Guest column: Getting to consensus on Amherst’s schools

  • Peter Demling

  • Anastasia Ordonez

Amherst School Committee
Friday, February 22, 2019

“But how will we know if we’ve achieved consensus?” The Amherst School Committee has heard this question a lot since December, when we began discussing next steps after our applications for state aid to renovate or replace Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools were denied. It’s an important question that helps get at why we’re currently undertaking community listening sessions, but the answer requires a little history.

Applications to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for aid in addressing the infrastructure problems in public schools are very competitive: of 70 statements of interest received from 59 school districts last year, only 12 were accepted.

After our applications last year were denied, Superintendent Michael Morris contacted the MSBA to understand how we might improve consideration of our next applications. Their response was to ask that we show consensus on what our community wanted in a future project, and what we didn’t want.

It’s not too hard to understand this caveat. Given the MSBA’s previous large investment in an earlier failed school building project in our town, they want assurance that we can agree on a basic plan for our schools before they agree to invest again. One school or two, a K-6 or other model, building size — agreement on general ideas that lets them know we’re ready to move forward, should we be granted aid again.

Consensus is no easy feat in any community. And even harder, we must do that and submit our application to the MSBA by April 12. But our committee is optimistic that we can get there, especially since we do not need unanimity on every detail of a future building project for our application to be considered.

We also have an advantage. For several years, we’ve talked at length with many parents, educators, caregivers, elected officials and concerned voters about their wishes for our public elementary schools. We’ve heard for some time what people want and don’t want.

Most agree that we need to take urgent action to fix the many structural problems with both buildings. For our committee, urgent action means we must apply for and receive state aid so we can be fiscally responsible to taxpayers by keeping costs down.

Other guidelines emerged from these conversations and these resulted in the current proposal, which we believe is the viable option for consensus. These guidelines are: one MSBA project, so that neither school is forced to wait “its turn”; one warm, child-centered building designed with the social, emotional and educational needs of children first; a building for 600 students, which would be large enough to hold students from both schools but no bigger than either current building; a K-5 or K-6 grade configuration, to limit the number of grade level transitions; and, a survey to solicit community feedback during the formal MSBA feasibility study process before binding decisions are made.

We think we can achieve consensus around these guidelines, but we want to be sure. So we’ve scheduled six listening sessions for the community to hear details of this proposal and formally share their thoughts.

The sessions will be overseen by professional facilitators who have mediated difficult conversations in other communities. We are grateful to the Amherst Town Council for supporting our efforts to schedule these sessions across town, and are pleased that they will join our School Committee members at all of them.

The schedule of listening sessions is as follows (Spanish-language interpreters will be present):

■Wednesday, Feb. 27, Bangs Community Center, 3:30-5:30 p.m., and at Wildwood Elementary, 7-9 p.m.

■Thursday, Feb. 28, Fort River Elementary, 4-6 p.m., and at Jones Library, Woodbury Room, 7-9 p.m.

■Wednesday, March 6, Crocker Farm Elementary, 4-6 p.m., and at ARHS Library, 7-9 p.m.

(Alternate snow date on March 7)

If you cannot attend one of these sessions, and/or would prefer to offer written feedback, you can do so online: https://bit.ly/2V31NFs. The feedback from the listening sessions and the online forms will be compiled and shared with the School Committee in time for our final discussion and vote on this topic on March 11.

Showing consensus to the MSBA — which we envision as strong votes in favor from our School Committee and Town Council, as well as the community expressing its support — does not mean we have to agree on every detail of a future project. But it does mean that we agree to meet in the middle for the sake of our students and community.

Anastasia Ordonez is chair of the Amherst School Committee; Peter Demling is vice-chair.