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State OKs grant for Amherst elementary school project 



Staff Writer
Saturday, October 08, 2016

AMHERST — The Massachusetts School Building Authority has approved a $33.7 million grant that will help Amherst build a new Wildwood Elementary School.

State Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg and Maureen G. Valente, chief executive officer for the state authority, recently announced the money that will cover more than half the cost of constructing the new Wildwood building on Strong Street. Current projections peg the cost of the project at $66.4 million.

When complete, two elementary schools, each with up to 375 students from Grades 2 to 6, would be on the site, and Fort River School on South East Street would be closed. The town’s third elementary school, Crocker Farm School on West Street, would become a preschool through Grade 1 building.

Acting Superintendent Michael Morris said getting the grant, which could increase to $34.5 million based on various contingencies, was the final hurdle in the state process.

“I’m feeling very excited about this project, and am also excited about MSBA’s excitement about the project,” Morris said.

The current plan is to build Wildwood in two phases, with the first section ready for occupancy in fall 2019, and the second to open in fall 2020.

Goldberg said in a statement that the project will create a 21st-century learning environment, replacing the open-floor plans at Wildwood and Fort River that cause excessive noise and distractions and reduce the available natural light. Both schools also have obsolete mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

“Our goal is to create the best space to deliver the district’s educational commitments and goals,” Goldberg said.

“Students will soon have a beautiful new space which will undoubtedly enhance and improve their ability to excel in the classroom,” Valente said in a statement.

In addition to making sure students and teachers have suitable schools, Morris said the project will address the equity and diversity challenges Amherst faces.

The funding announcement comes in advance of the project being put to a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion vote that will be Question 5 on the Nov. 8 presidential election ballot in Amherst. A majority of voters must vote for the measure for it to pass.

If that occurs, Town Meeting, which begins the following week, would be asked to approve, by a two-thirds majority, the borrowing associated with the project.

The Select Board on Monday voted unanimously to endorse the ballot measure.

Proponents and opponents of the project are already ramping up their campaigns.

Opposing sides

Elizabeth Larson, a parent and founding member of the Building Opportunity for Learning and Diversity, said Wednesday that the state guarantee of funding indicates state officials understand the need to replace both Wildwood and Fort River schools with a modern learning environment.

“We have a great opportunity to invest in our community and our schools, and support Amherst’s children today and for generations to come,” Larson said.

Laura Quilter, parent and member of Save Amherst’s Small Schools, said in an email that the state funding was expected and does not change her group’s concernswith what critics call a “mega school.”

“The MSBA process is just proceeding as anticipated,” Quilter said

But Quilter said the $33.7 million may be on the low end of what the town could have received.

The school district and the state agency still must enter a funding agreement that will describe the scope and budget of the project, and set the conditions under which the grant will be provided.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.