Fort River Chosen As Site For New Elementary School

Aerial conceptual map for construction of a new elementary school at the current site of Fort River School. Photo: Elementary School Building Committee

Report On The Meeting Of The Elementary School Building Committee, June 13, 2022

The meeting was called to order at 8:32 a.m. It was conducted over zoom and was recorded.  That recording can be viewed here.

Committee Members: Cathy Schoen (Chair), Angelica Bernal , Paul Bockelman, Rupert Roy Clark, Allison Estes, Simone Cristofori, Ben Herrington, Sean Mangano, Phoebe Merriam,  Mike Morris, Jonathan Salvon, Tammy Sullivan-Daily, Ellisha Walker

Consultants:  Margaret Wood (OPM), Donna DiNisco (lead architect), Timothy Cooper (architect), Rick Rice (architect)

The Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) voted at the meeting on June 13, 2022 to select Fort River as the preferred site for a new elementary school.  They also decided that they favored a new building rather than a renovation or a combination of renovation and new construction and that the new building would be three stories. The vote favoring the Fort River site over the site at Wildwood School was 8-5.  Voting for Fort River were Cathy Schoen, Angelica Bernal, Allison Estes, Phoebe Merriam, Mike Morris, Jonathan Salvon, Tammy Sullivan-Daily, and Ellisha Walker.  Voting in opposition were Paul Bockelman, Rupert Roy Clark, Simone Cristofori,  Ben Herrington, and Sean Mangano. 

DiNisco architects will now prepare a report for the Massachusetts Building Authority (MSBA) advising them of the votes.  The report will come up for approval by the ESBC at their meeting on June 24 and must be in the hands of the MSBA by June 27. The project will then go into schematic design phase in which DiNisco will prepare much more detailed plans. This enables a more refined cost estimate that will be the basis for MSBA determining its grant share.  This is expected in the late Fall.  The Town Council will then schedule a debt exclusion vote to be held next spring to approve borrowing for the project. The ESBC was created in June of 2020, and met for the first time in October 2020 and the vote was the culmination of over a year of deliberation.  Members of the committee concluded their meeting with mutual praise for their collective work and with a commitment to work hard to ensure that the project succeeds.

The vote was taken after a lengthy discussion in which each member of the committee was given a chance to explain their preferences and concerns. The discussion was preceded by remarks from Chair Cathy Schoen who reminded the committee that the site decision represents the first major decision in the process of bringing a new school building to Amherst. She noted that the decision was grounded in rigorous research as well as considerable feedback received from members of the community

The committee quickly disposed of the question of whether the site would be two or three stories, voting unanimously for a three story building. At a previous meeting, the committee had unanimously rejected a renovation option and a combo renovation plus new construction option, preferring all new construction.  Hence most of the meeting was devoted to resolving where the new building would be constructed with the options being the sites of the current Fort River (FR) and Wildwood (WW)schools.

With the exception of Rupert Roy Clark, all of the committee members opened their remarks by commenting on the difficult nature of the decision, with an acknowledgement that they had two excellent sites to choose from and with a commitment to support whichever site was chosen and a request that other members of the committee do the same.

Schoen asked to hear from each of the educators on the committee first (Sullivan-Daily, Estes and Morris), and said she would then solicit remarks from the other members in alphabetical order, reserving the final comment for herself.  There were a handful of themes that came up throughout the comments. Most prominent among them were concerns about traffic safety and a greater cost ($2M) at Fort River and concerns about greater disruption of learning during construction and loss of playing fields and green space at Wildwood.  All of the remarks made had been aired at previous ESBC meetings.

Fort River Principal Tammy Sullivan-Daily said that a distinct advantage of FR was the considerable green space it offered for outdoor learning opportunities and playing fields. She observed that construction at FR will have a larger buffer than at WW, and the construction disruption will be less at FR. She said it is important to mitigate the impacts on ongoing learning. She noted that WW is more advantageous for foot traffic though new housing construction in the FR area might change that. She judged vehicle traffic to be problematic at both sites.

