I’ve been proud of the schools in Amherst ever since moving here in 1972. During my almost three decades in public service, first on the school committee and then as state representative, I have tried to build on our tradition of excellence.
We are now faced with a big decision. Should we approve a plan to draw on $35 million in state aid to build two new linked schools at the site of Wildwood Elementary? I hope that we will.
When I was on the school committee in the 1980s our elementary schools were still relatively new. But there was growing disenchantment with the open classroom design of Fort River, where my kids went, and Wildwood. When I visited classrooms I had difficulty hearing what students and teachers were saying. Some teachers tried to block the noise from other rooms by building partitions with curtains or bookcases, but many students continued to find it hard to concentrate.
Add to that the physical and environmental decay of our aging schools and we find that the majority of teachers at Fort River (91 percent) and Wildwood (76 percent) believe the physical environment of their schools is not conducive to teaching and learning. That fact alone is enough to convince me that this plan is necessary.
For more than a decade the town has been talking about the need to replace our old and outdated schools. Since 2007, we have applied to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for state funding.
But even gaining consideration for this funding is extremely competitive and only in 2013 was Wildwood invited to the multiyear process. It was chosen over Fort River in part because its boiler system was on the verge of failure.
But the open classroom design and its negative impact on teaching and learning was the most compelling reason for the MSBA to choose Amherst.
The MSBA decisions are driven primarily by the educational impact of the funding they offer.
Their approval of Amherst’s educational plan — developed mostly by teachers — demonstrates their confidence that the new building will greatly enhance the learning experiences of all our students. We have the opportunity to build a beautiful new school building — healthy, energy efficient, and loaded with innovative learning spaces.
Also, note that the new structure will save Amherst between $400,000 and $500,000 a year in operating costs.
Some members of the Legislature and the governor’s administration think of Amherst as a wealthy community that can pay its own way. Since they have agreed to support this project, I think it would be a mistake to turn the money down. This plan will also advance educational equity for all our students. The reconfiguration will allow Crocker Farm to provide high-quality pre-school education for many more students, which is vital to lessening the achievement gap.
By bringing all children together with their peers and neighbors, the new schools will provide equal access to the same resource for everyone. I will vote yes on Question 5 on Nov. 8. If we don’t vote to support Question 5, we will lose our guaranteed funding. We may never get it again. At best, it would take years to re-enter the MSBA process, a delay that would add millions to the cost of any future building.
“There are little girls and boys who think that state reps are women because I’ve been here so long and that’s kind of fun. I’ve had a fabulous 24 years. Thank you for re-electing me and I look forward to seeing who will replace me.” – Representative Story quoted at her announcement during the Amherst Rotary lunch on 1/21/16.