Advocacy for site of new Amherst school called unwarranted

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/31/2022 8:33:43 PM

AMHERST — In less than a month, the site on which a new or renovated elementary school will be constructed will be chosen by the Elementary School Building Committee.

The project will happen either at the Strong Street site of Wildwood School, or the South East Street site of Fort River School. The committee could make that decision June 13, in advance of submitting a schematic report to the Massachusetts School Building Authority later in June. That agency will also have to sign off on the site that is chosen.

As the date of this decision looms, the committee is facing mounting pressure, including a number of opinion pieces being published in various news sources and through social media channels, aiming to make sure that the Fort River site is selected, in part because the property is larger than the Wildwood site.

For members of the Amherst Forward political action committee, worries that the Building Committee’s decision could be compromised by this effort prompted it to issue a statement Tuesday praising the committee’s work. “Amherst Forward is grateful for this carefully guided process and we trust that our Elementary School Building Committee will handle the job they’ve been tasked to do responsibly and with great care,” Amherst Forward wrote.

Amherst Forward Chairwoman Katherine Appy said that with no final cost estimates yet for either site and more analysis being done, the concern from some residents is that the committee is being impeded in its work.

“We believe that the best course of action is to allow the Elementary School Building Committee to make a decision about the site and other project details, rather than for the community to be pulled into ‘sides’ on this issue,” Appy said.

Amherst Forward notes that design and site recommendations will soon mark the midway point in the project’s timeline.

The Progressive Coalition of Amherst, a competing political action committee, has weighed in on the site selection, offering its preference for the Fort River site. It was joined by Sunrise Amherst in its endorsement of the location where many sports are already played and which has sufficient room for ground-source heat pumps to provide heating and cooling in a way that will meet the town’s climate goals.

“We believe this is the best solution for Amherst’s students, the larger Amherst community, and the climate,” the groups wrote. “The Fort River site has more than 30 acres of available open space, more than double the amount at Wildwood, and could provide abundant room for outdoor learning, sports, parking and busing to all happen safely.”

Similarly, former members of the Community Safety Work Group sent an appeal to advocate for the Wildwood School, once it is offline as a school, to house sites that would serve Black, Indigenous and people of color communities, including the BIPOC Cultural Center and Youth Empowerment Center.

With these appeals made, School Committee member Peter Demling, in a guest column submitted to the Gazette, asks that the building committee be allowed to do its job.

While offering input in traditional ways, at forums and through emails, is sensible, he argues it is “ridiculous” for local political groups and blogs insisting that the Building Committee choose Fort River because it is the “obvious” and “clear” choice.

“Where is the appreciation for the many complex factors involved in a building site selection, respect for the professional expert analysis of these factors, and support for the Building Committee’s deliberate and open-minded approach to evaluating this information?” Demling writes.

Jennier Shiao, who also is on the School Committee, said that more input is better for the process. “A community that values democracy should welcome the input of all members,” Shiao said. “In fact, the Elementary School Building Committee has stated that it welcomes input from stakeholders such as school families, voters, and community members.”

This all comes, Shiao observes, in advance of a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion vote in 2023. “It is so important to the school community that this project succeeds, and it will need widespread support in order to pass the debt exclusion override that will be put to voters next year,” Shiao said.

Whatever decision is made will set in motion discussions about the future of the school site that is not selected, though any municipal purposes for the then-vacant building may need significant investment, including a new roof.

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