Members from various groups in town and on the project celebrate the groundbreaking for the new elementary school.

Reminder Publishing photo by Trent Levakis

AMHERST — A gathering of the public and community leaders turned out for the March 26 groundbreaking ceremony for the new $97.5 million, three-story, 575-student elementary school, south of the existing Fort River School.

The proposed new school will replace both Wildwood and Fort River Elementary schools with one new elementary school on the Fort River site. The new school will be kindergarten through fifth grade, with five classrooms per grade.

The building will also boast a net-zero energy status using ground source heat pumps and photovoltaic panels to supply 100% of the energy for the building. The site will include space for outdoor learning and play with accessible playground equipment.

“This is a momentous day for the town of Amherst,” said Town Manager Paul Bockelman. “This pile of dirt over the coming months will become a sparkling new, state-of-the-art net-zero energy school for our kids. It will be good for education, good for the environment and safe environment costs because we are combining two schools into one, and we are reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Those also attending the groundbreaking were members of the Town Council and Amherst School Committee, current Fort River Principal Tammy Sullivan-Daley and Wildwood Principal Allison Estes, staff, teachers, students, families, state Rep. Mindy Domb (D-Amherst) and state Sen. Jo Comerford (D-Northampton).

“What a long and winding road for Amherst,” Domb said. “It’s a community reminder that coming together we can create something much better than each of us can think of on ourselves and we have lots to do to be able to prove that.

She added she remembered when she and Comerford first took office in 2018 that the two pledged to advocate on behalf of Amherst to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

“This new school is just a real testament to us coming together to create something, and to create something better than we could have originally envisioned,” Domb said. “It speaks to Amherst commitment to clean, green and exciting learning environments. It speaks to our commitment to students and our young families, and it speaks to our commitment to being part of a climate solution.”

Comerford echoed similar sentiments by Domb and said she was there to add her “heartfelt congratulations” to the community.

“Amherst gets it done. Amherst holds your values center and calls us to be accountable to work in the best interests for the greatest number of Amherst residents,” Comerford said. “You really do show us what grace, grit and perseverance can bring to a town.”

District 1 Town Councilor Cathy Schoen has played a role in securing a new school building for the town as she has chaired the Elementary School Building Committee and called the groundbreaking an “incredibly exciting moment.”

Schoen added the groundbreaking sets the town on a path to achieve three ambitious goals for the town, children, climate and community.

“Our children will have a supportive place to learn and work together in daylight filled classrooms, with 21st century technology,” Schoen said.

She reiterated an important piece of the project was its climate action and energy efficiency that includes ground-source heat pumps and photovoltaic panels. The school will also feature a stage inside its cafeteria that will be utilized for after-hours events.

Executive Director of the Massachusetts School Building Authority Mary Pichetti said the state was pleased to be providing around half the funding for the building.

“It’s a great feeling to be here today, especially knowing the challenges that you faced,” Pichetti said. “Communities like yourself have to persevere and have to work through a process so that we are able to stand here today and look at the future site of the new Amherst Elementary School.”

The project will also restore community playing fields, provide basketball courts, trails, rain gardens and more, for residents of all ages. The building is designed to enable after-hours use, including a cafeteria with a stage.

“This building is a testament to the fortitude and generosity of the taxpayers of Amherst and the voters of Amherst, who stood up, went door to door, and went to the ballot box and voted overwhelmingly to build this school for our children,” Bockelman said.

The project is expected to cost up to $98.2 million. State support from the MSBA is set at $50.2 million, Eversource incentives for energy efficiency and ground source heat pumps will provide $1.6 million, Community Preservation Act funds will provide $700,000 for fields, with the remaining $45.7 million being paid by the town.

Town officials continue to seek additional funding to offset the cost to taxpayers. Voters approved overwhelmingly municipal funding for the project in a debt exclusion vote on May 2, 2023.

The goal is for the new school building to open by September 2026, with the demolition of the existing schools and construction of athletics fields to follow through the fall.