For superintendent, building plan must address two schools

Staff Writer
Published: 12/27/2019 11:08:57 PM
Modified: 12/27/2019 11:08:46 PM

AMHERST — While only Fort River Elementary School has been accepted into the eligibility period for the Massachusetts School Building Authority, Amherst school officials are committed to making sure the needs of Wildwood Elementary School’s teachers, staff and students are addressed in any building project completed between fall 2025 and 2027.

Superintendent Michael Morris told the Amherst School Committee earlier in December that with acceptance by the MSBA to study building a new school or renovating an existing building to house 600 students at the Fort River School site on South East Street, he wants to make sure that all elementary schools in Amherst are fully handicapped accessible and that problems, such as the open classroom model and lack of natural light, are fixed.

“I think ethically waiting 10 to 15 years is not an option, from my perspective,” Morris said about the possibility of deferring work at Wildwood.

Morris outlined the initial phase 270-day phase that begins May 1, with forming a local school building committee one of the initial steps. Those members will be appointed by Town Manager Paul Bockelman and approved by the Town Council, based on provisions of the town charter.

During the eligibility period, the MSBA will work with the district to determine the financial and community readiness to enter the next phase, the capital pipeline, in which funding would be provided based on another MSBA vote.

This phase will include completing enrollment projections, gathering information on maintenance and capital plans and then securing a local vote for the feasibility study by Jan. 26, 2021. Morris presented figures showing that the average cost of such a study, based on other districts that have gone through the process in recent years, is around $1.23 million.

Whatever project happens — likely a building where children in kindergarten through fifth grade or kindergarten through sixth grade would be educated, based on the statement of interest submitted — will not be approved for funding until July 2022 at the earliest.

Meantime, Morris said he is committed to having ways of getting information to the public.

Committee Chairwoman Anastasia Ordonez said she supports Morris’ plan to have a website focused on the project and other outreach to the community.

Committee member Kerry Spitzer said there needs to be a process that allows for more active participation.

Committee member Peter Demling said he has “tempered enthusiasm” for the process. Though the schools have a real path forward, he noted any project is still five to seven years away from happening.

He added that Morris’ approach to deal with Wildwood at the same time as Fort River is the right one.

“There’s no way to justify a plan that kicks Wildwood to 2032 or beyond,” Demling said.

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


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