SAU39 - Amherst, NHJoint Facilities Advisory Committee
The Future of Amherst Public School Buildings
A Message from the Amherst School Board
Amherst School Board
Changes for the Ballot, Voting Day
January and February normally mark the finalization of the budget process, presenting it to the public and getting it ready for the ballot in March. After our public hearing presentation in mid-January, we are making two changes – one directed by the school board and one guided by the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, you can postpone putting on your voting boots. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Chris Sununu signed Emergency Order 83 on January 22 that allowed towns to delay deliberative sessions and voting day until later this spring. Because of this, Amherst School Board’s annual deliberative session is scheduled for Tuesday, May 4, and voting day is Tuesday, June 8.
This decision was part of a community-wide initiative to postpone these important sessions for the town of Amherst, Amherst School District, Souhegan Cooperative School District, and Mont Vernon town and schools. By moving them back into spring, we will hopefully see a further reduction of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and an increase in the number of residents who are vaccinated. And we will now have options to move these events outside or to a different location in order to increase safety for all voters.
Next, when you go to the polls in June, you will notice a major change to the ballot based on our public hearing presentation. During the hearing, on January 13, we presented a proposal for a bond article asking for approximately $97 million to construct two major school projects – a new Clark-Wilkins Elementary that would span pre-K through fifth grade ($66 million) and a complete overhaul of Amherst Middle School for grades six through eight ($31 million).
These two projects were the result of nearly three years of work by the Joint Facilities Advisory Committee (JFAC). Made up of myriad community members, board members, and administration, the committee spend countless hours researching the history of our buildings, the current issues we face, and what our future needs are going to be. With their research complete and presented to the board, we asked for and you approved $150,000 on the 2020 ballot to hire an architectural firm to come up with solutions (with projected costs) for these schools. These two building projects are the results of this cumulative work.
After listening to presentations by JFAC in the fall of 2020, these two school projects were approved by the school board for the 2021 ballot. Over the following months, the board worked with JFAC to get ready for public hearing, deliberative, and voting day.
In the end, however, the board decided to delay presenting this article to voters in 2020. There are several reasons for the delay from 2021 to 2022, a decision approved by the board at our January 19 meeting. Keep in mind that this decision was not unanimous, representing the depth of our discussion and the difficulty of the decision we are making. Ultimately, our vote centered on these major items:
- With the economic impact of COVID-19, the board didn’t feel this was the year for a major, long-term construction project. We know families in town may be facing economic uncertainty and we did not want this project to be an unnecessary burden during these times.
- Engaging voters. At the time the decision was made, there were less than two months until election day. With limited options of reaching people face-to-face, we were not confident we could engage and properly inform every voter during that time period.
- COVID-19 restrictions. The annual deliberative session was going to feature major changes, further limiting our options to reach voters and provide information needed to make such a weighty decision.
These are just a few of the many reasons that led to the delay of this bond. But please do not be misled – Amherst School Board fully supports these construction projects and the plan is to place them on the 2022 ballot. We will partner with JFAC and use the next 13 months to fully engage voters by running a first-class project website, producing collateral to explain the project and the tax impact, and meeting face-to-face with individual and groups across the town. We support this project fully, but next year, not this year.
Elizabeth Kuzsma, Chair
Tom Gauthier, Vice Chair
Building a Better Tomorrow
Sustaining our Future
The Amherst School District has struggled with a capacity crisis for decades. Today, we continue to operate costly buildings that are undersized and at end of life. This plan builds a new PK-5 school and modernizes and maintains Amherst Middle School for grades 6-8. A plan that will serve the community for the next 50 years.
This plan puts the 5th grade back in Elementary school, where it belongs.
Health & Safety at Every School
New and renovated schools will have proper ventilation, adequate air changes per hour, new and energy efficient mechanical/electrical systems and ample security features.
Better Education, Lower Class Sizes
TODAY – Amherst K-8 schools have some of the largest class sizes in NH, with 21-25 students per class. We do not have the space to lower our class size ratios with our current student population, and enrollment in Amherst is projected to increase in the future, further adding to the problem.
Borrowing Rates at Historic Lows
Municipal bond rates are at an all time low. Making NOW the time to borrow. Construction costs are estimated to escalate at 4-5% per year. The longer we wait, the more it will cost.
Protecting our Property Value
Generations of families have purchased homes in Amherst in part, because of its public school system. Public school facilities that meet or exceed NH DOE guidelines are crucial for maintaing Amherst’s sought after educational community status.
Kicking the Can is Costly
If we do not continue with these projects, we will spend, on average, approximately $1.0 – $1.5m per year on capital improvements to existing facilities just to maintain our current configuration, which does not address the fact that we have some of the highest class size ratios in the state.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
The Amherst School District has struggled with a capacity crisis for decades. Today, we have some of the largest class sizes in New Hampshire in grades K-8. We continue to operate costly buildings that are undersized and end of life. The Clark, Wilkins, and AMS buildings are all due for major repairs and renovations. For many years, we have implemented patches and temporary solutions, at a significant cost. Unfortunately, these short term fixes did not adequately address our space needs for the long term.
The Joint Facilities Advisory Committee, with the support of the Amherst School Board, is proposing a plan that builds a new PK-5 school and updates and maintains Amherst Middle School for grades 6-8. These new and updated buildings will serve the community for the next 50 years and accommodate current and future generations adequately. This plan brings the 5th grade back to the elementary school where it is most appropriate, provides new and energy efficient HVAC and mechanical systems, and takes advantage of low municipal bond rates. This plan also allows construction phasing to occur in a way that provides minimal disruption to students and the community.
The path forward is one that requires a substantial commitment from our community. If there ever was a time to undertake major renovations and new construction, this is it. Borrowing rates are at historic lows, making debt cheap. The cost of construction is expected to increase significantly over the next 5 years. If we do nothing, we will still need to spend a large amount in the near future on major repairs to Clark, Wilkins, and AMS, including purchasing many portable classrooms to adequately meet our space needs. We will be investing in buildings that do not meet our needs. If we put off building projects for later down the road, costs will only escalate.
It is fiscally prudent to put funds towards a solution that lasts, enhances the quality of the Amherst school system, and protects and strengthens our property values. The future is NOW for Amherst School Buildings.
Please explore this website to learn more about the project and how you can help support this effort.
This website represents the work of the Joint Facilities Advisory Committee. This website is maintained by community volunteers and members of the committee. The content of this website is the work of the Joint Facilities Advisory Committee.