Forums planned on school project

  • Children board buses at Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Fort River Elementary School FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2019

AMHERST — Feedback from residents at three forums being convened by the Town Council could go a long way to determining whether Amherst officials will submit an application for an elementary school building project to the Massachusetts School Building Authority this spring.

The forums are necessary to find out if the public supports the plan, recently unveiled by Superintendent Michael Morris, in which the town would seek state financing for a new school that would house 600 students from kindergarten through either fifth or sixth grade. The building would replace both Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools, both of which are more than 40 years old.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said at Monday’s council meeting that she will work with the Amherst School Committee to convene the three district meetings at which this new elementary school will be the main focus for 90 minutes to two hours.

In addition, the council will take public comment on the potential MSBA application at its March 18 meeting, with a vote expected at its April 1 meeting.

If both the council and School Committee vote in favor of the MSBA application, it would then be signed by Morris, Town Manager Paul Bockelman and School Committee Chairwoman Anastasia Ordonez by an April 12 deadline. The town would learn in December if it is accepted into the program.

But questions continue to surround whether town residents can agree on how to replace Wildwood and Fort River, after the failed effort of building $66.37 million twin schools at the Wildwood site on Strong Street, with $34 million in MSBA assistance. That project, which narrowly won support from voters in November 2016, failed two Town Meeting votes, and led to competing groups, one attempting to preserve neighborhood schools, known as Save Amherst Small Schools, or SASS, and the other called Building Opportunity for Learning and Diversity, or BOLD.

Part of the controversy was that the twin schools would have each housed 375 students and encompassed Grades 2-6, with the third school, Crocker Farm, becoming an early childhood education center.

Morris said he is asking for consensus from the community on one MSBA project that takes care of both aging buildings. The concept behind the plan, he said, is about making the community proud with the educational environment Amherst provides for students and staff.

The current schools have educational challenges, with an open classroom design creating more noise and limiting natural light, Americans with Disabilities Act issues, with 33 areas of noncompliance at Wildwood and 29 at Fort River identified in a recent report, various safety issues and general maintenance concerns. Downpours last Thursday caused 18 leaks in the ceilings at Fort River.

“I do feel there is an urgent need to do something to improve conditions for our students and our staff,” Morris said.

But Morris said if these listening sessions and forums show there is no consensus, the latest proposal may have to be revisited.

“We cannot afford to go through the same level of divisiveness as we did before,” Ordonez, the School Committee chairwoman, said.

At-large Councilwoman Alisa Brewer said there is little choice but to go forward with the one school plan, as it would be cost prohibitive to have both Wildwood and Fort River schools rebuilt.

“There is not going to be two, new renovated schools,” Brewer said.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said she wants to see figures of costs for the plan, noting that to limit the new school to 600 students will require changes elsewhere in the district, such as moving sixth graders to the middle school, or having seventh and eighth graders go to the high school, where an addition would have to be built.

District 5 Councilor Darcy Dumont suggested sending a mailer to all households in town to make sure they are aware of the plan. Schoen said any mailer should include alternative concepts, as well.

District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz said it is important that consensus is based on feedback from the public the council represents, and not just about school officials selling a project. “We still need to listen,” Swartz said.

Morris said that it is critical that the school project not be pitted against other needs, including a new fire station in South Amherst, a new Department of Public Works headquarters, a renovated and expanded Jones Library and rebuilt roads and sidewalks.

If the MSBA application is submitted, Ordonez said a facilitator will be hired to bring all sides together over about nine sessions.

“This is really an opportunity for all of us to be leaders on this and to be able to say yes to something,” Ordonez said.

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