In order to comply with the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s (MSBA) timeline, an Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) must be formed and membership submitted to the MSBA for approval by June 30th. Town Manager Paul Bockelman is responsible for selecting members and recommending them to the Town Council for approval. The ESBC will guide the elementary school building project that, according to the Superintendent of Schools Michael Morris, should address both Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools.
Last December, the MSBA invited Amherst back into their school funding pipeline and established a timeline for the process. The first phase, known as the “Eligibility Period,” officially began on May 1st, 2020.
In January, the School Committee discussed the general composition of the building committee composition and agreed to submit recommendations on committee characteristics to the Town Manager. Since that time, there has been very little discussion about the committee or public advertising of the need for volunteers. An announcement on May 22nd on the town website listed a number of town boards and committees for which the Town Manager was seeking members but did not include the ESBC. Since then, the ESBC has been added to the list but a promised stand-alone announcement has not been made and there has been no announcement through school channels.
The current process for Town Manager appointments to multi-member bodies is for a member of the public to express interest by filling out a Community Activity Form (CAF) online. The Town Manager, assisted by the three-member Residents’ Advisory Committee, then manages the evaluation and selection process and submits names of appointees to a subcommittee of the Council, the Town Service & Outreach Committee (TSO), which reviews the nominations and submits a recommendation to the Council for approval. Reached by phone, TSO Chair Darcy DuMont said they will be reviewing the Town Manager’s nominees for the ESBC at their June 15th meeting. The CAFs are not published so neither the public nor the TSO see who is in the pool or how many people applied. The Indy emailed the Town Manager to clarify the process for constituting the school building committee but did not receive a response as of this writing.
The CAF includes optional questions on age, gender, racial/ethnic background, and languages spoken, stating “the goal of the appointing authorities is to appoint qualified and interested Amherst residents who are broadly representative of the Town.” Criticism has been leveled at town government in the past that the Council, boards and committees are not representative, with the majority of members older and more affluent than the general population, and predominantly white. According to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Amherst elementary school students are 50.6% non-white, 31.1% have a first language that is not English, and 31.7% are economically disadvantaged.
According to the brief description on the Town’s website, “the ESBC will work with consultants to develop certain MSBA-required plans for the project and will vote to authorize the OPM [Owner’s Project manager] to submit those plans to the MSBA for approval.” The School Committee is responsible for deciding the educational program and has power over school closures and grade configurations. The time commitment of the ESBC will be significant, with regular meetings expected to continue until a school building is completed, which is anticipated to be in 2025.
The MSBA lists a number of roles that should be filled by the membership of the ESBC, and allows for additional members to be added at the Town’s discretion. In the previous Wildwood building project in 2016, town/school employees and elected officials filled ten out of the 11 required roles. There were four community members on the 20-person committee —- a UMass planner, a former School Committee member, a Fort River parent and a Crocker Farm parent. One School Committee member was also a Wildwood parent. An Indy analysis showed average meeting attendance was 12 people (65%).
In 2017, when the town launched a self-funded feasibility study of Fort River, the School Committee spent significant time discussing committee composition and how to fairly select membership. It was broadly advertised and two public listening sessions were held to invite ideas from the public about committee membership. The result was a committee that had differing viewpoints represented and the final report was arguably far stronger as a result. There were twelve members at the beginning, five of whom dropped out over the course of the two-year study, some of them later replaced.