Anastasia Ordonez: Town can’t dictate terms for school funding

Friday, November 25, 2016

The editorial published in the Nov. 18 Bulletin (“Compromise Amherst school plan now best”) makes two erroneous assumptions: that Amherst can renegotiate a new project scope with the state funding agency under our current contract; and that we can easily get back into the funding pipeline in a short amount of time.

It’s easy to understand why these mistakes were made, since a well-funded opposition has been making these arguments for months. However, these arguments are not based in fact.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) has a multistep process when considering applications for state funding to renovate deteriorating school buildings, or build new ones to replace those beyond repair.

Step one is to submit a statement of interest (SOI) for review; currently, there are over 150 pending SOIs from 84 communities across Massachusetts. Applications are reviewed once a year and competition is fierce. If the MSBA accepts a district’s application for review, it moves on to step two (the “pipeline”), and the district is invited to submit an educational plan along with additional information about the project.

Years often pass between step one and step two. In our case, annual applications began for both Fort River and Wildwood in 2007, and only Wildwood’s application was accepted in 2013 (Fort River was still pending until last year, when the new schools project was identified as co-located schools). This project our Town Meeting voted down was developed in close collaboration with our community leaders, our educators and the state over the course of three years after receiving an invitation into the pipeline from the MSBA.

MSBA rules state clearly that if a town votes down a project for which they were guaranteed funding, that project will be taken off the state’s funding list unless a town can achieve a positive revote within 120 days from the date the MSBA and the town signed their contract.

Stories that other communities have gone back into the funding pipeline “within a few years” after a failed vote are misleading. Of 12 towns with failed votes, five moved on to begin construction after successful town revotes (the project of Granby was actually two projects—one failing, one passing—that have been mistakenly promoted as one successful resubmission). But the successful revoting communities simply tweaked their designs slightly to achieve a positive vote.

Opponents in Amherst are demanding a complete redo of project scope and educational plans, which would make this a completely new application to the state subject to the usual long timelines. We don’t get preferential treatment, and it is unfair to other communities currently waiting in the pipeline to expect anything different.

After last week’s failed vote, the MSBA told us that once their board formally cancels our contract in February 2017, we cannot begin applying again for state funding until June 2018, and then we must wait to be invited back into the pipeline. This process will have to be repeated for each school.

As for other options, we have considered them. Professional architects tell us the buildings are structurally problematic; renovating them would require a complete gutting and rebuilding, just as expensive as building new, with inferior results in terms of daylighting and classroom layouts.

And where would we put several hundred elementary school-aged children, educators, and administrative staff — with all of the furniture, computers, and teaching materials they use — during extensive renovations?

Some people have also put forth the idea of forgoing state funding altogether, and just paying for new construction ourselves. We have no guarantee that our town would be able to absorb the cost of two new elementary schools — approximately $67 million — without reimbursement from the state.

But perhaps most importantly, the calls for scrapping reconfiguration in favor of twin K-6 schools ignore the reasons why this option was chosen. Environmental and operational gains aside, reconfiguration is the best way to ensure children with special needs and low-income children will no longer be bused away from siblings and neighbors.

Reconfiguration will also correct the overcrowding at Crocker Farm, create better spaces for English Language Learners, make for more balanced class sizes, improve teacher collaboration and give our town a visionary early childhood center with expanded preschool.

And while research exists showing both positive and negative aspects of reconfiguration, experts agree that as long as students are supported through transitions, they excel. Evidence of this is seen in other nearby communities with thriving newly reconfigured schools.

In short, our Town Meeting put us in a precarious position last week because they were poorly informed about the complexities of this project. I fear we will all pay the price for this in the end.

Anastasia Ordonez is a member of the Amherst School Committee.