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.