Amherst parents, officials debate school changes

AMHERST — As the date for a School Committee vote on Amherst’s elementary grade reconfiguration approaches, some parents remain unconvinced that switching from three elementary schools to two is the right way to go.

The committee will vote on an educational plan to guide its building project on Tuesday. Critics of the plan, which is the first step for getting reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, say it will limit the district’s options when it comes time to pick a building proposal.

At an afternoon forum attended by fewer than 20 community members Monday, one of two that took place that day, school administration officials continued to make the case that building a new 750-student school would be the best way to replace both Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools.

Both existing schools feature an open classroom model, which the district has continually said is bad for students and teachers alike, and are out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Administrators repeated at the forum that eliminating both schools and building one new one with state assistance is the best way to equitably move the district forward. That is what Superintendent Maria Geryk recommended at a School Committee meeting on Oct. 20.

Residents at both of Monday’s forum were skeptical.

Janet McGowan, whose children attended Fort River Elementary for six years, said parents were told rather than consulted about the change.

“I appreciate the learning goals for our community, but in a community involving citizenship, parents are a part of the community,” she said. “These are three school communities you are talking about completely changing and you haven’t really talked to the parents.”

Woody Sherman, an Amherst resident whose daughter attends Amherst Montessori School, said he wanted to see the cost amounts for renovating or replacing Wildwood in addition to building a new building.

The district’s project manager, Thomas Murphy of Joslin, Lesser + Associates, said those numbers would be available, but only after the district submits its educational plan. The Massachusetts School Building Authority has pledged to help support the district with only one school project.

Sherman said that he wanted to see the numbers before the educational plan is voted on.

Community member Vincent O’Connor said the district erred by focusing on the buildings rather than the educational plan.

“Two thirds of the presentation has been about what is wrong with the buildings,” he said. “Everyone who has lived in this town for more than 10 or 15 years and has friends who have kids knows what’s wrong with the buildings ... It doesn’t mean the plan the superintendent has recommended for grade configurations is the correct plan.”

While there was plenty of discussion related to the state of the buildings, relatively little was said at Monday’s forum about the advantages of moving to an education model of having a school for younger students and a school for older elementary students.

School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Appy, who attended the forum, said much of the information about the benefits of grade reconfiguration is contained in the administration’s educational plan, on which the School Committee will vote on Tuesday.

“It has been addressed to my satisfaction,” she said following the forum.

Within the education plan, district officials say the reconfiguration model will lend itself better to English language learners, who form a significant percentage of the student body, but not enough in any of the smaller schools to allow for a newcomer program. A larger school would allow the district to better prepare these students with English skills, according to the plan.

The model would also stabilize the variability of the enrollment in the district schools and create an early childhood center with a program focused on young children. That early childhood center would also allow the district to accept more preschool applicants, who are now turned away due to lack of capacity.

At a School Committee meeting last week, Wildwood parent Laura Quilter said she worried the issue was becoming divisive and that it would not pass Town Meeting.

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

Others listed concerns including the environmental effect of having more students being bused and driven to fewer schools and the fact that the district would miss opportunities to have older students coach younger students and build school community.

Turned down

The process of applying to the Massachusetts School Building Authority has been ongoing since 2007, according to Geryk.

“We’ve asked for Wildwood and Fort River each year,” she said.

Each year, the district was denied until 2013, when the state agency told the district that it could rebuild one school.

The district prioritized Wildwood over Fort River because Wildwood is three years older — it was completed in 1970 while Fort River was finished in 1973 — and Fort River received more updates in the 1990s.

The letter from the Massachusetts School Building Authority came to the district on Nov. 20, 2013, Geryk said. At the following Town Meeting, in May 2014, Amherst approved spending $1 million for a feasibility study, $400,000 of which would come from funds which had been slated to replace Wildwood’s boilers, and the remainder from the state.

Building troubles

Much of the administration’s argument at the forum instead focused on the inadequacies of the existing buildings.

Ron Bohonowicz, director of facilities and maintenance for the Amherst Public Schools, pointed out a number of problems with the two elementary schools during a walk-through earlier Monday.

