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Johanna Neumann: School building project: Change takes courage

  • STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Fort River Elementary School



Friday, April 30, 2021

Editor’s note: This is the third of a five-part series outlining the four major building projects on the table in Amherst. This column dives into the elementary school building project. It will be followed by columns about a new Department of Public Works headquarters, and a new fire station in South Amherst.

 

Many years ago I bought an art print featuring the words “Change Takes Courage.” I can’t think of a more apt phrase to explain where Amherst is at when it comes to the decadeslong effort to replace our flawed and failing elementary school buildings.

The problems at Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools are well-documented. Experts agree the open classroom model erects barriers to kids being able to learn. Bathrooms and other parts of the building are inaccessible to students and staff in wheelchairs. Many classrooms don’t have windows, and the buildings are oversized for their population, poorly insulated, and leaky.

Because of these inefficiencies, operating the fossil fuel powered furnaces, which contribute to air pollution and global warming, waste tens of thousands of dollars every year that could be spent on programming.

My children, like generations before them, have experienced the challenges of learning in these buildings. Over the years they have reported not being able to hear their teachers or student presentations over the noise from classes in their shared open classroom. They can’t focus on work because of noise distractions from an adjacent class.

They’ve come home regaling us with stories about how ceiling tiles (they call them “sponges”) have dropped out of the ceiling in their classroom, waterlogged from the leaks in the roof. They talked about hundreds of books damaged in their library from water leaks. Heaters in first grade classrooms have caught fire. I could go on, but you get the idea.

So, what’s to be done? Over the past decade, two separate school building committees have determined that these buildings are not worth saving and that renovation does not promise to be a cost-effective solution. They need to be replaced.

But building a new school is expensive and town leaders are hesitant to propose putting that full cost on property taxes, which are already relatively high compared to neighboring towns.

That’s why Amherst’s leaders and citizen boards have doggedly pursued state funding for a new school building. In 2016, our town came very close, but at the final decision point, our legislative body at the time – representative town meeting – voted to kill the project, rejecting more than $30 million in state aid.

I often think about how my kids would have started greeting their friends in a modern, right-sized, day-lighted, efficient, well-ventilated, accessible school starting last fall if voices reluctant to change hadn’t carried the day on Nov. 15, 2016.

In 2021, thanks to a change in Amherst’s form of government in 2019, thoughtful leadership and stability on our school committee, and a recognition of the challenges of learning in these schools, the state admitted Amherst back into the highly competitive process to secure $40 million in state matching funds to build a new school.

But, having been burned by Amherst before, the state put guardrails on Amherst’s new school proposal. Their first criteria is that they will only fund one building. Their rationale is that the K-6 school population in Amherst is small enough and there is room at the middle school for more kids. From the state’s standpoint, constructing multiple buildings in Amherst is costly and an unnecessary luxury when you consider the urgent needs of other communities.

The second stipulation is that the new school can house a maximum of 600 students. Vocal opponents of that 2016 project called that 670-person building a “mega school.” As such, the state is understandably reluctant to fund a larger school building in Amherst.

As a taxpayer in town who pays some attention to the details of the town’s finances, unlocking state matching funds – like our town council recently voted 10-2 to do for the Jones Library project – is the fiscally responsible choice.

But putting ourselves in a position to receive state money for a new school will require us to be open to change. For example, sixth graders might need to move to the middle school. Some kids might have longer bus routes, and more.

Our school committee will begin exploring some of these changes as early as this summer. They will weigh the options, listen to the public, connect the dots, and choose the best path forward. I encourage our community to participate with an open heart, open mind and a willingness to keep our eyes on the prize and not let a perceived perfect be the enemy of the good.

Change takes courage. And if we can find the courage to be open to change, our community will benefit for generations.

Johanna Neumann is a 10-year resident of Amherst. She currently serves on the Amherst Planning Board.