School Committee takes important step to move elementary school building project forward

Sibling enrollment and restoring specials teachers to be discussed at next meeting

On Tuesday March 8, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to approve the educational program and space summary for the elementary school building project. This vote was an important step in moving the project forward, on a path to completing the project and opening the new school in the fall of 2026.

The committee first viewed a short presentation on the educational program, a 34-page document that summarizes how elementary education is delivered in our district. I had already sent the superintendent and the lead designer my input on the educational program, and I summarized my input at the meeting:

  • Wildwood and Fort River each have around 350 students right now, for a total of around 700 students. The enrollment in the new building will be 575; in other words, the new school will have about three-quarters the number of students as WW and FR today. And yet, based on the Educational Program, it seems that there are many cases where staffing in the new school is at the same level as in the two schools combined. 
  • For example, according to the Educational Program, there is currently one psychologist each in WW and FR, and two will be required at the new school. But with a reduction in students from 700 in the two schools combined to 575 in the new school, I would expect to need fewer than two FTE psychologists. I don’t say this to imply that we shouldn’t provide the services that our students need, but just from the math, I would expect that fewer students would require comparably fewer staff. The same holds true for adjustment counselors and guidance counselors. According to the educational program, there is currently one each of these two positions at Fort River and Wildwood, and two each are stated as a requirement for the new school. Again, the same number of staff for fewer students. The more staff we have, the more space needed to house them. This is one of the reasons that the total size of the building is bigger than it needs to be, in my opinion.
  • In addition, the Literacy Professional Center sounds like a nice to have, not a need to have. There appears to be multiple other spaces in the building to serve as alternate locations for specialized small group or one-on-one instruction, as well as staff collaboration. If we had unlimited funds, we could fulfill all of the “nice to haves,” but when difficult decisions need to be made to keep the building both within our means as a community and right-sized for the environment, then we need to be willing to forgo some of the nice to haves so that we can focus on the need to haves.
  • Lastly, I feel that the descriptions of access to the outdoors and outdoor space needs are insufficient in the educational program. Our students deserve and need ample, accessible, and age-appropriate play scapes, space for creative play on fields and hardtops, and continued access to the outdoor learning that has been so important in these last two years of the pandemic.

Other committee members also voiced their opinions on the educational program.

Next we viewed a short presentation on the space summary, a detailed spreadsheet that describes the number and size of rooms and spaces needed in the new school, as well as the total square feet of the building. The latest proposal describes a total building size of 105,750 square feet.

(Both the educational program document and the detailed spreadsheet can be viewed in the School Building Project Education Plan agenda item of the March 8 meeting on Boarddocs, in the attachment called 22-03-02 Ed Plan_DRAFT.pdf)

Many of the comments, from School Committee members as well as from members of the public via email, voicemail, and live comments at the meeting, centered around the size (square feet) of the building. Some think we needed to make the building bigger – bigger and more rooms to serve our students. Some felt we needed to make the building smaller – use space more efficiently, lower cost, more environmentally sustainable.

Here are the remarks I made about the building size:

I’m looking at the project from several perspectives and points of view, and one point of view is that I’m a single parent who works full time and owns a house I can’t afford. I am perpetually in arrears on my property taxes. It’s the first bill I put off paying, or don’t pay in full, when my finances are tight, which is most of the time. That said, as a voter, I fully intend to vote in favor of the debt exclusion override next year, to pay for this school building. The increase in my property tax bill won’t force me to move out of town, but it will impact my quality of life – it will reduce my ability to pay my bills on time, and to pay for extra things like extra-curricular activities and hobbies for myself and my child. But as a tax payer and as a voter, I’m all in.

As an elected official, my job is to make sure that residents like me, who struggle to make ends meet, whether they are homeowners or renters, are not faced with a higher tax burden than is absolutely necessary, for a school project to meet the educational needs of our students. In addition there will be those who will be pushed out of town due to higher rents and higher property taxes. Already, living in Amherst is out of reach for many families. If we make it even harder to live here, then who is this school for? Is it only for people who can afford the higher tax bill or the higher rent that results from the higher tax bill? We say that our mission is the academic achievement of every student learning in a system dedicated to social justice and multiculturalism. But there is no social justice or equity in a town that only resourced families can afford to live in. 

We know that the size of the building is just one element of the cost. All of the other elements that go into the cost of the project are out of our control, but this one thing is within our control. At each step in this process, each individual or group that makes decisions, whether it’s the school committee, the school building committee, or the town council, has to do their part to develop a reasonably sized and priced building that meets the educational needs of our students, AND that our community can support, AND that is a net-zero building. While each body has a different piece of the total picture, we can’t make decisions in a vacuum; we must consider the whole picture. Tonight it is this body’s moment to do our part. We need to hand off to the school building committee an educational program that meets the needs of our students, and a space summary and total square footage that sets them up for success in terms of completing this project at a cost this community can bear. And then it will be the responsibility of the town council and the voters to approve the tax increase and the borrowing. But we get to go first, tonight, and we need to set ourselves up, to set this project up, for success. 

A right-sized building is the right choice for fiscal reasons, as well as for environmental reasons. This will be the first major town project to be built under our excellent net-zero bylaw. And there is already talk in the Town Council about weakening the net-zero bylaw to control the cost of this project. We don’t want that to be this project’s legacy. We don’t want to look back and say, we had a great net zero bylaw but we revised it so we could afford the school project. We owe it to our students, both our current students and the ones who will be inhabiting this building for 50 years to come, to deliver a right-sized, net-zero building.

All that being said, I’m not planning on suggesting any reductions to the current proposed plan. I also could not support any increases to it.

In the end, no proposals were made to increase or decrease the building size, and all School Committee members voted in favor of it.

Next we discussed the FY23 budget. I requested of Doug Slaughter, ARPS director of finance, to show us a version of the budget that restores the cuts that were made to specials teachers last year, which were implemented in this current academic year. The plan was to reduce the Art and Technology specials teachers at Crocker Farm to part-time, and have the teachers in those positions from Wildwood and Fort River fill in the gaps at Crocker Farm. I don’t know how this plan actually played out, but I hope to hear about it at our next meeting. Superintendent Mike Morris responded that a budget that includes restorations to those specials positions would simply pull the funds from ESSER funds (a federal relief program) and would not be permanent. It was agreed that this would be on the agenda for our next meeting.

I also asked about the policy for siblings of students in district-wide special education programs to be able to attend the same school. Currently, if a student is enrolled in a special education program that is not located in the school they are districted to, that student can attend the other school, however this sometimes results in siblings attending different schools. This topic was supposed to be discussed by the School Committee in fall 2021, in preparation for the FY23 budget, but it wasn’t discussed. It was also agreed that this would be on the agenda for our next meeting.

As of now, our next meeting will be Tuesday, March 29, at 6:30. It hasn’t been officially scheduled yet, so keep an eye on the Amherst School Committee page on Boarddocs for confirmation. You can also sign up on the town of Amherst’s website to be notified when a new meeting is posted (scroll down to Calendar >> Boards/Committees), BUT you will be notified of every town board or committee meeting AND this does not apply to Amherst Regional School Committee meetings.

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