Opportunities and challenges at the two elementary school building sites becoming clearer

By Sarah Marshall

At a virtual Community Forum held last night, hosted by the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC), Donna DiNisco of DiNisco Design led the audience through major aspects of the work undertaken so far to generate a specific proposal for a new elementary school combining the Wildwood and Fort River schools.

This update from the architectural team and its consultants comes as the ESBC works to develop the “preferred option” for a school by June 27. The preferred option, which is yet to be decided, will specify the location of the school, whether an entirely new school will be built or a renovation and addition project undertaken, and whether a new school will be two or three stories.

After a quick review of the feedback received from educators and the public at a series of community outreach events, the DiNisco team summarized the subsurface challenges posed by each potential building site. The Fort River property, very close to the Fort River, is widely recognized as wet, with much of it within the flood plain or wetlands and therefore not buildable. At that site, the groundwater table is within one to four feet of the ground surface. Interestingly, the Wildwood School, while markedly uphill of the Fort River school, also has a high water table (two to five feet below ground surface). The buildable area at Wildwood is limited by the steep slopes to the north and east of the current school. Both sites have relatively impervious but squishy soils that will not support multistory construction without improvement.

Existing Fort River school, showing wet areas

The engineering consultants described the site conditions at Fort River as not unusual for the Pioneer Valley, and pointed to the Easthampton High School, constructed about eight years ago on similar soils. Some of the engineering measures used there – which might also be called for at Fort River or Wildwood – have performed well. Options include sinking deep columns of aggregate to stiffen the soil, or pre-loading the site to compress the soil before pouring a foundation. The soils underlying the flat area behind Wildwood – created by fill cut out of the front of the property – would also require modification in order to support a building. However, the best way to manage water at Fort River is to elevate the new building, parking, and play areas by adding a layer of earth throughout.

The developable area at the Fort River site is larger than at Wildwood, but Fort River includes several athletic fields, which Wildwood does not have. Nevertheless, each site can accommodate a new multistory building or an addition to a renovated existing school, as illustrated by several conceptual designs.

All designs address numerous objectives, such as grouping spaces that the community might use (on Election Day, for example, or for a School Committee meeting) together so that access to educational spaces can be restricted. Maximizing natural light, integrating special education, and grouping classrooms by grade with shared project space are additional design goals. And all designs must incorporate the spaces for each room and function already proposed to the funding authority.

Here is one of three concepts for a 3-story building, which could be sited at either location in an east-west orientation to maximize natural light indoors. Since students must remain in the existing school during construction of the new school, the new building must be located elsewhere on the property.

Conceptual design for a 3-story building at either site. Outlines of the current schools are shown in black

Options for a 2-story design were also presented. Necessarily, such a building has a larger footprint, takes up more of the site, and must be oriented to fit. Students need to walk farther, construction cost is likely more, but more roof would be available for photovoltaic panels.

A 2-story building must be fitted to each site, away from the current buildings.

Finally, an “add/reno” concept was shown. The current Fort River and Wildwood buildings are identical, with classrooms in quads along outside walls and a windowless library in the middle, so the design envisions removing the library to make a courtyard and allow more daylight into classrooms, and putting a two-story addition at one end. The addition would contain the cafetorium (combined cafeteria and auditorium, standard now in elementary schools) on the first floor with the gymnasium above it. The old gymnasium would become the library/media center.

The vertical black line in the left drawing separates the renovated existing space (left) from the 2-story addition.

None of these designs is “the” design – we are not choosing among them. They are possibilities that satisfy the requirements of the project and can be fitted to the two sites. Over the next several weeks, these three concepts (or variations thereof) will be submitted to cost estimators, along with some construction requirements pertaining to insulation, windows, etc. and the information about site conditions. Estimates for constructing such buildings at each of the two sites, so six options in all, will be generated. Using this and other information, for example about traffic impacts, the ESBC will then choose the site and basic construction option – new or add/reno, 2 or 3 stories. There will be another Community Forum, on June 9, before the preferred option is chosen.

Net-zero energy schools are old news in Kentucky

By Sara Ross

Hello reader,

I’m writing to you as a parent of kids in the Amherst schools, a “townie” who returned (proud member of the class of 1993), an inhabitant of a net-zero home for the past decade, and as someone whose day job is to make change so that the transformational power of our public schools is fully activated in our race to address the climate emergency.

I’m not an engineer or an architect; but I have spent countless hours learning from the best in those professions as they work to make schools safer, healthier places for kids today and in the future. In a skate-to-where-the-puck-is-going-to-be way, that means ensuring that schools are equipped to pursue their core mission – to educate our children – on a planet characterized by rapidly changing climate. This affects the buildings and grounds where they learn, the buses they ride, the food they eat, and the learning agenda.

