RELATED ESTIMATES ON CONSOLIDATION OF WILDWOOD AND FORT RIVER DRAW CRITICISM FROM SOME ELECTED OFFICIALS
An architecture firm’s study of Crocker Farm Elementary School and prospects for expansion shows that the building’s roof, heating and ventilation systems will soon expire, while the school also has security and accessibility issues.
The study by TSKP Studio of Hartford, Conn., shows that improvements are needed to secure Crocker Farm’s main entryway, and to permit community events in the gym and cafeteria without allowing public access to the entire school.
“School security standards have evolved in the last decade,” said TSKP Project Manager Jesse Saylor, who presented the “Crocker Farm School Building Feasibility Study” to the Amherst Town Council and Amherst School Committee on Tuesday, July 28. A video of the virtual meeting is here, along with Saylor’s slide presentation.
Crocker Farm dates to 1966, but underwent major renovation in 2002. In 2019, its enrollment was about 400 pupils, including ~350 in grades K-6, and ~50 in the town-wide preschool which is based there. Despite having the largest enrollment of Amherst’s three elementary schools, its gym is half the size set by current standards.
Principal Derek Shea, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, described the school as “beautiful,” but said that with students and 90 to 100 staff members present each day, “it’s a pretty tight fit.” Shea said that as principal, he would like to see a few improvements.
The study found that Crocker Farm has poor classroom temperature and humidity control, lacks air conditioning in the cafeteria and gym, and is not compliant with ADA standards for entry door and sink clearances. There are also accessibility issues with bathrooms, courtyards, and playground paths. A number of unmet educational needs were noted by TSKP, which could be addressed by each of three addition/renovation options.
The study focusing on Crocker Farm was launched to explore the school’s condition and expansion prospects, in light of possible consolidation of the town’s two other elementary schools, Wildwood and Fort River. That proposed consolidated facility for up to 600 pupils would ultimately impact Crocker Farm’s enrollment and space needs, according to TSKP’s 282-page report.
TSKP’s suggested options for Crocker Farm ranged in price from $9.2 million to $27.5 million. Options would include base repairs; a 7,850 square foot addition to address existing needs, allowing for a total of 435 pupils; a 9,750 square foot addition to accommodate up to 505 students; and an 18,260 square foot addition to allow for 555.
The town-wide preschool could remain at Crocker Farm, or be split between it and the consolidated school. District-wide special education programs at Fort River and Wildwood could all be at the new consolidated building, or be shared between it and Crocker Farm.
TSKP’s estimates of total costs to the Town of Amherst for fixing up and expanding Crocker Farm, plus building the consolidated school ranged from $43 million to $65.6 million, depending on the type and extent of construction the town undertakes. Those figures assume that the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) would provide moderate-level funding for the consolidated school.
The estimated cost to Amherst for a new consolidated school with MSBA funding support ranged from $35.1 million to $41 million, while renovation and an addition at Fort River or Wildwood to enable consolidation of those two schools was pegged at $23.2 million to $30.2 million.
The amounts for the combined work with no state funding are considerably higher.
“By studying all three schools, you have the information that you need to make a broad and holistic plan,” Saylor said. TSKP was the architecture firm for the Fort River Feasibility Study completed last fall, and Saylor said that it extrapolated cost estimates from that study to provide a full picture.
However, Amherst School Committee Chair Allison McDonald, and member Peter Demling were critical of TSKP’s cost estimates, claiming that they went beyond the new study’s scope, and that TSKP cannot predict the final cost outcome of the current MSBA process with any certainty.
“The purpose was not to estimate the eventual cost of the not-even-yet-begun MSBA project,” Demling said, adding that a new Elementary School Building Committee is not yet formed.
