Amherst to vote on funding elementary school building project Nov. 8  

  • Wildwood Elementary School would be demolished to make way for two co-located elementary schools if a plan is approved by voters. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

AMHERST — Voters on Nov. 8 will be asked the take the first step in approving a new elementary school building project.

Question 5 will ask town voters to consider a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override to pay for the building, which will consist of two co-located elementary schools that would house all Amherst students in grades two through six located on the current site of Wildwood Elementary School on Strong Street.

If that is approved, Town Meeting voters in mid-November will consider the specific borrowing amount for the project. The building would be finished in 2020.

School officials and proponents of the project say the new building will appropriately replace the poor learning environment at the outdated Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools, create an early childhood education center at Crocker Farm Elementary School and improve educational equity for underrepresented children, including those with special needs and economic disadvantages.

Opponents say the plan is a flawed one because it trades the three smaller neighborhood schools for two larger co-located ones. Some are in favor of scrapping the plan and re-entering the state school building process to renovate Wildwood and Fort River schools.

The project is supported by acting Superintendent Michael Morris, by a unanimous Select Board vote and by a 4-1 vote of the Amherst School Committee.

Project financing

The project’s estimated total cost is $67.2 million, which does not include the possible costs of demolishing Fort River School or renovating Crocker Farm.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority has agreed to fund $34 million of that cost, leaving town taxpayers to pay $33 million, Finance Committee Vice Chairman Steve Braun said at a recent informational forum.

The project would be funded using a debt-exclusion override, which raises the property tax rate only for the duration of the loan. Total interest payments are estimated to be $21.45 million.

Calculated using a 25-year bond with a 5 percent interest rate, the Finance Committee has estimated that the average yearly property tax increase on a home valued at $300,000 would be $318. But the actual cost for that same property owner fluctuates. It is higher in early years of repayment, lower in later years, with a range of $405 to $189.

The estimated average tax increase on a $200,000 home would be $212 and $742 for a $700,000 house, according to the Finance Committee

School configurations

Morris said that Amherst students and teachers are in desperate need of new schools. Wildwood and Fort River were originally configured to support experimental teaching methods using large, open classrooms.

The efficacy of such a floor plan has been debunked, he said, leaving teachers and students to cope with a noisy environment.

“I taught at Fort River and I know the challenges of the open classroom model — not having walls that go all the way up to the ceiling,” he said. “We don’t want kids to be quiet all the time, and unfortunately the open classroom model means you have to be aware of the other classrooms around you. This really limits what you can do.”

In addition, many classrooms do not get any natural light, including special education rooms. Other concerns include safety (the offices are located far from the main entrances), air quality issues, lack of handicapped accessibility and incredible energy inefficiency.

The new building would save some $450,000 in energy and other efficiency costs, school officials say.

If the project does not go forward, the town has on its five-year capital plan a replacement of the Fort River roof at a cost of $1.25 million and replacement of the Wildwood boiler at a cost of $400,000.

In order to have socioeconomically balanced schools, the district buses students who live in the four apartment complexes off East Hadley Road to schools other than nearby Crocker Farm.

“Essentially you’re not in school with your neighbors,” Morris said. “It means they don’t have the same privilege that all the other kids in school have.”

Some special education students must also attend schools other than those in their neighborhoods, Morris said.

The new school project would also allow for the creation of a prekindergarten through first grade early learning center at Crocker Farm, including an additional 30 preschool seats. Last year there were 15 children on the preschool waiting list, all of whom were from low income families, Morris said.

Each of the co-located schools in the new building would have their own main offices, teachers, specialists, entryways, playgrounds and cafeterias and would each serve students in grades two through six.

They would share a kitchen, gymnasium, outdoor classroom and space for science and technology projects. The building would be LEED Silver certified and have classrooms equipped with voice amplification systems. “It brings us into the 21st century, granted about 20 years late, in terms of having a high quality learning environment,” Morris said.

Better options?

But Maria Kopiki, a Crocker Farm parent and member of Save Amherst’s Small Schools, says there’s other, better ways to archive that goal.

“This plan is extremely flawed in many ways and it is extremely expensive,” she said. “It would be something that we would have to live with and it would be very difficult to change for a long time.”

Among her chief concerns is the additional environmental costs of increased bussing. Students from the far reaches of town will be bused through Amherst center to the co-located schools, costing the environment and the taxpayers.

In addition, she said that the K-6 configuration is far better than the arbitrary divide between the early childhood center and the new building.

Kopiki said the larger school environments would lead to less familiarity among teachers and students and more disciplinary issues. Studies have shown that children fare best in small academic settings.

If voters reject the ballot question, the town could re-enter the school building process in order to have a different plan funded that keeps the K-6 configuration. It could reuse feasibility studies completed in this process, she said.

“When parents have rejected a specific plan, they do not have to start from scratch,” she said. “The state makes decisions based on the conditions of the building and the environmental conditions of the buildings.”

But Morris said there’s a number of logistical concerns about renovating Wildwood and Fort River. They would have to reapply to the state building process, which means new construction would be delayed even further.

“Having taught in the schools … I do feel urgency,” Morris said. “If the project doesn’t pass, there’s no timetable of when we will be able to get back in the MSBA process.” Fort River is built on a floodplain, and Morris said there’s limited space for buildout, or a place to put children when their schools are being renovated, expect perhaps portable trailers. He noted that option could cost in seven-figure range annually.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettnet.com