State agency comes through with $40M for new Amherst elementary school

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-26-2023 5:20 PM

AMHERST — In advance of voters deciding whether to authorize the town to move forward with a new elementary school to replace the existing Fort River and Wildwood schools, the Massachusetts School Building Authority is giving its final approval for the project.

The MSBA voted unanimously Wednesday to support the Amherst elementary school building project, estimated at around $97.5 million, with a construction grant that could be as high as $40.5 million. The new three-story building would serve 565 K-5 students at the current Fort River School site on South East Street.

The vote authorizes John K. McCarthy, as its executive director, to execute both a project scope and budget agreement, and a project funding agreement, with Amherst.

“Two of the three pieces to build a new elementary school are now in place,” Elementary School Building Committee Chairwoman and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said in a statement. “We anticipate that the MSBA grant could be approximately $40.5 million once all incentives and contingencies are included.”

Previously, the Town Council voted in favor of the project. On Tuesday, voters will decide on a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion that, if passed, would lead to the new school opening in the fall of 2026, becoming Amherst’s first public net-zero building.

“Upon completion, this project will provide a new 21st-century learning environment for students in Amherst,” said State Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, who chairs the MSBA. “Our goal is to create the best space to deliver the district’s educational commitments and goals.”

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The MSBA’s action includes an estimated maximum total facilities grant of $39.64 million, though this could rise to $40.47 million if the agency determines various contingency expenditures are eligible for reimbursement.

The proposed project would consolidate the students and staff at the 1970s-era Fort River and Wildwood schools. Sixth graders at those schools, as well as at Crocker Farm, the town’s third elementary school, would all move to the Amherst Regional Middle School, either in 2026 or sometime earlier.

Both Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, spoke in favor of the project at the MSBA meeting. Also present was Superintendent Michael Morris.

“This important vote by the MSBA brings the possibility of educating our students in a school facility that aligns with the outstanding nature of our staff and fully supports the promise of our students one step closer to reality,” Morris said.

Council President Lynn Griesemer calls the school crucial to the future of the town, observing that $5 million in reserves has been dedicated to it. “In addition, the Town Council has asked the town manager to seek options to fund an additional $5 million in other funds to reduce the tax impact on property owners,” Griesemer said.

The state authority’s support is critical to the new elementary school funding, said Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

“The Town Council has voted, the MSBA has voted, and now it is up to the voters to decide if they want to build a new elementary school,” Bockelman said.

On Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., voters will go to their regular polling places around town to cast ballots, following early voting underway this week, as well as mail-in voting and absentee voting.

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