There is no dedicated funding to support new preschool classrooms proposed for Crocker Farm, and money will come instead from anticipated “operational savings,” a district official told the Amherst School Committee last night.
After lengthy debate, the Regional School Committee also voted to release previously-withheld correspondence and executive session minutes related to the recent $309,000 settlement with former Superintendent Maria Geryk. Regional School Committee Chairwoman Laura Kent said an information packet, including Geryk’s initial “demand letter,” would be sent by email last night to those who requested it. However, as of this morning, no documents had arrived.
Committee member Trevor Baptiste criticized the minutes for failing to fully reflect his wish that Geryk’s annual evaluation take place before any negotiations were conducted with her. “We should have done the evaluation before hearing this threat,” Baptiste said, adding that he was “unimpressed,” by the demand letter. Cage said the letter included the a charge of “be careful, watch out, individuals can be subject to lawsuit.”
Kent emphasized that the majority of the regional committee wished to avoid “multi-year litigation,” with Geryk and the impact it could have on the community and prospects for hiring a new superintendent.
Geryk came under fire last spring for banning a Pelham mother, Aisha Hiza, from school grounds. Hiza’s lawyers have stated that she couldn’t advocate for her daughter, who was the victim of racially-motivated bullying.
Last night, Kent noted public criticism of the regional committee as dysfunctional, and two committee resignations over the summer. Kent said she contacted the Massachusetts Association of School Committees for help, and that going forward, the association will provide training and guidance.
The Amherst School Committee, which met prior to the regional committee, received an update on the elementary schools consolidation and reconfiguration plan from Acting Superintendent Michael Morris. That plan is now pegged at $67 million, about half of which would fall on local taxpayers, and will be voted on by Amherst residents and Town Meeting members in the fall. It calls for closing the existing Wildwood and Fort River schools, and removing grades 2-6 from Crocker Farm. All children townwide in grades 2-6 would be shifted to a proposed new 750-student building on the Wildwood site, while Crocker Farm would be converted into a townwide early childhood center, housing only preschool, kindergarten and first grade.
No detailed cost breakdown for planned new preschool slots at Crocker Farm was provided, but Morris said that annual cost savings from the consolidation are projected at about $400,000 per year, and about half that could be tapped for the early childhood center.
Committee member Vira D. Cage said that if operational savings are found, they should go to offset the cost of the new construction, which would require millions in long-term borrowing. “Shouldn’t the actual cost savings go to pay down the debt?” Cage asked.
Morris and Committee Member Katherine Appy said they “had not heard” of towns using operational savings for debt relief. Cage also suggested that any operational savings could be used to help make the district more competitive with area charter schools that are drawing away increasing numbers of Amherst families.
The Amherst committee discussed transition-related classroom space problems that could arise in 2019 if the consolidation plan goes through. Kindergarteners attending Wildwood might be shifted to Crocker Farm for first grade, then to the new Wildwood site for second grade, meaning those children would attend three schools in three years.
In order to avoid that problem, Morris said, this year’s current class of second graders at Crocker Farm could stay there through sixth grade with the early education center, although there would be no middle grades present. Committee members suggested starting a dialogue with Crocker Farm families to see how they would feel about it. Cage noted that Save Amherst’s Small Schools “wants another option,” which is “not to go through with it.”
“The community will make its decisions,” Morris said, noting the upcoming votes.
Questions also arose about when the district will replace the gym floor at Amherst Regional High School, which suffered water damage from a burst pipe this summer.
– Submitted by Marla Goldberg-Jamate