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Amherst building committee picks Fort River site for new elementary school

  • Fort River School was recommended by the Elementary School Building Committee as the site for construction of a new elementary school building to open in the fall of 2026. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fort River School was recommended by the Elementary School Building Committee as the site for construction of a new elementary school building to open in the fall of 2026. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ruth Killough-Hill, from left, Laurie Hickson and Ana Encarnacion, staff at Fort River Elementary School in Amherst, wait as students walk toward the bus at the end of the day. The 19.8-acre site was chosen for the construction of a new elementary school building to open in the fall of 2026. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Laurie Hickson, Ana Encarnacion and Deb Sawicki wait as school gets out and buses load students Monday at Fort River Elementary School in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fort River School was recommended by the Elementary School Building Committee as the site for construction of a new elementary school building to open in the fall of 2026. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Monday, June 20, 2022

AMHERST — Fort River School’s 70 South East St. campus is being recommended by the Elementary School Building Committee as the site for construction of a new three-story, 575-student elementary school building to open in the fall of 2026.

A divided committee voted 8-5 Monday to have the project, estimated at a cost of $105.88 million, move forward at the Fort River site, in part because its 19.8 acres is nearly twice the size of the competing 10.5-acre Wildwood School site at 71 Strong St.

Having more of a buffer from new construction, and reducing potential disruptions on education, were deciding factors for committee member and Fort River Principal Tamera Sullivan-Daley’s affirmative vote.

“We’re trying to mitigate that to the greatest extent possible,” Sullivan-Daley said.

“This has been an extremely difficult decision for me,” said committee Chairwoman Cathy Schoen, who is also a District 1 councilor. In the end, though, Wildwood’s smaller site and potential disruption to learning there swung the needle for Schoen to join the majority, calling the potential for impact from construction on education there “too high a cost for our children.”

Also voting in favor of Fort River, citing more outdoor space for learning and community recreation when the project is complete, were Wildwood Assistant Principal Allison Estes and Superintendent Michael Morris, community members Angelica Bernal, Phoebe Merriam and Jonathan Salvon, and At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker.

The decision means that the preferred solution for replacing both 1970s-era school buildings can be submitted by DiNisco Design to the Massachusetts School Building Authority by the end of the month, with a vote on that package of materials expected at a June 24 meeting. In August, the MSBA will notify the town if it will support funding for the school project, which will then allow the Town Council to schedule a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion vote for next spring.

The MSBA will provide reimbursement to the town for some portion of the costs associated with the project, though the exact amount will not be known for several months.

Already, work is being done to set the stage for the new school, with sixth graders at the three elementary schools, including Crocker Farm, to move to the middle school in the fall of 2023. Crocker Farm, which also houses an early childhood education center, will remain open, while, under this plan, the existing Fort River building would be demolished when the new school opens, with the future of the Wildwood building unknown, though potentially available for other school or municipal purposes.

Those who voted against the Fort River site, out of concern that it will cost more to develop and has more issues with vehicular traffic and pedestrian access, were Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Finance Director Sean Mangano, Procurement Officer Simone Cristofori, Regional School Committee Chairman Ben Herrington and School Facilities Director Rupert Roy-Clark. In a separate vote following the selection of the site, however, those five committee members supported the combined action on the location and structure of the building.

Despite what he saw as “cons” about the Fort River site, Herringon said he has always been “pro” when it comes to the project as a whole. “From day one, my ‘pro’ has been a new building,” Herrington said as he cast his initial vote against the Fort River site. “That trumps everything.”

Mangano said the Wildwood site is part of a campus with proximity to the middle and high schools, presents a lower risk from climate change and has a better traffic situation; and the fact that it is projected to cost $2.25 million less, or $103.63 million, is not insignificant.

“Long term, Wildwood is the site that makes the most sense,” Mangano said.

Bockelman said the Wildwood site has twice been supported by voters in debt-exclusion override votes, in 2016 and 2017, but failed to get the necessary two-thirds support at Town Meeting, emphasizing that town and school officials should pay attention to the higher costs. Bockelman also worries about the high water table at Fort River, which is part of the reason for the higher expenses, which will include the need to truck in fill before construction can begin.

Roy-Clark said a worry is putting a larger school near one of the worst intersections in town, with the Fort River site situated between South East Street intersections with Main Street to the north and College Street to the south.

Walker said education disruption following the COVID-19 pandemic is a bigger worry, and that neither site is ideal from a traffic perspective.

“There will be a significant investment in traffic no matter which site we choose,” Walker said.

Though Estes voted for the Fort River site, she said its higher cost is a concern, and that the vote for that site is putting trust in the community that it will rally around a more expensive project.

During the committee’s nearly two-hour meeting, the first decision made, unanimously, was for a three-story building rather than a building with two floors. Morris said that would not only maximize green space, but allow each floor to be grouped, meaning kindergarten and first-grade classrooms on the ground level, second and third grades on the middle floor and fourth and fifth grades on the top floor.

Sullivan-Daley said a three-story building would also help teachers build relations with students.

The committee previously rejected the possibility of an addition or renovation to an existing school, noting it wouldn’t be able to be fully occupied until after the fall of 2026.

Those who spoke after the vote appeared unified in their support for the project, which comes five years after Town Meeting rejected a $66.37 million twin school, each to house 375 students and encompassing grades 2-6. At the time, Crocker Farm was to have become an early childhood education center.

“This is a momentous step forward for our community,” said Town Council President Lynn Griesemer.

“I think this is going to be really fantastic for our school community and the community at large,” said School Committee member Jennifer Shiao.

School Committee member Peter Demling said he, too, is excited for the town to move forward together.

Maria Kopicki, who spearheaded a group opposing the previous school project, told the committee she believes the current path for the new project will lead to healing of the community.