Amherst faces big bills for upkeep of schools

  • Fort River Elementary School

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

AMHERST — A review of the condition of Amherst’s three elementary school buildings shows that the town will have to spend more than $1 million per year for the next four years, and more than $3 million in fiscal years 2022 and 2023, to maintain them, according to an analysis by the facilities department.

Those numbers represent a big leap in costs, and come as the town moves forward on several possible strategies for continued use of the aging buildings. Among those plans are a feasibility study on the site of Fort River Elementary School and applying for funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The district is also looking into the possibility of regionalizing with Pelham elementary school.

The pace of all those plans, however, has some concerned or frustrated.

“I do think there’s a lot of balls in the air,” Superintendent Michael Morris told the School Committee on Feb. 5, adding that the district is taking all the steps it can to improve school facilities.

“The hard thing for me is… there’s a gap between as quickly as we can and as quickly as we want,” Morris said.

“Not only are we not moving as fast as we desire, we’re not moving as fast as we need to,” facilities director Jim McPherson said at that same meeting. “We’re not going to be able to hold this together for a decade at the funding level we’re at — an unfortunate truth.”

McPherson said the financial numbers are not cause for alarm, however.

“This is a consideration to be made over a number of years to fund these projects,” he said in a later interview.

McPherson and the facilities department recently put together a report that analyzes the conditions of the different systems in each elementary school building — everything from the foundations to the plumbing and air conditioning.

The report weighs the importance of 18 different systems, and then gives each building a score from zero to 100. Based on that analysis, Wildwood Elementary received a score of 60.7 and Fort River 60.75. Crocker Farm received a score of 75.7.

“We’re just inside the warning range,” McPherson said, referring to Fort River and Wildwood. Scores below 64 fall into that range, and any score below a 54 would fall into the “extremely poor range.”

Given those scores and the maintenance challenges they represent, the district will spend $1.25 million on maintenance in fiscal year 2018, $918,000 in 2019, $1.2 million in 2020 and $1.3 million in 2021, according to McPherson’s estimates.

In fiscal years 2022 and 2023, Fort River and Wildwood schools will need new roofs, which means the town will spend $3.5 million and $3.1 million in those two years, respectively.

Longtime challenges

The financial realities facing Amherst’s elementary schools are not much of a surprise as school officials and teachers have long identified the challenges in renovations to Wildwood and Fort River. Nearly 20 years ago, then-superintendent Gus Sayer called the schools “dinosaurs.”

The town recently saw three failed votes to authorize borrowing for a $66.37 million project that would have created two new elementary schools at the Wildwood site on Strong Street, closing Wildwood and Fort River.

Amherst voters narrowly approved a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override to fund the construction of a new $67 million elementary school complex Nov. 8, 2016. On Nov. 14 and Jan. 30, 2017, Town Meeting declined to authorize borrowing for the project. A townwide election March 28 to overturn the Town Meeting votes failed.

Those votes and the rancor surrounding them continue to permeate the town’s politics, coloring many residents’ reactions to McPherson’s assessment.

“It’s going to be hard to make up for the failure of turning down $34 million from the state,” said Katherine Appy, the former School Committee chairwoman, who was an advocate for the failed school project.

Appy was referring to the amount of money the MSBA was ready to provide for the $67.2 million school project.

“It’s hard to imagine when we will achieve two new healthy, great teaching environments and learning environments,” she said.

Town Meeting member Laura Quilter, who was an organizer against the failed school project with the group Save Amherst’s Small Schools, said the School Committee should have seen that the project would fail to gain enough votes.

If officials had acknowledged that reality, Quilter said, they could have withdrawn their MSBA application and then resubmitted new statements of interest for Wildwood and Fort River schools last April.

“That cost the town another year submitting proposals,” she said. “That is unfortunate.”

The failed votes have also naturally made their way into another contentious issue: the upcoming vote to adopt a new town charter, which if passed would create a town council and town manager form of government. Both sides in that debate have at some point accused the other of being bad for the town’s schools.

Renovation scenarios

Morris has laid out seven potential scenarios for renovating, rebuilding or adding onto Fort River and Wildwood — all more expensive and time-consuming than the rejected Wildwood project.

As part of that process, the Fort River School Feasibility Building Committee is looking at what could possibly be done on that site after Town Meeting appropriated $250,000 for the study. So far, though, the committee has largely focused on administrative tasks.

“We have met three times now,” member Heather Sheldon said. “It feels pretty slow but that’s the nature of these things.”

After the feasibility building committee completes its work, it will then disband and another committee would have to be created to decide what will actually be done on that site, Sheldon said.

“There’s no deadline on this, but we need to do the work as quickly as we can,” she said.

The town is also reapplying for MSBA funding, and has until April to submit statements of interest for that competitive process. The MSBA would announce whether Amherst will again be selected for funding around the end of the year.

As part of that application process, the town will have to designate one school as a “priority” — a choice the School Committee lamented earlier this month, given the equally poor conditions at both Fort River and Wildwood.

McPherson suggested Fort River be granted priority, given the immediacy of some of the repairs there. But making Fort River the priority in the MSBA process won’t make Wildwood seem better off, and thus less likely to receive funding, McPherson added.

“We have a financial issue, and until we apply significant — tens of millions of dollars, we’re not going to make substantive strides in correcting our overall problems,” he said. “That is just a fact of life.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.