At last night’s candidates forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Robert Greeney, who is running for a two-year seat on the School Committee (along with a Select Board seat) took the cake for the most unusual answers to the moderator’s questions. He often used metaphors from nature, apparently harkening back to the days when Amherst was populated by birdlike dinosaurs instead of college students.
“A crack in the earth’s crust formed this area 240 million years ago,” said Greeney in his closing statement, a time usually reserved for remarks about why people should vote for individual candidates. “It is important to listen to ourselves … and to hear the experts. Together, we build,” added Greeney, who is running against incumbent Eric Nakajima.
Earlier, at the select board candidate forum, during discussion of the town’s challenges, Greeney noted that Amherst “sits between a big river, and small hills … we are a book, and a plow, forest, meadows and swamp.”
While Greeney’s remarks were sometimes poetic and indirect, Jennifer Page, who is running against Peter Demling for the three-year School Committee slot, made no bones (or fossils?) about what she believes could be done to solve the district’s problems. The Union 26 and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees voted Wednesday to suspend the superintendent search underway, after discovering that their consulting firm improperly questioned applicants about criminal records. Page, while crediting the committees for halting the flawed search, said faster action was possible. “Information could have, and should have, come to light sooner,” Page said, adding that “appropriate communication” between staff and the School Committees was needed.
Page was the only candidate to address the abruptly suspended search, which was supposed to enter its final stretch early next month, and lead to a new superintendent starting in July.
The candidates were asked about the district’s proposal to build a $67 million, grade 2-6 school building on the Wildwood site. The state would reimburse Amherst for about half that amount, all of which would have to be borrowed by the town. Property tax increases would result, and all interest on the loan would be carried by Amherst.
The plan, which has twice failed to garner a two-thirds majority vote from Amherst Town Meeting, will be brought to a town-wide referendum on March 28, the same day as the local election. Under the plan, the existing Wildwood and Fort River schools would be demolished. A total of 750 pupils would be divided into two “co-located” schools, Interim Superintendent Michael Morris has said, supervised by two principals. However. architectural plans show the proposed structure has just one gymnasium, library, and cafeteria. The building would also absorb grades 2-6 from Crocker Farm in South Amherst, and Crocker Farm would become a town-wide early education center, for preschool, kindergarten, and first grade.
Proponents of the plan, now called “Yes for Amherst,” maintain that the “open classroom” model on which Wildwood and Fort River were designed leads to uncontrolled noise, and that the buildings have air quality issues, among other problems. Save Amherst’s Small Schools (SASS) has argued that small, K-6 schools have the best track record of educational success, and a better plan for improving the schools can be developed. SASS claims the district’s plan would lead to longer bus rides for most children, and siblings being split up in schools at opposite ends of town.
At the Wednesday night Amherst School Committee meeting, it was made clear that the project will not provide funding for 30 new preschool slots for low-income families, although the idea has often been touted as a perk of the plan. “There is nothing we’ve established in a formal sense,” said member Vira Douangmany Cage. “The $66 or $67 million has no direct bearing on preschool seats.” Chairwoman Katherine Appy said Cage was correct, but the district is committed to creation of the slots in association with the plan. Committee member Anastasia Ordonez noted that the 30 seats would not specifically be for low-income families.
The candidates were asked how they felt about the building and reconfiguration plan. Nakajima, who attended Amherst’s schools as a child, including Fort River, maintained that it has always had problems, and mentioned that his mother suffered a respiratory illness while working there. Nakajima voiced support of the plan as being cost-effective, but acknowledged that additional steps may be needed to accommodate aspects of it, including improvements to the East Pleasant St./Strong St. intersection for increased bus traffic. “There are issues that may need to be mitigated,” he said.
Nakajima, who won a place on the Amherst School Committee in a special mini-election by town officials to fill a vacancy last year, has since risen to become chairman of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee.
Greeney said that as a Town Meeting member, he voted once against the project, and once for it, and doesn’t know how he will vote at the referendum. Greeney said he doesn’t like the idea of co-located schools, but appreciates the desire for a ready solution to problems at Wildwood and Fort River. If the referendum measure fails, “there are good options available, perhaps even more cost effective ways,” of improving the schools, he said.
Page said she will support the outcome of the referendum, whatever it may be. She said she favors K-6 schools, because of the continuity they provide for children, who can then develop longterm relationship with staff and peers. Page said she is concerned about long bus rides, and siblings attending different schools, which would be particularly difficult for parents who depend on public transportation.
Demling, meanwhile, said there is a “clear and urgent need” to replace Wildwood and Fort River, and maintained they are not meeting educational needs. Demling said the town should not be “waiting for an ideal or preferred solution,” and claimed that the plan has the support of most teachers.
Disclosure: The author is a member of SASS.