Town Council Regular Meeting, 1/28/19

The big issue was: the new elementary school proposal!

I was surprised at the small turnout of council-watchers even though schools were the main subject of the meeting. I thought that more people would show up to cheer, bemoan or at least listen to the new plan.

Since my family has been living in Amherst, no issue has generated more heated debate, bordering on animosity, than the previous plan for replacing Wildwood and Fort River Elementary Schools with a single, larger school. The biggest sticking points in the previous plan were the large size of the school, at approximately 750 students, and a new division of grades that would have separated preschool through first grade from second through sixth grade. Although my wife and I weren’t happy about the grade division because it would have separated our kids, we supported the plan. We thought that having a new school was more important for the town as a whole and we grew up going to large public schools, so weren’t overly concerned about the size.

Michael Morris, Superintendent of the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, gave a detailed presentation on his new proposal for updating the two aging elementary schools. Both are about fifty years old, which is the typical lifespan of a school. They were constructed with open classrooms designed to hold multiple groups of students, which ultimately proved to be unmanageable because of noise and other reasons. The schools struggled to carve smaller, single-use classrooms out of the larger spaces with only moderate success. There are a host of additional problems with both schools including safety, leaking roofs, broken HVAC systems and problems with disability access.

As with the previous plan, Morris argued that the schools need to be replaced and not just repaired, and that the town cannot afford to fund this alone. In our state, new schools are typically funded by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), which offers grants to help towns cover building costs one building at a time, which means that we cannot get simultaneous grants to build two new schools. If we replace one school with one of similar size (both schools combined currently hold about 740 students) then the other will either have to wait a decade or so or be paid for entirely by the town.

The grant process begins with the town submitting an official statement of interest to get into the pipeline for funding. If this is accepted, a feasibility study with public input will follow, culminating in a final plan. This plan will have to be voted on by the Town Council and town residents in order to authorize borrowing the remainder of the money beyond the state grant needed to pay for the school. The additional borrowed money would be in the form of a bond paid for by a debt exclusion override, meaning that property taxes would increase—hopefully in pace with property values! Amounts are currently unknown. When pressed by Councilor Cathy Schoen, Morris said that he was hesitant to mention costs now because early estimates change.

When starting the application process, the MSBA only asks towns like Amherst, which have previously failed to garner public support for one of their grants, to provide potential solutions for their building problems. In order for Amherst to enter the grant process again, the MSBA has asked Morris to demonstrate that there is public consensus around the parameters for building a new school. To this end, Morris has drafted “Five Agreements” that he is asking residents to support: “One MSBA Project; One warm, child-centered building; Approximately 600 students; K-5 or K-6; Community survey(s) will be completed during the feasibility process prior to binding decisions.”

These parameters differ from the previous plan in regards to two significant points of compromise: school size and school configuration. The size of the school has been reduced from about 750 to about 600 students, which is about how much the current schools have held at their peak enrollments. And the grade structure will remain the same, with the possible exception that sixth grade might move to the middle school and be combined with seventh and eight, which would allow for the lower number of students in the new elementary school.

The new parameters are exactly what I wanted to see in the previous plan, although I know many people in town have different ideas. This is where the issue of consensus comes in. Morris said that in order to demonstrate consensus, the MSBA wants near unanimous votes in favor of these parameters by the School Committee and Town Council.

Leading up to this process, the School Committee is going to hold a series of “listening sessions” so that School Committee members and Town Councilors can ascertain what residents want and vote accordingly. The School Committee will undoubtedly vote unanimously for it. The Council is likely to do so as well, but we’ll see what emerges from the process. It will be crucial that people’s opinions are heard from all sides and taken seriously when it comes time for the Committee members and Councilors to vote. No one wants to go through this process again and have another failed town-wide vote!

Morris’ presentation was supported by Anastasia Ordonez, Chair of the School Committee. Although I’m in favor of the plan, it did seem like Morris and Ordonez were giving the Council and the public the hard sell. I appreciated their passion but wonder: Why is the one-building plan the only option being presented? And why are the number of students in each class and school not being discussed more specifically in relation to various potential configurations? If people can see an array of choices, then they can make a more informed decision and can grant better informed consent.

Discussion followed over how Town Council would engage in this process and whether or not its members would participate directly in the listening sessions or hold sessions of their own. There was some support among Councilors that their job was to promote the School Board’s plan but Sarah Swartz pushed back, arguing that they should be listening to their constituents and voting accordingly and neither support nor condemn the plan until they had.

The other big issue that came back before the Council was the Energy and Climate Resilience Committee. The ad hoc committee formed last meeting returned with a revised charge, which lead to an important debate on the role of “expertise” on town committees. The town charter—the document that mandates in detail how the town’s government is run—calls for people with expertise to be appointed to committees, but what this means and how much of it is needed is ambiguous. This issue requires nuance, because, while technical knowledge is valuable and often necessary, so are other kinds of lived experience. Scientists, engineers and academics can be as parochial in their thinking as anyone and diversity, when respected, is often more productive than agreement.

The meeting was running so late that I left when the Council moved into a private backroom to discuss the potential purchase by the town of some property. When I left, the time was about 11:00!

Things to watch out for: capital expenditure needs and the beginning of the 2020 budget process!