Wildwood School Boiler, Fort River Feasibility Study Win Resounding Approval at Amherst Town Meeting (UPDATED)

Smaller steps toward improving the infrastructure of two Amherst elementary schools easily won two-thirds majorities at Town Meeting last night (May 3).

Town Meeting unanimously approved borrowing of $500,000 to replace the boiler system at Wildwood, which dates to the 1970s. Later, with only a few audible “nay” votes, Town Meeting also agreed to a $250,000 study of the Fort River site and building, to determine its suitability for renovation or new construction.  Voice votes were so clearly in favor that no call was made for an electronic tally.

Among many capital expenditures, Town Meeting also approved a $25,000 study of air quality at Wildwood.  A similar air quality evaluation will be folded into the larger Fort River analysis, and $70,000 was approved for a study on fixing or replacing Fort River’s roof, although town officials said it is unlikely that full sum will be needed.

Debate about the elementary schools was heated at Town Meetings last November and in January, when the $67 million building project twice failed to win a two-thirds majority. In a March 28 townwide referendum, the same project won a simple majority among voters, but again failed to reach the two-thirds threshold necessary for passage.  The state would have reimbursed Amherst for about half the capital cost of a building for grades 2-6 townwide on the Wildwood site, to house 750 pupils.  The project would have led to demolition of the existing K-6 Wildwood and Fort River, and reconfiguration of the preK-6 Crocker Farm in South Amherst as a townwide kindergarten, and 1st grade building with preschool.

There was indication last night the School Committee has moved on from the failed project and plans to plot a different course.  Interim Superintendent Michael Morris won praise for floating the idea of turning Fort River into a magnet school featuring foreign language immersion. “It is part of a dialogue that’s emerging,” Morris said, adding that he has begun a new engagement process and is soliciting ideas from the community. Both those who lobbied for and against the school building project expressed eagerness for the district to adopt a meaningful elementary foreign language program.

“People want to have bilingual children,” said Kathleen Traphagen of Precinct 6, adding that a prior, small-scale program that offered 40 minutes of Spanish instruction per week  was “ineffective.”

Replacement of the Wildwood boiler was postponed while the building project was pending, but last night School Committee member Peter Demling and others urged immediate action on it. Demling said the boiler system at Wildwood presents a “known risk,” in that it could fail while school is in session, resulting in cancellations and costs for temporary replacement. However, because the boiler project will need to be put out to bid, parts ordered, and the boiler room rebuilt, a new boiler will not likely be in place until fall of 2018.

Katherine Appy of Precinct 9, the former School Committee chairwoman, questioned whether the new boiler will improve heating in Wildwood classrooms, given the building’s overall HVAC system.  Town Superintendent of Public Works Gulford Mooring said circulation pumps will be replaced as part of the project, but it is unknown how much more classroom heat will result. In some cases, he said, the difference could be “marginal.”

The feasibility study approved last night will examine the Fort River site and building, according to the motion passed, including a structural and environmental analysis, initial schematic designs, and implementation of a “community engagement process.”

Bernard Kubiak, of the Joint Capital planning Committee, said the recent feasibility study which the town engaged in with the Massachusetts School Building Authority focused on Wildwood, and so “did not provide anything similar for Fort River.”

Fort River, which houses two of the three elementary special education programs in Amherst, has lower enrollment than Wildwood and Crocker Farm. Fort River parents were among the strongest voices calling for the prior building project and cited excessive building noise resulting from the “open classroom” model, and concerns about air quality.

Kubiak said the study “should result in a comprehensive view of what should happen,” at Fort River, and would still allow the town to apply to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for help.

“This study will move us beyond speculation, to concrete information about what the site can support,” he said.

School Committee member Anastasia Ordonez said the process of studying Fort River and developing a new plan will be an open one. “Our committee has heard the community’s desire for full engagement,” she said. “We recognize that we need to get this right.”

Carol Gray, of Precinct 7,  said she voted against the school building project, but appreciates the new effort underway. “I always wanted new schools, I just wanted neighborhood schools … thank you for doing this,” she said.

Tim Neal, of the Finance Committee, said he was the sole member of his committee to vote against the Fort River feasibility study, which he believed should be broader, and allow the town to explore other options for locating a school.

Constance Kruger, of the Select Board,  said she believes the engineering and hydrogeology  aspects of the Fort River study will prove useful whatever is ultimately done with the site. In the past, it has been mentioned as a possible location for a new Department of Public Works facility.

Maria Kopicki of Precinct 8, a founder of Save Amherst’s Small Schools, expressed support for the air quality studies at Fort River and Wildwood, but urged that assessments be done at all Amherst’s public schools, “so we can understand the data in context.”

Morris responded that funds were sought only for “the two schools where people have indicated concerns.”

Last night’s motion for a Fort River feasibility study also includes creation of a new school building committee, and questions arose about the committee’s composition and adequate representation of parents and community members.

Eve Vogel, of Precinct 3, noted that the previous “Wildwood School Building Project”
“suddenly became an ‘all-elementary school project.'” If townwide issues will be raised again, Vogel said,  a committee to look at multiple school buildings could be formed.

Regional School Committee Chairman Eric Nakajima said two conversations will be taking place simultaneously in coming months, about the Fort River site

Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools Interim Superintendent Michael Morris speaks at Amherst Town Meeting on Wednesday night. To the left is Amherst School Committee member Anastasia Ordonez, and to the right, Finance Committee Chairwoman Marylou Theilman.
and the challenges facing the district, and it is “conceptually possible” that they will intersect.

However. Nakajima stressed the Amherst School Committee’s commitment to transparency and openness to community input. “There’s no secret plan, there’s no secret schedule,” he said. “The calendar of activity will be very well-published, we want to move forward with you, with all of you.”

Janet McGowan of Precinct 8 urged the School Committee to keep its focus on Fort River. “Don’t try to fix every problem in the district with this one building,” she said.

A motion to have Town Meeting continue tonight, for the third session this week, failed to pass, and the meeting was instead adjourned until next Monday at 7 p.m.

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