Wildwood Assistant Principal Allison Estes shared that she had previously lived for 15 years in a small town in New Hampshire and observed that one feature of small town politics is that people would advocate for expensive projects and then abandon them if there were cost overruns. She acknowledged the benefit of FR in terms of space and grounds but is worried that it is also more expensive.  She said she would hate to choose to do the “better but more expensive” project and then find people who had supported it demanding that it be shut down if costs escalate. 

Superintendent Mike Morris asserted that WW’s adjacency to the Middle School is an advantage in terms of staffing and safety as is WW’s walkability. He said that while we haven’t done a lot with partnering between middle and elementary schools in recent years, we can take better advantage of that if we build at WW.  He spoke of parents who will be heartbroken if FR is chosen because they expected that their kids would be able to walk to school at WW.  Regarding FR, he agreed with everything that the teachers said.  “The green space and the construction impact are a big deal,” he said.  He offered some caveats concerning costs.  He said that he doesn’t want to pick FR and then compromise stuff out of the plan as costs rise.  “If we choose FR, everyone on this committee needs to commit to completing the project as planned. And there can be no compromises to educational  programming,” he said. He noted that some had suggested that the FR site be planned without including the playing fields, and he deemed this unacceptable. He said that traffic is rough at both places. 

Angelica Bernal reported that the last two meetings have been really decisive for her and  that she has revised considerably her opinion, based on what she has learned.  She said that the key for her is the anticipated disruption from construction which will be greater at the WW site, as well as the loss of access to playing fields during construction.  She agreed with Morris that the project required a commitment to the whole package with no cost cutting or compromises after the decision.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman praised the members of the committee for their input as well as input from the public.  He reiterated the comments of others – that both sites work well. He pledged that he is committed to supporting either and said that everyone on the committee needs to do the same. Because of traffic issues and finances he feels that WW is the superior site. “We have not factored in the cost of traffic improvement in these cost calculations” he said, and he believes that traffic interventions will be far more costly at FR. He said that WW is more walkable whereas everyone has to cross a busy street to get to FR.  And FR is just more expensive. “Two million dollars (the estimated greater cost of building at FR)  is significant”, he stressed.  “With four major capital projects to complete, that extra cost is a burden. We’ve constrained all the other projects – and we ought to do the same with this one and pay attention to the numbers,” he said.  Building a school at the WW site has already been passed at the ballot box twice he stated and hence he sees passing an override more likely for that site. He added that, while he trusts the engineers, he nonetheless remains worried about the high water table at FR.

Procurement Officer Simone Cristofori said that she agrees with Bockelman  that the $2M  additional cost to build at FR is a lot of money. WW seems like a much safer site to her.

School Committee member Ben Herrington emphasized that we need a new school, and we need to do whatever is necessary to see that it is built. He said that he worries more about the liabilities of the two sites than their assets. He sees WW as much safer in terms of pedestrian safety.  And the $2M difference in cost “is just a lot of money, and we’ve already spent a lot of time talking about how we could cut costs,” he said.  He noted that the liability for WW is the construction disruption and the loss of green space. “We shouldn’t minimize the disruption that our kids have experienced over the last two years,” he said.

Finance Director Sean Mangano clearly preferred the WW site and emphasized that its proximity to the Middle School was beneficial. He said that FR poses a greater long term risk from the impacts of climate change (because of the high water table.) He acknowledged that WW offered minimal green space but said he couldn’t envision a solution to  the traffic problems at the FR site and that the committee could not count on Community Preservation Act Funds to help finance improvements to the fields at FR. He said that the lower cost of construction at WW ultimately made it the better choice. 