King Open in Cambridge, Mass is a net-zero school. Photo credit: Sara Ross

Given that background, it may not surprise you to hear that I have been excited to participate in and support the important work of our Elementary School Building Committee and the Net-Zero Subcommittee (as a resident, not a member).

My goal is to translate the jargon, share with you some of what I’ve learned from working on these issues with leaders from across the country, and to infect you with the same confidence and excitement I have for this project!

Here goes.

What is a net-zero energy building?

Simply put, it is a building that produces at least as much renewable (clean!) energy as it consumes on-site.

Net-zero buildings of all types are cropping up across the country, but schools lead the way as the most prolific among the building types achieving net-zero status. The first net-zero energy school was built over a decade ago in Kentucky.

How do you make a net-zero energy building?

There is no magic here, but there are a few core elements that are important to get right. Put simply, the formula is:

Step 1. Put the building in the right place. 

Step 2. Design a simple form and build it well. 

Step 3. Reduce the amount of the energy needed to operate the building and make sure it runs on electricity alone (no more burning fossil fuels!). 

Step 4. Engage the occupants on how to be energy-smart.

At this point, you can calculate how much energy the building requires. The standard way to measure this is energy use intensity (EUI). If you are new to EUI, you are not alone! Just think of it as the building equivalent of miles per gallon (except in the case of EUI, lower is better).

Energy use intensity is expressed as how many units of energy (kBtu) are needed to operate the building for a year. In order to compare buildings of different sizes, we normalize the measure by the square footage of the building. A typical school building in Massachusetts uses around 60 kBtu per square foot of building space per year. Our target for the new elementary school is to do steps 1-4 so well that we only use 25 kBtu per square foot of building space per year.

And that leads us to . . .

Step 5. Install enough solar energy on the site (most cost-effectively done on the roof) to meet the energy bill that remains after we’ve done our very best on the earlier steps.

Et voilà!

An EUI of 25 is a good goal. Other schools in Massachusetts have achieved this target. It’s also the target that our utility, Eversource, requires us to achieve in order to earn their financial support through the MassSave program.

Why are net-zero buildings important?

First, they are budget-friendly. Net-zero buildings cost less to operate and protect our budgets from the wild swings in the price of heating oil or natural gas that have been a financial hardship for many families this winter. Second, net-zero buildings are a joy to inhabit. They are full of natural light. They are devoid of the hot and cold zones that characterize many old, leaky buildings. They are mechanically ventilated to ensure a consistent supply of fresh air. With well-insulated walls and high-performance windows, they are delightfully quiet. Lastly, with buildings responsible for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the Commonwealth, net-zero buildings are an important part of achieving our town, state and national climate goals, all of which target a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2050.

Net zero schools enjoy all those benefits and more. In fact, our non-profit joined with other national leaders in making the case that schools are, in fact, the most important buildings to make net-zero

In the world of schools, net-zero energy is not a new concept, and has been widely embraced across the country and political spectrum. With evidence that net-zero schools do not necessarily cost more to build than conventional schools, the only thing standing in the way of all new schools being net-zero is awareness and a very human desire to keep doing things the way we have always done them.  

There is no doubt in my mind that Amherst can build a net-zero energy school that reduces the cost of operating our school buildings, creates a healthy and safe place for generations of Amherst’s young people to learn, and does our part to address the climate crisis. Don’t believe me? Just ask the residents of Bowling Green in Kentucky. 

What’s up with . . . ?

By Sarah Marshall

Today, I bring readers up to date on two projects that have been highlighted in this blog over the past few months.

What’s up with the Jones Library renovation and expansion project?

Town Manager Paul Bockelman confirmed during a recent Community Chat that all lawsuits have been resolved, no appeals were filed, and that there are no legal impediments to proceeding with the project. Austin Sarat, President of the Jones Library Board of Trustees and chair of the Jones Library Building Committee, expressed hope that the energy previously directed at debating the project will now be focused on making the improved library the best it can be for the town. The goal is to hold a ribbon-cutting in the spring of 2025. The Building Committee has begun to meet and its first order of business will be to review the schematics designed by Finegold Alexander Architects that were released and discussed last year. Ken Romeo of Colliers is the Owner’s Project Manager.

Two subcommittees have begun work (agendas, etc. can by found here). A Design Subcommittee will work closely with the architects and make recommendations back to the Building Committee and up the chain of authority. In addition, an Outreach Subcommittee will:

  • Keep the community informed via in-person gatherings as well as the Library/Town websites, Engage Amherst, Library/Town social media, and email blasts;
  • Hold listening sessions in order to gather community input;
  • Respond to questions or concerns raised by the Jones Library Building Committee;
  • Make design recommendations to the Design Subcommittee.

Various sectors of the community may be specifically targeted at certain points or for certain purposes. For example, middle and high school students may be invited to contribute ideas for the Teen Room.

