NEW SCHOOL BUILDING COMMITTEE APPOINTMENTS ARE UNDERWAY

Fort River Elementary School in Amherst.

APPLICATION DEADLINE IS UNCLEAR. TOWN OFFICIALS FAVOR PARENTS OF YOUNG CHILDREN

By Marla Goldberg-Jamate and Toni Cunningham

The Town of Amherst is required to submit the names of several residents to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) by June 30, creating a committee that will guide the future course of elementary school construction here. 

The Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) will have significant powers, including the ability to choose among whatever building or renovation options are developed during a lengthy study process expected to begin within a few months. The committee’s work is likely to be closely-watched, following the failure of a school building and consolidation project in 2016.

Meanwhile, questions remain about who will fill several seats on the committee, what the criteria should be for selection, and whether an early-morning start time should be set for upcoming ESBC meetings. 

Town Manager Paul Bockelman could not be reached yesterday afternoon, June 11, to answer questions about how many people have applied, and whether there is a deadline for applications. The Amherst Indy also sought comment from Bockelman on the reasoning for a stated preference for parents of young children and its legality, and on a tentative schedule for the new committee. (This article will be updated when a response is received.) 

On the Town’s website, it appears that ESBC applications are still being accepted. The list of people who have volunteered to serve so far is unknown. The Town does not publicize the names of people who apply to be on multi-member committees appointed by the Town Manager, nor the number of people who apply.  Instead, Amherst classifies such applications as personnel records. Appointee names become public when Bockelman submits a list to the Town Service and Outreach Committee (TSO) for review, and the lists are posted on the TSO’s webpage. The TSO, which is tasked with reviewing and making recommendations to the Town Council on such appointments, next meets virtually on Monday, June 15 at 9:30 a.m. The agenda is here

Applicant interviews and selection will be conducted by a small committee consisting of Bockelman, Schools Superintendent Michael Morris, and a representative from the Residents’ Advisory Committee, according to Bockelman’s Executive Assistant, Angela Mills.  

Four people have notified The Amherst Indy that they have filled out Community Activity Forms (CAFs) seeking appointment. They include Jennifer Page and Katie Lazdowski, both of whom have run for Amherst School Committee seats in the past; Irene Dujovne, who served on the Fort River Feasibility Study Committee, a town-funded study which explored renovation or replacement of Fort River School; and Amherst Indy columnist Bill Kaizen. All are parents of current elementary school students. (Biographies of each appear below. Any additional applicants who wish to submit autobiographical information and a photograph to The Amherst Indy may do so here.

The Committee’s Charge
A June 10 memo and “Committee Charge” from Bockelman to the Town Council indicates that preference will go to “parents/guardians of young children who may be in the elementary schools in five years,” when it comes to filling two or three resident slots. Applications were submitted prior to the memo being issued.  

It is unknown whether Bockelman’s stated preference for  parents of young children would actually be enforceable, as it could create an obstacle for parents of older or adult children, and residents who are not parents and yet wish to serve. State law broadly opposes discrimination based upon age, or other protected class. 

Most Massachusetts case law surrounding age discrimination is focused on employment, rather than appointment to volunteer posts. In a case called McDonnell Douglas vs. Green, the Massachusetts Supreme Court created a structure for asserting discrimination claims, in which employees aged 40 or older must provide evidence they were qualified for a position but were replaced by someone substantially younger. It is unknown whether such a standard applies to uncompensated municipal appointments, and the Attorney General’s Office Municipal Law Unit did not respond to a voicemail and email by publication time on June 11.

The Committee Charge from Bockelman’s office estimates appointment terms of five to seven years. It also tentatively schedules ESBC meetings from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., once or twice per month.

The MSBA, which partners with municipalities to build public schools and can provide access to a capital funding pipeline, requires that some town and district officials be represented on the building committee. In his memo, Bockelman stated his intent to appoint himself, Morris, Fort River Principal Diane Chamberlain, Wildwood Vice Principal Allison Estes, Schools’ Facilities Director Rupert Roy-Clark, Town Finance Director Sean Mangano, and Town Procurement Officer Anthony Delaney. 

Bockelman is expected to present ESBC appointees to the Town Services and Outreach Committee (TSO) on Monday June 15 for their approval, and to the full Town Council on June 29. Under the Amherst Home Rule Charter, the appointments will become effective within 30 days of filing, unless rejected by the Council. Although the June 30 MSBA deadline was known for the last several months, the Town Council will not discuss and vote on the list until the day before it is due, leaving little time to consider the applicant pool. 

Bockelman stated that the appointment of a School Committee member, which is suggested by the MSBA for the building committee, will be “forthcoming” Although the MSBA does not specifically suggest that Town Council members serve, Bockelman stated that he plans to appoint two, including one of whom serves on the Finance Committee.

