by Maria Kopicki and Toni Cunningham
In an apparent deviation from common practice, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) approved funding for two simultaneous new school building projects at two different locations in Holyoke. The two Holyoke middle school projects began as a Statement Of Interest for an entirely different school, the Lt. Elmer J. McMahon Elementary School, which was accepted into the MSBA’s funding pipeline in 2012.
In 2015, the Holyoke Public School District was put under receivership (state control) because of chronic under-performance. In 2016, just before the clock ran out on the feasibility phase for the McMahon Elementary School project, the district requested and was granted a “survey” or facility audit of all Holyoke schools, to be funded by the MSBA. Subsequently, it was decided to reconfigure the district from a K-8 to a K-5, 6-8 model, shifting the focus to creating middle schools.
The following year, the MSBA allowed Holyoke to replace the original 2012 Statement Of Interest with one for another school (H.B. Lawrence). Then, in August 2018, it approved a request from Holyoke for the construction of two new 550-student middle schools at two sites at the same time, one to replace Peck and a second to be built adjacent to the H.B. Lawrence site.
At the Amherst School Committee meeting on January 17, 2019 when presenting “a proposal for consensus”, Superintendent Michael Morris said “MSBA acceptance is competitive – every year is a new year – and it addresses one building at a time. So, for us, if we wanted to go down a road of two buildings, they wouldn’t happen simultaneously, it would be one after the other.” It is unknown whether and when Morris and other town officials were aware of the developments in Holyoke, which have been covered by numerous local news outlets.
The actions with respect to Holyoke’s process raise the question of what are the MSBA’s policies and how consistently are they enforced? It may be understandable that some of the largest school districts in MA (by enrollment) had been permitted two concurrent core projects (such as Brookline, Newton, Springfield, and Worcester), but this appears to represent the first time that the MSBA has approved a simultaneous two school building solution in a single core project.
In January 2019, several Amherst residents, including the authors, submitted questions to the MSBA via Superintendent Morris which included seeking clarification about the possibility of simultaneous state-funded projects. The questions not only asked about the possibility of simultaneous projects for Wildwood and Fort River, but also about a concurrent addition/renovation project at either Crocker Farm or the Middle School, along with a new consolidated school. No answers have been forthcoming despite multiple follow-up requests to Morris.
Not being eligible to receive state funding to address both Wildwood and Fort River at the same time has long been argued as a reason for consolidation rather than maintaining three smaller schools. The events in Holyoke call into question what options might exist for Amherst.
May 2017, MSBA board votes to amend the feasibility study agreement to switch to the H.B. Lawrence School (a middle school). Memo.
August 8, 2018, District asks MSBA at a Facilities Assessment Subcommittee meeting to consider a two school solution involving both the HB Lawrence and William R. Peck schools.
2016, MSBA School Survey Report with school ratings. 2010 MSBA Needs Survey Report.January 2019 Michael Morris presentation “A Proposal For Consensus,” Amherst School Committee meeting 1/17/19. Video.