Editorial: Amherst school project deserves support

  • The Gazette endorses a yes vote on Question 5 in Amherst, a Proposition 2 ½ debt-exclusion override for a new school building at the current site of the Wildwood Elementary School. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/3/2016 8:18:03 PM

It is past time to replace two outdated elementary schools in Amherst, and with state money approved, we urge residents to vote yes Tuesday on Question 5, a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override. That is the next step to move the $67.2 million school building project forward.

If voters pass the measure, Town Meeting, which begins Nov. 14, would be asked to authorize borrowing for a new building with two co-located schools for all students in Grades 2 to 6, which is expected to be finished in 2020. It would be built at the current site of the Wildwood Elementary School on Strong Street.

The plan calls for closing the Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools, which were built in the 1970s, and turning Crocker Farm Elementary School into an early learning center for children in pre-kindergarten through Grade 1.

There are many reasons to support this project, starting with problems at Wildwood and Fort River, which were designed using an experimental open-classroom model that is now regarded as educationally unsound. In both buildings, three or four classrooms share the same space and are separated only by partial walls that do not fully contain noise. Students and teachers have long coped with distractions.

Furthermore, natural light is limited in many of the classrooms and work areas at Fort River and Wildwood, there are air quality problems, neither building meets the Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility regulations and the two schools are not energy-efficient.

If the project is not approved, immediate repairs the town would face include replacing the roof at Fort River, estimated to cost $1.25 million, and a new $400,000 boiler at Wildwood.

The proposal favored by administrators, the School Committee (4-1 vote) and the Select Board (unanimous vote) is two schools at one site, with each serving about 375 students. Each school would have its own administrators, teachers, classrooms and playgrounds. Some specialized spaces would be shared to avoid expensive duplication, including the kitchen, gymnasium, outdoor classroom and an area for science and technology projects.

While some opponents of the project have argued that it could lead to one united “mega-school,” that cannot happen under the contract signed with the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The state has agreed to pay $34.4 million — or about 51 percent of the overall cost — but only for a building specifically designed for the co-located schools, according to the Amherst School Committee.

That new energy-efficient building, with the goal of achieving LEED silver certification, would save the School Department about $500,000 annually in operating costs, acting Superintendent Michael Morris estimates.

If the project is approved, the town’s elementary, middle and high schools would be clustered in a central location near downtown. All children in the same grade would attend the same building, ending the need for redistricting, which has resulted in busing a large number of low-income students from housing developments in South Amherst away from their neighborhood school, Crocker Farm, to maintain socioeconomic parity among the three elementary schools.

In addition, the plan would open space for another 30 preschool students at Crocker Farm, and school officials anticipate many would be from low-income families. “Many studies have shown that quality preschool is an essential strategy in closing the achievement gap, a goal that our community wholly supports,” Morris says.

The Amherst Finance Committee estimates that if the override is approved, the total cost to the town would be $54.1 million, factoring in payments of $21.3 million on a 25-year bond. Using Finance Committee figures, the average impact on a resident with property assessed at $200,000 would be an annual tax increase of $212 — or about 58 cents a day. For the owner of property assessed at $700,000, the cost would be $742 — or roughly $2 a day.

After nine years of planning, Amherst is poised to put its elementary school students in a 21st-century building. A further delay puts state funding in jeopardy. By voting yes on Question 5, residents will ensure that Amherst does not take that gamble.


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