Could junior high, high school merge? High capital costs at aging regional schools prompt discussion

  • John Coty, a carpenter for the Amherst public schools, performs a heat weld on a PVC membrane patch in July 2018 on the roof of Amherst Regional Middle School to seal off a leak. The roof dates from 1994 and needs constant attention, he said. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/16/2023 12:51:35 PM

AMHERST — Anticipated soaring costs related to the capital needs of the middle and high schools, including a project to replace the middle school roof that has been put on pause, is prompting local officials to ask if a single campus for regional students might best serve the four-town Amherst-Pelham Regional School District.

“One of the things I would suggest under capital discussion is whether it is time to look at something completely different, and that would be to renovate the high school with an addition and consolidate to one building,” John Trickey, a member of the Pelham Finance Committee, said at Saturday’s four-town meeting.

Amherst Town Council President Lynn Griesemer, too, said it may be time to revisit a 2019 study that explored the concept of enlarging the high school to accommodate the seventh and eighth grade students from Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett currently educated at the middle school.

With declining enrollment and efforts to reduce energy use townwide, completing a new analysis might be appropriate, she said.

“Look out to the long-term future of the building and the region, not just the short-term estimate,” Griesemer said.

The discussion comes as estimates show the district spending $685,000 on capital projects next year. Among the projects are heating, ventilation and air conditioning, along with energy master planning at the high school for $100,000, part of $315,000 in spending on that building; and curtain drain repair and replacement at the middle school for $150,000, part of $360,000 in spending on that building.

The spending is down from the $1.61 million this year, including $1.5 million going toward refurbishing the high school track and field, and the actual impact related to debt service is also going down. This year, the four towns are paying $499,911 in debt service and would pay $476,400 next year. By fiscal year 2029, though, this debt service could triple, to $1.51 million, based on long-range projections.

Factors in that increase include $5 million for a high school roof replacement in fiscal 2030 and $10 million for window and door replacements at the high school in fiscal 2033.

The district is anticipating growing expenses for the 455,000 square feet of buildings it owns. The middle school was built in 1969 and the high school was built in 1955. Other ongoing work includes making the buildings accessible and removing asbestos.

“We have some aging buildings and they have some rather significant needs in the coming years — over the next decade, we’ll probably see some considerable projects,” said Douglas Slaughter, finance director for the schools.

“We’ll do everything we can to smooth and mitigate these kind of increases, to keep them within the capacity of each of the town’s resources,” Slaughter said.

Griesemer said she understands the needs, but the costs are significant.

“Not only is this capital budget staggering, but we are looking at enormous capital for Amherst,” Griesemer said. She pointed to the $98 million consolidated elementary school project that will come before voters this spring.

Understanding the roofs for both regional schools, and the doors and windows at the high school, will be projects in coming years, delaying the $2.5 million or more middle school roof replacement until state reimbursements come makes sense. Even with an accelerated repair program offered by the state on pause, Morris said he wants to get going on the middle school roof after recent issues with leaks that are compromising the learning environment.

Morris said the district already looked at merging the schools in 2019, but the high school, even after a mid-1990s renovation and expansion, is out of date.

“The short story is because the building is so far from up to current code, before you build any additional space, you’re spending millions and millions of dollars bringing it up to code,” Morris said. Estimates show $3 million to $4 million for sprinklers and fire system alone, he said.

That report also showed that for $33 million, the schools could get a 25,000-square-foot addition.

Another question is where the money to pay for a consultant study would comes from.

Morris said he is not opposed to having a grade 7-12 school, akin to Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield, but he noted that sixth graders are planned to move to the middle school either this fall or in fall 2026 to accommodate the new elementary school, increasing the population.

Leverett Finance Committee member Bethany Seeger said the increasing property tax bills in her town are prompting a search for efficiencies across all departments, including the schools. Seeger suggested that efforts that have begun in other places, with some communities exploring more regionalization and collaboration, may have to be done.

“It may be time to look at trying to regionalize more and see what efficiencies and cost savings that presents,” Seeger said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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