Where are we with the elementary school building project? (2/22/22 Amherst School Committee meeting)

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) is like the bank in our elementary school building project. They will partially fund the project, and as the funder they require information and documentation about our project, as part of their process of working with school districts. The next step in the process for us is to submit the “Preliminary Design Program” (PDP) to the MSBA. Two important elements of the PDP are the educational plan and the space summary. 

The educational plan is a document that describes how we deliver elementary education in Amherst, and what building elements are necessary to fulfill our needs. This document is 35 pages, and can be found on the BoardDocs page for the February 22 meeting (it is called 22-02-17 Ed Plan_DRAFT.pdf). The educational plan feeds the space summary, which is a giant spreadsheet that can be downloaded from the same page (22-02-17 FRES reduced program areas options (1).xls).

The February 22 meeting was largely devoted to going through the space summary section by section, with School Committee members asking questions and offering suggestions to the superintendent and the lead architect. Other members of the administration also attended the meeting to answer questions. We talked about things like the size of classrooms, the size and number of “project areas” rooms, the size and number of staff offices, the size of specialty rooms such as occupational/physical therapy rooms, the size of the gym, the size of the cafeteria, etc. It was all very detail-oriented, and rather tedious, but super important!

At the beginning of the meeting we heard and read public comments about the project. Here are the things I took away from the various comments we received, and the things I kept in mind when considering all the details about space in the building project:

  • In order for this project to move forward to completion, Amherst voters will have to vote in favor of raising our property taxes for 30 years, via a debt-exclusion override*, to pay for the town’s portion of the building. Living in Amherst is already out of reach for many people, and current residents are finding it harder to afford living here. When we ask people to vote on raising their taxes, we need to be able to tell them that the amount that we’re spending on the building is not more than what we need in order to be able to deliver quality education to our students. As one commenter wrote, “We must ensure now, before we are locked in, that the size of the building is no bigger than absolutely necessary and uses all space extremely wisely.”
  • This will be the first major town project to be completed under the net-zero bylaw. All other things being equal, a net-zero project costs more than a non-net-zero project. Our community has decided that fighting climate change via net-zero buildings is something that we value, therefore we must be willing to balance other needs in order to achieve net-zero. As another commenter wrote, “We don’t want to jeopardize the new school and our first net zero project by sticker shock due to an unnecessarily large new school building.  There would also be a temptation for some to blame the net zero bylaw for the sticker price, which could undermine public support for the bylaw, one of the town’s essential efforts to fight climate change.”

I’m not an educator, nor an architect. I don’t have any expertise when it comes to how many square feet a break-out room or counselor’s office should be. I see my responsibility as representing the public and the school community, to deliver a project that people can support. I almost wrote “deliver a project that everyone can support” in that previous sentence, but I don’t believe in platitudes, and I don’t expect the debt-exclusion override to pass with 100% in favor. In fact, it only needs 50% + 1 voters in order to pass. But, I would love to see it pass with 60%, 65%, 70% in favor!

My overall feedback to Mike (superintendent) and Donna Dinisco (lead architect) on the space summary was: It would be great if we could get the building size down from the current/latest proposal of 105,750 square feet to around 100,000. AND we should focus on prioritizing space for students, and where reductions need to be made we should look to reduce individual/dedicated space for adults.

I’m hopeful that Dinisco and team will be able to take in the feedback from the other School Committee members and me, and come back on March 8 with a right-sized building. We will also be presented with cost estimates for the first time at that meeting. And we will need to vote our approval on the educational plan and space summary at that March 8 meeting. 

Stay tuned! This is a very exciting time for this building project!

*Here is a useful article that explains what a debt-exclusion override is: https://patch.com/massachusetts/norton/explaining-what-a-debt-exclusion-really-is

Amherst’s school building project: We need to set ourselves up for success

At the February 8 Amherst School Committee meeting, the SC discussed a high-level summary of how space would be allocated in the new elementary school building. The summary was displayed in the form of a table on page 11 of the presentation given to the SC by Donna Dinisco, lead architect on the project. (To access the presentation, go to the February 8 meeting page, click on the agenda item “Building Project Update – Education Plan Presentation” then click on the attachment called “21555 22-02-08 School Committee (final).pdf)

First, a primer on how to read the table on p. 11, titled “Preliminary Design Program | Enrollment Alternatives.” The first two columns represent a building option that we are required to study (renovating or replacing Fort River only), and did not warrant any discussion by the SC. The second two columns are where we focused much of our time.

The column titled “Fort River + Wildwood Schools @ MSBA” had part of its title cut off due to formatting, and was actually called “Fort River + Wildwood Schools @ MSBA Standards (575 students)” in a previous version of this document. This column represents a high-level summary of the proposed space usage in the new school. The “MSBA Guidelines (575 Students)” column indicates the amount of space that the MSBA recommends based on their guidelines. (NFA stands for Net Floor Area; GSF stands for Gross Square Feet. You can think of both as “square feet of space.”)

