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Councilors hear pleas on school buildings

Nick Grabbe

The Town Council faced a barrage of pleas Monday from 19 teachers, principals and parents who want it to send a strong message to state funding officials that Amherst needs a new elementary school.

Councilors heard about leaky roofs, mold growth, cold classrooms, teacher illnesses, caved-in ceilings and rodents at Fort River and Wildwood Schools. The Council will vote April 1 on a proposal to seek state money for a new school building.

Many of the complaints had been heard before, but rarely so vividly or in such impassioned detail. This blog post will summarize many of them.

Superintendent Mike Morris told councilors that “the urgency is incredibly high.” He has proposed a single 600-student building to replace both Fort River and Wildwood, adding that there are numerous options for accommodating all students.

Morris said the cost of waiting can be measured in millions of dollars per year. He said the 600-student school will not be the only option studied after getting a state go-ahead in December, but even that approval is uncertain because of stiff competition from other towns for state money. He said the schools have to add maintenance and custodial staff, straining the budget, because of the deteriorating conditions of the two buildings.

Anastasia Ordonez, who chairs the Amherst School Committee, said that in six listening sessions and many other comments, she’s heard the level of consensus around Morris’s proposal that state officials want to hear. She urged a “close to unanimous vote” on the Council; the School Committee has already had a unanimous vote.

Councilor Andy Steinberg, who chairs the Finance Committee, said “there is no question that the option with 600 students is the most cost-responsible,” adding that there are many non-school building projects in Amherst competing for public money.

Other councilors weighed in. President Lynn Griesemer said she’s seeing a trend in the many emails she’s received, adding that five to seven councilors attended every listening session. Cathy Schoen said with cohorts of students sticking together through the grades, a 600-student school “might not seem so large.” Shalini Bahl-Milne said a “neighborhood school” has from two to four classes per grade, as Morris’s proposal does. Darcy DuMont said all households should be involved and look at cost comparisons of the options.

The principals of the three elementary schools gave their perspectives. Diane Chamberlain of Fort River said, “It’s time to move forward. We can’t wait any longer.” Nick Yaffe of Wildwood said “the buildings can’t sustain what we want to do.” Derek Shea of Crocker Farm said, “This is not a wish. It’s something we need.”

“The buildings are being held together with Band-aids, and we’re running out of Band-aids,” said Jean Fay, a longtime paraprofessional and union official. She asked councilors to imagine a child with respiratory problems. “They can’t wait for clean air,” she said.

Nicole Singer, the Fort River art teacher, said she’s had the only room with four walls and windows, but children spend only 40 minutes a week there. Because of its location, her room has been spared the leaks seen elsewhere in the building, but recently part of the ceiling caved in over a kiln.

Laurie Hickson, a longtime Fort River teacher, talked about custodians who catch rainwater coming into the building, scrub mold growth, work overtime to fix problems, and set rodent traps. Wildwood teacher Kristin Roeder said she’s had pneumonia four times, and often students can’t hear because of noise from adjacent classrooms.

Parents and their allies then had their say. Among the comments:

Michael Hanke cited “decades of shameful neglect” and said that if Amherst were a hospital doing triage on patients, Fort River and Wildwood would be seen as having high-priority heart attacks.

  • Jan Klausner-Wise said a Fort River special education teacher gets headaches at work but not at home.
  • Clare Bertrand said that Fort River staff always know when it’s raining, and the library is cold much of the year.
  • Deb Leonard said, “It’s time to tell kids, ‘We’re going to fix this problem.'”
  • Heather Sheldon said she’s “unwilling to wait for a theoretically perfect plan that’ll come too late for most students.”
  • Lisa Solowiej said herĀ  9-year-old gets anxious when there’s rain and wants to stay home. “Make it stop,” she said.
  • Bennett Hazlip said state officials need to hear a unanimous message that Amherst needs a new elementary school.
  • Alex Lefebre, a school volunteer, said, “We don’t have the luxury of looking for ideal solutions.”
  • Katherine Appy urged a unanimous vote and said the council should not “make the perfect the enemy of the good.”
  • CORRECTION: In the blog post of March 16, I incorrectly wrote that Bill Kaizen opposed the previous school proposal but now supports the compromise plan. In fact, he supported the previous project.

Comments 2

  1. Nick is right… I was genuinely moved by the power of the personal stories shared by teachers and parents alike last evening. So much honest emotion and sharing of pain and hope. I’m not sure I have ever experienced anything like that in my life. And an undercurrent of all the thoughtful words spoken by those parents and teachers, to me, was this:

    Every single parent who spoke so eloquently of their children’s fears, health problems and negative experiences with these broken-down buildings, knew that none of them will likely see their own child benefit from the new school that probably won’t be built for 5 or 6 years. And still they came.

    And many of the teachers and administrators who spoke so honestly and bluntly about the need for action now to stop the health problems, physical, mental and emotional for the students and the staff at both schools, may not see the benefits of a new school because they may be retired before it ever opens. And still they came.

    They all took time out of their busy lives, after working a full day at their jobs and making supper for their families and doing all the things that they have to do every day, to sit for two hours and wait for the chance to speak for 2 or 3 minutes to help the town’s children. Not just their children, everybody’s children.

    And the Town Council members listened… really listened… and they never once tried to cut anyone off who might have gone a tad over the 3 minutes because they clearly want to help the kids in our town. I think the councilors would have stayed there until midnight to be sure that every parent and every teacher was heard.

    That kind of selflessness and grace speaks volumes about the parents and teachers at both schools, the principals and Superintendent and the Town Council. It reminds us of the capacity for the human heart to “look out for the other guy”.

    Last night was a living and breathing act of a community’s kindness and love. I can’t think of a better consensus than that.

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