Amherst Select Board endorses $32.75M appropriation for new school

Staff Writer
Published: 11/2/2016 12:14:36 AM

AMHERST — The Select Board is endorsing a town appropriation for nearly half of the $66.37 million needed to build a new elementary school at the site of Wildwood School on Strong Street.

Select Board members Tuesday voted unanimously to support the bond authorization for the project, which will be the second article presented to fall Town Meeting when it convenes at the middle school auditorium at 7 p.m. Nov. 14.

The project proposes a new building that will house 750 students in grades 2 to 6 in two co-located schools, which would replace Wildwood and Fort River schools. The town is expected to pay $32.75 million, with the Massachusetts School Building Authority pledging $34.45 million.

The current plan is to build the new Wildwood in two phases, with the first section ready for occupancy in fall 2019, and the second to open in fall 2020.

Board member Constance Kruger said it is vital for the Select Board to show support for the project, after previously endorsing the Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override for the new school that is on the Nov. 8 presidential election ballot.

“I think this is one of the more important items our board is invested in for this election cycle and Town Meeting,” Kruger said.

The ballot vote requires a majority to pass, while adoption of the warrant article needs two-thirds support from Town Meeting members.

Select Board Chairwoman Alisa Brewer said board members will continue to advocate for the project over the next two weeks.

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Appy said the new school is the “most economically advantageous” for the town, observing that it is between $10 million and $15 million less than a combination of renovating and rebuilding both schools.

Appy, who is also a member of the School Building Committee, said the town will also be able to remove $1.6 million in capital expenses related to deferred maintenance on the existing schools, and save $400,000 to $500,000 in annual operating costs.

The town has until the end of January to approve both the debt exclusion and the borrowing authorization to be eligible for the MSBA award.

If defeated at either step, Appy said the contract with MSBA would become null and void. This would then require the town and schools to begin submitting statements of interest for building projects at either Wildwood or Fort River again, as had been customary since 2007.

“If this vote fails, we are condemning students and teachers to these buildings for the foreseeable future,” Appy said.

She said from an education standpoint, both schools need to be replaced. The current open classroom model takes a toll on all children by creating noise and distractions, which is especially tough on those who already struggle with paying attention, Appy said.

Select Board member Andrew Steinberg said the problems with the open classroom model have existed since both buildings opened in the 1970s.

“Anyone who thinks they were wonderful buildings all along, the problems with noise and distraction have really been there for a long time,” Steinberg said.

But critics have called the new project a “mega school” and have raised concerns that it would end the neighborhood elementary schools that currently exist. This would mean some families would have children at the new Wildwood as well as the reconfigured Crocker Farm School that would become an early childhood center for preschoolers through first grade.

Appy said it is too late to revise the plans. “We can’t change the project at this point without losing the money,” she said.

The ramifications of defeat, Appy said, would be limiting access for families to preschool programs and the continuation of the busing of some economically disadvantaged or special needs students out of their neighborhoods to a different elementary school.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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