Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hurry Up & Wait

108,000 square foot, Wildwood Elementary School, built 1970, enrollment 412

For many parents with children in the Amherst public schools the "Wildwood School Study" only appeared on their radar recently.  Mainly because the name implies only the Wildwood Elementary School would be impacted and a lack of effective outreach from school officials.

But now of course everybody is aware that the "Reconfiguration" model is the preferred plan by administrators which means the new construction of a Mega-School that is really two schools in one.  Thus ailing Fort River is also impacted in the most major way possible.

As is Crocker Farm, which will go from preK-6 to only preK & 1st grade while the new Mega-School will handle all students grades 2-6.

The reason the administration wants to maximize the number of students in the new Mega-School is funding, as the state MSBA program will cover 58% of the cost (even though many people thought it would be as high as 68%).

 Assistant Superintendent Mike Morris (rt) presenting to Wildwood Building Committee 10/15

At the most recent 10/15 Wildwood School Building Committee meeting Assistant Superintendent Mike Morris went through pretty much the same Powerpoint presentation he gave to the School Committee on 10/20.

All except the most important slide with the recommendation for the new Mega-School rather than simply renovating or replacing Wildwood at 40% less cost.

Since the construction of a Mega-School is  twice as tricky as constructing a regular sized school to replace Wildwood (or renovate it) I'm surprised the Wildwood Building Committee was not given a heads up at that 10/15 meeting.

Since it was less than a week away from the School Committee presentation obviously school administrators had by then made their major decision.

In other words, why not put the Mega-School plan on the table and let the Wildwood Building Committee vote on it before presentation to the School Committee?

Timeline for Mega School

According to the Timeline the School Building Committee does have to vote on the plan prior to submission to MSBA but now the die is cast in favor of a Mega-School.

Which is of course a LOT more expensive than simply replacing/renovating Wildwood alone at $12 million vs $20 million.  School officials have certainly failed to learn from history.

The original 6/14/94 Debt Exclusion Override to renovate the Amherst Regional High School passed Town Meeting and Select Board muster with ease, but failed at the ballot box by 73 votes the first time around, 1979 to 1907.

Less than six months later, after extensive public outreach, Town & School officials brought the Debt Exclusion Override back and it passed 2,786 to 2,161.

Interestingly we are still paying for the $26 million ARHS renovation from all those years ago as well as the $4 million Crocker Farm school renovations.

And the town is facing three other major building projects in the very near future: new South Fire Station & DPW building and the Jones Library expansion.

Current Town Debt
At the most recent Finance Committee meeting Sandy Pooler, Finance Director, said the new DPW building may come before Town Meeting this spring while the Mega-School will not be ready for a Town Meeting vote for a full year (fall 2016).

Thus there's an advantage for a project to come first, before sticker shock can set in. The problem comes for the project that goes 4th after the other three have been approved and town officials do the math on how much that's going to cost.

My biggest fear is the desperately needed new South Fire Station goes dead last.


Anonymous said...

Of the three projects, only the South fire station is critical. The other two are luxuries, especially the Jones expansion. The Jones doesn't even use their current space to full capacity. It should be tabled.

Larry Kelley said...

The BIG advantage both the Jones Library expansion and the public schools project have is state reimbursement of at least 50%.

The Fires Station and DPW building will be 100% town taxpayer funded.

Which is why it's critically important the Select Board and Town Manger work out a fair arrangement with Umass, Amherst & Hampshire Colleges for Payment In Lieu Of Taxes.

Anonymous said...

Your comparison of costs is comparing apples to oranges. Yes, the "Mega" school would cost $22 million and replacing only Wildwood would cost $14 million. But, by building the "Mega" school, you are also taking care of the issues at Fort River. If you added the cost of replacing Fort River, you would need to tack on at least another $14 million (this is based on Wildwoood's number, with MSBA assistance). Without MSBA assistance, Fort River replacement could cost $28 million. So, the proper way to compare costs is:
Mega school - $21 million vs replacing Wildwood and Fort River - $32million.
Clearly, building the Mega school is cheaper.

