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 mcdonalda@arps.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.

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.