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.