Additionally, by replacing only Wildwood now, you are dooming the Fort River families to putting up with an already decrepit school for a decade or longer. I know Fort River families right now prefer the Mega School concept. Is anyone surprised at that?

There are many many towns that have Pre-K-1 schools and grades 2-4 or 5 schools and then perhaps a middle school of 6-8 and then high school. This is not a revolutionary idea. Kids in those towns seem to function just fine. And, as you know, the "mega school" would be broken up into two smaller schools in the same building.

I support the reconfiguration proposal. I think it is the best and most economical solution to two decrepit schools.

Finally, it also makes sense that the School Committee vote first and then the building committee. The building committee needs to know the SC supports the education plan before they vote to submit the plan to the MSBA. Notice, the building committee is only voting to submit a plan...the plan the SC voted on.
It's important to note that the MSBA must approve of the plan submitted to them. So whatever is submitted to them may be kicked back for changes +/or refinement. The MSBA will NOT approve any renovations to Fort River. I hope everyone understands that.

Larry Kelley said...

Well, 20 years ago the MSBA approved a very expensive "renovation" of the High School.

I'm pretty sure the School Committee will support whatever the administration tells them -- I mean -- asks of them. Look for instance on that photo of debt we are still carrying.

The $200K modular classrooms at Mark's Meadow that were never actually used as classrooms and now sit dormant on UMass property. That too was wildly supported by the School Committee at the time.

Anonymous said...

Your point?

Larry Kelley said...

So far this is not being handled overly well.

Kind of like the four year and counting Regionalization expansion project.

Anonymous said...

I think it's being handled very well. The problem is with parents who don't pay attention to what is going on. Neither do they read the paper or read the weekly letters from the Superintendent that are sent by email every Friday. The Superintendent can communicate to parents as much as she can but the parents then have to take responsibility to read the things she sends home.

Anonymous said...

There's a whole nother story behind the regionalization push. It's a proposal that no longer has its true original purpose, which was to dump a school's leadership due to the dislike of a terrible principal that's no longer even there. It should be scrapped at this point but somehow it lives on although no one can explain why.

Larry Kelley said...

Anon 2:34 PM

The old "blame the victim", or "customer".

Outreach is vitally important. Didn't the schools and town jointly create a position for Public Relations?

If a business fails because nobody knows they are there, then there's something wrong with their advertising approach. Don't blame the customer.

Anonymous said...

anon@2:00; I just wonder if the idea of using the soon-to-be-vacant MS (assuming the SI recommendation is accepted) for the mega-school hasn't been discussed. I am pretty certain that it has way more than 39 classrooms (always depends on how you count them, many are not currently used as classrooms by MS students). If the region is ok with leasing to GCC, LSSE (who knows who else) why wouldn't they lease it to the Amherst District? Do we HAVE to build a new school for a reconfiguration?

Does anyone know if this has EVER been brought up as a possibility? If it was, why was it dismissed?

Larry Kelley said...

It gets brought up and dismissed in the same breath because the town does not own it.

But as you point out, LSSE (a town department) will soon be moving into a small fraction of the Middle School.

Although the Middle School is indeed owned by the Region, the town of Amherst does make up 88% of the Region.

Like capturing drool in a bottle. said...

What the hell Larry?

I mean, can't you just let them carry on siphoning --> $$$ <-- from this charitable little village in peace?

Cripes, the Geryk's and Mazur's Thanksgiving celebrations ~alone~ are INCREDIBLY important affairs around here.

Besides, have you SEEN the price of organic turkey lately???


-Squeaky Squeaks

p.s. Dontcha just love the look of Cap'n Hood's danging hair? How it makes him look

more "sensitive"?

(cue wailing fog horn)

Anonymous said...

Exactly Larry, since Amherst has the majority vote on the region, a more robust reason to dismiss the idea should be provided (promptly!). Why wouldn't the region want to lease it anyway, it would bring in $$. The education of our students should come long before any potential needs of LSSE or indeed GCC (has anyone actually asked HS students and their parents if they want GCC there?).

