Smart investing for our schools and community

When you head to the ballot box on March 12, please consider voting YES on the Amherst School District Warrant Article 15. This Article will ask you to approve $225,000 to fund a comprehensive study to be conducted by a professional architectural or engineering firm specializing in educational facilities that will allow us to make informed decisions about future investment in our school buildings. This study would work in conjunction with the work already approved and underway as part of the Souhegan 2.0 project.

Why now? Historically we’ve addressed short-term enrollment demands by augmenting our facilities with portable classrooms. Portable classrooms, which are like a mobile home, are generally installed to temporarily and quickly provide additional classroom space. For the past three decades, we’ve masked our needs for additional education spaces with portable classrooms. From the 1960s to the current day, Amherst’s population has increased 447% (2,051 in 1960 to 11,229 in 2018). There was explosive growth in the 60s and 70s and the town reacted by building new schools. Clark built in 1958, Wilkins in 1967 and AMS in 1973. Souhegan, built in 1992, was done out of necessity due to the break-up of MASH. As the town moved from the 1990s and into the 2000s, we’ve voted to leverage temporary classrooms to augment our facility needs. These were temporary solutions to what was believed to be temporary needs; however, three decades of history has proven these are no longer temporary needs but rather long standing demands on our schools, their students and our community.

Amherst, as a town, is nearing full saturation from a population growth perspective. We’ve seen the peak periods of student enrollment during the late 80s and 90s. We augmented the current facilities with portable classrooms to support these enrollment crests. We’ve placed them in front of Souhegan, out back of AMS or Clark, and we still have them behind Wilkins. Based upon recent trends, we’re heading back to enrollments similar to the 80s and 90s. The difference this time around is that educational requirements (state and federal laws) mandate additional services not required back in the 80s. Many of these services take additional space – space we will not have if current enrollment trends continue. As many of you are aware, this year the Clark-Wilkins School partnered with the Mont Vernon Village School to admit several kindergarteners into their school to reduce burgeoning class sizes in Amherst. We scrambled to reallocate resources across the district and stole art and music classrooms to make space for additional classroom space a challenge compounded after losing one portable classroom (two classes) due to fire damage.

Amherst school class sizes at the middle and elementary grades are among some of the highest in the state. Grades 1 & 2 rank 7th largest, grades 3 & 4 are 3rd largest, grades 5-8 are 13th largest. We have once again outgrown the physical spaces allocated for education in the town of Amherst, NH. We could continue to add expensive and hard-to-find portable classroom space, but that would be continuing a 30-year track record of investing in temporary, disposable assets that do not add value back into the community. They also pose security risks for our children and do not create a welcoming environment to teachers or the community at large.

We need help. What this committee recommends is an acknowledgement of that fact. We want the most fiscally sound solution for our community. A solution that recognizes all the good investments we’ve made in the past (our current physical spaces) and looks to build upon those investments. Last year’s Capital Investment Plan highlighted for the administration that just to keep our current facilities in working order, we’ll have to reinvest a million dollars a year into HVAC systems, electrical, roofing, etc. Now may be the best time for us to take a step back and consider, do I reinvest in these facilities “as-is” or do we make a strategic investment that has a smaller year-over-year impact to taxpayers.

Article 15 will allow us to analyze the spaces we have, and learn what our true needs an options are. The firm hired will develop plausible space augmentation, with input from the community at various levels, to best position us to make a sound investment into our community. The key deliverables of this effort would include, but not be limited to, the following:

1. Facilities Study to Evaluate Each School, including:

a. Drafts of existing plans

b. Onsite review and meetings with Facilities Staff and Principals to asses buildings

c. High-level view of various systems

2. Programming & Visioning , including:

a. Interviews with key staff and faculty

b. Review of current space and space usage

c. Identification of missing or needed spaces and ideal configurations

3. District-Wide Masterplan, including:

a. Review of potential sites and several conceptual diagrams for renovated or new facilities

b. Explore various grade level configurations with the School District Office

c. Present and refine diagrammatic options with a Building Committee

d. Explore multiple solutions with order of magnitude costs assigned for option

e. Joint engagement with civil engineers to review potential site developments

f. Develop a preferred solution and document into a District Master Plan

4. Site Studies / Investigations, including:

a. Cooperation with civil engineer, wetlands scientist, and a geotechnical engineer to review potential sites that fit into the Master Plan Document as viable expansion areas and further understand site-related development issues

5. Conceptual Design, including:

a. Development of diagrams into floorplans and exterior envelopes

b. Provide high level narratives for mechanical, electrical, plumbing and structural systems

c. Document into a conceptual design package (Partial Schematic Design) including scope, materials, etc., capable of being priced by a Construction Manager

d. Develop options and refine designs collaboratively with Building Committee

e. Finalize price a conceptual design and scope; including mechanical, electrical and plumbing & structural engineering

6. Roll Out, including:

a. 3D imaging and floorplans

b. Participation in community presentations, availability for multiple public forums and Q&A sessions

A YES vote on Article 15 is the first step in a multi-year process to solve problems that have been building for three decades. We not only ask for your vote, but we ask for your partnership in building a new chapter in this community.

Thank you for your consideration,

Brian Coogan is Joint Facilities Chair.