Citizens consider compromise school plan

Nick Grabbe

The compromise plan to build one new elementary school, with significant state assistance, got its first public airings Wednesday. While many people see this compromise as the best option, educationally and financially, a small group of opponents also attended.

You may recall that two years ago, Town Meeting killed a voter-approved plan to build two new elementary schools at the Wildwood site. They would have replaced Wildwood and Fort River, which are well past their sell-by dates and architecturally backward. Opponents gave two reasons: they wanted to keep the three-school model and didn’t like the proposal to make Crocker Farm kindergarten through second grade and the new schools third through sixth.

Superintendent Mike Morris came up with a compromise that scraps that grade reconfiguration and proposes just one new elementary school for 600 children at a site yet to be determined. The School Committee, which is scheduled to discuss the plan March 4 and vote on it March 11, is likely to back it. The vote of the Town Council, which is scheduled to discuss the plan March 18 and vote April 1, is more uncertain.

The Council’s vote is important because, after the debacle of two years ago, the state wants to see “consensus” in Amherst before it loosens its pursestrings. According to Morris, consensus does not require unanimity but means an acceptable resolution that can be supported even if it’s not everyone’s favorite option.

But it’s unclear how many “yes” votes on the Council would constitute consensus. Five of the 13 members attended the first of six “listening sessions” Wednesday.

While 93 percent of Crocker Farm teachers said the school’s physical environment supports children’s learning, at Wildwood it’s a distressing 24 percent and at Fort River 9 percent, Morris said. The problems in these buildings are well documented: leaky roofs, mold, insecure doors, safety problems, inefficient heating and cooling, and noise caused by the discredited “open classroom” design.

Morris said it would be “significantly more expensive” to build two new elementary schools, rather than fit the declining K-6 population into Crocker Farm, the new one, and other buildings. And the state will provide funding for only one new school at a time, and even that money is not a sure thing.

Meanwhile, doing nothing has its own costs, which would have to be funded solely by Amherst taxpayers. Morris estimated these necessary maintenance costs at between $6 million and $7 million, and even then, there would still be a noise problem and the buildings would continue to age. They are 50 years old now, and the state says that’s the expected life span of a school, Morris said.

He’s asking people on all sides to “bend a bit” because children and teachers “are relying on us,” he said. But two opponents of the previous elementary school plan came to Wednesday’s meeting and passed out flyers questioning the wisdom of the compromise.

One of them, Carol Gray, said that both Fort River and Wildwood should be rebuilt or renovated because smaller schools are educationally superior. Asked how she would pay for this, she suggested saving money by abandoning the plans for a new Public Works building and Jones Library renovation.

I see numerous problems with this approach. There are serious questions about whether it’s even possible to renovate the two old schools, and rebuilding would be costly and state help would be delayed and uncertain. There is zero chance that consensus would be achieved on an entirely different plan by the April 12 deadline for applying for state funding, so Gray’s plan would mean one more year of delay, with further cost escalation and a longer wait for relief for children and teachers.

Gray says she favors small elementary schools. But the proposed new school for 600 students is about the same size as Fort River and Wildwood used to be.

Opinions differ on the Jones Library project, but abandoning it would mean forgoing millions of dollars in state assistance and spending millions of local taxpayers’ money on necessary renovations. The Public Works building, though less used by the public, is old and has major problems.

The listening sessions include a presentation by Morris and moderated break-out discussion groups. There are two today (Thursday): 4 to 6 p.m. at Fort River and 7 to 9 p.m. at the Jones Library’s Woodbury Room. The final listening sessions are March 6 from 4 to 6 p.m. at Crocker Farm and 7 to 9 p.m. at the high school library.

If the application for state money is filed by April 12, Amherst will find out in December whether it’s been accepted. The earliest the new school could be built and ready to accept students is 2024.