My experience listening to parents is that students that opt for GCC classes do so, in large part, to GET OUT of going to ARHS, I'm not sure those students would want to take classes at ARMS (where they likely also had a bad experience). The admin had best CAREFULLY suss out the need/desire for our STUDENTS to have GCC classes at ARMS. I see lots of cons, and not so many pros.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
"I think it's being handled very well. The problem is with parents who don't pay attention to what is going on. Neither do they read the paper or read the weekly letters from the Superintendent that are sent by email every Friday. The Superintendent can communicate to parents as much as she can but the parents then have to take responsibility to read the things she sends home"

Many Amherst taxpayers don't have children in the schools. All we see is the excess and extravagance. With all the tax money that has gone to the schools- the buildings should not be such a sorry state.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: "I think it's being handled very well. The problem is with parents who don't pay attention to what is going on. "

Actually, parents are completely reasonable to ignore items billed as "Wildwood renovation", which sounds like a minor thing of interest only to architecture geeks and the teachers in the space. If the District made its decision months ago, then it should have been up-front and billed it as: "Proposed School Reconfiguration." Even at the Sept. 29 meeting, people up-front asked if there was a preferred option, based on rumors, and the District said all three options are under consideration. That's clearly false, and it basically suggests that the District was being intentionally manipulative to compress the complain period into this two-week window.

And of course the Superintendent letter and the School District website have effectively zero penetration to preschool families, who will be impacted by this decision longer than existing elementary families -- or to community members, who will have to live with two abandoned buildings in their neighborhood driving down property values!

Anonymous said...

I believe I have read all the Superintendent's letters to parents and it wasn't until this past Friday did the letter actually describe the plan to close Fort River, build a 700+ student school and shift Crocker Farm to K-1. And this wasn't even described this sp clearly. The mentions in the other letters have been vague and one would have to click throught to several documents under the Wildwood label to find this option. A week or so ago, School Committee member Kathleen Traphagen described the changes in a high school PGO letter. Before that, I guess all parents had to rely on seeing one Gazetter article over a year ago. Now we have anonymous blog postings and another School Committee member shifting the blame onto the parents at Crocker, Fort River and even Wildwood for not being in the loop.

This is a sad but typical state of affairs. Our Superintendent seems unable -- or more likely unwilling -- to talk directly with parents about critical educational decisions about their children. The Superintendent has hired 4 more central office adminstrators plus a person to staff the unfocused Amherst Together initiative (which seems to have no deliverable goals). Yet every change to curriculum (high school math to IMP, changes in the MS schedule, languages, electives, cutting elementary Spanish, changing and then re-changing elementary math, changes to MS math) all occurred out of the view of parents with cursory, last minute public process.

Don't bother asking questions, don't bother coming up with alternatives. Please don't recommend ways the adminstration can communicate with parents. No one in the adminstration is interested in what you think. If they were, they would have told us what was going on, answered our questions (not just the ones they want to answer) and asked us what we think. The less we know, the better. The later we know, the easier.

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

doesn't 58% of 54 million=30.74 million. how was the upper cost calculated (at 23.3 million)? BTW these "total costs" also don't seem to include interest.

Anonymous said...

License and lease the Fort River and WIldwood buildings to charter schools. Put ARPS and the School Board out of business. Both are frauds, and both have failed completely and finally.

Anonymous said...

my bad with the math... but still no interest is included.

Anonymous said...

"All except the most important slide with the recommendation for the new Mega-School rather than simply renovating or replacing Wildwood at 40% less cost."

Not so fast, then you would need another slide that says, "And how are we going to pay to renovate Fort River?"

Larry Kelley said...

Yes, I forgot about that.

Naturally they used a slide showing 100% of the cost being borne by town taxpayers, rather than one with MSBA reimbursement.

Apparently the Gazette screwed up a while back and said they only put in for Wildwood starting in 2007 when in fact they put in Fort River as well.

So that would have to give Fort River some degree of priority if they keep putting in for reimbursement for a major renovation or complete replacement.

Anonymous said...

