Opinion: Slow And Opaque Progress On Elementary School Building Project

Photo: ARPS.org

Efforts to repair or replace the Town’s two aging elementary schools have been slow and shrouded, with officials waiting until just before project deadlines to submit required materials and avoiding, to date, public discussions.

It has been more than a year since Amherst was invited by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to re-enter the process to seek funding for the repair or replacement of the Fort River and Wildwood schools following the failure of a previous school consolidation effort.  The District was given an official start date by the MSBA of May 1 for the first phase, known as the Eligibility Period. While school districts are allowed a maximum of 270 days to complete this first phase, there is no penalty for completing the work sooner and districts that do so may be invited to begin the next phase earlier. 

The first deadline in the Eligibility Period was May 31, 2020, by which point the Town had to submit a document called the Initial Compliance Certification that acknowledges the Town’s understanding of, and agreement to, the grant program rules. Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Superintendent Michael Morris, and Chair of the Amherst School Committee Allison McDonald signed the Initial Compliance Certification on May 24 and submitted it to the MSBA one day late on June 1, according to the date on the file.

The next step was to form a School Building Committee, which was to be submitted to the MSBA by June 30, 2020. A call for resident volunteers was first posted mid-June, six months after Amherst had been invited into the process and just two weeks before the deadline. Bockelman submitted names for the minimum required membership (seven school and town leaders/employees) on the deadline, June 30, after receiving approval from the Town Council the evening before. However, the committee was not completed until Bockelman appointed, and the Town council confirmed, three resident members on August 31, two months after the deadline. 

A public records request to the Town for the names of applicants for the three resident spots on the building committee was rejected. The justification provided was that “no one record with all the names of the applicants is in existence” and hence “the Town submits that it is under no obligation to create a record in response to the request.” The Building Committee held its first meeting on October 27. No votes could be taken at this meeting as a number of the members had not yet been sworn in by the Town Clerk. 

The third requirement of the Eligibility Period was for the District to complete an Enrollment Projection and Educational Profile by July 30. These two documents were submitted on July 29 and 30 respectively. Neither were posted on the district-managed building project webpage (which now redirects to a page on the Town’s website) and required a public records request to obtain copies. 

Next was a summary of the District’s existing maintenance practices, a document called the Maintenance and Capital Planning (MCP) Record, due by October 28. The MCP was completed by district Facilities Director Rupert Roy-Clark and submitted on October 27. Although it will, in part, determine how much state reimbursement the Town qualifies for, this document contained several inaccuracies and omissions (see this Indy article). Depending on the cost of the final project, reimbursement for good maintenance practices could be worth up to $1.6 million to the Town.

The Town and District are not alone in taking a lethargic pace for this project. The MSBA, too, has been dragging its heels. The MSBA was supposed to submit to the District by October 28, the Enrollment Certification that specifies what enrollments the District will be permitted to evaluate in the next phase of the overall project: the Feasibility Study. The enrollment certification was not received until December 23. The Town then had 14 days, including the holidays, to formally agree to the study options offered. After a clarification call with the MSBA on January 5, followed by a half hour of discussion at the School Committee meeting that evening, Bockelman, Morris, and McDonald signed the certificate on January 6, committing Amherst to studying the following two options: 1) a 320-student K-6 Fort River school building, and 2) a 575-student K-5 consolidated school. The former would retain a three-elementary-school system and not address Wildwood, and is said to be incompatible with the dual language program at Fort River; the latter requires approval of moving sixth grade to the Amherst Regional Middle School.

The final requirement of the Eligibility Period was a vote by the Town Council authorizing funding ($750,000) for the Feasibility Study, which must occur by January 26, 2021 (270 days from the official May 1 start date of the Eligibility Period). This vote was initially taken on February 10, 2020 during the Council’s capital planning process, and amended on November 9 to include specific language required by the MSBA, in plenty of time for the deadline. 

The signing of the Study Enrollment Certificate on January 6 (covered in this Indy article) marked 250 days since the official start of the Eligibility Period, and 392 days since being invited back into the process. While Morris often quotes the MSBA’s advice that “the process is always slower and more expensive than everyone thinks,” one could argue that these initial steps could have been completed more expeditiously, especially considering the District had gone through the process once before and had a long time to prepare the documentation.

The Town now awaits the MSBA Board of Directors meeting on February 11, when a vote to invite Amherst into the Feasibility Study is scheduled. If approved, a great deal of the work will shift to the Elementary School Building Committee. 