Comments 16

  1. Small schools *are* superior, both educationally, and in the social experience of children, as any parent of a little one will instinctively get. I moved my kids out of a private school and into the Amherst public schools, after touring one of our elementary schools with the principal. He gave us a personal tour, and greeted every single kid by name. He knows them all personally, and I knew right away that my kids would not be treated like a number. THAT’s the quality of education we have in this town. A 600 student school is not going to be the same as a 350 student school, in my opinion, however they attempt to slice and dice things up within the building. It’s not going to be the same experience to a kid, who in a small school can walk around like they own the place, because they know the building itself, have full access to its halls, can make sense of who is who in the building, and know where the school is located because they can walk to it. These things may sound minor to adults, but they make all the difference to a kid’s being able to orient to their surroundings and feel comfortable. Larger schools are not the same, and I went to both as a kid, so I speak from experience. I guess there is plenty of data backing up the educational superiority of small schools, but I think it’s something best felt in one’s gut. Do we really want our kids going to huge schools when they are so small? Middle school and High School, yes, they are ready for a bigger world. But K-6, small makes a difference, and anyone who works with kids gets this.

    My kids are in CF, so won’t be affected by the proposed new plan directly, but my feeling is that WW and FR parents deserve to see what the options are before being pressured to accept a single, compromised, large school option. And I personally would be willing to pay, as a taxpayer, for my neighbor’s kids having a more intimate and higher quality educational experience. I hope everyone will look at the options and prices more closely before making a time-pressured decision.

    What I’m seeing so far, as I look, is that it seems too soon to write off the possibility of Fort River and Wildwood getting their own new buildings. We live in a world of instant-gratification, so I know it’s hard for folks to consider waiting even the 5-7 extra years that would require to get the MSBA funding for both projects, but we’re talking about a decision that will affect our town’s kids for generations, here. We don’t want another “Oops” project, like the open plan building disasters. It’s worth doing it right.

    There are unknowns in every single plan being presented, including substantial price unknowns in Superintendent Morris’s plan.

    Here’s the financial data as I understand it; assuming 50% reimbursement from MSBA funded projects (likely to be higher):

    Morris’s proposed plan supposedly will cost the town $39-42Million, but it doesn’t yet include the costs related to the MS, nor the costs related to whatever needs to be done with the building they propose phasing out. I want to see those numbers before we are asked to decide! Because the town’s cost of *both* Wildwood and Fort River being fully renovated or getting*new* buildings is being estimated at $52-72M (lower number being for renovation, higher number being for 2 new buildings). It’s looking like a similar enough ballpark to me that it only makes sense to have all the data before making any kind of hasty decision as a town.

  2. Forgot to say: THANK YOU, Nick, for making this blog a place for discussion of this important subject. Your perspective is valuable, and you are making a contribution to the town by sharing it. Thanks!

  3. Hi Amy. Thanks for your comments. As the parent of a kindergartner and third grader at Fort River, I respectfully disagree with your conclusion for a couple of reasons.

    1) I do not in any way feel pressured into this choice. Instead I feel like my elected officials (the school committee) are heeding our community’s distress call and doing what they can to address the urgency of the dysfunctional school environment my kids, their classmates, and their teachers have to go to every school day. As a citizen I am so grateful that the School committee and superintendent are moving forward with urgency. You may not know this, but at Fort River, we have heaters catching on fire causing classroom evacuations. We had 18 roof leaks during the last rain storm, forcing class disruptions so kids could rescue their backpacks so they wouldn’t get wet. Every day multiple times a day classrooms are disrupted simply because of the layout of the rooms. Students can’t focus because of competing noise from neighboring classrooms and more. Hearing the staff and teachers testify at the school committee meetings is harrowing. The reality is that the quality of the school environment at Fort River and Wildwood has become a barrier to learning and we need to address it ASAP. I am so grateful that the our officials are looking for a concrete path forward that they think can work.

    2) One building is the right choice for our community for numerous reasons. It’s fiscally responsible. It recognizes the urgency and offers an acceptable timeline and more. On cost, construction costs go up 4% per year. That means every year we delay getting in the MSBA process means $1m or more in added cost. And operating one modern building will be cheaper than operating two old oversized jalopies, which means more education dollars can actually go to programming. Secondly, elementary enrollment in Amherst is down. Once you get to the 250-300 kid range, it becomes a serious challenge to keep class sizes consistently small (and when you add in specialized programming for english language learners and students with special needs this challenge becomes even more apparent). For example, if you have 46 kids in grade 2, do you have two classes with 23 kids in each or three classes with 16 kids? If you choose three classes with smaller numbers of students, how do you pay for the additional teacher given that your budgets are already tight? A larger school population allows for administrators to better balance class size and keep classes consistently small. And 600 students is not that large. Both Fort River and Wildwood were built for 800 kids and both schools have had populations of 600 kids in those buildings in the past 20 years. Our staff, teachers and administrators do such an amazing job building community in our schools, and a warm & child centered building as is called for in this compromise proposal and the consistently small class sizes that could happen in this new building would only be more conducive to quality learning environments.

