Amherst Building Committee selects Fort River site for new elementary school

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AMHERST – The 70 South East St. campus of Fort River School is recommended by the Elementary School Building Committee as the site for the construction of a new three-story elementary school building accommodating 575 students that will open in the fall of 2026.

A divided committee voted 8-5 on Monday to move forward with the project, estimated to cost $105.88 million, at the Fort River site, in part because its 19.8 acres are nearly twice the size of the competing 10.5-acre Wildwood School site at 71 Strong Street.

Having more buffer against new construction and reducing potential disruption to education were deciding factors in the affirmative vote of committee member and Fort River Director Tamera Sullivan-Daley.

“We try to mitigate that as much as possible,” Sullivan-Daley said.

“This has been an extremely difficult decision for me,” said committee chair Cathy Schoen, who is also a District 1 councillor. Ultimately, however, the smaller Wildwood site and potential disruption to the learning there tipped the needle for Schoen to join the majority, calling the building’s potential impact on education there “too high a cost to our children.”

Wildwood Assistant Manager Allison Estes and Superintendent Michael Morris, community members Angelica Bernal, Phoebe Merriam and Jonathan Salvon and the At-Large Councilor also voted in favor of Fort River, citing more outdoor space for the community learning and recreation once the project is complete. Elisha Walker.

The decision means the preferred solution to replace the two 1970s school buildings can be submitted by DiNisco Design to the Massachusetts School Building Authority by the end of the month, with a vote on that set of materials expected at a meeting. June 24. In August, the MSBA will notify the city whether it will support funding for the school project, which will then allow the city council to schedule a vote to exclude the 2½ proposal for next spring.

The MSBA will reimburse the city for a portion of the costs associated with the project, although the exact amount will not be known for several months.

Already, work is underway to prepare the ground for the new school, with sixth-grade students in all three elementary schools, including Crocker Farm, to transition to middle school in the fall of 2023. Crocker Farm, which is also home to an education Early Years Center, will remain open, while under this plan, the existing Fort River building would be demolished when the new school opens, with the future of the Wildwood building unknown, although potentially available at d other school or municipal purposes.

Those who voted against the Fort River site, fearing it would cost more to develop and have more problems with vehicular traffic and pedestrian access, were City Manager Paul Bockelman, Director financier Sean Mangano, supply agent Simone Cristofori, president of the regional school committee. Ben Herrington and director of school facilities Rupert Roy-Clark. In a separate vote after the site selection, however, these five committee members supported the combined action on the location and structure of the building.

Despite what he considered “inconveniences” at the Fort River site, Herringon said he was always “pro” when it came to the project as a whole. “From day one, my ‘pro’ has been a new building,” Herrington said in casting his initial vote against the Fort River site. “It trumps everything.”

Mangano said the Wildwood site is part of a campus near middle and high schools, has a lower risk of climate change and has a better traffic situation; And the fact that it should cost $2.25 million less, or $103.63 million, is not insignificant.

“Long term, Wildwood is the site that makes the most sense,” Mangano said.

Bockelman said the Wildwood site had twice been backed by voters in debt exclusion waiver votes, in 2016 and 2017, but failed to win the necessary two-thirds support in the vote. assembly, stressing that city and school officials should pay attention to the higher costs. . Bockelman is also concerned about the high water table in Fort River, which partly explains the higher expenses, which will include the need to truck in fill before construction can begin.

Roy-Clark said one concern was placing a larger school near one of the worst intersections in the city, with the Fort River site located between the intersections of South East Street with Main Street to the north and College Street South.

Walker said the disruption to education after the Covid-19 pandemic is a bigger concern, and neither site is ideal from a traffic standpoint.

“There will be a significant investment in traffic regardless of which site we choose,” Walker said.

Although Estes voted for the Fort River site, she said its higher cost is a concern and that voting for this site gives the community confidence that they will go along with a more expensive project.

During the committee’s nearly two-hour meeting, the first decision made, unanimously, was for a three-story building rather than a two-story building. Morris said this would not only maximize green space, but also allow each floor to be consolidated, i.e. kindergarten and first grade classrooms on the ground floor, second and third grades on the ground floor. floor and the fourth and fifth years on the top floor.

Sullivan-Daley said a three-story building would also help teachers build relationships with students.

The committee had previously ruled out the possibility of an addition or renovation to an existing school, noting that it could not be fully occupied until after fall 2026.

Those who spoke after the vote appeared unified in their support for the project, which comes five years after Town Meeting rejected a $66.37 million twin school, each with a capacity of 375 students and encompassing grades 2 through 6. At the time, Crocker Farm was to have become an early childhood education centre.

“This is a major step forward for our community,” said City Council President Lynn Griesemer.

“I think it’s going to be really fantastic for our school community and the community as a whole,” said school committee member Jennifer Shiao.

School committee member Peter Demling said he was also delighted the town was moving forward together.

Maria Kopicki, who led a group opposed to the previous school project, told the committee she believed the current path for the new project would lead to community healing.

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