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.
When it comes to the elementary school building project in Amherst, by all means – advocate with elected and public decision makers. The project will be all the better with more voices and perspectives in the mix.
But, effective advocacy should not rely on misleading statements or false claims. This post is to fact-check a number of these statements and claims.
A petition is going around, created by a PAC in Amherst, that compares the two potential building sites, providing some accurate info but leaving out other critical information and including statements that are misleading or false. Specifically:
Yes, the project designers have recommended a roundabout be constructed at the Wildwood entrance to accommodate the increased traffic from the consolidated school. But they also recommended construction to widen the road in front of Fort River to accommodate the increased traffic at that site. And, importantly, the traffic study (completed by traffic engineers) demonstrates that the traffic around the Fort River site is significantly worse than around the Wildwood site, both today and after potential construction at either location.
No, Fort River will not “most likely be sold or leased for development” were Wildwood selected as the site for the consolidated school. There has been no such discussion. In fact, multiple Town Councilors have stated in public meetings their commitment to retaining both properties for the town.
No, it’s not true that the community fields at the Fort River location “would likely be lost.” Again, there has been no such discussion. If the Wildwood location were to be selected for the building project, improvements to fields at the Fort River location will not be part of the project but the fields will by no means “be lost.” In fact, since the latest estimates show that the building costs at the Wildwood location could be approximately $2 million lower than at Fort River, the community could use some of those savings to improve the community fields at Fort River should it choose.
Yes, the full project completion will take longer at the Wildwood location than at the Fort River location. But, students will move into the new building in fall of 2026 in either location. If the Wildwood location is selected, the rebuilding of a parking lot would need to be completed by the following spring or summer.
Yes, decisions eventually will need to be made about what to do with the site that is not selected for the school building project, and many interesting and worthy ideas have already been proposed. But, both Wildwood and Fort River buildings are failing – it’s why we are consolidating the two schools in this building project, after all. Repurposing either one of the buildings would cost millions in renovations and repairs – and in the case of Wildwood, removal of hazardous materials – that are not part of this school building project. And, any such decision can only be made after the decision is made about which location is best for the consolidated elementary school.
I, personally, am concerned about the extended period of limited access to outdoor spaces for students during construction were the Wildwood location selected, but the choice of building location is far from a “clear choice” or a “no-brainer” as some would have you believe.
The facts and professional analyses both demonstrate that while there are pros and cons associated with each location, both are workable. The Elementary School Building Committee has a tough decision to make when it meets on June 13, and I will support them whatever choice they make. Because the most important thing is that we get our students into a new school building as soon as possible.
Allison McDonald is the chair of the Amherst School Committee; the views expressed in this column are her own. (From the editors: Continue below for important alerts.)
The Elementary School Building Committee will meet next Monday morning, 8:30-11:00 a.m. by Zoom and may vote on the preferred option (that is, location and type of construction) at that time. Here is the link. Meeting ID 829 3205 2132
The public is invited to a forum regarding the elementary school building project on Wednesday, March 9, 6:30-9 p.m. The DiNisco Design Team will present overviews on the following topics: Educational Program & Space Summary Needs, Existing Conditions Updates, Preliminary Evaluation of Alternatives. The forum will take public comment. Participate or watch by Zoom: https://zoom.us/j/91347209624 Meeting ID: 913 4720 9624 To indicate you wish to make a comment click “raise hand.”
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:
K-5 (K needs more space)
Title 1 need
28% of district students
Not a Title 1 school
Students needing special services
18% of district students
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.
Recently, a study titled “Supporting and Retaining School Leaders” was brought to my attention. The report, commissioned by the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, focused primarily on principals, but it could apply to any school leader, or even teachers and staff for that matter.
Being a school leader is a rewarding but difficult job. It’s a job where it feels like you have 1,000 bosses and it’s impossible to please them all.
What makes the Amherst area different, perhaps, is that there is more unrelenting opposition to decisions made that some do not agree with. Three bullet points from the report listed below illustrate that:
A Culture that Questions Decisions: Respondents all described the unique culture of Amherst as a challenge – even more so for those coming to Amherst from outside the district. Amherst was described as a community that values discourse and consensus, but that also questions or challenges most decisions. In the words of one respondent, “I fully expect that any decision I make will be questioned.”
Public Criticism Turns Personal: Respondents acknowledged that discourse and dissent are expected and welcome. What was stressful, however, was when public criticism turned to personal attacks — “behind my back,” in public meetings, and in online postings.
