A Single New Or Renovated K-6 School on the Fort River Elementary School Site Will Be Study Committee’s Focus

The Amherst School Committee is expected to vote next week on a mission statement for the Fort River Feasibility Study Committee, and will limit its focus to the Fort River Elementary School. The move would take the controversial prospects of townwide school consolidation and grade reshuffling off the table for the near future.

On Tuesday night, (Sept. 19) member Eric Nakajima moved to limit the study committee’s mission to “an analysis and options for a K-6 elementary school at the Fort River site.” The motion was seconded by member Peter Demling and passed unanimously, although member Anastasia Ordonez raised concerns about narrowing the mission to exclude consolidation or reconfiguration.

Nakajima said that limiting the study committee’s focus is the only way to avoid the conflict which arose over the former $67 million Wildwood School Building Project. It would have consolidated the town’s three K-6 elementary schools into a new grade 2-6 building on the Wildwood site, and a prek-1 school at Crocker Farm in South Amherst. The Massachusetts School Building Authority would have covered about half the primary capital cost, although Amherst taxpayers would have shouldered $34 million-plus and all associated long-term loan interest.  The project failed to win the two-thirds majority needed for passage in a townwide referendum, and from Amherst Town Meeting.

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School Committee member Anastasia Ordonez, center, raised concerns about limiting the building study to a single, K-6 elementary school, saying that elementary school consolidation or reconfiguration might be necessary in the future. Chairwoman Phoebe Hazzard is to the left, and member Vira Douangmany-Cage to the right.

At Tuesday’s meeting, a majority on the School Committee appeared to agree with Nakajima that narrowing the Study Committee’s focus is the best way to avoid the controversy which dogged the prior project and led to deep divisions in the community.

However, it was also evident that the committee is not entirely ruling out the possibilities of consolidation or grade reconfiguration at some point in the future.

Ordonez said the $250,000 allocated by Town Meeting vote for the Study Committee should be well-spent, and a tight focus might not yield sufficient results for future needs.  “Are we painting ourselves into a box?” she asked. “What if we find ourselves needing to consider a different option for this site?”

Nakajima said the Study Committee’s findings could likely be “ported into a design for something larger” if desired at some  future date by another School Committee. However, Nakajima said that broadening the Study Committee’s scope would be “opening up a can of worms” and is “a profound mistake.”

Interim Superintendent Michael Morris said that since the study is only on the feasibility of improving or replacing Fort River, it would not produce a schematic design, and there would still be an opportunity for changes “before that deep dive into schematics.”

Member Vira Douangmany-Cage, who was the sole committee member to oppose the prior plan, noted that the new process doesn’t involve the state. As a result, she said the town will have more flexibility than before, and “wouldn’t be necessarily constricted to the mission statement.”

School Committee Chairwoman Phoebe Hazzard urged the committee to keep the agreed focus on Fort River, saying she was “really uncomfortable … with the idea that the School Committee might make a mission statement and then change it,” and that such dialogue appears “wishy-washy.”

Hazzard presented a list of “Clarifications” to the School Committee, based on two public  “Listening Sessions” about the Fort River study group.  She noted that the new committee’s task will be hiring a project manager, designer, architects and consultants, plus community engagement oversight. The 16-to-20 month study will examine Fort River’s “building and site only … presenting multiple options for a comparable K-6 building. This process will not include reconfiguration,” the “Clarifications” document stated.

A draft mission statement for the study group will be developed by Hazzard and Ordonez, while Hazzard and Cage will work on a draft profile of needed members. There was consensus on Tuesday that the Study Committee should include experts in green energy and architecture, along with the superintendent, Fort River principal or a designee, and a Fort River classroom teacher, staff person and PGO member. The School Committee will seek a Special Education Parents Advisory Council representative, but did not reach consensus about a community outreach coordinator.

Fort River is the centralized site for two of the three elementary special education programs in Amherst. It has lower enrollment than Wildwood and Crocker Farm. Fort River parents were highly vocal in advocating for the prior school building project, and for consolidating the town’s pupils.

The Fort River and Wildwood buildings were broadly criticized for their “open classroom” design dating to the early 1970s. Teachers and parents said the design leads to noise control issues and distraction of children. Questions about air quality in the two buildings were raised.

In May, Town Meeting unanimously approved borrowing of $500,000 to replace the boiler system at Wildwood, and agreed to the $250,000 Fort River study. The elected body passed a $25,000 study of air quality at Wildwood, and a similar evaluation will be folded into the Fort River analysis. Another $70,000 was voted for a study on fixing or replacing Fort River’s roof, although town officials said they may not use that entire sum.

The School Committee will meet on Monday (Sept. 25) at 6 p.m. at the Amherst Regional High School library. The agenda is here: http://www.arps.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_926729/File/9-25-17%20ASC%20Agenda%20(final).pdf

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