Next Wednesday, Amherst Town Meeting will be asked to approve $250,000 for a feasibility study on the Fort River Elementary School site to determine its suitability for construction, and $500,000 to replace an old boiler system at Wildwood Elementary School. If those items pass, Town Meeting will also be asked to approve an additional $20,000 for a study of the Fort River roof.
In the meantime, Interim Schools Superintendent Michael Morris launched the first in a series of presentations to elementary school PGOs this morning (Friday April 28.) At Fort River, Morris discussed the recently-failed school building and consolidation project and floated new ideas, including the prospect of Fort River becoming a magnet school, offering a Spanish/English dual-language curriculum. Slides from Morris’ presentation can be seen here: http://www.arps.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_926729/File/Post-Building%20Project%20Presentation%20Final.pdf
Parents have urged the district for many years to provide substantive foreign language education in in the elementary schools, and Morris’ suggestions won praise from some parents attending.
“I love the fact that you’re thinking about creative approaches to the situation. I personally like the dual language idea,” parent Molly Goren-Watts said.
Morris said he asked the School Committee if he should begin developing new district plans for the schools. Children who live in apartment complexes on East Hadley Road are bused out of their neighborhoods based on district maps drawn about seven years ago. The goal then, Morris said, was to equalize poverty rates at the town’s three elementary schools, following closure of the former fourth school, Marks Meadow. “I think the aim is a good one, but the reality is uncomfortable for me to look at,” he said. “I think the School Committee did the best they could at that time.”
A parent who lives in the Mill Valley apartment complex told Morris she was not happy when her son was moved from Wildwood to Fort River as a result. “I do apologize for your experience,” Morris told her.
Morris noted that Fort River has suffered declining enrollment in recent years, and cited demographic trends as the main cause, including fewer young children living in the neighborhoods feeding Fort River, and slower turnover of homes. Fort River, which now hosts two of the district’s three special education programs, might have the most space of the three schools for additional preschool classrooms.
The recent, highly contentious Amherst school building and consolidation project failed to win a two-thirds majority at two Town Meetings, and then in a townwide referendum on March 28. It would have led to a new building for grades 2 through 6 townwide on the Wildwood site, and demolition of Fort River and Wildwood. The plan was for two “co-located” schools within the new building. In South Amherst, the preK-6 Crocker Farm would have been the townwide preschool, kindergarten and first grade building. The project was pegged at $67 million. Although the state would have reimbursed Amherst for about half, the town would have borrowed and paid interest on the total capital cost, and property taxes were set to increase.
At the Fort River PGO, Morris spoke about the “open classroom” model at Wildwood at Fort River, which creates noise problems. However, Morris said those who objected to the consolidation plan raised valid concerns. “People really do want smalls schools for their kids,” he said, adding that were was a “legitimate disagreement” over the concept of two co-located schools in one building.
At a meeting of Amherst’s Joint Capital Planning Committee also on Friday morning, the question of whether the town should attempt to build one or more schools without the assistance of the Massachusetts School Building Authority was discussed. Towns that build schools alone have full control of the process and timeline, but are not eligible for state reimbursement. However, some studies indicate that the state’s existing system for handling public projects, including schools, tends to drive up overall project costs rather than reduce them. A related article can be seen here: https://commonwealthmagazine.org/economy/contracting-system-isnt-saving-money/
At the JCPC meeting, Amherst Town Treasurer/Collector Claire McGinnis said that she has spoken with Town Manager Paul Bockelman, and believes that building a school without the MSBA is probably “beyond the resources of this town,” given the current, ambitious agenda of capital building projects.
JCPC member Bernard Kubiak questioned whether the town needs three elementary schools, and said because of falling enrollment, all children now attending Wildwood and Fort River could fit into just one new or rehabilitated school.
In his presentation at Fort River, Morris noted that a school built strictly with town funds would likely go up faster, as the town would not have to wait to be accepted into the MSBA process.
Morris has in recent weeks suggested a larger study of Fort River, to include a schematic design process. Friday morning, he outlined a two-part plan to the JCPC stretching over the next few years, at a total cost of $725,000. However, JCPC members said they did not wanted to proceed with the schematic design piece until more is known about the site and the School Committee’s plans. The JCPC did vote to increase the sum it will recommend for the initial Fort River feasibility study from $115, 000 to $250,000.
Select Board member Constance Kruger said the town will benefit from knowing more about the site no matter what its fate is. “It’s a valuable site for us, it’s an important location,” she said. The site has been mentioned in the past as a possible location for a new Department of Public Works facility.
New, draft Federal Emergency Management Agency maps of Amherst’s 100-year floodplains indicate that prior mapping of Fort River was incorrect, and some concerns about a floodplain may be unfounded. However, Kubiak said he is concerned that the site may nonetheless have a high water table.
Morris was joined at the JCPC by Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Phoebe Hazzard and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee Chairman Eric Nakajima.
Town Meeting will also be asked to fund $50,000 in studies on air quality at Fort River and Wildwood.
Morris will be presenting to the Crocker Farm and Wildwood PGOs on Friday, May 5th. The Crocker Farm presentation will be 9 to 10 a.m., and Wildwood from 12 to 1 p.m.
Morris has said he wants as many families to hear his new presentation as possible, to share and discuss information on financial, enrollment and infrastructure issues.