Outspoken Families and Community Members: While Amherst was described as a community that values discourse and dissent, most respondents described an impression that only loud voices were being heard – and getting their way. When a small but vocal group is opposed to a decision, it becomes challenging to move forward. In some cases, parents or community members feel “I know better” and believe, in the words of one respondent, “I have a right to say what I want, how I want.” Leaders find it most challenging when this “how” becomes negative and personal.
I saw this firsthand during my time on the Amherst and Regional School Committees (2010-2016). Committee meetings were often dominated by the “issue of the day,” which could range from budget cutting to racial issues to which math curriculum should be chosen.
Often, the most vocal and “loud” voices did seem to take over. Only those who feel strongly about something actually show up to those meetings, so that’s partly why. It was very important during those meetings to allow people to speak and have their say, but to guide the discussion with rules, including how long someone could speak, and that no personal attacks could be made. We used to say “Criticize the thing, not the person.” I had cards with the rules printed, which I would hand out at meetings.
What makes some of this so difficult is that sometimes not all the facts can be made public, due to employee and/or student confidentiality laws. That makes it hard to discuss the reasons why certain decisions are made. A few of the most contentious issues at School Committee meetings involved this. There needs to be some kind of solution to the problem of one-sided discussion – the neutral ombudsman solution might be one of them (more below). The public needs some sense of whether a decision was a good one or not, but sometimes cannot know the facts surrounding it.
It is worth stepping back to look at the balancing act that exists between two forces. This may get a bit off track from the main subject here, but it is closely related. I will come back to the main subject at the end.
Force #1 is the fact that a school system is a public entity, with highly engaged constituents – parents of school children – many of whom want to have a say in how their kids are educated, and who feel like they have that right, since it is a public body.
Force #2 is that educators are the experts we hire to do this job of educating our kids, and they generally know better how to do it than the constituents do. They are also the educational decision makers, since we put them in charge of education.
Both forces are not wrong. Both have a valid point of view.
In our democratic system, we have collectively made the choice to vote for people to oversee and carry out our public jobs, one of them being the job of educating our kids. So it goes like this: citizens vote for School Committee members, who in turn vote for and hire a superintendent, who in turn hires the principals and other school leaders, who hire teachers and staff.
When an educational decision needs to be made, or an issue resolved, it should go like this:
All voices should be heard and listened to with as much empathy as possible.
Those voices need to be reasonably stated. That does not mean they can’t be angry or even a bit loud. Anger is often understandable and warranted. But they cannot under any circumstances include personal attacks. And no one person should be allowed to dominate a discussion.
Then the decision makers need to deliberate carefully, putting aside as much as possible any bias that exists in their minds.
Finally, a decision is reached.
At that point, input and deliberation is over on that topic. Not everyone may like the decision, but they need to respect the fact that the process is over.
Too often in Amherst, Step 5 does not work that way, and the process is never over for some people.
It is, of course, appropriate and expected for those who don’t agree with a decision to keep working on changing minds for the next time a similar decision needs to be made. But it’s not OK to continue to challenge a decision that was made, after this process is done.
(Aside: As a School Committee member, I did continue to challenge decisions sometimes, but privately, not publicly. I recall a scheduling change at the middle school that many, including myself, thought was wrong. I felt so strongly about it that I threatened to resign from the committee in my discussions about it with the superintendent. In the end I thought that resigning would not really do any good, and I lost that battle. It happens.)
Nationally, this problem is most evident in the movement that claims that President Biden did not win the election. Locally, it was evident in those who did not like how the Jones Library vote turned out, and Town Meeting of 2016 voting no on the elementary school building plan (see end note).
I am not sure what the answer is, both for Amherst and for the country. I don’t really see people changing, at least not in the near term.
Coming back to the topic of supporting and retaining school leaders, I do think that all the mentoring ideas presented in the report are good ones.
But the report talks only about mentoring school leaders. What about mentoring the parents?
Perhaps there could be a neutral place a parent could go to first to figure out the best way to present and solve the problem he/she is having, rather than just launching into it with a school leader or teacher.
The RADAR anti-racism group I used to be part of had long wanted an ombudsman to be hired, to create a neutral place to bring complaints to. Superintendents kept resisting it. But one day when I was in Maria Geryk’s office she simply said “I am doing it” and hired Barry Brooks to be the first ombudsman. I see that office still exists, which is a good thing.
