Decision On Site For New Elementary School Expected To Be “Sticky Wicket”

Aerial view showing Fort River school. Photo: Google Maps.

After a slow start, the elementary school building project is expected to have a “fast and furious” five-month feasibility period beginning this October, when some key decisions must be made. One decision that Superintendent Michael Morris expects will be subject to vigorous community debate is where to locate a new or renovated school. 

“By about the end of February, you will need to state to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) which is your preferred option,” project manager Margaret Wood of Anser Advisory told the building committee on June 16. This means it would need to be decided by then whether the project would be a 320-student kindergarten-through-grade-six (K-6) Fort River or a 575-student K-5 that replaces both Fort River and Wildwood, and if it’s the latter, on which school site it would be built. Wood’s project timeline proposes submission of a document called the Preliminary Design Program (PDP) to the MSBA in February.

According to the feasibility study guidelines on the MSBA website, the PDP must include “at least three distinct alternatives, including at least one renovation and/or addition option that maximizes use of the existing facility.” The PDP includes a preliminary evaluation of the alternatives but doesn’t yet indicate a preferred option. Once the MSBA reviews and accepts the PDP, the district and its designer can proceed with the final evaluation of the alternatives. It is in the next submission, the Preferred Schematic Report (PSR), that a preferred option is recommended. It was unclear from Wood’s timeline when she projects the PSR would be submitted.

“I don’t want to be a doomsday person but [the site decision] is going to be a really sticky wicket,” Morris said at the June 16 meeting. This decision will be made by the building committee, while the decision on shifting from K-6 to K-5 falls on the Amherst School Committee. According to recent comments by members of the school committee, they will most likely vote this fall to change the elementary grade configuration to K-5, moving sixth grade to the middle school in fall 2022, and clearing the way for the building project to be a consolidation of Fort River and Wildwood into one school.

Meeting the target date of November 2022 for a town-wide debt exclusion override vote was also a concern for Morris. “I want to caution about the level of engagement that’s possible in [this] timeline,” he said. “This would be a bit accelerated.” 

If an override vote were to be successful and the project secured approval from the MSBA, Wood outlined a projected design and construction timeline that would result in a completed building for fall 2026. “I gather that date [fall 2026] seemed surprising to everybody,” Wood said, implying the committee had expected an earlier completion date. “It probably could be less [time] than that, but I don’t want to over promise right now.”

Committee member Jonathan Salvon, an architect with local firm Kuhn Riddle, said, “from my experience, the schedule is both conservative and realistic.”

The rest of the June 16 meeting was spent reviewing and revising a Request For Services (RFS) document Wood had drafted. The RFS details to prospective design firms what Amherst’s priorities are for the project. The committee voted unanimously to approve the revised RFS, which Wood said needed to be submitted to the MSBA right away if they were to secure a slot in the September 15 meeting of the MSBA’s Designer Selection Panel. Once a design firm is on board, hopefully in October, Wood said the due diligence work of the feasibility study can begin.

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3 thoughts on “Decision On Site For New Elementary School Expected To Be “Sticky Wicket”

  1. Ironically, it was not too long ago when a former superintendent and a one-time school committee chair were so eager to acquire potential school sites that they formally opposed an application for an APR (agricultural preservation restriction) on what’s now a thriving community farm in North Amherst; now we seem to have a lot more school property than we know what to do with.

    Once it was considered important for elementary school students to be able to walk to and from school. Perhaps access to frequent public transportation and its location nearest the geographic center of Amherst give the Fort River site an advantage?

    The possibility of repurposing the Wildwood site — perhaps for more outdoor activities near the middle and high schools, or for non-school uses with less “rush-hour” traffic than a school would generate, as has been suggested in previous Indy commentaries — will also be significant considerations in this decision.

    And in the spirit of the “sticky wicket” metaphor, Maria Kopicki’s letter in this issue, urging more varied — even contrarian — perspectives on Town committees, may offer some useful guidance on how to “bowl on firmer ground.”

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