Elementary school building plans advancing in Amherst 

  • Fort River Elementary School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2021

AMHERST — A Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override vote to pay the town’s share of a new elementary school building is expected to come before voters in November 2022.

The Elementary School Building Committee at its June 16 meeting received a presentation of a likely timeline, from owner’s project manager Margaret Wood, of Anser Advisory of Boston, that would have an approved project break ground Aug. 1, 2024, and have a completed building to replace Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools for fall 2026.

Wood’s timeline has several milestones, including selecting a designer for the building in October 2021 and, by the end of February 2022, having the building committee choose a site where the project would be built and the Amherst School Committee determine the grade configuration for the building.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority in December 2019 accepted Fort River School into its eligibility period, allowing the town to move forward with a project to replace or renovate the 1970s-era building. The MSBA has since given the town two options to pursue, one for a 575-student building that would house children from kindergarten through fifth grade, and take both Wildwood and Fort River offline, the other a 320-student building that would serve students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Before the townwide vote on what could be as much as an $80 million building, with half the cost covered by the state, potentially controversial decisions will have to be made.

Superintendent Michael Morris said a complication is the possibility that the town’s three elementary schools, with Crocker Farm Elementary School remaining in all scenarios, will be reduced to two schools.

“I do think that’s going to be one of the high points of conflict,” Morris said.

The School Committee also will need to determine if all sixth-grade students should move to the Amherst Regional Middle School. This is already being discussed due to space limitations at Wildwood and Fort River caused by the need to enlarge classrooms to create more space during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If sixth grades are moved, the 320-student building is off the table, Morris said.

“The 575 student option is not an option if our elementary school stays K-6,” Morris said.

Meantime, the building committee also unanimously approved a request for services advertisement for the design work. This will be reviewed by the MSBA at a future meeting so that a designer can be hired in the fall.

Amherst was last accepted into the MSBA process in November 2013. Decisions at that time led to a twin-school proposal, with two grades two through six schools at the site of Wildwood School, each with 375 students. Crocker Farm would have converted into an early childhood education center.

That $66.37 million plan was approved by voters in a Proposition 2 ½ debt-exclusion override in November 2016, but Town Meeting failed to give it the necessary two-thirds vote to advance the project.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com