Yea. MAYBE 10 years later Fort River's turn will come. Maybe. In the meantime they're stuck using the same old non functional school while the other 2/3rds of the town's kids get to go to much better schools. Who thinks that's fair and equitable?
I know most Fort River parents and staff support the reconfiguration.

Larry Kelley said...

Yes and if you can't trust an Anon with with anecdotal survey results who can you trust?

Perhaps the school district should have an impartial survey of the stakeholders to gauge support for one plan over another.

Oh that's right, the School Committee will be deciding this issue on November 3rd so "not enough time."

Anonymous said...

My understanding from someone who serves on the Wildwood School Building Project committee is that the committee members won't be taking a vote on the project & their preferred option, & that the district considering such a vote to be outside of the committee's purview.

Anonymous said...

Imagine how this could play out if Amherst were regionalized during this deliberation. The Region could overturn what the MAJORITY of Amherst school committee members voted for. Since it would take just ONE amherst member to vote with the Hill Towns it could be defeated (and remember those hilltown folks get to vote for Amherst members- yah, crazy right?). I could easily imagine HillTown members would vote against it (because then Amherst would have a COMPLETELY different model of delivering elementary education). What crazy person could actually think regionalizing would be good for Amherst?

I'm not sure the Amherst tax payer will get behind this. Face it, Amherst taxes are crazy high and we don't see much in return, except beautiful country side. This is going to be a tough sell. They better come up with better reasons why the MS won't do...

Anonymous said...

How likely is it that this elementary school construction project will need Amherst town voters to approve a property tax override?

That could be a tough sell, especially ARPS doesn't do a better job at outreach & explaining the need for this project.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to look at the proposed regionalization effort supported by the administration and many regional school committee members. Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham are very concerned that a new PK-12 region not close their schools without a lengthy process. Each of the hilltown schools has a small elementary population. Pelham has about 65 local students with about the same number of ChoiceIn students. Leverett has 131 students including ChoiceIn students. Shutesbury has 134 students with no ChoiceIn.

So here are the propsoed steps to be taken before the regional school committee will vote on closing a school under the proposed draft regionalization agreement. Also, there a later provision for each town paying more money to keep their schools open. (Formatting did not quite go through.)

" School Building Closure – Such closure is defined as when no students are regularly assigned to the school building for instruction divided into grades and classes. A school closure will not include the change in use of a building to a public charter school, an alternative school or a magnet school. The Committee shall not vote on the closure of any school building in the District unless:

The Committee has completed a feasibility study at least one (1) year prior to the anticipated date of the vote on the closure. Under extraordinary circumstances, including but not limited to, partial or complete destruction of a building by fire or natural disaster, the Committee may, by majority vote, modify this timeline for closure.
The Committee has completed a fiscal analysis to determine the financial impact of the closure on the regional budget and the individual assessments to the Participating Towns.
The Committee has reviewed educational and organizational options and their impact on the students of the District.
The Committee has reviewed population trends to determine the long term impact of the closure in light of those population trends.
The Committee has conducted at least two (2) public hearings on the proposed closure. One (1) of the public hearings shall be held prior to the Committee’s authorization of the feasibility study, and one (1) such public hearing shall take place after completion, and review by the Committee, of the feasibility study.
The Committee must vote by a super majority at a regularly-scheduled meeting of the Committee to close a school building; a super majority for these purposes is defined as eight (8) members."

Compare this with the process for school closing in the proposed new regional agreement to the current process in the Wildwood project.

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

That's right. They are only voting to submit the request based on the vote of the SC.

Anonymous said...

People have been asking for a survey for weeks now. The administration simply ignores the suggestion saying they have heard from enough parents. It looks like the Wildwood PGO has final set one up themselves.

Anonymous said...

I think all of these steps have occurred as part of the WSB project. May I remind folks that Wildwood is not being closed. It's being replaced.

Anonymous said...

I guess the Fort River PGO should also set one up.

Anonymous said...

Fort River and Wildwood are BOTH to be CLOSED and a new school built at a yet TBD location.

Laura Quilter said...

