Heather Sheldon: Amherst must find money to replace schools

Wednesday, November 08, 2017
Amherst must find money to replace schools

We followed with sadness the results of the earthquake in Central Mexico in which hundreds of people died, including at least 26 students killed by a collapsed primary school building.

We are fortunate in the United States that we are fastidious about updating and enforcing our building codes that mitigate the impacts of natural and man-made disasters.

New buildings in the United States are much more sophisticated than their counterparts built even just a few decades ago. They are substantially better able to protect the health and welfare of their occupants by providing generous and safe paths of egress in the event of a fire and structural systems that better withstand earthquake and damaging winds.

Rating organizations such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design also provide standards that call for sufficient daylight and air quality that improve health and productivity for occupants.

With Amherst’s failure to replace the Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools, we lost the opportunity to provide a generation of schoolchildren a building that embodies the best of our current understanding of what is required to keep them as safe and healthy as possible.

The 2015 evaluation of our existing Wildwood school building reported that many of its systems did not meet current building standards, including the fire protection system. Even if a substantial renovation is undertaken, including the addition of a sprinkler system, the building would still not meet all standards because its size is larger than current code permits for its construction type.

While we are just starting an evaluation of the Fort River Elementary School with this month’s formation of a building committee, it is likely the same will be true there, as Fort River is nearly identical to Wildwood.

As we embark on the long process of starting over with a new plan to replace these schools and of raising the funds required to do so, we need to remember what is at stake — the health and safety of Amherst’s children and those who work with them.

We cannot wait on Massachusetts School Building Authority funding that may never come, and if it does, will only be partial funding for one school building. Amherst must plan now to set aside sufficient funds to replace these two buildings.

Heather Sheldon


The writer is a trained architect and the mother of a child who attends Fort River Elementary School.