Something along these lines, a neutral counselor who could help guide parents on how best to approach school leaders and staff with issues they are having, might be helpful. But that takes staff and thus money, so I am not sure how it would affect the budget. Or possibly this already exists and I don’t know it, and needs to be more publicized.
At any rate, in these times more than ever, we need mentoring and other systems to support school leaders, teachers and staff. And perhaps we should also include the mentoring of parents.
I know how important mentoring is, because I could not have done my job on the School Committee without the mentoring I got from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, as well as from a group of former members who helped me out in the beginning.
End note: In 2016 Town Meeting voted no on funding the elementary school building plan. The article voted on was a bond authorization vote, which was supposed to be strictly about whether the town could afford the project or not, which is why it was the only vote in the process that required a two-thirds vote to pass. Instead, it ended up being a vote on the merits of the plan itself. There was no plan that did not have cons along with its pros. The “loudest voices” would speak on one of the cons and made it seem like careful consideration of all pros and cons had not been done, when in fact it had, by the School Committee and the School Building Committee. And the majority of town voters had already voted yes to raising their own taxes to implement the plan.
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.
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?
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 amherst-school-project.com 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.
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 SchoenC@amherstma.gov. Allison McDonald is Chair of the Amherst School Committee and can be reached at email@example.com.
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.
(Precincts 5 and 9 – roughly from Strong St to College St, and along S. Pleasant St from Route 9 to the Columbia Drive neighborhoods):
As your new Councilors, we would like to hear from you and be able to communicate information and news on a regular basis to you. One reliable way to reach you with updates and information is via email. If you are interested in hearing from us, kindly email Councilor Lopes and Councilor Rooney at our respective Town email addresses – firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com to let us know you want to be on our mailing list. If you are a neighborhood email list “manager”, we would greatly appreciate it if you would post this notice to let your neighborhoods know of our interest in reaching out to, and hearing from, as many people as we can.
To reach us – or any Councilor – the Town Council’s main phone (413) 259-3001 and the shared email address that reaches all 13 councilors, firstname.lastname@example.org, are also very good ways to reach us with your thoughts and questions. The Town Council website has lots of good information and a place to directly submit comments: https://www.amherstma.gov/3435/Town-Council .
We look forward to hearing from you! Here’s to healthy and productive New Year!
During the month of January, the Amherst Elementary School Educational Visioning Group (EVG) — a group of administrators, teachers, School Building Committee members, parents, and community partners – will participate in two Educational Visioning Workshops run by New Vista Design and DiNisco Design. Each workshop will be a collaborative virtual session designed to inform the elementary school feasibility study that has been awarded to the town of Amherst by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). Participants will be led through a step-by-step visioning process aimed at capturing their best thinking about Amherst elementary schools’ current and future educational goals and priorities, building on previous visioning work done by the district, and exploring best practices and possibilities in innovative school facility design.
The workshops will take place virtually via Zoom (please see the meeting link below) and are designed to be highly participatory, engaging, and informative. The educational and architectural goals set during these workshops will have a direct and tangible impact on the design approach and features of the new school facility. We understand that this is already an extremely busy time of year that has been further impacted by the return of students to in-person learning, so we do hope that you will consider taking part in these visioning sessions and sharing your ideas and dreams for the renovated and/or new elementary school facility.
We have scheduled two meetings to cover the same content in the hopes that you will be able to join one of them: Thursday, Jan. 13, 8:30-11:30 a.m., and Wednesday, Jan. 26, 6-9 p.m.
Focus areas will include:
Priorities for the new and/or renovated facility.
21st-century learning goals that have been approved by ARPS.
Strengths, Challenges, Opportunities, and Goals (SCOG analysis) associated with this projects and ARPS’s elementary schools’ current academic programming as well as the District’s vision for its future.
21st-century design patterns that innovative elementary schools throughout Massachusetts and the US have put into practice to make their forward-thinking learning goals come alive on the level of facility design.
Blue sky ideas that participants would like to see in the new school program and facility.
The meetings will be recorded and posted to the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) website at https://www.amherst-school-project.com/ where you may also provide input and feedback at your convenience.
Please contact Cathy Schoen, ESBC Chair, at email@example.com if you would like more information about the upcoming workshops and how to take part in them.