This is Laura Quilter, with the Wildwood PGO; I set up the form at . A few important points:

* The FEEDBACK FORM is open to ALL members of the community, at ALL schools;
* It is NEUTRAL as to views expressed (the PGO takes no opinion on the outcome);
* We will deliver ALL feedback as written to the School Committee; and
* It is merely a FEEDBACK FORM, and it is NOT a substitute for the full-fledged survey that we ought to have had some time ago. The Hopkinton School District did such a survey, with comprehensive community outreach -- you can see an example of what we should have had here: .

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that the top vote getter on the survey is what the Superintendent here in Amherst proposed. Housing two school populations in one large building and share cafeteria, library and gym and auditorium space. :)

Laura Quilter said...

Anon at 1:31, if you're looking at the Hopkington survey mentioned at 1:09, I'm not sure they're comparable . This school system already had district-wide schools at various ages, so the top vote getter (really there were two top vote-getters, both with high negatives) was to expand the age-range at a school.

The real point is that this kind of outreach and survey of the town needed to be done -- still needs to be done -- and for some reason neither our District nor our educational project consultants have done it.

Laura Quilter

Anonymous said...

You are wrong. The top vote getter had 23% negatives. Also they were not just extending ages. They were going to have a large school holding two smaller schools with two principals. Much like the suggested recommendation here.
It would be morally bankrupt to build a new school for Wildwood students and leave Fort River in the dust. I know the Wildwood parents don't see it that way but we Fort River parents see it in that light.

Laura Quilter said...

Anon 3:42pm - It's not helpful to make it a WW parent / FR parent thing, and it's also not accurate. I've heard from FR parents who oppose reconfiguration, and from WW parents who support it.

Anonymous said...

Who are the parents making impassioned pleas at the meetings (like the one tonight) for anything other than the larger school? WW parents and maybe a few CF parents. Who is advocating for the larger school at those same meetings? Fort River parents. Like it or not, this is a decision we are making together and it involves two crumbling schools that both need to be replaced.

I've yet to see a proposal from any of the complainers about how to rectify this potential inequity. Suggestion: come up with a concrete proposal that solves this problem.

The neighborhood directly behind WW will be going to Fort River if we are forced to redistrict and only replace Wildwood. The parents complaining at all the meetings from said neighborhood will send their kids to private schools if that ever happens. Oh, the irony.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for insight as always Mr. Hood, very useful. Crumbling schools? are they really that bad? Oh I forgot about the mice! Knock em down and build a $50m new one quick!

Anonymous said...

It was disappointing to see yet another public forum tonight from the district where so much of the time was spent listening to presentations, not hearing public questions & comments. Tonight's forum started at 7 pm, & by my watch, the forum was opened up to public comment until almost 8:20 pm. The assistant superintendent intended to close the meeting by 9 pm, but with a few parents still waiting to make comment, the meeting ran a bit over.

Anonymous said...

Replacing buildings on a cycling schedule does not seem to be terribly inequitable. FR got some renovation a few years back (new boiler?) and WW didn't. CF got a bunch of renos when FR & WW didn't. Before that CF was in worse / different shape than FR & WW. Renovations cycle. ...

"Oh, it's not fair that the Central Amherst's library has a new renovation and south Amherst doesn't! We should tear down and close all the branch libraries and have one giant library so that everyone has equal access." I don't buy this version of the equity argument.

And the MSBA funding cycle doesn't seem to be that long -- 7 years? Rebuild WW, do some interim fixes on FR, do the big rebuild on FR in a few years. This isn't a great injustice, people. It's how buildings are replaced.

(And, by the way -- mice? This is New England. We all have mice.)

Anonymous said...

BTW town meeting voted funds to replace the Wildwood boilers but that money was not spent. Instead it went into the Wildwood study so let's stop talking about the old boilers at Wildwoo. Except to point out if they were replaced they would have saved $50k a year and quckly paid for themsselves.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:18 pm here again. I meant to write that " Tonight's forum started at 7 pm, & by my watch, the forum was NOT opened up to public comment until almost 8:20 pm." Three little letters (NOT) that are so important.

Anonymous said...

