Maria Kopicki: Caught in a school project Catch-22 in Amherst

The following op-ed ran in the Amherst Bulletin on January 15. The published version is available here:


Maria Kopicki: Caught in a school project Catch-22 in Amherst

To date, the Amherst school district, and the contractors they hired, have declined — despite repeated requests — to provide detailed cost estimates for the most straightforward option available for addressing the building needs of our elementary schools: renovation and repair.

This information is essential for at least two reasons. It will allow town residents to understand which of the proposed options is most cost-efficient. It also will allow residents and School Committee members to assess the feasibility of maintaining our current, three school, K-6 elementary system — a goal many parents and educators support.

Amherst has three terrific elementary schools. Unfortunately, two of the buildings that house them are in need of serious structural help and only one of them (Wildwood) has been accepted into a state program that could subsidize building costs by nearly 60 percent. This funding program requires that the district explore “at least one renovation and/or addition option that maximizes use of the existing facility.” Renovation has therefore been included as an option but in the same breath is dismissed by district officials as unfair since it would only address Wildwood, leaving Fort River with significant problems.

Thus emerged the proposal to build a single double-sized school. But suppose that Fort River could be also be renovated outside the Massachusetts School Building Authority process at a reasonable cost.

The district’s argument is that the town would never agree to fund a second school project, particularly when there are other capital needs. Instead, the district proposes demolishing at least one of the school buildings, reconfiguring the entire elementary school system and building a new, large school to house nearly twice the number of students, faculty and staff as we are accustomed to.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it relies on the assumption that the financial costs of renovation are prohibitively high. On what is this claim based?

Administrators and the Elementary School Building Project have been pressed repeatedly to provide estimates detailed enough to see what it would cost to fix the problems of these buildings: HVAC, ADA non-compliance, and acoustic, flow and lighting problems associated with the open classroom design.

That also means looking at the architects’ renovation plans and deciding what is absolutely necessary and what can be considered optional (money permitting).

Instead, only preliminary costs per square foot, not even based on this project but on “historic data from other projects,” have been provided to date, figures that are significantly higher than those cited for other MSBA projects.

The budget that was to be presented this week promises to be only modestly more developed. The level of budget detail that would permit line item decision-making is apparently not to be expected until a Preferred Solution (the option that will move forward in the process) is already chosen.

Renovation — an option that would retain a three-school, K-6 system — is therefore trapped in a Catch-22. It must prove itself financially feasible before it can be considered a viable option, but costs cannot be estimated in enough detail before a decision is made.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. We can demand that the architects dig deeper and offer creative, cost-effective solutions that can be applied to existing buildings.

What if the problems of both Wildwood and Fort River schools could be adequately addressed at a cost to the town comparable to that of building a new, larger school? This is a critical question that must be answered before it is ruled out as an option. To do that, we need reliable financial estimates and an eye toward fiduciary responsibility, not a predisposition for consolidation, administrative convenience and the allure of an attractive new edifice.

More than money could be saved with an approach of targeted renovation. A way to preserve smaller, neighborhood-based, K-6 schools — preferred by parents, teachers, and educational experts alike — is at stake.

The environmental impact from renovation is also sure to be less than that of new construction.

Finally, we should remember that the power to make these decisions ultimately resides with the people of Amherst and we must decide for ourselves what kind of school system we want and how we get there.

Maria Kopicki lives in Amherst.


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