    I also think that this proposal eliminates pitting different parts of our community against one another. I think there would be a riot if Fort River parents were told they needed to ‘wait their turn’ while the Wildwood building got addressed, and vice versa. Addressing both of these dysfunctional buildings and setting up all kids for the future is the right and responsible thing to do. One building also means that we have a reasonable chance of addressing the other pressing capital needs in Amherst.

    There’s more I could say, and maybe I will at some point, but I leave it at this for now.

    I hope everyone reading this makes time to attend one of the listening sessions happening today. At those, and in those wake of those, I hope you consider whether you are comfortable keeping another generation of kids in these failing buildings? If the answer to that question is no, I urge you to get behind this compromise proposal and let the school committee and the town council know so they feel like the community has their back when they vote yes in support of the Statement of Interest.

  4. I am a parent of a Wildwood first-grader. I also served on Town Meeting and have followed the school debate very closely. There has been no indication that we can afford to or need to build two new elementary schools. What is clear is that we cannot delay this any more. Wildwood and Fort River students and educators are suffering and we have plenty of data from the previous MSBA feasibility study and from our town leadership that essentially refutes the notion that maintaining three separate elementary schools is financially or pedagogically sound. Despite being disappointed in the potential loss of some of the things I loved about the previous plan, I wholeheartedly support the current compromise for the SOI because it is the most sensible, realistic, and timely option for getting our kids classrooms with natural light and walls. We have amazing educators in Amherst and not only do they deserve better facilities, but I have faith that the community they create will remain no matter the size or location of the building. A 600 student school is not the same as a 350 student school but that does not mean it’s inferior. There is also plenty of data to suggest that small class size is incredibly important and I value that being something we can maintain. My daughter and future generations of Amherst kids will certainly not have the same experience in a new school building with 600 students – I imagine they’ll have a better one. I suspect the traditions and things we hold dear about our school communities will remain the same like the joke of the day, morning walk, and all kids being greeted by name at the front door by our principal and vice principal but we’ll no longer have to put up with rodents, falling ceiling tiles, doors that get stuck and can’t open, sweaty floors, PT that has to be done in hallways, kids being pulled out of their classrooms to be exposed to natural light, losing sleep over the fact that anyone entering the building can access hallways and classrooms before reaching the front office, and so on. Also, less than 10% of kids walk to elementary school in Amherst, kids don’t need to be able to walk to a school to know where it is, and walking or biking is certainly not an option for kids who are bused away from their closest school and their neighbors because of socioeconomic status or educational needs.

    I appreciate the viewpoint “that WW and FR parents deserve to see what the options are before being pressured to accept a single, compromised, large school option.” For what it’s worth I agree and feel like I have a solid understanding of what the options are and am not being pressured into anything. I am being given all of the information I need at this stage for supporting a compromise proposal that stands a chance of being accepted by the MSBA, a proposal that takes into account years of feedback from the community. I have no fears about the 600 student size (I have an MA in International Education and have done my share of research on educational best practices globally) and love that the Fort River and Wildwood communities may have a chance to be combined in some way because they are both awesome and I just see there being so much to gain here with very little to lose.

  5. Nick, thanks for the warm welcome (I got your email reply). To continue the conversation where others can chime in and benefit from the discussion….

    I’m glad you agree that most would prefer the smaller school. I do understand that the situation at FR and WW is very challenging, and I don’t take it lightly, when I speak of asking folks to wait for a new building. Every year the town puts off solving the problems for our town’s kids there is shameful.