Since Amherst was accepted into the MA School Building Authority (MSBA) funding program two years ago, the town and the School Building Committee have been engaged in formational meetings to get the project underway. Now, with the recent selection of DiNisco Design as project architects, we are delighted to be entering the next exciting phase of the elementary school building project.
Last night the teams from DiNisco Design and Anser Advisory, our owner’s project manager (OPM), met in a joint meeting with the school committee and building committee to present key milestones and target dates for the next phases of the project. If all goes smoothly, Amherst students will enter the new elementary school by Fall 2026.
This next phase is when we’ll create the plans for what the school building will look like and where it will be located. We’ll build from the community listening sessions three years ago and engage teachers, staff, families, and community members as we develop priorities that will inform the design of our elementary school building.
Early in the new year, the design team will meet with teachers, parents and caregivers, and residents, and will study a variety of site selection considerations, such as traffic and geography, to inform the town’s decision on location. They will also work with the school community to develop the education plan and input on design features for the school.
With the 6th grade moving to the middle school in the Fall of 2023, the new school will be designed for kindergarten through grade 5, replacing both Fort River and Wildwood and including the innovative Caminantes dual-language program.
The school building committee has outlined some other initial design goals, including spaces for project based learning, small group breakout areas, plenty of daylight in classrooms and throughout the building, and outdoor spaces both for education and play; we look forward to refining these goals through this next phase of the project.
Importantly, the school will be a model for sustainability, built to be net-zero and eliminate reliance on fossil fuels. The DiNisco team was selected in part because of their experience in designing green elementary school buildings. With our school building project, we have the opportunity to innovate and make substantial impact on the town’s progress toward our sustainability goals.
The MSBA requires development and consideration of multiple alternatives in this next phase of the building project; these alternatives include a K-6 building to replace only Fort River in addition to a K-5 building to replace both Fort River and Wildwood, as well as renovation, renovation/addition, and new construction. This consideration will be part of the work that will happen in the early half of next year.
The school building committee launched a website (https://www.amherst-school-project.com/) with comprehensive information about the project. Progress updates as well as information about when and how community members can engage throughout the project will be shared on that website. We plan to update the community on our progress regularly through columns like this. We anticipate a variety of opportunities for public engagement throughout this process, and we will seek to engage families, teachers, and the broader community.
The new year will bring with it exciting and intensive effort in this next phase of the school building project. We look forward to uniting to bring a new elementary school to our children that is a source of joy and pride, and is a solid investment in all of our futures.
Allison McDonald is chair of the Amherst School Committee: you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cathy Schoen, chair of the Elementary School Building Committee, is a Councilor representing District 1. You can email Cathy at email@example.com.
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.
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.
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).
Seven candidates for the Amherst School Committee – four incumbents and three challengers – answered a range of questions posed by Nancy Eddy of the Amherst League of Women Voters on Thursday evening. The challengers are Phoebe Merrian, Jennifer Page, and Irvin Rhodes, and the incumbents are Peter Demling, Benjamin Herrington, Heather Lord, and Allison McDonald. Surnames will be used below for brevity.
The first of the six questions asked how the candidates would ensure a smooth transition to a new grade configuration if the 6th grades are moved to the Amherst Regional Middle School. Demling noted that the move has not yet received final approval from the Regional School Committee, but that, assuming the move is approved, the school administrations and staffs have an extended time in which to plan, since a move would not occur until the the fall of 2023. The Committee will engage with students, families, and staff, and will be particularly mindful of the challenges facing the first grades to make that move. Herrington also named thoughtful planning, definitely with input from the educator and parents, so that the experience is a positive one. Lord urged outreach to families at apartment complexes. Learn if some of the elementary teachers will move with the students, helping to ease concerns. Perhaps the 6th-graders should have a day or two at the school by themselves to become familiar with the space and routines. McDonald endorsed the earlier comments and noted that the extensive work of the Grade Span Advisory Group would be a useful resource for planning the transition and communications to families. Merriam noted that a large group of families may not agree with the move and that their concerns need to be identified and addressed. Page agreed that engaging with families, particularly of the two grades that, in the first year only, will move to the Middle School at the same time. The Committee will also need to watch for unintended consequences of this grade shift. Rhodes said that the change will bring anxieties and concerns and that robust community engagement will be needed. Traditions will be lost – one grade (finishing 5th) will never get to be the top grade in elementary school, for example.
