Composition of committee to study Fort River School underway

  • The Amherst School Committee holds its first public listening session on the composition of a school building committee that will oversee a feasibility study of what to do with the Fort River Elementary School site. GAZETTE STAFF/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Thursday, August 10, 2017

AMHERST — The Amherst School Committee held its first listening session Tuesday on the composition of a school building committee that will oversee a feasibility study of what to do with the Fort River Elementary School site.

The listening sessions come after three failed votes to authorize borrowing for a $66.37 million project that would have co-located two new elementary schools at the site of the Wildwood Elementary School on Strong Street. Interim Superintendent Michael 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.

The listening session began with Morris laying out the process involved in the feasibility study of the Fort River site. 

After the School Committee selects a building committee, that committee will hire an owner's project manager to protect the town's interest and communicate with the community. The committee will then hire an architect and consultants, who will analyze the site and what kinds of building could happen there, with the district’s educational philosophy in mind. The architect would then draft several schematic drawings of possible options, and an independent cost estimator would evaluate the cost of those designs.

From the beginning of the meeting, there was confusion among attendees about what exactly the building committee would be tasked with doing. The committee is tasked with overseeing the feasibility study of the Fort River site, but because the information gleaned from that study may have broad implications for all of the town’s elementary schools several attendees wanted to be clear on the scope of the committee.

“I'm just kind of lost in the sauce” Janet McGowen, a member of Town Meeting, said. “Are we talking about reconfiguration again?”

“In no way are we talking about reconfiguration, that's not where we at right now,” School Committee Chairwoman Phoebe Hazzard responded. Questions like those will likely be raised after the study is completed, but currently in the process the only questions are what can be done at the site. 

Once the conversation got around to the composition of that building committee, there was plenty of discussion and some disagreement.

Irene Dujovne, also a Town Meeting member, recommended that along with teachers and parents, the committee should include members from the two competing factions on either side of the failed Wildwood site plan.

“They have lots of information, so put it to use,” she said. That idea was supported by some fellow attendees, though others suggested fresh perspectives are needed.

There were many other ideas recommended for committee members: green energy and sustainability experts, educators, members of the broader Fort River Elementary community, members of historically underrepresented communities in town, Amherst “old-timers.”

Jean Fay, the president of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association and a paraeducator in the district, recommended that the committee make sure to engage with all school staff, including paraprofessionals, custodial, maintenance, transportation and food service workers.

“They're a wealth of knowledge, and we really shouldn't be overlooking their expertise in this,” she said, adding that many of them have lived and worked in the area for a long time.

There was further discussion about how big the committee should be, and whether including too many members would mean the process would take even longer than already proposed. 

Another question the School Committee posed was how to ensure public trust in the process going forward. Andrew Parker-Renga, yet another Town Meeting member, said the decision to get community input and to move slowly is what should insure that trust.

“I'm furious that is going to take as long as it's going to take,” he said. “But this is how you build trust.”

The next steps in the process are another listening session on Sept. 14, after which the School Committee will deliberate at their meeting on Sept. 19. They will then vote on the composition — though not the actual members — on Sept. 25. 

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