selection (Wildwood or Fort River).

Moving Amherst’s 6th-graders is a good idea – and gets us a new school

By Anastasia Ordonez

“I’ve been hearing rumors that the district might be moving the 6th grade to the middle school. What’s the big deal, and why now?” 

The rumors are true, and it’s a fair question posed to me recently by an Amherst parent as we walked our dogs through Amethyst Brook Conservation Area. Questions like this have been popping up lately as people are reminded of key decisions the School Committees must make soon to reduce crowding in our elementary schools and prepare for a new school building project.

Personally, I’m thrilled by the idea of my fifth grader joining his brother in middle school and getting three years there to learn the ropes instead of just two. Middle school is hard, and right now, our district’s kids only get two years to figure out how to manage more homework and independent study habits before they get pushed into high school. But I also get that some parents are worried and feel like the timeline for this decision is too quick, even if they agree with the basic idea of a move. 

Thankfully, this conversation is not new, and our district has done a lot of work to get to this point. (Note that this upcoming decision only affects Amherst schools – each town in the regional district will eventually make its own decision about whether to move their sixth grade to the middle school.) The question was first examined publicly about ten years ago, when enrollment in the middle school had started to decline. More recently, the question came back up in relation to the proposed building project to replace both Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools. The sixth grade must move if we a) want a new, but smaller, building to replace both schools, and b) we want the state’s Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to help pay for it.

The MSBA confirmed this last December when they said they would approve either one kindergarten through sixth grade building of 320 students, or a kindergarten through fifth grade building of 575 students. The K-6 option of 320 students is basically a replacement for just Fort River at current enrollment levels, whereas a K-5 option would replace both Fort River and Wildwood schools simultaneously. 

There are several reasons why we shouldn’t want a 320-student building. A Fort River-only replacement won’t work because we cannot afford to replace Wildwood on our own without state aid. And who wants to make Wildwood students and teachers wait years to replace their failing school building when we have a great alternative now? 

Also, a building for 320 students is simply not big enough to accommodate our needs. Caminantes, the new Spanish-English dual language immersion program at Fort River, requires two Caminantes classes and at least one non-Caminantes class per grade, which translates into 420 students for a K-6 building. And Fort River and Wildwood have lost usable class space due to COVID social distancing requirements, as discussed this summer (page 13) by the School Committee.

Since the question of moving the sixth grade has come up in the past, the district undertook a feasibility study in 2019 to research whether there would be enough room at the middle school to add the sixth grade and how much it would cost. They even examined the high school as an alternative, but ultimately found that the middle school made more financial sense and would be cost-neutral.

Moving the sixth grade to the middle school has several developmental benefits for our students, too. 

A Middle School Grade Span Advisory Group — consisting of teachers, parents, and community members — was formed in 2019 to study the educational and social-emotional needs of middle schoolers, and their final report was shared with the Regional School Committee. The report shared the pros and cons of a move but highlighted support from teachers, who know that the educational and developmental needs of middle school-aged children are better met in a dedicated middle school environment. Also, a 6-8 grade span is what most districts have in Massachusetts, meaning stronger curriculum options. 

Simply put, our students benefit from more time in middle school so they can get proper advising and educational support to transition to high school. Two years just doesn’t cut it for many kids, especially those with special needs or who just need more help.

Next Tuesday, the Amherst School Committee will hold its second public forum to hear from community members about whether they support this move. The Committee will then formally vote on Oct. 5 on whether the move should happen and when. Public comments should be made by 3 p.m. on Sept. 21 via email at or by leaving a voicemail message for School Committee Chair Allison McDonald at 413-345-2949. You can also choose to make your public comments live during the public forum via Google Meet (watch agendas here for meeting link and instructions).

Change is hard. But we know after years of discussion and study that our current and future students need us to act decisively now to move these projects forward. I hope that you will join me in asking the Amherst School Committee to vote in favor of a sixth grade move on the timetable that best serves students, so that all our children can finally benefit from healthy school environments.

Can we afford four building projects? Yes! Here’s how

By Sarah Marshall

What is the Town’s plan for paying for the Jones Library expansion and renovation, a new or renovated elementary school, a new fire station, and a new DPW facility, all to be constructed over the next 10 years? Are we in for huge increases in our property tax bills? How can Amherst afford this infrastructure push? [Answers: Read on, No, and Read on.]

If you are nervous about undertaking so many significant projects, and worried about the Town Council’s appropriation of $35.3 million for just the Jones Library, or if you wonder whether we can build a school if we pursue the library expansion, please read to the end, because you should have a clear understanding of the ballot question you will see on Nov. 2.

