In Case the $67 Million Amherst School Building Plan is Voted Down Next Tuesday: Morris Proposes Fort River Site Study

An outline for a $700,000 study on the feasibility of renovating Fort River Elementary School or building a new school on the site was presented to the Amherst Finance Committee last week, by the Amherst-Pelham Regional School’s Interim Superintendent, Michael Morris.

An Amherst Media video of the March 17 Finance Committee meeting can be found here. The relevant section begins at 1:40. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd6GH-giYec&feature=youtu.be

Morris said the feasibility study would help to ease disappointment if the current $67 million school building project fails in a referendum next Tuesday, March 28. The question, Morris said, was “can we create a plan so that parents do not feel demoralized?”

Fort River School
Fort River was not chosen by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, because the district prioritized Wildwood, Interim Superintendent Michael Morris said.

Morris said kindergarten enrollment at Fort River was low this past fall, and concerns about the school’s fate are very real. “The goal would be to explore the Fort River site, both the location and building,” he said. He was accompanied by outgoing Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Appy, who has chosen not to run for re-election.

Morris noted that Amherst’s senior planner has expressed “serious doubts” about the viability of the Fort River site, including concerns about a high water table. Morris acknowledged that the Federal Emergency Management Agency  is working on new maps of Amherst. Drafts of those maps obtained by Save Amherst’s Small Schools indicate that older drawings incorrectly showed a flood plain extending far onto the Fort River property.

Morris said the FEMA maps won’t be complete for another 18 months, and he has no reason to question the senior planner’s findings. “(But) I don’t know if that’s enough for everybody,” he said.

The study would evaluate Fort River’s foundation, among other building and site features. “We’d know a whole lot more about Fort River than we know now. We’d know a whole lot more about renovation schemes,” Morris said, adding that the study could also help the district address concerns about environmental health and air quality. 

In response to questions from the Finance Committee, Morris said about $900,000 has been spent so far by the town and the Massachusetts School Building Authority combined on studies related to the already-proposed building plan.

That plan would lead to demolition of Wildwood and Fort River, and construction of a new grade 2-6 school at the Wildwood site, to house 750 pupils. Crocker Farm in South Amherst, which is now K-6, would be converted to a townwide facility for preschool, kindergarten and first grade. The state would pay about half of capital cost, although Amherst would have to borrow the full sum, await reimbursements, and pay interest on the loan.

Proponents say that there is an urgent need to replace the aging Wildwood and Fort River, which were built in the 1970’s on an “open classroom” model. Opponents maintain that the building and consolidation plan selected would sacrifice successful small schools that are important to the community.

JCJ Architecture, the Hartford, Conn., firm which worked with the district and produced the proposed building plan, has done 359 addition and renovation projects. “I’m not saying we should stay with them,” Morris said, adding that the firm nonetheless has relevant experience..

Morris said the Massachusetts School Building Authority accepted Wildwood, rather than Fort River, into its funding program “because we prioritized Wildwood, not Fort River.” However, dialogue in recent months has shown that the public has greater concerns about Fort River, despite its newer, 2011 boiler system.

Although other Finance Committee members expressed support for a Fort River feasibility study, member Tim Neale raised many doubts. “Why should the town spend $700,000 before the School Committee decides how many schools we want, and before we have a new superintendent?” he asked.

Morris said no action would take place until next year, and the study would provide needed information. “People in the community feel like you need to explore all these avenues before you come up with a solution,” he said.

Longtime Town Meeting member Vincent O’Connor, who was at the Finance Committee meeting, was enthusiastic about the study proposal and maintained that a warrant article would pass at Town Meeting, where the $67 million project has twice failed to win a two-thirds majority. “I absolutely support what is being proposed … I think you will be absolutely shocked at the Town Meeting response to this proposal,” O’Connor said.

Finance Committee member Steve Braun said the study Morris described seemed to  include schematic design elements. Although Braun expressed support for the overall proposal, he suggested breaking it down into two phases. “I actually think it’s a really smart idea … as a community, we need information,” he said.

Morris said repeatedly that he believes the existing plan is best for the district, and deeply hopes it will pass on Tuesday, invalidating the need for any further studies. “I hope I never have to talk about it after tonight,” he said.

Questions arose about whether a smaller sum could be proposed for a study, and a more specific breakdown of costs provided. Finance Committee Chairwoman Marylou Theilman said that Morris and the School Committee could continue to weigh options, and still have time for an article to appear on the April Town Meeting warrant.  But after Tuesday’s vote, “this may all be moot,” Theilman said.

Disclosure: The author is a member of Save Amherst’s Small Schools.

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