Phoebe Merriam said that “we’re going to have to do something about the traffic at FR regardless of which site is chosen for the school” so that was not a big consideration for her in site selection.  She said that the committee really hadn’t looked at the issue of green space relative to cost. She pointed out that early on, the committee had ruled out constructing a path from WW to the Middle School playing fields. She said that there are some things that would need to be done at WW to make the site more accessible (e.g. paths and a roundabout) and that these have not been factored into the cost calculations that show construction at WW to be less expensive. One of her biggest concerns  is the construction disruption which is greater at WW. She called this “a big deal coming out of the pandemic” and said that choosing WW in spite of the differences in disruption “seems like a harsh choice when we have the option of less disruption at another site”. She also pointed out there is the possibility to expand the school at FR if there proved to be a need some time in the future, but expansion would be difficult at WW. Regarding concerns about the water table at FR she said that “the engineers have given us a way to address those water issues and we should trust the experts”. Finally she noted that “the large majority of the many people who have written to the committee have favored FR, and that ought to be taken into account as we reach out and ask for their support.”

Facilities Director Rupert Roy Clark was emphatic in his belief that WW is the superior site and that safety issues with FR traffic cannot be resolved. He asked  “why would we build an elementary school in front of one of the worst intersections in town?” He asserted that South East Street cannot be improved to make it acceptably safe.  He also said that the WW site “feels more like a community.  It’s in a residential area and FR will never feel like that”.

Jonathan Salvon said that he supports the FR site from the perspective of a parent.  “The construction disruption is more substantial at WW,” he said. He believes the water issues are manageable through engineering and believes that  long term, FR offers more flexibility.  As others had done, he urged the committee  to not come back as costs go up and speculate about how the site not chosen might have avoided the hurdles being encountered.

Town Councilor Ellisha Walker (at large) found the cost differences between the two sites to be  inconsequential compared to the costs to the town of not building a new school. Walker said she wanted to address the issue of walkability.  She challenged the idea that WW is actually more walkable because it is nestled in a certain kind of residential neighborhood and called out the people who said that they had bought homes in the WW neighborhood with the expectation that their kids would be able to walk to school. “I’m thinking about the demographics of those neighborhoods and how honestly privileged one must be to say that they will just sell their house and move to be near another elementary school, because there are a lot of people who do not have that opportunity and will not have that choice”.  Walker said that, for her, the issues of lack of outdoor space and the potential greater disruption of learning at WW during construction were the deciding factors. Like others, she said that the impact of the pandemic on children has been considerable and that she wanted to prioritize minimizing any further disruptions to learning. She was the only member of the committee to raise a concern about the 15 foot retaining wall proposed for the WW site. And she noted that costs of creating access from WW to the adjacent Hawthorne Woods for outdoor education had not been factored into the cost estimates that showed construction at FR to be more expensive. She reported that she had heard from many of her constituents and they overwhelmingly preferred the FR site and that those preferences  factored into her own decision.

Cathy Schoen said that the thing that swung the needle for her is the disruption that was made so clear by the staging diagrams that Dinisco provided. She said we might be able to ameliorate it by spending some more money, but there is no solution to the single entrance to the WW site.  At FR, water was her primary concern, so she made calls to other districts that had recently undertaken construction of schools on or near wetlands.  These included Easthampton and Needham, and what she heard from those districts reaffirmed her trust in the design team and her faith in the solutions they have developed. Finally she noted that the committee had heard so much enthusiasm for the fields surrounding FR and hence she believed that the extra green space would be a real benefit of choosing the FR site.  

Phoebe Merriam moved to select FR as the preferred site and that motion passed by a vote of 8-5. (see above for how individual members voted). Schoen then made a motion to select a new three- story building for the consolidation of FR and WW schools for a total of 575 students on the FR site as the preferred solution in the report to the MSBA. That motion passed unanimously (13-0) and was followed by expression of  effusive gratitude for the hard work put in and congratulations all around.

Public Comment
Eight people offered nearly identical public comment, praising the committee, thanking them for their hard work,  and pledging to support the project.  They were Town Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), School Committee member, Jennifer Shiao,  Town Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Chris Riddle, Maria Kopicki, School Committee member Peter Demling, and Rudy Perkins.

Next Meeting
The Committee will next meet on June 24 to approve the report that DiNisco will prepare presenting the proposed project to the MSBA.   

The meeting adjourned at 10:22 a.m.

Read another report in the Daily Hampshire Gazette about the site decision.

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