McDonald proposed that a page showing cost estimates be moved from the report to the appendix if not removed entirely, although no decision was made at the meeting. However, in a July 30 email, Town Council President Lynn Griesemer asked Saylor to make a “needed correction” and move the cost page to the appendix, “before we officially post the study to the Town website.” Griesemer made the request on behalf of the Town Council and the Amherst School Committee. A subsequent objection by Feasibility Study Committee member Toni Cunningham led Griesemer to put the request on hold, pending votes by the council and school committee.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Town Councilor Stephen Schreiber, who is an architect, noted that COVID-19 has forced school districts to reconsider space configuration needs. “It’s very difficult to re-occupy a lot of existing schools because of social distancing rules,” Schreiber said, adding that new building codes and construction standards could result, as they did after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA.)
Architect Ryszard Szczypek of TSKP said that his firm has been working with engineers that are exploring new circulation and ultraviolet light systems to improve air quality in schools, along with the prospect of “touchless” bathrooms with blind entryways, to eliminate high-contact surfaces such as door handles. Schools will likely provide pre-packaged food for lunches, which may lead to changes in kitchen and cafeteria design. “We don’t know all the answers yet,” Szczypek said.
Councilor Dorothy Pam also aired COVID-19-related concerns, raising questions about whether it might be better to retain three elementary school buildings.
The state Department of Education currently shows enrollment of 311 students at Fort River, 382 at Wildwood, and 400 at Crocker Farm (including 53 in preschool), totaling 1,093. However, the New England School Development Council has projected declining enrollment, leading to 1,020 K-6 elementary pupils town-wide. Questions remain about how the district would apportion children into the consolidated school and Crocker Farm, and handle unexpected population growth. The study explores Crocker Farm’s expansion to accommodate elimination of a school, and weighs the prospect of shifting sixth grade pupils townwide to Amherst Regional Middle School. A Crocker Farm expansion could enable Amherst to create two elementary schools of equal size.
At the meeting, Town Councilor Pat De Angelis defended the presence of total cost estimates for the projects which may be needed to shift Amherst from three elementary schools to two. “The amount of money should not be removed from the report, it’s very important,” she said.
McDonald and Town Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said they found the enrollment scenarios presented confusing.
Town Councilor Alisa Brewer and others asked if TSKP had produced a written report in addition to the presentation, and why they hadn’t received it before the meeting. Saylor said TSKP wrote a “300 page” report that was shared with the Crocker Farm School Building Feasibility Study Committee earlier this month, and he was uncertain why it was not distributed to the Town Council and School Committee. Saylor said he didn’t believe that TSKP was at fault.
Besides School Superintendent Michael Morris and Assistant Facilities Director Ben Herrington (who also serves on the School Committee), the Feasibility Study Committee included Principal Derek Shea, and residents Toni Cunningham, Miranda Balkin and Maria Kopicki. Cunningham and Kopicki proposed the study as a resident capital request. It was funded after receiving support from the Joint Capital Planning Committee and the Town Council.
Kopicki said she and Cunningham sought the study because if Amherst adopts a two-school system, the town must understand Crocker Farm’s condition, and what it would take to achieve parity for the schools in terms of educational resources, security, and accessibility.
Both Kopicki and Cunningham are frequent Amherst Indy contributors.
Cunningham contacted Griesemer on Thursday to register her objection to modification of TSKP’s report, stating that Morris and Herrington knew of the report’s content in advance from the study committee. Cunningham added that Morris raised “no objections” about the cost estimates when she met with him to discuss the page a few weeks ago.
Morris said on Tuesday that the study information “is incredibly useful for me,” and that he was in the process of submitting enrollment scenarios to the MSBA.
Town Councilor Andy Steinberg called the study “very valuable.”
“We need to understand what the condition of our buildings is,” Steinberg said, adding that Amherst will need to decide what the most cost-effective approach is to improving its schools.
All options for Crocker Farm would shift the school’s heating from an oil-fired boiler to an electric system. The changes and additions proposed would comply with the town’s Net Zero Energy Bylaw, improve the school’s thermal envelope, and add photovoltaic panels that could fit on the roof.
Last December, the MSBA invited Amherst into a 270-day “Eligibility Period,” during which it pledged to work with the district to determine financial and community readiness to enter the MSBA’s “Capital Pipeline.”
The district is completing preliminary requirements, after which it will be eligible for invitation into a feasibility study phase by the MSBA’s board of directors.