Candidates were then asked if they had ever looked through entire budgets for the elementary and regional districts, and were they comfortable making multi-year comparisons. Merriam has tried to become familiar with these documents and has many ideas, including how to bring back arts, music, and technology. Demling said the budgets, especially for the Region, are hard to understand and use unfamiliar terminology, so he reached out to the Finance Director and Superintendent for assistance. But understanding them is important so their meaning can be conveyed to the community. Page noted that she is a data analyst and former math major and enjoys exploring Excel spreadsheets. Multi-year comparisons are important. She is comfortable speaking up and asking hard questions. Rhodes said he had taken deep dives into budgets, and that a budget is the heartbeat of an organization – a document that demonstrates the organization’s values. Herrington noted that much of the Committee’s time was spent on budget matters, and that budgets are moral documents. Looking at changes in budgets over the years is important to understanding the district’s direction and whether the district lives up to its mission statement. Lord said she had read through them all, and that their complexity inevitable serves as a gatekeeping function, controlling who can participate in the conversation. She sought membership in the budget subcommittee because of its importance and hopes to make the budgets more transparent to the community. McDonald acknowledged that reading and understanding the budgets is a slog, and the Committee needs to make the finances clearer to the community. What the budgets don’t show – thereby presenting an incomplete picture of district finances – is all the various sources and uses of money. The budgets generally focus only on the funds that will come from Amherst (elementary schools ) or the regional towns (middle and high schools). Finally, level-service budgeting is difficult to explain.
The third question addressed how the district could improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in its hiring practices, staff, disciplinary procedures, and curriculum. Page stated that hiring directors should seek out communities that might not know about the standard job website. She noted that Amherst disproportionally disciplines BIPC students. Lord noted progress in hiring BIPOC staff, but just as important is supporting and retaining staff. Are new and/or BIPOC staff heard and seen? She also noted that all grade levels were working to address anti-racism in curriculum, and finally that she advocates a model of caring, rather than of discipline, for the student whose behavior perhaps indicates important underlying needs. Demling commended the work of Asst. Superintendent Doreen Cunningham with respect to incorporating DEI practices into hiring. He also noted that history teachers at all levels were thoughtfully addressing anti-racism, and, finally, that the restorative justice program has not been expanded as desired because of budget cuts. Rhodes said he co-chaired the DEI efforts of the Hampshire County United Way. Collecting data throughout an organization so that progress towards DEI goals can be measured is important. DEI must be a daily effort Herrington noted that what connects DEI in hiring, curriculum, and discipline is culture. He is pleased with the district’s progress, but we need to show the public that our BIPOC community, and their contribution, is valued. Amherst schools carry a stigma in the eyes of the BIPOC community. He also strongly endorsed a restorative justice approach to discipline. McDonald stressed the need to be developing new ideas to maintain progress. She agreed that, to meet DEI goals, improving hiring must be matched by improvements in retention, which is proof of success. Continuous self-evaluation is needed. Merriam endorsed being thoughtful in all the district practices, and noted the importance to students of seeing themselves in the adults in the schools. New hires might look at the curriculum with fresh eyes and have ideas for improvement.
The fourth question noted the continuing anger and division caused by the defeat of the previous elementary school building project and asked how candidates would bring the community together around a new project. McDonald noted the extensive listening sessions and data collection that the Committee had undertaken a few years ago while developing its new application to MSBA. The goal was to develop a unified commitment to a new school that would provide a healthy environment for all. The School Committee will shortly begin to collaborate with the School Building Committee as the process moves along. Page agreed that sadness and frustration persist, and said one way to heal is to focus on moving forward. She will engage in genuine listening to students and families. Everyone involved needs to respect differences of opinion and keep an open mind. Rhodes said that he had served on that previous Building Committee and indeed it was an unhappy experience. They had tried hard to engage all parts of the community. But one can’t drive into the future by looking in the rear-view mirror, so listening, collaborating,and connecting emotionally are needed. Demling said he was first elected just as the building project was defeated so was plunged right into the aftermath. He made a strong effort to reach out to opponents of the project and learn to understand their perspective. As for the current project, he feels people are in more agreement about the need for one building and its size. Lord recommended slowing down the process, listening, and learning to disagree with respect. Merriam said people need assurances that they will be heard, their questions will be answered, and they will not be steered toward a particular solution. Herrington said that people won’t remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel. Respectful conversation is key. He has had v conversations with people he strongly disagrees with – it is hard but necessary work. The district won’t build a school without building bridges.