The MSBA also suggests that building committees have a member knowledgeable in the district’s educational mission, and a member with architecture, engineering or construction experience. For the town-funded Fort River Feasibility Study in 2017, the committee composition also included:

  • Community Member with Green Energy Expertise and Architectural Background
  • Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) Designee
  • Parent Guardian Organization (PGO) Appointee
  • At-Large Parent/Guardian/Caregiver
  • Two At-Large Community Members 

The Fort River study included in-depth investigation into compliance with the Town’s Net Zero Energy Bylaw, which applies to all new construction.

Bockelman has not responded to a prior inquiry about whether any elected officials or municipal employees have contacted individual residents to seek their applications.

COVID-19 Impacts
It is unknown whether plans for new construction or renovation will be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The current Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance calls for students to be spaced six feet apart and in small groups, along with curtailing the use of communal spaces such as cafeterias and shared entryways. Morris has said that not all Amherst public school children will be able to attend full-time in the fall, because there is not enough space in the District’s current buildings to comply with public health recommendations.

Fort River and Wildwood will undergo some immediate renovations due to Covid-19, prior to the ESBC beginning its work. The two schools were built on a 1970s “open classroom” model. Both schools will receive permanent walls this summer, to divide four-classroom “quads” in half, resulting in two classrooms each. The construction, which will include ductwork, will separate air exhaust flows. The total cost has been estimated at $50,000 by Facilities and Custodial Supervisor Rupert Roy-Clark. 

Feasibility Study
Last December 12, Amherst was invited by the MSBA into an“Eligibility Period” which can last up to 270 days, to determine potential solutions to problems identified in “Statements of Interest” submitted by the district. At the end of this period, the MSBA can invite Amherst into a “Feasibility Study,” which is the next phase of the process.

The failed former school building project called for consolidating grades 2 through 6 town wide at a new 750-student building on the Wildwood site, and closure of both the existing K-6 Wildwood and Fort River buildings. Crocker Farm would have become a town wide pre-K through grade 1 early education center. It met with significant opposition, and did not gain the support required to fund the project.

The town-funded Fort River Feasibility Study, which began in 2017, and was conducted using MSBA standards, was completed in the fall of 2019. That committee’s report presented a series of new construction and renovation options for Fort River at its current location. (Presentation and final report available on the Town website).  

More recently, Morris has put forward the idea of a building for up to 600-students in grades K-5 or K-6, to replace Wildwood and Fort River. Since the current enrollment of the two schools totals approximately 700 students, the proposal would either require sixth graders town-wide moving to Amherst Regional Middle School, and/or expanding Crocker Farm, in order to fit all elementary pupils into just two buildings. The Crocker Farm Expansion Study, which began in February and is expected to be completed this month, will provide an analysis and cost estimate of how to expand Crocker Farm in a variety of enrollment scenarios, as well as addressing its deficiencies.

The MSBA’s funding is dependent upon sales tax revenues in Massachusetts, which declined by 13 percent in May, (a recent Boston Globe article is here.) It is unknown whether the Covid-19-related sales tax decline will lead to delays in new school construction or changes to the scope of MSBA projects. (A related article from April is here.)

Maria Kopicki contributed to this article. 


Editor’s note: These brief autobiographical statements were submitted to the Amherst Indy by four ESBC applicants. They were edited slightly, for clarity and length purposes. 

JENNIFER PAGE.

Page is a communications professional at UMass Amherst. She had a 20-year career as a data analyst, before changing professions to work in higher education. Page has deep experience analyzing complex data, and the ability to communicate technical topics to a non-technical audience. She served on the Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) Enrollment Working Group, and is currently co-president of the Amherst Education Foundation.

KATIE LAZDOWSKI.

Lazdowski has over 20 years of experience in education, both as a public school teacher, teacher educator in higher education, and as an education consultant. She holds a PhD in teacher education and curriculum studies from UMass-Amherst. Lazdowski’s work as an education consultant, both internationally and locally, has given her opportunities to conduct community outreach in a variety of settings. Lazdowski is a two-time candidate for the Amherst School Committee, and is a board member of the Roger L. Wallace Excellence in Teaching Award Foundation. She is the mother of a Fort River pupil.

IRENE DUJOVNE.

Dujovne, who is originally from Argentina, holds a PhD in physics and has taught for five years at UMass-Amherst. She has served on the ARPS Enrollment Working Group, the ARPS Grade Span Advisory Board, and the Fort River Feasibility Study Committee.  

WILLIAM KAIZEN

Kaizen is the parent of a third grader at Wildwood, and of an in-coming Amherst kindergarten pupil. He and his wife moved to Amherst expressly for its public schools. Kaizen has a PhD in art history from Columbia University, and has taught at many area colleges. His knowledge of architectural history and form, and of the public construction process, makes him well-suited to the ESBC, he stated. Kaizen was in favor, with reservations, of the previous elementary school plan, and is optimistic that the town can come up with a better plan this time. As chair of Amherst’s Public Art Commission, Kaizen said he has a proven track record with public projects here. He oversaw Electrify Amherst, which commissions artists to paint electrical boxes, and served on the Percent for Art Bylaw Ad Hoc Committee. Kaizen’s column “Town Council for Noobs,” which appears in The Amherst Indy, offers a perspective on town politics.

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