Guest columnists Anastasia Ordonez and Michael Morris: Good news and next steps for Amherst elementary schools

  • Fort River Elementary School

Published: 1/2/2020 8:32:39 AM
Modified: 1/2/2020 8:32:18 AM

On December 11, the Amherst School District received the good news that we and many in our community were hoping for: the Town of Amherst was invited into the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s (MSBA) Core Program, the first step in a long process to receive state funding for a new school building. Amherst was one of only 11 Statements of Interest (SOIs) to be recommended into the program — an enviable spot, as only 18% of the statewide districts that applied this year got in. We deeply appreciate the Town Council’s unanimous support of our SOIs last spring, and the larger Amherst community for its valuable feedback on a consensus plan to replace both Wildwood and Fort River schools with one warm, child-centered building with space for about 600 students. This collaboration was critical to our invitation into the Core Program. 

While we’re very excited for this good news, our enthusiasm must be tempered with information about timing. Our initial invitation means that we have now been placed into a “pipeline,” a series of official steps that dictate how and when our project will progress. The MSBA estimates that projects take five to seven years to complete from when the Eligibility Period officially commences, which in our case will be May 1, 2020. During the Eligibility Period and the Feasibility Period that follows it, our town will form a School Building Committee that will oversee the project from beginning to end; the initial funding for a feasibility study will be set aside; and a construction project team will be selected and develop multiple models for consideration and feedback. This part of the process is expected to last approximately two years, and then the MSBA will vote on whether to enter into a Project Scope and Budget agreement with Amherst. The MSBA will not vote on a budget agreement before July 1, 2022. 

This slow and deliberate process is not an accident. The MSBA has created safeguards to ensure that projects aren’t rushed so that they can responsibly fund and oversee each of the dozens of projects that they accept every year. Unfortunately, this means the soonest Amherst could consider and vote on our project will be in the fall 2022. Based on this timeline, a new or renovated school could open in the fall 2025 at the earliest, assuming the process runs as efficiently as possible. Our current schools will continue to require capital investments in order to remain safe, healthy working environments for students and staff over the next few years.

Additionally, our community will need to do a tremendous amount of work between now and the MSBA vote. Currently, a group of educators, elected officials and community members are studying whether sixth grade students will move to the middle school, and another group is studying a potential expansion of Crocker Farm School. Their recommendations will be critical to a new project. And along with the steps necessary during the Eligibility Period mentioned above, decisions must be made by the School Building Committee and the public about the energy efficiency and sustainability goals for the future school building. 

We remain committed to clear and continuous communication with our stakeholders throughout every phase of this project moving forward. The Amherst School Committee and Amherst Town Council have hosted 13 community listening sessions to date during which our elementary schools were either the sole or a major topic, and additional feedback will be solicited in several different ways. In the meantime, we encourage the community to attend the next Amherst Town Council meeting on January 6th to hear more about the project timeline and next steps. You can also reference if you are interested in documents, presentations and other information about the MSBA project.

We’re incredibly appreciative of the MSBA’s support for our project and are excited to continue this vital work with you as we move toward improved educational facilities for our children.

Anastasia Ordonez is the outgoing Chair of the Amherst School Committee, and Dr. Michael Morris is the Superintendent of Amherst Public Schools.

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