Editorial: Stakes are high on Amherst school reconfiguration decision

Before they vote Tuesday on a proposal that would radically change elementary education in their community, members of the Amherst School Committee must believe that residents truly understand what’s at stake.

Committee members face a recommendation from administrators that the town dramatically shift its elementary school landscape by building a big new school to replace both Wildwood and Fort River, two aging elementary schools in bad shape. After years of filings with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the town is a candidate to secure up to 68.3 percent funding for a new school large enough, along with Crocker Farm, to serve all elementary students in town.

Recent news coverage has explained how Amherst school administrators got to this point, and why the option that some deride as a “mega-school” came out on top. Come Tuesday, it’s up to five people — Katherine Appy, Rick Hood, Kathleen Traphagen, Phoebe Hazzard and Vira Douangmany-Cage — to decide what to do.

They must decide what’s best for Amherst students — first and foremost — but must also determine whether parents who cherish neighborhood schools have had enough time to digest what’s afoot and whether administrators have thoroughly explored alternatives.

This past Monday, the town hosted two final forums on the issue. Speakers illustrated the divide that remains over the right way forward.

The choice Tuesday is in some ways easier for educators to make than it is for parents to accept. Educators naturally focus on what happens inside schools. A large new one able to equally serve students from throughout Amherst appeals to many of them, including teachers who work in the old schools. Parents want modern schools and capable teachers, but for them, schools mean even more. Schools help define neighborhoods and childhoods. Families are naturally protective of both — and that’s why these are among the toughest changes that school systems take on.

The school system has pledged to weigh parents’ views. A FAQ circulated on the issue this fall included this question: “Has the consolidation question already been decided and all of the public input is just ‘window dressing?’” The FAQ’s reply: “No, the decision has not … yet been made. The decision will be based on research and analysis of the options in a variety of areas (educational, financial, and operational); community feedback will play a critical role as well.”

There is evidence to support Superintendent Maria Geryk’s argument that a major public investment such as this should benefit all children — and that it would be wrong to fix Wildwood and leave Fort River pupils behind in an outmoded school.

Though a Wildwood renovation project was accepted for consideration in the MSBA funding pipeline back in 2013, the shift to a townwide school reconfiguration plan is much more recent. It doesn’t help that MSBA project naming rules have meant that this issue continued to be called the Wildwood Building Project, masking its wider impact.

To be sure, bringing all grammar school students in the upper grades into one building will require new approaches. Administrators say they are already considering them, including ways to make a big new school feel smaller than it is — home to about 755 pupils — and possibly retain a sense of neighborhood by grouping students from distinct parts of town.

Such questions can be addressed, but the big one is structural: Where will students report to school? That’s what needs an answer now.

If the town opted to renovate only the Wildwood School, which was a choice, that would consume the financial support the town can expect from the state in the near future. While some parents suggest the town could pay its own way on a Fort River renovation, that would be a tough sell to Town Meeting and, likely, to voters asked to raise their taxes through an override.

It is decision time — but public understanding has its own timetable. Committee members should look hard at the school system’s calendar and consider whether it is possible to hold yet another public forum. Extra time might also enable the town to provide missing cost figures that are critical to an informed choice.

School officials have worked to get the word out, but busy parents don’t always read every email message or attend forums. Added outreach will only increase the odds that the community accepts the decision.

A column on this page today suggests that school officials have more leeway on their timetable than they suggest. But time is clearly tight. Materials that will be affected by the decision on school reconfiguration are due to the state next month. If the project is to stay on track with the MSBA, it must win approval at Town Meeting next spring.

Any decision hurried through, ahead of public buy-in, could face trouble at Town Meeting. The town can’t expect full agreement, but any decision perceived as having failed to explain itself will come back to haunt administrators.