Opinion: Honoring Battles Hard Won By Securing A Solid Building Project


A conceptual layout for athletic fields at the new elementary school at Fort River. Photo: amherstma.gov

Maria Kopicki

I have cast my vote in favor of the debt exclusion override for the elementary school project. This should not be a surprise to anyone who reads the Indy or has had to listen to me talk about this project that I have followed so closely since its inception.

With so many singing the praises of the school project, one might get the impression that this environmentally friendly building and community friendly site were a foregone conclusion, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The planned net-zero building with massively improved playing fields were hard won victories, and are unlikely to be duplicated if this project does not come to fruition.

A fully electric, solar-powered, geothermally driven building was far from guaranteed. Were it not for members of the public staunchly defending the net-zero by-law, we could easily have ended up compromising this critically important first implementation of real climate action. 

The much valued community athletic fields were at risk of elimination, first via site selection and then via “value engineering”. The fields were retained and will be vastly improved because of public support for the fields themselves and by securing Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding. It fell to three town residents to put together an application for CPA funding. Despite having to run the gauntlet of people still bearing grudges over the last project and receiving very little support from town leadership during the process, enough members of the CPA committee saw that it was an important opportunity to vastly improve a key recreational area.  

The size of the building, and therefore the project cost, was significantly reduced but only after some of us braved the usual slings and arrows of personal attacks to argue for fiscal and environmental restraint. 

There was bitter debate over the selection of site, involving stubborn adherence to overblown prejudices and urban legend. Fortunately, dispassionate scientific evidence prevailed because the architects and geotechnical experts held their ground and demonstrated that less complicated construction, lessened duration and disruption, and far superior outdoor learning and play spaces were achievable at Fort River. 

Some key differences between this and the previous project included greater continuous public oversight, a more diverse building committee with different life experiences and mindsets, and designers who better understood that their client is not only school and town leadership but also the engaged public. This project also does not suffer from the excessive student enrollment of the previous project (750 students then versus 575 now), the problematic grade reconfiguration (grades 2-6 then versus K-5 now), a cramped site with no room for outdoor play (Wildwood then and Fort River now), or disregard for climate change (the previous plan employed two oil-fired boilers with no photovoltaics versus the currently planned net-zero energy building). I genuinely think that this is the best plan this town is capable of producing.

The vote on May 2 is in no way the end of the road of these efforts. If it passes, we must remain vigilant to ensure that the promised climate actions and community playing fields remain intact. Costs will continue to be a challenge and decisions will need to be made to retain the quality of the product while minding a budget. Even though the town council failed in its first opportunity to provide sufficient tax relief, we must continue to press for the use of capital reserves and other modalities, and hold those who disregard these needs accountable at the ballot box this fall when every town council seat is up for reelection.

I hope that you will join me in voting for a quality project and continuing to advocate to maintain its strengths and mitigate against the financial impacts on residents.

Maria Kopicki is a resident of District 5

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: Honoring Battles Hard Won By Securing A Solid Building Project

  1. Thank you for this informative history of the project. Of course, I have my biases. I do believe that the collective wisdom of a diversity of voices leads to better outcomes. That certainly seems to be the case here. Please – can we do this with our Library Project – a plan that genuinely includes all voices and ideas. But our collective process still has a long way to go. We should strive to practice inclusive, considerate, compromising dialogue, rather than battle with each other over inflexible positions, often rooted in a sense of the superior wisdom of empowered “leadership”.

  2. Thank you, Maria, for documenting the many bruising battles that got us to this point, of a project that can garner an unprecedented (82%!!) level of support. I still have scars from the many heated debates over the past few years. I’m elated to have reached this point — a project that we can all be proud to support. The work begins again on May 10 to fine tune the site and building designs and select the most energy-efficient appliances and equipment so we can ensure the end product is a school that meets our goals and exceeds our target 25 Energy Use Intensity.

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