The Building Committee’s first task is to hire an Owner’s Project Manager (OPM). At their meeting on January 13, Morris shared the MSBA’s OPM Review Panel timeline and the Committee agreed to a deadline of June 7 for approval of an OPM. In order to be ready for June, Amherst must prepare the OPM Request For Services and place an advertisement in the Central Register by March 25. A five-member OPM Selection Subcommittee was appointed and tasked with ensuring the March 25 deadline is met. Once the OPM is on board, that firm will manage communications and outreach to the community and interactions with the MSBA.

Until then, communication to the larger community on the project is the responsibility of the Building Committee, Superintendent, and School Committee. According to Building Committee Chair Cathy Schoen, the advice from the MSBA was to “communicate every step of the way.” Schoen suggested a public statement be issued about the study enrollments “so that people know the ball is beginning to roll and these are the implications.” Bockelman and Morris nodded their agreement and the Committee took Schoen up on her offer to draft a statement, something she said she was planning to do for her report to the Town Council. 

To the best of my knowledge, neither Morris nor the School Committee has issued a press release or other public communication about developments since this guest column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette one year ago when they committed to “clear and continuous communication with our stakeholders throughout every phase of this project.” Morris has also failed to mention recent developments in his weekly updates emailed to families in the district. At a recent School Committee meeting, Morris said that he expects a designer to be hired a couple of months after the OPM is on board, and he anticipates a community engagement process will begin after that, in mid-to-late fall. Selection of the designer is the decision of the MSBA, with some input from Amherst representatives. 

In the meantime, many crucial decisions that fall under the purview of the School Committee will need to be addressed, including approving the move of Amherst sixth graders to the middle school (the linchpin to consolidation), and where to locate district-wide specialized education programs and early childhood services. 

Shortly after Amherst was readmitted into the MSBA pipeline in December 2019, Morris presented a rough timeline for the school building project with the estimate for completion ranging from Fall 2025 to Fall of 2027. The MSBA informed Amherst that the earliest they would vote to commit grant funds to a fully fleshed-out project would be July 2022. At the time, some School Committee members lamented the long timelines, emphasizing the urgency to move as quickly as possible through the process. With July 1, 2022 now less than 18 months away, and considering the pace of work to date, it seems unlikely Amherst will be ready by then.

Toni Cunningham is an avid follower of town government, mother of two girls, Irish, a data junkie, and former Town Meeting Member from Precinct 3.

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5 thoughts on “Opinion: Slow And Opaque Progress On Elementary School Building Project

  1. If it comes to pass that the current Wildwood building is abandoned, and the students attend in a new building elsewhere, what becomes of the land and building? As a resident of Strong Street, not to mention Amherst, I would not want to see it sold for development, especially given the zoning deregulation trends on the town council. This is public land, and should continue a needed public use, for the public good. Even on the theory that you are just banking that land for another public need, I urge the town to not sell its natural resources. When we one day need that land, it will be unavailable and unaffordable!

    When I had a store on Long Island, I was on a committee to consider which elementary school building to sell, as student population declined. The decision was made to sell the one that seemed a fit for the private company to acquire, because of its “good bones.” The new use of that building was certainly not “highest and best.”

    A few years later, the town needed to acquire new land and build an additional school. The same thing happened in the town where my sister lives, coincidentally.

    In conclusion, I urge you to not see the Wildwood property as a cash cow.

    thank you!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Ira. I agree that whichever school is vacated should be retained by the town for public use. I think it was at the Council’s retreat late last year that Andy Steinberg and some others most recently expressed an interest in selling whichever school is vacated to help pay for the capital projects. I think that would be a mistake.

    Instead, the property could be re-purposed for any number of already-identified town needs like a teen space, community center, senior center, early childhood center (move the preschool out of Crocker Farm, increase hours and expand access to children 0-3yrs, in collaboration with Head Start), LSSE/Amherst Rec (move it out of the middle school to free up space for educational uses for a grade 6-8 middle school), ESL programming, etc. With Amherst Rec and a teen and senior space in the building, it would be convenient to have outdoor programs offered on the property’s expansive green space. The buildings are both 82,000sf which should provide plenty of space for all of these purposes.

    As for which site will be chosen for a consolidated school, I tend to think Fort River would make more sense as it is flatter than the Wildwood property and better able to accommodate a larger student enrollment and solar panel array to ensure a Net Zero Energy building. Also, the access on East Street may be better for a larger school than the more residential Strong Street.

  3. Also, the Fort River site is more centrally located and served by frequent public transportation (and arguably bike- or walkable — if only a half-hour of walking in the morning and afternoon were considered a healthy part of our kids’ physical education).

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