The cost of the project is fixed, so increases in construction and borrowing costs will necessitate design changes as the project moves forward. As for fundraising, the Capital Campaign Committee is still progressing toward its original goal of $6.6 million, half of which is to come from the community. So far, it has secured $1.5 million in local pledges and $1 million in CPA funds. It has submitted applications to the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund and the Beveridge Foundation for significant funding, and will continue to seek grant opportunities. Amherst College also recently donated $100,000 to the campaign.

The much-loved Kinsey Memorial Garden will need to be moved. The Jones Library Trustees and the Kestrel Trust, with the support of David Kinsey’s widow, Carol Pope, have agreed to move plantings and other items to Kestrel property on Bay Road, either this fall or next spring. Possibly, the Historical Commission will need to consent to this arrangement.

Finally, the Town Manager noted that, contrary to rumor, the Massachusetts Attorney General is not investigating the project’s contracts.

Remember to visit our Jones Library page for links to project information.

What’s up with the Elementary School Building Project?

The goal is to open the new school in the fall of 2026. A significant milestone was reached earlier this month when the Preliminary Design Program (PDP) document was submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (the document is huge – you can download sections of it here).

Much of the PDP is documentation of existing conditions, both of the Fort River and Wildwood sites and of the two buildings. The PDP also includes the Education Program and the Space Summary, both of which incorporate feedback from the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC), community, faculty and staff, Town Council, and the Amherst School Committee. Submission of the PDP initiates a conversation with MSBA about the information therein. For example, the MSBA or the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education might want additional information about or request changes to aspects of the Educational Plan or Space Summary.

The PDP also indicates that only the combined school options (for 575 students) will be evaluated going forward, because the 165-student, Fort River-only options could not satisfy the goals of the Educational Program. Now that sixth graders will attend school at the Regional Middle School beginning in the fall of 2023, the combined school will house grades K-5. A total of four construction options will now be explored, namely 100 percent new construction or renovation plus addition at one site or the other.

Between now and June 27, the four options will be fleshed out, with schematic building and site designs, plans to satisfy the zero-energy building bylaw, and more detailed costs developed in a document called the Preferred Schematic Report (PSR). This process will culminate in a vote for proceeding with one of the four options. The MSBA will vote in August on the PSR. After that, the next phase continues to develop the schematic design, project cost, and MSBA reimbursement rate. Next winder, Town Council is expected to vote to put a debt exclusion (override) to the voters in early spring of 2023.

Clearly, development of the PSR will be the focus of tremendous public interest. Will we renovate an existing school at Fort River? Build entirely new at Wildwood? Choose another option? Which site is better from a geotechnical respect, such as depth of groundwater, ability of soils to support a large building, etc.? Where and how can increased traffic be best handled? What will be the balance between maximizing daylight with lots of windows and reducing heat loss through windows? What will be the tradeoffs between capital costs and operating costs of the various building systems? The ESBC will be refining a list of criteria by which the four construction options can be assessed, and also planning opportunities for public outreach.

Remember to visit our Elementary school building project page for links to more information.

Designing for education

By Allison McDonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This table summarizes the differences among the three school plans:

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

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

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

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

Editor’s note: The Amherst School Committee posts meeting notices, packets, video links, etc. at https://go.boarddocs.com/ma/arps/Board.nsf/Public

The next two years, part 1

By George Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit, photos-public-domain.com

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?
Credit dailymemphian.com

Amherst elementary school building project: update

By Allison McDonald and Cathy Schoen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Visioning Workshops: these sessions enable participants to offer input to help guide the development of the education program. The aim with these workshops is to identify priorities that build on the current curriculum and aspirations for programs. Three workshops have been held in January with the community, teachers, and staff; a fourth workshop is planned for February 17.
  • Community Forums: forums are a way to hear updates about the project and to ask questions or provide feedback in real time. Forums will be held several times throughout this year with the first happening on February 3, this Thursday, 6:30-9:00 p.m. Here is the Zoom link for that meeting, ID: 921 7679 9133.
  • Project Website: the project website 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.
  • Email: questions and feedback are always welcome through email! Send email to the Building Committee at amherst.school.project@gmail.com or to the Committee Chair, Cathy Schoen at SchoenC@amherstma.gov.

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 mcdonalda@arps.org.

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

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

New website for the elementary school building project is launched today

By Sarah Marshall

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

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

Vote on elementary school project is not likely before 2023

By Sarah Marshall

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

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

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

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

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

Elementary school building projects kicks into higher gear

By Sarah Marshall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Anastasia Ordonez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Tuesday, the Amherst School Committee will hold its second public forum to hear from community members about whether they support this move. The Committee will then formally vote on Oct. 5 on whether the move should happen and when. Public comments should be made by 3 p.m. on Sept. 21 via email at 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.