MSBA to Amherst: Sixth Grades Must Move If Fort River and Wildwood Are Consolidated

Fort River Elementary School in Amherst.

By Toni Cunningham and Maria Kopicki

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) and the Amherst School District have agreed on an enrollment projection for Amherst’s elementary schools, and on two enrollment options to study in the elementary school building project.

A Study Enrollment Certificate that specifies the alternatives which may be evaluated in the feasibility study for the Fort River Elementary School was signed this week by Superintendent Michael Morris, Town Manager Paul Bockelman, and School Committee Chairperson Allison McDonald.

The first enrollment option is a Fort River elementary school with 320-students K-6, retaining a three-school elementary system. School Committee member Peter Demling, who has advocated for a consolidated option to replace Fort River and Wildwood with one project, pointed out that the this option would mean that Wildwood is not part of the current MSBA process and would need to be addressed in some other way. School Committee member Kerry Spitzer added that this enrollment option would also not be compatible with the dual-language program, maintaining two bilingual classes and one English speaking class per grade at Fort River.

The second option is a 575-student K-5 consolidated school to replace both Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools, a plan that will require moving Amherst sixth graders to the middle school. Both plans assume approximately 375 elementary students would be taught at Crocker Farm elementary school.

To determine study enrollment options, the MSBA looks at the capacity of the district’s school buildings and enrollment projections, along with plans articulated by the district in the Statement Of Interest. According to Morris, the MSBA advised that if Amherst wants to explore more or different options than the two offered, the district should “drop out and reapply.”

According to the MSBA analysis, the projected average grade K-6 enrollment through 2029-2030 will be approximately 1,105 students town-wide, and the average K-5 enrollment will be about 950 students. This represents an increase over the pre-COVID (2019-2020) enrollment of 1,040 K-6 students and 872 K-5 students. The MSBA projects stabilization through the 2023-2024 school year, then an increase.

An advisory group convened by Morris to explore educational models for a potential grade 6-8 middle school stopped work in January 2020 without producing a final report. A detailed financial and educational analysis of the shift, including a community outreach effort scheduled for the summer and fall of 2020 was also not conducted.

At the School Committee meeting on Tuesday January 5th, Chair Allison McDonald said she will be putting the topic of moving sixth grade on an upcoming Regional School Committee agenda since it would impact all four towns of the region. Financial agreements will be necessary since the middle school building is owned by the Regional School District. Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham would also each need to decide whether or not to move their sixth graders but those decisions would not preclude Amherst’s ability to pursue a K-5 consolidated school.

Ben Herrington who, in addition to being a member of the School Committee is also the Assistant Facilities Director for the district, pointed out that Crocker Farm needs significant renovation work and should be included in the district’s larger plans. “It’s absolutely inequitable if we were to move forward and not take those needs into consideration,” Herrington said. Morris agreed. “We can’t lose track of that,” he said. “There are capital needs at Crocker Farm that will need to be addressed over the next few years.” 

The recent Crocker Farm Feasibility Study concluded that the building requires significant renovation to address unmet educational and safety needs, as well as deferred maintenance, such as replacement of the HVAC system. The study also determined that for a two-elementary school system, whether K-5 or K-6, it would require expansion to accommodate all of the town’s elementary students. As yet, this work has not been included among the list of prioritized major capital projects. 

A Crocker Farm enrollment of 375 elementary students would be an historic high for that building, not approached since 2013 when there were 370 students plus 65 in the preschool. In recent years, approximately 340-350 K-6 students have occupied 20 of the building’s 25 classrooms, the remaining five being used by between 50 and 65 preschoolers. School and District administrators have described even these current conditions as a “tight fit” and lacking adequate space. When asked whether preschool would remain solely at Crocker Farm, Morris responded that “programmatic decisions will be made during the Feasibility Study.” 

While the school sizes and grade configurations to be studied have now been agreed to by school and town officials, many aspects of the project have yet to be discussed, debated, and resolved, including the preferred site for a consolidated school, where to provide preschool and district-wide specialized education programs, and construction approach (addition/renovation versus new construction). 

Morris anticipates that the MSBA’s Board of Directors will vote in February to formally invite Amherst into the next phase of the process — the Feasibility Study. The Elementary School Building Committee meets on January 13th at 7:30am and will discuss the implications of the enrollment options approved by the MSBA as well as begin work to seek an Owner’s Project Manager (OPM). The OPM is an architectural firm that will interface between the Town and the MSBA and facilitate public outreach throughout the building project. According to MSBA requirements, a second design firm must then be hired to do the actual design work. Selection of the second design firm is done by the MSBA, with input from three representatives from Amherst.