    When my daughter was at the Common School in Amherst, they had building issues which required temporary classrooms off-site. Amherst College provided them with a building. I can’t help but wondering, with so many colleges in the area, and so many resources, if such a solution could be arranged for Fort River, if not both schools. Temporary, of course. It seems to me it would be a huge relief for everyone to work out such an arrangement, and provide us with more breathing room to come to a decision as a town.

    1. I appreciate the creative thinking, but this is the kind of endless what-if-ism that will have us breaking ground on a new building sometime in the 2050s.

      Maybe it’s my own lack of imagination, but I cannot imagine any school saying “sure, park an entire elementary school (or two) here on campus for a few years while you all work on your buildings.”

    2. Post

      To clarify, I said to Amy Finlay that I thought most of us would prefer a 350-child school to a 600-child school, but I doubted that we could afford to maintain three elementary schools, given the town’s other pressing needs and the difficulty of getting state assistance for building two new buildings.

  6. We’ve also been at this for years now. We don’t need breathing room. We need to move forward considering previous failed project and feedback from all sides which is happening.

  7. I respectfully disagree that “most of us would prefer small schools” if we’re defining small as 350 and large as 600. Personally I am totally fine with 600 and think that’s small enough. I think for as many benefits there are to a school with 350 students or less there are a lot of challenges too. Anecdotally, I know several people in Pelham, Leverett, Shutesbury and other communities with very small elementary schools that have found having just one or two classes per grade can be problematic especially if there are any on-going conflicts between students. With more classes per grade there are more opportunities to mix things up which can be beneficial for kids socially. I also find a “larger” (although here larger is the size that WW and FR each were at some point) school community to be compelling in terms of creating a more diverse and integrated school population.

  8. Johanna, thank you for your reply, I am just seeing it. I’m really sorry you and your kids are having to deal with those conditions!

    To be clear: I’m not opposed to the current proposal if FR and WW parents prefer it over waiting for brand new buildings. I think it’s sad for future N. Amherst kids to have to compromise in order to get decent conditions for the current kids now (and I do believe it a compromise), but I would understand if that were your decision. I don’t wish to obstruct that, if that’s the case, only shine a light in the unknown questions (like the loaner building I mentioned to Nick, above, something I’m actively looking into; and appreciate help and leads if anyone knows anyone to talk to) in the hopes of finding a win-win-win solution for all.

    To clarify the compromise aspects of the current plan, in addition to my above thoughts about large schools in general, I have to disagree with your argument about reduced classroom size. Given that we’d be maxing out the capacity of these buildings, and reducing the current elementary population by about 150 kids in order to fit them between the existing CF building and the proposed new 600 kid bldg, it seems to me clear that we will be maxing out the classroom size. (ie, there will be no 3rd classroom option, in your current example.)

  9. Bennet, “endless what-if-ism.” What a great phrase! You raise a good point. But since it’s a solution that could make this divisive issue a non-divisive one, and help us reach the (necessary) consensus, it seems to me worth pursuing. Can’t hurt to ask. If no, then so be it, we’re back to square one.

    Nicola, I’m glad you are okay with a larger school option, since that may be where things are headed. I don’t feel moved by your anecdote, however, as my own experience is that three classrooms is already too many. Social problems, it seems to me, are most effectively resolved by moving toward the kids with problems, not away from them, and that gets hard when you have so many relationships that you don’t know which ones you’ll get to keep, year to year, as the grades get shuffled. Small is better. (To me.)

  10. When I hear people talk about waiting to get a consensus to make sure all views are considered and every voice is heard and every opinion is given equal weight all I think of all the time that Amherst has already thrown away in the past 3 years since we got the $34 million dollar grant from the state to build the two co-located schools that would have had FULL WALLS and no obstructions to learning for the kids.

    I think what keeps getting lost here is the fact that for every year and every 5 years and every 10 and 20 years that go by as we build a non-existent “consensus” children are being hurt. Let me explain how. The open classroom design forces kids to have to really focus on what their teacher is saying and trying to to teach while they can hear the teacher in the next classroom doing the same thing… with all the normal classroom noise that is in the background of both classrooms.