First, a quick explanation of the Council’s April 2021 vote to appropriate $35.3 million for the Jones Library renovation and expansion project, which we will be asked to affirm on Nov. 2.  Much erroneous information has circulated about that vote, so it is time to set the record straight. Council’s “appropriation” amounts to authorization for the Town to borrow up to that amount of money. The “appropriation and borrowing authorization” language is standard for large construction projects – Town Meeting voted on such matters in the past. In addition, appropriated money is not limited to tax revenue but can include grants, donations, and other funds.

But why would the Town need to borrow $35.3 million, when the ultimate cost to Amherst will be $15.8 million?  First, Amherst will probably not borrow that much, but the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), which has granted almost $14 million to the project, asked Town Council to authorize borrowing for the total project cost. Second, because some funding may arrive after the bills are paid (for example, private donations and receipts from the sale of historic tax credits), the Town may need to borrow some money for which it will later be reimbursed. The Town will not be on the hook for a $35.3 million library project. Here is the table showing who will pay what, in the end:

Appropriation & Borrowing Authorization Order FY21-06C

  • MBLC Grant Contribution $13,871,314
  • Jones Library Inc. Trustees $ 5,656,576
  • Town’s share $15,751,810
  • Total $35,279,700

It is this set of numbers that you will see on the ballot.

But what about the Town’s share, $15.8 million? How will that be paid for? Will it prevent us from undertaking other projects?

Here it is useful to have a basic understanding of the plan developed by the Town’s Finance Department and presented to the Finance Committee and Council in February 2021. Town Council requested that Town staff develop a plan for financing all four major projects in a timely fashion, specifically to learn whether it is feasible for us to undertake them all in a way that voters are likely to support.

The ensuing financing plan (which indeed makes many assumptions) shows that the Town can afford to build the four projects without severely constraining our public services or ability to fund smaller capital projects such as sidewalk repairs and snowplow purchases, or by unreasonably burdening taxpayers. Basically, the plan is to borrow funds for three of the projects (Jones Library, Fire/EMS station, and a DPW facility) and to pay off the debt over time from our existing revenue streams, including grants and donations; only for a school project will taxes be raised for a limited time. We may have a couple of years of tight budgets, to be sure, as the projects begin, but several factors will work in our favor:

  • Low interest rates for loans overall,
  • The Town’s strong bond rating and financial record, which let us borrow at advantageous rates,
  • The Town’s strong cash reserves (i.e., savings), which can ease some of the early spikes in debt payments and, if necessary, contribute towards annual operating budgets,
  • Very low levels of Town debt currently, which will be entirely paid off within a few years,
  • Continued new growth in taxable real estate, which raises annual revenue and spreads excluded debt over more taxpayers,
  • Imposition of cost caps on each project, so that we know in advance what our total payments of principal will be,
  • Disciplined policy of directing a portion of property tax revenue to capital expenditures,
  • Conservative annual budgeting, which means that the Town typically has cash on hand at the end of the fiscal year that can be placed in reserve.

For a new elementary school, the financing plan envisions a debt exclusion override for the Town’s contribution (approximately half of the total cost will be contributed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority). This type of override raises property taxes only for the period while the debt is paid off; it does not permanently raise property taxes. Why an override for the school borrowing? Because voters approved an override for an elementary school project in 2016, and a majority of voters (but not the required 2/3) again supported the override after Town Meeting would not agree to the necessary borrowing, planners feel they are likely to support an override in the next year or so.

Delaying projects any further is likely to cost us more in the end, or give us less for the same price. The Finance Director, Sean Mangano, noted that an elementary school project, when it finally begins, will cost us substantially more than the project that was rejected several years ago. He also noted that continued delays require us to spend large sums on repairs to buildings that are at the end of their useful lives. The Town also should get the present projects completed and paid off before other parts of its infrastructure need to be significantly renovated or rebuilt several decades from now.

From a fiscal standpoint alone then, prudence demands that we voters stop arguing over design details, agree to compromise, and step up to our civic responsibility to maintain our public infrastructure, parts of which have deteriorated to dangerous and shameful degree. We need to say “Yes” on Nov. 2 to affirm Council’s vote to proceed with the Jones Library project and “Yes” in a year or so when a debt exclusion for the elementary school is put on the ballot. Financially, there is no better time to undertake this work.

[Note: You can find more information about the plan by clicking on the “Overview of the Four Major Capital Projects” page on the “Town Government 101” drop-down menu on this website.]