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6 thoughts on “MSBA to Amherst: Sixth Grades Must Move If Fort River and Wildwood Are Consolidated

  1. The article notes, “The study also determined that for a two-elementary school system, whether K-5 or K-6, it would require expansion to accommodate all of the town’s elementary students. As yet, this work has not been included among the list of prioritized major capital projects.” Is there clarification as to why this option hasn’t been considered?

  2. As I recall, the commitment when there was a vision adopted after extensive outreach a couple years ago was that schools would remain small, either K-5 or K-6. I did interviews of parents living in apartment complexes about 5 years ago and found an equally crucial need was for elementary schools to be in easy walking or bus distance for parents. It’s fabulous that this plan includes the K-5 plan. But if the district needs to reduce down to only 2 schools, the best way to meet the other two needs would be to have one South-central Amherst school and one central-North Amherst school, and have them both be _the same size_. That would mean that when it comes time for renovations at Crocker Farm, that the school could be increased in size. Or alternatively, perhaps the preschool could move to the new school and all the Crocker classrooms could be used for K-5. Best would be for both buildings to have preschools. It is crucial that these alternative futures are designed into the plans for any new building.

  3. Hi Katie,
    This is speculation on my part but I expect that school and town leaders are wondering how they’re going to come up with $20 million to fix up and expand Crocker Farm. There was significant pushback to undertaking the study in the first place which I suspect was an ostrich response – if they don’t know it needs a lot of work, they can pretend it is fine as is. All the focus is on a new consolidated school and not on the other school facilities that are badly in need of attention too (the middle school and high school both also have significant repair needs).

    The Crocker Farm study looked at five enrollment scenarios and the work that would be needed to accommodate those enrollments. Even the current enrollment demonstrated a need to repair and expand to address unmet needs.

    If we extrapolate those Crocker Farm study estimates using the enrollment approved by the MSBA of 950 K-5 students, the scenario with the estimated lowest cost to the town (combining the work at Crocker Farm and the consolidated school) would be two equal-sized K-5 schools of 475 students, with four classes per grade. The option of equal-sized schools was one of the scenarios looked at.

    I don’t know why the Superintendent did not ask the MSBA for a ~475/475 enrollment to study further. Equal-sized schools offer many advantages in terms of equity of facilities and school size experience for all elementary students. Also, there are implications to teacher load at different sized schools. For example, with what is being proposed (575/375), a specials teacher in the consolidated school would presumably be expected to teach ~30 classes per week (5 classes per grade x 6 grades) while their equivalent at Crocker Farm would only have to teach ~18 classes per week (3 classes per grade x 6 grades). And when it comes to locating specialized education programs, equal-sized schools would provide the ability to locate all three programs at both school, both because of space available and a sufficiently sized student body. However, if there are unequal-sized schools (575/375) and these programs remain centralized and located only at the larger school, students districted to Crocker Farm who require these services would have to travel to the consolidated school.

    Since any work at Crocker Farm is likely on the Town’s dime, we could still renovate that school to accommodate 475 K-5 students. It would not cost much more than the work required for 375 K-5 students, and that at least gives us the option of making the two schools more balanced in terms of facilities, school size, and resources.

  4. Hi Eve,
    Re “Or alternatively, perhaps the preschool could move to the new school and all the Crocker classrooms could be used for K-5.”
    Even if the preschool were to be relocated, Crocker Farm still needs expanding. While it would have sufficient classroom space for a population of 375 students, that is not all that is needed.
    For example, the Crocker Farm gym is less than half the size of what the MSBA recommends for an elementary school and what the new consolidated school will have (2,850sf vs 6,000sf). It’s also in the middle of the building and so represents a security vulnerability as access requires entering the school and walking past classrooms.
    Per the school leadership, there is insufficient space for special education, Title I, English Language Learners, Occupational and Speech Therapy, meeting space, small group instruction, STEM education, holding IEP meetings, etc. (If preschool is moved elsewhere, some of the preschool classrooms could be used for some of these purposes but other spaces need to be built/added.) The new/renovated consolidated school will have all of these spaces so it would not be right or equitable for Crocker Farm not to have them.
    In addition, the roof and HVAC systems need replaced and the building and site brought up to ADA standards.
    All this to say that Crocker Farm needs about $20 million to bring it up to par and it behooves the School Committee, school administration, parents, and the APEA to be advocating for that investment now.

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