“The electric is terrible, the plumbing is deteriorating, but the bricks are in good shape,” he said.

In his opinion, the buildings could be renovated to fix the electric and plumbing problems rather than being entirely rebuilt. Yet Bohonowicz still backs the plan to entirely replace the schools. The reason, he said, is that the buildings are not suited for learning.

Bohonowicz pointed to furniture stacked in classrooms to create buffers for students to walk by. Students have to walk through other classrooms to go to the bathroom or exit class, he said.

They can also hear what is going on in other classrooms that share a “quad,” which the district calls the groupings of four classrooms in a single large open space. Between two classrooms in one quad at Fort River on Monday, a dehumidifier made noise to buffer the sounds coming from the adjoining spaces, but the noise from the machine made it difficult to hear in both classrooms.

In another space in Wildwood, student voices from all four partitions are clearly audible throughout the quad.

“As they get older, they get louder,” Bohonowicz said.

Teachers, administrators and students have also complained of poor air quality in both buildings. Bohonowicz said his employees have done the best they can to ameliorate such issues, and tests have shown the air quality in both buildings to be adequate. At the same time, he does not think the students and staff are faking their complaints.

Moisture also affects the building in different ways, such as a wet ceiling tile ready to burst in one Fort River teacher’s classroom.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Morris, who attended part of the walk-through, said bursting ceiling tiles were issues he had to deal with when he was a teacher at Fort River in 2002.

Leading the way to the library and to special education rooms, Bohonowicz and Morris said the library spaces at both schools were too exposed to hallways where students frequently walk, and that the special education rooms were too enclosed, shut off from natural light.

Kurt Wise, an Amherst parent, said he and other community members were convinced about the need to replace both schools, but where he parted ways with the administration was in approving an education plan that altered the makeup of the district’s facilities in what he called a radical way.

“Once, as I understand it, we’ve told the state, ‘no we’re committed to revamping our educational structure to have this other model,’ then we’re locked in to a specific set of solutions,” he said. “That seems deeply problematic.”

By September 2014, when the state gave the town permission to go ahead with its feasibility study, the district had come up with multiple project possibilities, including the option that would later be recommended by Geryk: reconfiguring the three elementary schools into two, assigned to different age groups rather than neighborhoods.

In the 2015-16 school year, enrollment at the three schools is about 420 for Crocker Farm, 350 for Fort River and 425 for Wildwood.

Projections for 2019, when the project is expected to be completed, put those numbers at 430 for Crocker Farm, 300 for Fort River and 385 for Wildwood under the K-6 model.

If the schools are reconfigured as proposed, Crocker Farm would have 360 students and the new school 755. However, the district’s plan would break the new school into two separate wings with their own classrooms and with common spaces such as a cafeteria and gym to be shared by the two wings. Each wing would hold about half of the students.

The wings could be split by grade, with one containing Grades 2-4 and the other for Grades 5 and 6, or each could consist of a Grade 2-6 mini-school within the larger school.

The cost of the district’s plan to build a new school is estimated at $47 million to $53 million. With the state expected to reimburse 58 percent, the town’s cost would be $19.7 million to $22.3 million.

Replacing Wildwood only would cost between $29 million and $33 million, according to district projections. The state would reimburse the same 58 percent, leaving the town to pay between $12 million and $14 million.

However, district officials said such a plan would leave Fort River students in bad condition while students at the other two schools had a better learning environment.

The administration put forward another option to renovate both Wildwood and Fort River. One building project would receive state help and the other would not. The total cost to Amherst is estimated at $43 million to $50 million.

Whichever option the School Committee chooses, it needs to choose soon, according to Geryk. She said the district’s consultant, Joslin, Lesser + Associates Inc. of Watertown, has advised the district through the process and has recommended a decision on the educational plan by November.

The consultant’s timeline has the committee submitting its educational plan to the Massachusetts School Building Authority by the end of November, allowing for approval in March. The district would then bring the proposal before voters at Town Meeting.

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