The first eight rows are categories of space needed in the school. The Sub Total Program row is a sum of the eight rows above it. After you add up the proposed space for each category, you must then multiply by a “grossing factor” to account for hallways, bathrooms, stairs, and even just walls. (The MSBA uses a 1.43 grossing factor, but for this project our architects have used 1.5).

So, the total square feet for our proposed project is 113,765, which is around 29,000 more than what the MSBA would recommend for our project (85,052).

Phew! Are you with me so far?

So, for me, the important thing is not how big the school project is but how much will it cost Amherst taxpayers, and the size of the building is one of the main factors that determines the cost. The town manager and the town finance director gave a presentation to the Town Council in February 2021 on how the town would be able to afford four major building projects (elementary school, Jones Library, department of public works, and fire station). The model indicated an estimate of $80 million for the school building project, with the town’s share of that at $40 million (and the assumption being that the MSBA would fund $40 million ).

I asked Donna if she could give a rough, ballpark estimate of the cost of our building project, or even a rough cost per square foot. She said they weren’t ready to give a cost estimate or range at the time, and that she expected to be able to do that at the March 8 SC meeting, the meeting at which the SC is expected to vote to approve the educational program.

That said, using the figures that we do have, I did a rough back-of-the envelope calculation.

If we need the project to come in at $80 million (assuming MSBA will reimburse us for $40 million and the Amherst taxpayers will pay $40 million):

$80 million divided by 1.25 = $64 million. This 1.25 factor represents the “soft costs” that are not direct construction costs (“hard costs”), such as architect and OPM fees, site costs, etc. We don’t know what the soft cost amount will be, but a 1.25 factor (or 25% of construction costs) is a reasonable guess.

$64 million divided by 113,765 sq ft = $563 per sq ft

Is it reasonable to think that our building can be built for $563 per sq ft? Good question! I am not a construction expert, so I don’t claim to know the answer. Looking at data on recent MSBA projects tells me that there is a range from around $430 to $825 per sq ft. Given that our school building will be net-zero, per Amherst bylaws, do we think our building will end up being low, middle, or high of that range? These are all questions that need to be answered before the School Committee votes on March 8. 

The cost of this project is important, because Amherst voters will be asked to approve a debt-exclusion override for it, a vote that is likely to take place in March 2023. Approving a debt-exclusion override means that voters are agreeing to “override” the state’s limit of 2.5% on how much towns can increase property taxes. In other words, the town can’t raise property taxes more than a 2.5% increase, to pay for this project, unless voters agree to it. (And the February 2021 presentation I referenced above stated that raising taxes via the debt-exclusion override is the only way the school project can be funded.)

The last time Amherst voters were faced with a debt-exclusion override vote, in 2016 for the previous school building project, it passed by 126 votes, out of 13,524 total votes cast (6,825 yes; 6,699 no). That is a little too close for comfort for me (50.4% yes; 49.5% no), and shows how divided voters were at the time. I would love to see this building project pass its override vote with 60%, 70%, 75% voter approval! The public should be excited about a public school, not only because they will have to pay for it via property taxes, but because a public school reflects the community’s values.

If we want the public to be enthusiastic about this project, we need to set ourselves up for success by developing a project that people can be excited, or at the very least accepting, to have their property taxes raised for. We need this project to cost an amount in the range of what our finance experts have planned for, so that voters can get behind it, and so that the town’s other major capital projects can move forward.

“Most of the principals who have left the district have been women” (Amherst and Regional School Committee meeting: 2/1/22)

This meeting started out as a joint meeting of the Amherst School Committee, Amherst Regional School Committee, and Pelham School Committee. (For a refresher on the difference between the Amherst School Committee and the Amherst Regional School Committee, see my Amherst has two school committees? post.)

These three school districts share a superintendent (currently Mike Morris) and the first item on the agenda was to review the process for evaluating the performance of the superintendent, which is done annually. 

The next item on the agenda was a presentation from consultant Rick Rogers on a qualitative study he conducted on why our district has had high principal turnover in some schools. The report that Rick produced is straightforward and easy to read, and contains some really meaningful and important points. (I recommend anyone interested in supporting Amherst schools read the report: Supporting and Retaining School Leaders.) Here are some of the nuggets I took away from his presentation and report:

  • It’s not easy to be a school principal in Amherst, “where only the H is silent.” In a community that prides itself on being highly educated, people often question the decisions of those in positions of power. In my opinion, this is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But when the feedback and questioning turns personal, that is where the problems lie. Respondents in Rick’s study (current and past principals, and district administrators) reported experiencing personal attacks and name-calling.
  • A direct quote from the report: “It is worth noting that the longest serving administrators (Superintendent and three principals) are all white men. It is also noteworthy that most of the principals who have left the district have been women.” In my opinion, this is one of the most important findings to come out of this study. Although this is just one snapshot in time, and the “sample size” is small, it seems that Amherst has a much harder time holding onto women as principals than men. Another direct quote, which I found very distressing: “Some women leaders reported feeling that their gender contributed to a lack of respect and they were more likely to be the subject of comments about their age, appearance or eating habits.” Eating habits! Women principals reported that people feel the need to comment on their eating habits! To me, this is a sign that even Amherst is not immune from patriarchal attitudes towards women.
  • Another interesting nugget is this: “… veteran principals cited “coming up through the ranks” as contributing to their longevity.” If Amherst is a tough town to be a principal in, perhaps educators who have been in the district for a number of years would have more “staying power” than someone from the outside. When I asked Rick about this, he responded that he was aware the district has some initiatives to support educators in working towards principal licensure, but that this is not a comprehensive solution, since a district will always need principals from outside the district, and that in fact it is good to have some leaders who come from outside the district. I can see his point, but I maintain that supporting current Amherst educators to work towards a principal position should be one prong of the district’s approach to supporting successful principals.
  • I asked Rick why his recommendations did not include something specific to supporting women principals. The recommendations he gave seem excellent, and seem that they would support people of all genders, but since we know that women principals are more likely to leave, I felt that we needed some action items to support women in leadership positions. He acknowledged that he wished he had included something on this topic.

After this discussion was completed, the Pelham School Committee and the Amherst School Committee were adjourned. But of course, two of the Pelham members and all five of the Amherst members are also members of the Regional School Committee, so we stayed in the meeting. Some highlights from the rest of the meeting:

  • In Mike’s Superintendent’s Update he shared that he has received some communications from families asking whether and when the district will lift or ease the masking mandate. He said that at this time the Town of Amherst’s indoor mask mandate is still in place, and as long as that is the case, the school district can’t lift our mask mandate (“it’s a moot point for schools right now”). In addition, he spoke with the town’s health director who said “not yet”; it’s not time to lift the mask mandate yet. Also, the CDC still says that universal masking in schools is the best protection.
  • We had a presentation from Doreen Reid, ARMS assistant principal, and Sarah Fefer, UMass professor of school psychology, on the Happiness Project. This initiative is taking place in ARMS, where students were screened on overall well-being, and those whose screening indicated “room for growth in happiness” were eligible to participate. Around 20 students participated in small group sessions with a trained facilitator once a week for 10 weeks, with the goal of increased life satisfaction, strengthening relationships, and promoting gratitude and positive feelings. The program will be repeated next year with a different cohort of students. 
  • A “School Choice Hearing” was next on the agenda, which was intended to be a public hearing (an opportunity for the public to weigh in) on school choice (allowing students who reside outside of Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, or Shutesbury to attend ARMS or ARHS). No members of the public made comments. The committee had some discussion about the logistics of school choice, a little bit about the pros and cons, and our past history as a school choice district (or not). Students who “choiced in” at any of the four towns’ elementary schools prior to the 2019-20 academic year will be able to stay in the district and attend ARMS and ARHS. However, a new state regulation means that students who choice in for elementary school in the 2019-20 school year or later will not automatically be enrolled in middle and high school in that district. At a future meeting, the Regional SC will vote on whether to allow new students to choice in to ARMS and ARHS. (Note: a previous version of this blog post mis-stated that all current K-6 school choice students would be able to stay in the district for middle and high school.)
  • We discussed a potential new policy to require students in extracurricular activities or sports to participate in pooled testing. Pooled testing (the process of testing a group of students as a “pool,” then following up with individual tests if the pool is positive, is more efficient than individual testing) is optional for students and vaccinated staff. The question was, should we require students to participate in pooled testing, as a prerequisite for extracurricular activities or sports. I asked what the goal of this policy would be? Presumably, the goal is to minimize the spread of COVID in schools, but is COVID more likely to spread in extracurricular activities or sports? Are those settings more risky than, say, eating lunch unmasked? Would this policy actually help mitigate the spread of COVID? We heard from the superintendent that this prospective policy isn’t a priority right now. Ultimately, after some discussion, the committee decided not to pursue it at this time.
  • We reviewed a prospective new policy that would require the district to “​​provide a written translation of vital documents (as defined in District guidelines) for each language that constitutes at least 5% of the District’s total multilingual student population.” We were told that, at this time, the two languages that constitute at least 5% are Spanish and Portuguese. I think this is a great idea! And/but I would like to see this investigated further. I was surprised that Chinese was not on the “5% or greater” list. I also believe that if we are going to institute a policy to help multilingual families, we should talk to multilingual families about what their translation and interpretation needs are. “Nothing about us without us,” to borrow a phrase from disability activists.
  • School Committee member Irv Rhodes appeared to have some connectivity issues. He joined by phone for the earlier part of the meeting, but he dropped and re-joined several times.