    I have been witness to this problem myself at several of the Open House Nights at Fort River. I would be trying to listen to my daughter’s teacher describe what he has planned for his class and I would have to strain to stay focused on his words because I could hear the other teacher in the next classroom talking about what HE has planned for his classroom. And that is with both classrooms full of adults instead of kids, so you know they were much more quiet and attentive…. and I still missed about 30% of everything our teacher said. This is happening to children every day.

    Some kids are able to overcome it and still get the lessons being taught… but some can’t. They are more easily distracted and don’t get the lessons being taught and leave the classroom not really knowing what they were being taught. Then they go home and are trying to do the homework based on the lessons and they can’t do it. Being typical kids, they blame themselves for it… they think they are not as smart as the other kids who did get it… their self-esteem and confidence plummets every time they don’t quite understand something that was being taught. And that goes on day after day, month after month and year after year.

    What do you think YOUR self-esteem and confidence would be like if at your job, you were constantly being distracted from your duties as you were being taught how to do your job, especially new elements of your job that you are unfamiliar with… how to use new equipment, handle new software, recognize and fix problems that the business wants you to fix. Don’t you think you’d start to feel inferior to the other employees who are able to block out the distractions? I know I would. Well, that’s fine for us adults… but it’s criminal to put a good kid who is trying hard in that position.

    These kids start out loving school and loving learning and then because of this moronic open classroom design, we are slowly eroding their enjoyment of learning as they lose their pride in their work because they aren’t able to learn as well as some other kids. Kids always blame themselves for things… every parent knows that. A kid is his or her own worse critic and these obstacles that we have created in their classrooms are going to continue through every elementary school grade until they enter middle and high school with the feeling that they aren’t smart enough…. that they feel must not be working hard enough and no matter how hard they work, they feel like they are never going to get it… never catch up to the other kids.

    This has been going on for decades and the town has known about it and been talking about it. How many kids have been incorrectly diagnosed having Attention Deficit Disorder based on their school work when the truth is the school building has created the attention deficit itself. Not the teachers, who are doing Herculean work to overcome these man-made obstacles to learning that we all know about but no one is doing anything about. We have the best teachers in the country and principals and superintendent in the country. The problem is the buildings, not the teachers.

    I think it is criminal that there could have been a brand new elementary school opening in the Fall of 2021 if the new school had been built that a majority of the town’s citizens voted for TWICE. There’s no point in rehashing the lies and scare tactics and the town meeting shenanigans that overrode the majority of the town’s voters… TWICE. That is history. But if we keep going on this kick of making sure EVERYONE is happy and let the perfect become the enemy of the good, another generation of children are going to pass through our elementary schools and start on a path that will erode their confidence, self-esteem and affect them for the rest of their lives. Way beyond school. That’s what’s at stake here. The lives that are being affected right now while we are all bending over backwards to please every single person with an opinion. I think it’s time to say it ends with this generation of children. Let’s just build the damn school. It will be so much better for every child that gets to go to a school where they can learn without having to fight to understand what a teacher is saying and doing because of the stupidity of open walled rooms.

    If we broke ground tomorrow, we’ll still be letting down the next 5 years of elementary school students and there’s nothing we can do about that. But we can make a vow right now that babies that are being born this year in Amherst will enter a kindergarten and an elementary school that will build their self-esteem and confidence and give them a great education… and a hell of a lot better chance for good, happy lives as adults. We owe the children whom we have harmed a debt that we cannot repay or fix in any way… no apology would be enough… but I’ll bet if you asked those kids who went through the hell of feeling like they weren’t smart enough or good enough, they’d say “Hey, just don’t make any other kids ever feel like that again.” Are you listening, Amherst? This isn’t some big world-famous problem like climate change or impeaching Trump that we can just sign a proclamation about. But we CAN fix this. We CAN build this school. We CAN stop hurting our children. We can, if we care enough to just do it!

    I guess the question is, do we care enough?

  11. Amy, I totally agree that personal experience (outside of this district) and anecdotal evidence is irrelevant to this debate.

    Ultimately we’re all just passing though and people tend to engage in issues like this at a moment in time when it has a direct impact on them which is why I really hope there will be deference given to the perspectives of our educators who are intimately familiar with the needs of our kids, and will be the ones using these buildings for years to come.

