Amherst TM takes action on elementary schools

Staff Writer
Published: 5/4/2017 12:26:24 AM

AMHERST — Town Meeting on Wednesday set in motion a process that could lead to eventual improvements to the 1970s-era Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools.

Following three unsuccessful votes to authorize borrowing for a $66.37 million project that would have co-located two new elementary schools at the Wildwood site on Strong Street — and closed both current schools — Town Meeting Wednesday voted overwhelmingly, by voice vote, to borrow $250,000 for the first phase of a feasibility study of the Fort River School site on South East Street.

The study will include an in-depth examination of the property, preliminary schematic designs, creation of a community engagement plan and establishment of a school building committee.

“I’m thrilled we’re going forward and hope we’ll get to vote for these schools that the community overwhelmingly wants,” said Carol Gray, a Precinct 6 representative who opposed the previous building project because of the potential loss of elementary schools that serve distinct neighborhoods.

In other school-related action, members unanimously voted to borrow $500,000 to purchase and install a new boiler system for Wildwood, and approved the operating budget for both the Amherst elementary schools and the town’s assessment for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools.

The Amherst School Committee endorsed the first portion of the Fort River feasibility study as a way to provide more information about how to proceed in renovating and improving the existing elementary school, after having already done a thorough examination of Wildwood in advance of the vote on the project.

School Committee member Anastasia Ordonez said school officials need to learn whether Fort River School can be renovated or rebuilt on the site. The idea of the study, she said, is to develop a plan, as soon as practical, to make sure all children and teachers are in suitable elementary school buildings.

Both Wildwood and Fort River use an open classroom model that limits natural light and creates additional noise, and have issues with handicapped accessibility.

Committee member Peter Demling said the public will be asked for significant input during the study.

Janet McGowan of Precinct 8 cautioned the committee against coming up with a similar project to the one defeated.

“Don’t try to fix every problem in the district at this one building,” she said.

Meanwhile, the money for the Wildwood boiler will include removing asbestos in the boiler room and installing new units that should be operational in fall 2018.

Demling said if the boiler fails next school year, it would be a hardship for children and parents, likely leading to the shuttering of the building for at least a week.

Budgets

Town Meeting unanimously agreed to $15.5 million as the town’s share of a $31.3 million budget for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools and $22.5 million budget for the elementary schools.

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Phoebe Hazzard said the budgets support education priorities that ensure a quality education that create graduates who can become successful members of a multiethnic, pluralistic society.

Specifically, Hazzard pointed to initiatives such as an arts integration plan at the elementary school and maintaining a wide array of electives at the secondary level.

The budgets also include money to bring the food service program back in-house, which Hazzard said will mean better tasting, less processed, more organic and locally sourced foods.

Ryan Harb was recently selected to oversee this program after previously serving as the sustainability manager for the University of Massachusetts Dining Services.

Town Meeting members pressed school officials on adding world languages.

Kathleen Traphagen of Precinct 6 wondered if there would be an opportunity to get language instruction back in elementary school classrooms.

Acting Superintendent Michael Morris said it is on the table as part of an emerging dialogue with parents and teachers.

This pleased Richard Morse of Precinct 7. “I think there’s a significant population in town that wants foreign language instruction in elementary schools,” Morse said.

Town Meeting will continue Monday, when a citizen petition article that would make Amherst a sanctuary community will be taken up at 7:30 p.m.

Another petition article asking for an investigation into impeaching President Donald Trump will take place at 7:10 p.m. on May 10.


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