Maria Kopicki: No reason to rush an Amherst’s elementary school reconfiguration

One of the problems many residents have with the questions facing Amherst elementary schools is the sense that a decision on grade reconfiguration must be made immediately, with no time for debate and meaningful input from the community due to constraints imposed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority process.

This is not the case. This week, I spoke on the phone with the MSBA to better understand the process in which we are engaged regarding our elementary schools. It was both an enlightening and encouraging conversation, finally clarifying the following: This is not, in fact, the time for making final decisions about accepting or rejecting grade reconfiguration.

The decision about which of the three options we favor (renovation/addition, new construction, grade reconfiguration) properly belongs in the final documents submitted to the MSBA (known as the Preferred Schematic Report), not the first documents of the feasibility study. This decision can only be made after all alternatives have been vetted, educationally, financially and logistically, during the feasibility study. This was specifically and directly confirmed during my phone call to the MSBA and is stated clearly in their guidelines.

There is an MSBA deadline beginning from the date of the Feasibility Study Agreement in October 2014 and ending 30 months later in April 2017.

However, the documents that are due imminently (Educational Plan and Preliminary Design Program) are not exactly as they have been portrayed. The MSBA official explained to me that these documents are essentially a business plan, providing information on how we are doing things and discussing options on how we can do them in the future.

It can and should contain our ideas for changes or preservation in terms of things like class size, curriculum, and, yes, grade configuration.

However, and more important to our current state of debate, the Preliminary Design Program does not choose the project and the Educational Plan is not the final word about whether we choose grade reconfiguration, it simply states that we are considering it as a possibility.

The alternatives of renovation/addition and new construction, and the many ways to accomplish each, remain on the table. Narrowing down to one option is not where we are in the process; it is getting ahead of ourselves and something that the MSBA specifically and pointedly warns against.

Let’s make the Educational Plan the living document that it is meant to be, preserving our options, spawning a productive dialogue and helping us to arrive at a place where we can say that democracy has been allowed to do its work.

The school committee doesn’t have to have the false choice of either rubberstamping the administration’s plan to prevent the process from derailing or doing due diligence, asking and getting answers to all the questions that remain, reaching their own conclusions, and adding modifications or alternatives to the current proposal.

It can, in fact, do the latter based on the MSBA’s guidelines.

Fortunately, the draft of the Educational Plan contains very little that is specific to grade configuration. Almost everything the district hopes to achieve is possible through other options and those few items that are easier with consolidation into one building are still possible.

Maria Kopicki lives in Amherst.