Amherst forum addresses middle school needs

  • Amherst Regional Middle School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Friday, November 29, 2019

AMHERST — A renovation of the Amherst Regional Middle School building — with projects that could include installing a sprinkler system, repainting the interior and putting skylights in classrooms without windows — should be a priority, school officials heard at a forum on Monday focused on the public schools.

At the meeting, mandated by the town charter, town officials presented information on ongoing projects and got feedback from residents on a range of topics, from budget matters to standardized testing.

Toni Cunningham, a parent who lives in North Amherst, said school officials should be prioritizing renovations to the middle school and begin engaging the community in the possibility of having sixth graders move from the elementary schools to the middle school in the coming years.

A Regional Master Facilities Use Study done by JCJ Architecture of Hartford earlier this year provided estimates for improvements to the middle school, such as $1.6 million for a sprinkler system, $700,000 for a fire alarm system and close to $600,000 for interior painting.

The middle school, where only seventh and eighth graders are currently taught, could accommodate 160 more students. By moving sixth graders there, a replacement building for the aging Wildwood and Fort River schools would only need space for 600 students, rather than 750. Amherst has an application pending with the Massachusetts School Building Authority to fund such a project.

Superintendent Michael Morris said no decisions are imminent on what will happen at the middle school, and promised more discussions with the community in the coming year.

Morris said the focus for the school department has been on the safety and conditions of the elementary schools, from doing more air quality testing at Wildwood and Fort River to replacing door locks and enhancing building systems, such as replacing an aging boiler.

He said if any decisions were made to bring sixth graders to the middle school, at least two summers would be needed before implementation occurs.

That is a comfortable timeline based on his experience of redistricting elementary students when Mark’s Meadow School closed in spring 2010, he said.

School Committee members and others have already been provided tours of the space at the middle school.

Amherst is part of a grades 7-12 region with Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury, but only Amherst sixth graders would be affected.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said if Amherst sixth graders were to shift to the middle school building, the regionial district would benefit financially by leasing the space to the Amherst schools.