Up To $1.6 Million In State Funds For School Project Will Depend On District’s Maintenance Record

Wildwood School

Amherst’s Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) held its second meeting on November 18, and elected a Chair (Town Councilor Cathy Schoen) and Vice Chair (Town Councilor Steve Schreiber). In addition, the Committee briefly discussed a key document the District has submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) upon which a great deal of state funding depends.

One of the documents required by the MSBA is a Maintenance and Capital Planning (MCP) Record. These records are used by the MSBA to assess how well districts maintain their buildings, and will determine the allocation of up to two maintenance incentive reimbursement points they could award to the Town of Amherst. With an estimated project cost of between $50 and $80 million (depending on the size and approach), this could mean up to $1.6 million in additional grant money for Amherst.  

Superintendent Michael Morris indicated at the meeting that Amherst’s record had been prepared by School Facilities Director Rupert Roy-Clark. It was made available to ESBC members the day before the meeting but had been submitted at the end of October in order to meet the MSBA deadline.  

In its MCP document, the District acknowledged that it does not have a “preventive or predictive maintenance plan for the district’s facilities” and does not use a “Facilities Condition Index” to track the state of components and major systems in its buildings. Instead, the District said that staff inspect roofs and ventilation equipment, and outside contractors inspect other equipment. “The Facilities Director reviews the reports generated, evaluating the various components, the failures and repairs, and makes plans for major capital repairs, replacements and improvements,” according to the document. 

The MCP also noted that the District is “planning a study of the heating and cooling systems at Crocker Farm to evaluate system limitations, flow, and balance in anticipation of a chiller replacement in the next 5 years.” The Crocker Farm Expansion Study, completed this year, included an assessment of existing conditions and estimated that necessary improvements to the HVAC system would cost approximately $2.6 million. The MCP did not describe the work performed this summer to convert the “quad” classrooms in Wildwood and Fort River into “halfsies” and to improve the ventilation system to accommodate this new configuration and provide adequate air exchange.

With regard to the schools’ “environment,” the District reported that it does not implement practices in the “EPA’s Tools for Schools” program. Instead, the district said that when they receive complaints, “we hire an occupational hygienist to perform tests. 99% of the time we have no issues. In addition, ventilation rates are measured and used to inform maintenance and repair procedures.”  

The issue of the district not participating in the EPA’s program was brought up four years ago during debates around the previous elementary building project. In this document, the District stated that “we look forward to implementing this program in the future,” although it has not been raised during School Committee meetings. Both Wildwood and Fort River have had school-wide air quality testing in the past 5 years that showed no areas of concern. However, at Crocker Farm, the most recent air quality assessment was in 2003 and was limited to testing in a single room.  Concerns about COVID-19 transmission have led to further analysis of ventilation systems at the schools, and work to increase the number of air exchange rates per hour.

The MSBA also seeks details about budgetary commitments to capital spending. The MCP offered this description of Amherst’s capital planning process: “The town sets a percent of taxation aside for capital projects. The schools, police, fire, DPW and other town departments submit funding requests to the JCPC (Joint Capital Planning Committee).” This description omits that requests for funding also come from the Jones Library, which has two representatives on the JCPC. The MCP also does not mention a critical factor in upcoming capital planning: the current effort by the Jones’ Trustees to gain approval from the Town Council by April to fund a significant portion of the more than $36 million expansion project. 

That funding could affect the town’s ability to pay its share of the elementary school project, either because it would draw heavily from the capital budget for decades to come, or because it would require a debt exclusion override, which could jeopardize the even larger override expected to be needed to fund the schools project. Indeed, Amherst’s Ten Year Capital Plan for FY20-FY29 that was sent to the MSBA as supporting documentation calls for $22 million in FY21 as a debt exclusion override for the Library project, in addition to a $40 million debt exclusion override for the school, and $20 million for the fire station plus $30 million for the DPW to come out of the capital fund in FY22. It also misstates the Town’s capacity to fund capital projects: although this year the capital fund was reduced from 9.5% to just 5% of the property tax levy because of the impact of the pandemic, the capital plan says the capital fund is supported at  9.5% and will continue to be through the year 2029.

The MSBA specifically asked for the Town’s history of “tax overrides, capital exclusions, and debt exclusions.” Although two relatively small ($1.6M – $2.5M) overrides in 2007 and 2010 were included — the larger of which failed to pass —  the 2016 override for the previous $67 million MSBA school project, which passed by an extremely small margin, was omitted.

Details of the maintenance budgets are also required. A trend of declining requests and allocation is noted between 2017 and 2019 with expenditures not keeping pace with monies available in the past two years. Projections for the next few years are on par with the lower expenditures of more recent years.

No members of the ESBC asked to discuss the contents of the MCP Record or asked when Amherst can expect to learn how the information provided will be received by the MSBA, and what portion of the possible 2% reimbursement the Town can expect to receive. 

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