    Personally I like to rely on facts, data, and qualitative evidence supplied by those appointed/hired/elected to confront these issues on a hyper-local level (ie school committee, town finance personnel, town manager, principals, teachers, paras, superindent, and so on) and worry about weight given to well-intentioned indepdent research done by individual community members.

    Personally, I don’t think a temporary solution along the lines of a loaner building from an area college is suitable. We have a pressing an immediate need and anything less than a permanent solution is unsatisfactory in my opinion.

    I’m fairly confident UMASS and Amherst College don’t have any extra un-used available buildings that would meet the building code requirements for an elementary school in a location that school busses could navigate but I look forward to what you hear back officially.

    I’m going to tap out and hope more voices join the conversation here.

  12. I am a curent WW K parent with a 2 year old who is still sad that the old school project didn’t pass because I really loved the idea of one elementary school for our town. I just think that would have done wonders for our community. No more busing and separating neighbors and siblings for social economic or assesibility reasons. For those of us with the privilege, no more vying for homes in one district or another. A sense of community our small town should strive for. This honestly isn’t said enough. But , with that said, I recognize that not everyone shared that vision and I am happy to compromise to get us what is desperately needed, two schools replaced to make healthy learning environments for our children. I have complete faith that our educators will make the efforts necessary to make our students feel loved, known, and supported regardless of the number. What worries me the most? Lossing our amazing teachers, administrators, and staff because their needs aren’t prioritized by our community. Let’s please focus on that as we accept this perfectly good and reasonable path forward.

  13. Don’t we have an elected School Committee, chosen by the voters to make educational decisions? While the Council will vote on the bond authorization, it is the voters who will accept the override amount for the plan brought forth by the School Committee. Let us never forget that the voters of Amherst accepted a 5% override in the amount of $68 million for two co-located schools. This was a formula arrived at by our elected School Committee over a ten year period. Have the realities of Amherst ($1.775 BILLION in new construction at UMass and the addition of 2,000 new housing units approved by Town Meeting) suddenly changed? This forum has already become dominated by one or two voices, to the exclusion of all others. If that is “hearing all voices”, then we can expect another go-around with the state. And another. In a democracy, we would have respected the voters and built the schools. Rather than allow a small, self-appointed group to overturn a fair and legal election. Everyone had a voice at the ballot booth, but that wasn’t good enough for some people. The question is, how many more times will we allow our democracy to be hijacked? “Consensus” is merely the most expensive route, what ever happened to “a majority in a fair and legal election”?

  14. Laura Draucker, I completely agree! My son started at Fort River in 2006, long before the discussions of What To Do With Our Failing School Buildings. When I first became a ‘Fort River parent’, I was bewildered to find that I was identified as more of a ‘Fort River parent’ than an ‘elementary school parent’. Before any school building project arose, I felt it was time to come together as a town, and that it was just silly that there was this undercurrent of tension around the different schools and their needs.

    Fast forward a bunch of years, and I learned how difficult it is within one building to deal with class sizes. Time and again Fort River educators dealt with the challenges of two large classes in one grade because the numbers didn’t support three classes. The prospect of being better able to address the essential issue of class size is what first compelled me to embrace the co-located building plan.

    The proposal in front of us checks this big box for me as well as many others: allowing for differentiation in learning for ELL students within the elementary schools, allowing for more East Hadley Road elementary residents to attend the same schools as their neighbors, allowing for more SPED students to attend the same school as other SPED students and their non-SPED family members, allowing for more students of color to attend the same school as other students of color. (I would prefer a proposal that allows me to say “all” rather than “more”, but as the universe reminds me time and again, I don’t get to run the show.)

    It’s interesting that when certain populations get small enough, aggregate data won’t be provided for these populations because it becomes too easy to identify individual students from the aggregate.

    My youngest child is in 5th grade. After almost 13 years of being a Fort River Parent I’m ready to say goodbye to the building, to the location, to the artificial divisions. I don’t see that the town is being pressured into accepting a single option. I see that the School Committee and the Superintendent are giving the town the choice to accept a creative, pragmatic, and timely opportunity that they are willing to spearhead for the benefit of all future elementary school students. I just hope the town has the wisdom to see the forest through the trees.

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