A Historic Vote is Coming on a Long-overdue Elementary School

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.

A Crowded Future for Amherst Elementary Students

by Sarah Marshall

With distance learning disallowed for the 2021-2022 school year, all of Amherst’s primary and secondary school students will attend school in person.  However, students will find that all three elementary schools, which were reconfigured last summer to allow improvements to HVAC systems and at least six feet of distance between students and teachers, feel crowded.  How can this be, when enrollments are dropping?

At Wildwood and Fort River schools, the infamous quads, with their incomplete walls, poor ventilation, and spaces with no windows, were transformed into two classrooms each, with floor-to-ceiling walls, amped-up ventilation, windows, and desks widely separated.  This reconfiguration cut the number of classrooms in half. During the spring, some students attended class remotely, meaning that the schools hosted less than 100 percent of the student body. 

Next year, as 100 percent of students return, spaces such as cafeterias and specials rooms will be turned into classrooms, and many support services will operate out of the libraries.  There will be no dedicated art and music classrooms, and instructors will take their carts from room to room, with obvious limitations to their curricula.  Students will eat lunch in their classrooms.  At Fort River, the successful and growing bilingual  program, Caminantes, also affects space allocations, as each grade level offering Caminantes needs three classrooms, two for Caminantes and one for the standard program.  Crocker Farm was not built with quads, but space was also reallocated to improve ventilation and spacing within all teaching areas.  The unique space pressure at Crocker Farm comes from the growing preschool program, which enrolls all of the district’s special-needs 3-to-4-year-olds.

What can be done to get all elementary students back in true classrooms, restore the art and music rooms, and leave cafeterias for diners?  Some options have been mentioned at School Committee meetings and others can be imagined, but the feasibility, timeline, and cost of each option must be determined.  However, it is probably not possible to solve the problem for the 2021-2022 school year.

For the 2022-2023 school year, we can: (1) Do nothing, and live with the current space plans. (2) Buy or rent modular classrooms for some of the elementary schools. (3) Rip out all of the changes made to the buildings last summer and let the schools revert to their prior states.  The changes made to prepare for teaching during the pandemic did not cost Amherst taxpayers a dime, since federal and state relief funds paid for the construction. However, reversal of these changes would be paid for entirely by Amherst.  (4) Make the Middle School a 6-8-grade school, a common grade configuration in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S.  The Middle School currently hosts about 425 students, but as recently as 2000 hosted about 725 students.  The Middle School can easily absorb all of Amherst’s 6th-graders and ease space demands at all three elementary schools.

The possibility of reconfiguring our elementary and middle schools has been contemplated for years.  In 2018, Regional Schools contracted for a study exploring the feasibility and potential costs of creating a grades 6-8 Middle School and a grades 7-12 High School.  The second option was estimated to cost at least $40 million, whereas the cost of the first option was deemed to be essentially zero.  In 2019, and in light of the study, the Regional School District authorized formation of a Middle School Grade-Span Advisory Committee, tasked with exploring the factors, impacts, and potential pros and cons of moving 6th-graders to a Middle School; the committee was not tasked with developing a recommendation, which falls to the elementary school committees of our region (that is, Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury).  The Advisory Committee was about to issue its report in the winter of 2020 when the pandemic struck, upending all plans.

With the pandemic receding, the Grade-Span report was released this past April, and the Regional School Committee began discussing the matter in May.  The only decision yet taken at the Regional level was to allow the elementary school districts to begin their own deliberations, if interested.  The Amherst School Committee has decided to study the pros and cons of moving our 6th-graders to the middle school, and in the fall will begin a community engagement process in which information, options, and feedback will be shared and gathered.  The goal is to arrive at a decision before the December holidays so that teachers and administrators can begin planning how to best design and accommodate the chosen programs beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. The crowding of the elementary schools described above (as well as the need to define the size and scope of the new elementary school building project) now gives urgency to the question but is not the original impetus for considering the move.

Some families are alarmed at the possibility that ARMS might become a 6-8-grade school.  I served on the Grade-Span Committee with outstanding, thoughtful elementary and middle-school teachers and administrators, as well as other parents.  I am confident that, should the 6th-graders move to ARMS, they will do so only after a well planned curriculum, environment, and support systems are developed that are appropriate for these young people’s educational and social/emotional needs.  I do not believe they will be tossed into the current 7-8 program and left to make their own way.  However, as our community begins the discussion about where to best locate 6th grade, it will be important to have an understanding of the alternative – what the elementary school environments will be like during the next several post-covid years.