Columnists Phoebe Hazzard and Anastasia Ordonez describe what’s next for Amherst elementary schools

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Amherst School Committee held two community listening sessions this summer to gather information about how we can work together to address the infrastructure problems in our elementary school buildings.

We’re grateful to the dozens of parents, educators and concerned community members who attended these sessions, and offered their ideas on possible paths forward.

But these sessions also confirmed that we have a lot of work to do in coming months. In many ways we’re starting again from the beginning, and any course of action will require a commitment from the community to work together for real solutions if we hope to improve our schools for our children.

The first step we’re taking on this long road is to establish a School Building Committee to oversee the first phase of a feasibility study for the Fort River Elementary School building and site. Much information was gathered about the Wildwood Elementary School site during the last project, but little was studied about Fort River.

In May 2017, Amherst Town Meeting approved borrowing $250,000 to fund this shortened feasibility study because it will help us make informed decisions about what is even possible on the Fort River site, given its location and current physical condition. Some questions that this initial study will answer are whether the site can support new construction, and whether renovation is desirable.

This week, the School Committee voted on the composition of this School Building Committee, which will oversee all aspects of this study and keep the community engaged and informed throughout the project. This School Building Committee will limit its consideration of options to a K-6 elementary school on the Fort River Elementary School site, and will be dissolved once it presents its results to the community in 2019.

Using the information gathered during the listening sessions, subsequent meetings and letters, the School Committee voted this week on the following 12-member School Building Committee composition: Fort River principal or designee; Fort River teacher; Fort River staff member; facilities director or designee; School Committee member; town finance person; green energy expert with architectural background; Special Education Parent Advisory Council designee; Fort River parent (PGO appointee); parent/guardian at-large; and two community members at-large. A minimum of 50% of the voting membership will be women and/or people of color. Preference overall may be given to parents/guardians/caregivers and to community members with Amherst town government experience.

We are now accepting applications through noon Oct. 13 for those at-large community members interested in serving on the School Building Committee. Further details and application information can be found at www.arps.org.

Our second step in addressing infrastructure challenges is to fix all urgent physical problems in both elementary schools, such as replacing the boiler at Wildwood Elementary School (currently in process). The proposed building project at the Wildwood Elementary School site failed to get the required supermajority it needed to authorize town-wide borrowing for the project, but we must still fix the problems of this aging building.

Our committee is working with the superintendent’s office, school educators, and administrators to understand the full scope of urgent problems at Wildwood and Fort River, and the budget required to fix them.

Finally, our work during the past year has revealed many enrollment challenges facing our elementary schools. In June, the School Committee tasked interim superintendent Michael Morris with forming an enrollment working group to explore challenges and possible solutions.

After a community-wide call for volunteers, the 25-member group began meeting this summer and formed the following subgroups around areas of interest and need: declining enrollment; preschool demand and access; benefits and solutions for achieving socioeconomic balance among the schools; special education programming and meeting all student needs; and developing a dual-language magnet and expanded world language options. These groups will present their reports to the School Committee in December.

Amherst has a strong history of pursuing excellence in education, and we understand the value of investing in our elementary schools so that our students can reap the rewards later in their lives. Without state funding, we now have fewer options available to us to fix the problem of our aging schools.

But with a strong commitment from our community, we will continue to seek educationally sound, fiscally responsible solutions that meet our goals and prepare our children to be the best they can be.

Phoebe Hazzard and Anastasia Ordonez are the chairwoman and vice chairwoman, respectively, of the Amherst School Committee.