Columnist Johanna Neumann: Vote yes for Amherst schools on May 2

By JOHANNA NEUMANN

Published: 04-19-2023 11:34 PM

On May 2, Amherst voters will decide whether to fund a new elementary school building. If you’re an Amherst voter still making up your mind, I urge you to consider a “yes” vote for the following reasons.

First is the need. Both Fort River and Wildwood school buildings are failing. I have two kids and my boys have come home from Fort River with lots of stories about how the building is failing. Water-logged ceiling tiles falling onto desks, not being able to use the coat hooks outside their classroom because the roof was leaking, radiators catching fire in adjacent classrooms, being distracted by workers installing a new chiller. Any Fort River or Wildwood parent, teacher or staff member can share with you how the condition of these buildings makes learning harder for our kids.

You can see the challenges of these schools yourself and hear people with firsthand experience of these buildings including Nick Yaffe, the Wildwood principal, Doug Pion, the schools’ maintenance coordinator, and Rupert Roy-Clarke the facilities director, share their perspectives in a video which is also posted at the YesforAmherstSchools.org website.

Bottom-line, it’s time to replace our failing 50-year-old school buildings that are not ADA accessible, waste a lot of energy, are very expensive to repair, and cannot meet the educational and safety needs of today’s students.

Problems with the Fort River & Wildwood buildings:

■Many classrooms lack sufficient windows for natural light and proper ventilation.

■Both schools are severely short on usable class and storage space.

■Distance from the front entrance to the main offices doesn’t meet present-day safety regulations.

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■Not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

■Deteriorating physically.

Second, is finances. A “yes” vote on May 2 is the fiscally responsible choice for Amherst taxpayers, and here’s why. The state of Massachusetts has committed to funding approximately 40% of this project, meaning the final cost to Amherst taxpayers for the new building will be approximately $55 million paid off over 30 years.

Now you may be asking, why don’t we simply renovate the existing buildings or keep maintaining the existing schools like we have been? Here’s why.

Renovating or continuing to maintain the existing buildings will cost more than replacing two buildings with one new one. Major renovations like those that would be needed to fix the problems at Fort River and Wildwood schools trigger the need for the upgraded building to comply with the ADA and a modern building code. To upgrade Wildwood and Fort River would cost about $80 million and state matching funds are not available for renovations.

Meanwhile, band-aid solutions are not a good way to spend our limited resources in perpetuity. Voting “yes” on May 2 is an investment in our future.

For the coming decades, this new school building will offer many benefits to our community, including $250,000 annually in utility savings alone. Voting “yes” also positions us to qualify for additional cost savings through federal clean energy incentives created through the Inflation Reduction Act.

What are the benefits of the new school?

■Efficient, healthy and fossil fuel free. Efficient, all-electric systems powered by clean renewable energy systems such as ground source heat pumps and rooftop solar panels. Reduced water consumption, efficient building design, and non-toxic materials that will result in a cleaner, safer school for everyone.

■Abundant natural light in all classrooms and learning spaces. Research shows that daylight can increase test scores by 20%.

■Flexible spaces that are separate from academic areas to be used for community meetings and other public activities. Also, dedicated special education classrooms where students can receive focused attention, physical therapy, and instruction within close proximity to their grade-level peers, allowing us to put our values of inclusion into practice.

■Improved security features for the safety of students, educators, and visitors.

■Up-to-date, integrated technology in all classrooms for 21st-century learning.

If Amherst votes no on May 2, we leave all the benefits of an efficient new school on the table. Our town will be left with two flawed, failing, inefficient elementary school buildings that will cost $80 million to fix, instead of a new building that meets the needs of our community for $55 million.

My sons will not benefit directly from this school, yet I’m committed to see that other children will. The choice is clear. For our kids, our educators, and for our future, on May 2, vote “yes” for Amherst by voting yes for a new school.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.]]>