Amherst considers new building to replace Wildwood and Fort River Elementary Schools

  • Michael Morris, superintendent of Amherst schools. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/22/2019 12:50:28 PM

AMHERST — As Amherst schools gear up to ask the state for money to address two deteriorating elementary schools, Superintendent Michael Morris has made the recommendation to request funds for one location that would replace Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools.

At the Jan. 17 Amherst School Committee meeting, Morris suggested that the district apply to the Massachusetts School Building Authority to fund a new building that would house around 600 students, either from kindergarten through fifth grade or from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Official statements of interest for the MSBA 2019 round of funding are not due until April. The School Committee has yet to approve a proposal and is planning outreach to get feedback. Several listening sessions will take place with district staff this month, Morris said.

In addition to the superintendent, many teachers and parents agree that the two schools are in poor condition, and some worry they are dangerous. Wildwood and Fort River, both built in the 1970s, have issues with mold, ventilation and leaky roofs and are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the school’s 2018 statements of interest for MSBA funding. Complaints about noise levels also have been voiced about the open classroom model in both buildings.

In 2013, the district was granted $34 million from the MSBA to fund a $66.37 million project that would have constructed two elementary schools at the Wildwood site. But the Town Meeting did not approve its portion of the necessary funding, and a townwide vote in March of 2017 that could have overridden the decision failed.

The project planned to put 375 students in grades 2 through 6 in each of the twin schools and convert Crocker Farm Elementary into an early childhood education center. The proposal ended up being divisive, sparking worry among some parents over the loss of small neighborhood schools.

Last year, Fort River and Wildwood both submitted statements of interest and were rejected in December. The MSBA told Morris that in the 2019 cycle, they are looking for more community agreement, Morris said at the recent school committee meeting.

Combining Fort River and Wildwood as they exist today would bring together roughly 750 students under one roof. But reflecting community concern over the size of the student body, Morris suggested the new building house 600 students.

There would be several ways of reaching 600 students in the proposed new building, such as incorporating sixth grade into the middle school or housing grades seven through 12 at the high school and moving one elementary school into the middle school, Morris said.

But the exact reconfiguration is not necessary to determine before applying to the MSBA, Morris added.

“I know what I’m proposing is asking people who feel really strongly about the prior project, it’s asking them to acknowledge we need to find a middle ground to get behind,” Morris told the Gazette, referencing the failed plan to construct two new elementary schools at the Wildwood site.

The School Committee and Town Council need to vote on a plan before the statement of interest is submitted by the April 12 deadline.

Public commentators at Thursday’s meeting largely supported Morris’s proposal.

Toni Cunnigham, who in 2016 expressed concern over consolidating schools at the Wildwood site, spoke positively about the recent proposal. “I really feel heard tonight,” she said at the meeting. “I feel like you’re trying to meet a little bit of everyone’s needs.”

Katherine Appy, a former School Committee chair who backed the plan of the twin schools also expressed her support. “It doesn’t meet everything that I might personally have wanted in the proposal,” she said, “but given the situation that we’re in, I completely support it.”

Jean Fay, who has worked as a para-educator in the district for more than 20 years, presented a letter signed by other educators that stressed the urgency of the aging schools and cited issues such as mold and rodent droppings.

“We are dedicated to providing the best possible educational experience for our students,” she read from the letter. “That has become increasingly difficult due to the unsafe, unhealthy and, in many cases, inaccessible conditions of our buildings.”

“I’m urging the School Committee and the community to understand this is a dire situation,” Fay said.

Other district educators spoke to the pressing need for infrastructure updates, pointing out issues with the open classrooms and worries about their own health because of the school conditions.

As the meeting drew to a close, many members of the School Committee said they were optimistic.

Committee Vice-Chair Peter Demling said he supported the plan, but acknowledged that it’s a compromise for some people, including those with strong feelings about the failed co-located elementary school project.

“What we’re asking people is to let go of things,” Demling said.

“I can absolutely embrace this proposal as it’s put forth,” School Committee Chairwoman Anastasia Ordonez said. “And I think there are going to be a lot of details that we will work out. I think that the community will have a big role to play in figuring out those details.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com


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