It was disappointing to see the Superintendent get defensive towards the end of last night's meeting, feel the need to response directly to a parent's comments & then not give them the chance to respond back. That parent was quite well spoken in her remarks, & to me, they were nothing worth getting so upset about. Maybe it was just the end of a long day & a long forum.

Anonymous said...

We really do have an information overload problem in Amherst, and, if you're like me, you're scrambling to catch up. There are millions of dollars at stake, and, as the 1970s design of FR and WW demonstrate, we are capable of making mistakes.

I'm sure that there was no intention to fluster us as citizens, with changes at the Middle School building along with regionalization followed by school consolidation. But that's what's happened. I watched Mr. Morris yesterday, give an hour long talk in a fraction of the time, almost without taking a breath. That was emblematic of the problem we're having: it's too much.

I have trouble going from that problem, to taking it out on our elected leaders, like Rick Hood, who are spending long hours at no pay trying to figure things out along with all the rest of us.

I think that this is partially a math problem. We need an elected leader, a Mayor, whose sole job is to spend 40-50 hours per week 52 weeks of the year, with her eyeballs on Amherst, communicating with voters, accountable to us, helping to navigate us through these expensive waters. We don't have that. Instead we have the kindness and dedication of volunteers, and, although we've been lucky, it's just not enough.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Rich, These decisions have been in the works for years--it's just that your school administrators haven't been telling you. Don't wait for a change in government. Talk to the government and administrators you have now.

Janet McGowan

Anyone interested in these issues please come to the Amherst Elementary School Committee meeting next Tuesday night from 6-8 pm at the Amherst HIgh School Library.

And/or contact Amherst School Committee members at: -- or contact them directly at:

Katherine Appy, Chair
60 Red Gate Lane
Amherst, MA 01002

Vira Douangmany Cage
12 Longmeadow Drive, Unit 21
Amherst, MA 01002

Phoebe Hazzard, Secretary
208 Snell Street
Amherst, MA 01002

Rick Hood, Vice-Chair
28 Farmington Road
Amherst, MA 01002

Kathleen Traphagen
496 S. East Street
Amherst, MA 01002

Anonymous said...

Any school we build or remodel should include a gym/workout facility for school employees, like the police have in their facility. The benefits we'll receive from having healthier teachers educating our kids will way outweigh the cost.

Thinking along those lines, I think that a new, inclusive and accessible, 21st c. state of the art educational facility could be an incredible tool for recruiting some of the best young teachers in the country to come work here.

Larry Kelley said...

If memory serves the police paid for the gym equipment out of their own private money, not tax dollars.

Anonymous said...

Good point, but I think since the equipment has been housed on tax-payer funded property for so long now, and also if any cops used any of it on the premises during work hours, that the town technically owns it. Unless they're paying rent and utilities and maintenance on the space. I don't know what special arrangements they might have.

Do you know how large their fitness facility is?

Larry Kelley said...

No I don't.

Why don't you stop in to the station tomorrow with a tape measure.

Anonymous said...

Why don't I bring a truck over, load up the equipment, and deliver it to the high school.

Anonymous said...

The high school already had fitness equipment. Maybe the teachers union can arrange access to it during their next negotiations if that's really your issue. I'm sure that the ability to exercise on site was part of APD's union contract. We do want them physically fit, right?

Anonymous said...

Of course we want our cops to be more physically fit, especially a few of them who obviously don't work out on site or anywhere else except maybe the shooting range, but teachers' jobs are much more physically demanding than cops, maybe more mentally demanding as well. Cops are sitting down alone most of their days and weeks. Let's find out who owns the equipment and who is allowed to use it.

Anonymous 8:31 AM, how are you sure that the ability to exercise on site was part of the APD's union contract? Does anyone else besides APD get to use the facilities, ever? (family? AFD members? non-Union APD employees? friends of cops or other non-APD cops?) Thanks for any more info you can provide.

Anonymous said...

Where is it written that life is fair and equitable?

Anonymous said...

Another chime-in from the "hate the cops" crowd. The police are about the last remaining group against which it's okay to discriminate and stereotype.