Fifthly, candidates were asked how the district might help achieve the Town’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25% by 2025. Lord mentioned installing solar canopies in parking lots, and noted that the new school building will significantly reduce GHG emissions. McDonald seconded that point, and added that the possibility of installing rooftop solar will be examined. She named the transportation system as the next target for emissions reduction, and that a Task Force will be tasked with exploring options. Electric buses can not be the entire solution as they make too many trips in one day. Perhaps routes can be shortened. Herrington thinks first about building operations and noted the very leaky buildings that waste energy. As for buses, idling times can also be reduced. Merriam endorsed the new school and changes to transportation as options for GHG reductions. Demling reminded the audience that the regional buildings, ARMS and ARHS, also need significant repair. But the Town faces fiscal restraints. He therefore encouraged listeners to vote for Town Council candidates who will expand the tax base so that more money is available. Finally, he noted that, next year, citizens will vote on a proposed state constitutional amendment, Fair Share, that will generate more money for schools and infrastructure. Rhodes’ professional experience includes many years developing capital for start-ups, and it has given him insight into evolving technologies. He said 25% reduction is doable, and the cost will be less than feared. Solid state batteries that can power buses for many hundreds of miles will be coming. He agreed that efforts to develop more local revenue are needed. Page advocated examining all investments through a climate-justice lens, and named students as an untapped resource for ideas about improvements to the schools.
In the final question, candidates were asked about the primary reason(s) for declining district enrollment and possibilities for mitigation. Rhodes noted that enrollments have been steady for the last few years, but declined significantly over the past decade. One factor is loss of students to charter schools; decreased funding for the schools may be another. Merriam noted that many people point to charter schools as a reason, but no one can control what is right for a family. However, we should be learning why families leave the district. Some BIPOC families have been disappointed in how their concerns have been addressed. McDonald noted population shifts within Amherst and competition with charter schools. The Caminantes program has reversed the declining enrollment at Fort River, and the Seal of Biliteracy program is also encouraging some families to stay. Such programs require commitment and resources. Lord named housing costs as a major factor. Racism is also sometimes a factor, leading some families to home-school their children. Page noted a decreasing trend in births, and lack of family housing in town. She encouraged listeners to vote for candidates who will create more affordable housing. She also encouraged holding exit interviews with leaving families to identify other actions the district can take. Herrington seconded the high cost of housing, and classism in addition to racism. He also said we should do a better job of championing what we get right. Demling noted that the district lost its communications director a few years ago to budget cuts, making it hard to trumpet the good news. He continues to prioritize revising the charter funding formula to halt the death spiral and continuing to oppose increasing the size of charter schools.
In their closing statements, candidates made these points:
Herrington represents people who are not often heard from – not only because he is Black, but because he is a blue-collar worker and a single father. People ask him to speak up for them. He has shown that he is a collaborator and makes an effort to connect with folks.
Rhodes noted his love for Amherst, his 40+ years in the community, his experience as an elementary school teacher, and his service on many town boards and committees. He immerses himself in school and budget matters. He pledges to work collaboratively because the Committee is stronger when it acts together.
Merriam is a graduate of ARPS and has three children in the system. Membership in the Amherst School Committee is one of the most important jobs in town, and she brings a fierce commitment to the schools. It is important to include a diversity of voices, backgrounds, and expertise.
Page environs a district committed to helping every child reach his/her potential. She will ask hard questions and bring attention to what is left out or ignored. Trust needs to be earned. She will look at all issues through an equity lens, noting obstacles to participation.
McDonald noted the important, hard, but unglamorous work of the committee in the recent past to address how the committee meets, communicates, and enables public participation in the work of the committee, including the budget. The current committee works well together but is not a monolith – each member brings important ideas and questions and works hard to listen and learn.
Demling is a strong believer in public schools. He has been an advocate for increasing, or protecting, funding through efforts such as limiting the sizes of charter schools, changing the costs to districts when they lose students to charters, and obtaining money for covid-related expenses. He has consistently called for a one-building elementary school.
Lord continues to advance equity and to engage with all stakeholders. She speaks up for the marginalized and wants equity to be foundational to the district’s work. She, personally, will do all she can to heal children’s trauma from covid and from the societal injustices the treat people differently according to color.
[Please excuse any errors as there was no transcript or tape to review.]
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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
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.]
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.
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.