Amherst administrators back school reconfiguration plan, but parents ask for more time

AMHERST — School administrators are backing a building plan that would sort elementary students into schools by grade rather than by neighborhood, but some parents are asking for more time to weigh the options.

The decision on the reconfiguration plan, which involves sending all students from pre-kindergarten through Grade 1 to the Crocker Farm School and building a new school to house Grades 2 through 6, will fall to the School Committee, which is expected to vote Nov. 3.

Town Meeting will ultimately decide whether or not to fund the School Committee-backed proposal, whichever plan the committee chooses.

Superintendent Maria Geryk recommended the reconfiguration plan at an Amherst School Committee meeting Tuesday. An alternative would involve renovation or rebuilding of Wildwood Elementary School and leaving Fort River Elementary School as is. Both schools, identical in age and floor plan, are in desperate need of replacement, Geryk said, but the Massachusetts School Building Authority has approved a rebuilding project for Wildwood only.

Geryk said the reconfiguration plan would allow Amherst to rebuild only one school but have that school serve the whole town. Leaving students in the 1970 Wildwood and Fort River schools would continue an “open-classroom” model that she said was not working well.

“It is extremely poor to have our students educated in a situation where there is not natural light and there is not acoustic privacy and where students are having to walk through others’ classrooms,” she said.

The open classrooms are large open spaces that now serve as multiple classrooms, according to Assistant Superintendent Michael Morris, who gave a presentation to School Committee members Tuesday. In addition to the problems Geryk outlined, Morris said the buildings are inefficient with regard to utilities, and outdated with regard to school safety and accessibility standards.

Health issues

Staff members had their own concerns. Fort River teacher Stephen Lott said his colleagues complained of allergic reactions, headaches, and respiratory ailments in the school, and cited reports of students suffering asthmatic symptoms in the building.

He said there are issues with mold, sagging ceiling tiles that are wet and poor air quality.

“I believe strongly in the idea of equity,” he said. “Are we willing to accept a brand new Wildwood School and Crocker Farm School and a dilapidated Fort River School?”

Nick Yaffe, principal at the Wildwood School, said the same problems persist at Wildwood as well.

“People suffer and so it is important to the Wildwood teachers to do something,” he said. “It is not like Wildwood is any different; we have the same problems as Fort River.”

In addition to solving problems with the buildings, Morris said constructing one building to replace the two schools would save between $530,000 and $640,000 annually, mostly from staff reductions and closing a cafeteria, even taking into account increased transportation expenses.

He added that the school could be set up as two joined schools that share common spaces such as a cafeteria, gym and auditorium. That way the small community feel of a school could be maintained.

About 20 community members and school staff spoke during a public comment period at the beginning of the meeting. Most of the community members opposed the reconfiguration plan while most staff members supported it. Many community members said they felt they were not being given enough time to make the decision.

Several said they only recently learned that a reconfiguration plan was being considered and thought that the school building plan only had to do with Wildwood, not the entire town.

“I don’t think the community has had enough time to put all our collective intelligence to use on this matter,” Wildwood parent Laura Quilter said.

She said she worried the issue was becoming divisive and that it would not pass Town Meeting.

School officials countered that the project had been under discussion for more than a year.

Joanna Morse, a Crocker Farm parent, said she was concerned it would be difficult to build community in the schools under the reconfigured model, and said she felt more comfortable with the K-6 schools now in place.

“I understand the need for change in both buildings, but I’m concerned we haven’t seen research-based reasons why this division would make sense,” she said.

Time pressure

Michele Spirko, a parent of students at the high school, middle school and Fort River Elementary School, said she would support a project that would help all Amherst students, and disagreed with any proposal that would leave out Fort River.

“I think it is incomprehensible to me that we would choose to build a building to serve one-third of our young children and leave another one-third behind,” she said. “That is morally distasteful.”

Project manager Thomas Murphy said the town had only 30 months to create an education and building plan approved by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and that was why a decision needs to be made soon so that it could go before Town Meeting.

Following the meeting, Quilter said she was skeptical of Murphy’s claim, saying he had a vested interest in seeing the project move forward quickly. She said she thought residents should contact the School Building Authority to find out how much flexibility there is with the timeline. “I think the architects will be able to come through with a building at whatever time line we manage to generate for them because that’s their business and that is what we are paying them for,” she said.

The four School Committee members present — member Kathleen Traphagen was absent — took no formal vote. Two of the members, Chairwoman Katherine Appy and Vice Chairman Rick Hood, said they viewed the reconfiguration model favorably.

Phoebe Hazzard said she was approaching the decision with an open mind. Vira Douangmany-Cage did not say which plan she supported, but lamented the situation the district was in.

“I think this is a horrible scenario right now we’re in, and it is demoralizing that community members are pitted against each other,” she said.

Information sessions about the reconfiguration plan and alternative building plans for community members will be held at 3:30 and 7 p.m. Monday in the Amherst-Pelham Regional High School auditorium.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.