Advocacy for site of new Amherst school called unwarranted

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, June 06, 2022

AMHERST — In less than a month, the site on which a new or renovated elementary school will be constructed will be chosen by the Elementary School Building Committee.

The project will happen either at the Strong Street site of Wildwood School, or the South East Street site of Fort River School. The committee could make that decision June 13, in advance of submitting a schematic report to the Massachusetts School Building Authority later in the month. That agency will also have to sign off on the site that is chosen.

As the date of this decision looms, the committee is facing mounting pressure, including a number of opinion pieces being published in various news sources and through social media channels, aiming to make sure that the Fort River site is selected, in part because the property is larger than the Wildwood site.

For members of the Amherst Forward political action committee, worries that the Building Committee’s decision could be compromised by this effort prompted it to issue a statement Tuesday praising the committee’s work.

“Amherst Forward is grateful for this carefully guided process and we trust that our Elementary School Building Committee will handle the job they’ve been tasked to do responsibly and with great care,” Amherst Forward wrote.

Amherst Forward Chairwoman Katherine Appy said that with no final cost estimates yet for either site and more analysis being done, the concern from some residents is that the committee is being impeded in its work.

“We believe that the best course of action is to allow the Elementary School Building Committee to make a decision about the site and other project details, rather than for the community to be pulled into ‘sides’ on this issue,” Appy said.

Amherst Forward notes that design and site recommendations will soon mark the midway point in the project’s timeline: “The school building project has been 15 years in the making and we owe it to our students and educators to finish what we started years ago so that they can have a healthy, accessible environment in which to learn.” 

Similarly, School Committee member Peter Demling, in a letter to the editor submitted to the Gazette, asks that the committee be allowed to do its job. While offering input in traditional ways, at forums and through emails, is sensible, he argues it is “ridiculous” for local political groups and blogs insisting that the Elementary School Building Committee choose Fort River because it is the “obvious” and “clear” choice.

“Where is the appreciation for the many complex factors involved in a building site selection, respect for the professional expert analysis of these factors, and support for the Building Committee’s deliberate and open-minded approach to evaluating this information?” Demling writes.

Whatever decision is made will set in motion discussions about the future of the school site that is not selected, with various advocates calling for the vacant building to be used for other municipal purposes.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.