This is an OpEd piece by Maria Kopicki published in the Amherst Bulletin this week (Fri. Oct. 14).
Ever since it was first revealed to the public last Fall that the Wildwood Building project was actually a plan to restructure the entire elementary school system, the school administration has told us that if we don’t agree to what they are proposing, we will forfeit millions of dollars and it will be decades before we can fix our school buildings. This is simply not true.
The MSBA was open to us keeping K6.
First we were told that we had to accept grade reconfiguration because that was the only way to receive state funding to address both Wildwood and Fort River schools at one time; Crocker Farm would have to change to PreK-1 (because that’s how many grades would fit in that building) and the other 750 students (grades 2-6) would go to a new building.
The truth is that once the Massachusetts School Building Authority found out that Amherst residents were not happy about losing K-6 education, they offered the District the option of building a smaller, K-6 school to house Wildwood and Fort River students. Most parents and educators breathed a sigh of relief and thought the School Committee would heed the results of their own survey that demonstrated overwhelming support for K-6, which was favored by nearly 3 to 1—only 6% of parents and 4% of educators chose the proposed model. Instead, the administration moved ahead with their preferred solution, setting aside the clear preferences of teachers and parents, and sacrificing K-6 public education in Amherst.
The MSBA has funded multiple projects in the same town within 5 years of each other.
The administration has also told us that because it took Amherst several years for Wildwood to be accepted into the state funding program, it is very unlikely that Fort River would get approved any time soon. They added that since the Town would never approve funding for Fort River to be addressed without subsidized funds, this would mean that Fort River would be doomed to its present state for at least 10-15 years. Once again, this turns out not to be true.
More than 20 towns have received funding from the state for either new construction or complete renovation projects on two schools in the same district within 5 years of each other. State funding decisions are based on the structural and environmental needs of the buildings, not on whether a town has already received funding for a project.
The MSBA has readmitted towns with new Statement of Interest within 4 to 6 years of failed votes.
Now the administration is telling us that if we don’t approve this debt exclusion override (the largest in Amherst’s history), we will be throwing away millions of dollars in state aid and probably would not be accepted back into the system for decades. The evidence, however, says differently. Towns have voted down projects before and then asked to be readmitted to the process with a different project. All of them were accepted back in and had successful projects within 4-6 years of the first failed vote.
There are other options.
It’s best to be wary when told, “There is only one way to do this” and even more so when being pressured: “Act Now! Limited time offer at 50% off!”
There are other ways to fix or replace both Wildwood and Fort River in a timely and more fiscally responsible manner. Some would like to see renovation given a second look, taking a different approach to the problems of the buildings and proceeding immediately with urgently needed fixes.
Others want to return to the MSBA’s proffer of a K-6 school to replace both Wildwood and Fort River, better yet with preschool classes included at this building. Having a PreK-6 school in both north and south Amherst makes pedagogical, logistical, and financial sense, particularly for those with fewer advantages.
It would not take another couple years and another million dollar feasibility study for a different plan. Much of the work has already been done (e.g. site assessment) and need not be repeated. We can begin work immediately, before we even re-apply to the state, engaging in public dialogue, forming a committee that represents a diversity of opinion, and coming to decisions that the town can get behind. We would hit the ground running in a second round of state funding and this time move to a completed project that has widespread support.
But we must first close the door on this very problematic plan so that we can open a window to a better solution. Please vote No on 5.
Maria Kopicki is a parent of Amherst public school children and coordinator of SASS (Save Amherst’s Small Schools)