My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Press Release: Update on School Reorganization Plan

Thanks to all those who have written me -- on this blog and privately -- with their ideas, concerns, and thoughts. I am delighted that the superintendents have chosen to change the process that will be used to plan for a potential reorganization, and that they have decided to consider more than a single plan. Below please read the statement issued by the Superintendents and Chair of the School Committee.


Contact: Helen Vivian, Superintendent Andy Churchill, School Committee Chair
Email: Email:
Telephone: 362-1810 Telephone: 545-0958

School District Outlines Process for Considering Options for Restructuring Elementary Schools

December 16, 2008

No decision has been made yet. The schools are setting up a process for making a decision about how to operate the elementary schools next year, given fiscal challenges and Amherst’s high educational expectations. This process will include careful comparison of alternatives, based on educational, fiscal, and logistical criteria, and with a great deal of community input.

A very serious budget situation. As was announced by the superintendent at the December 9th school committee meeting, the Amherst public schools are facing a very serious situation in terms of the budget. Given the worsening economic climate, the elementary schools are told they must cut as much as $1.2 million from current service levels for next year (the current budget is about $20 million).

The “easy” cuts have already been made. The magnitude of this gap is such that small steps (such as raising fees, cutting school buses, and other commonly suggested steps) will not be sufficient. Over the past few years, with state aid not keeping up with inflation, a number of the “easy” cuts have already been made – including cutting administrators, supplies and field trip support; eliminating library aides; raising fees; and moderate but significant increases in class sizes. The elementary schools thus will need to make more substantial changes in the upcoming year, while seeking to provide the best educational experience possible for all children.

Without efficiencies from reconfiguration, cuts will be deeper, class sizes will be larger. It is important to understand what the impact would be of trying to make cuts of this size to the current configuration of our elementary schools. If we don’t find other ways of doing business more efficiently, we will have to make larger cuts to current services, resulting in dramatically larger class sizes and loss of other elements that make the Amherst schools special, such as literacy teachers, librarians, guidance counselors, instrumental music, art, and computers. Some of these steps are likely to be necessary regardless – a district reconfiguration only gets the schools part of the way there, but without it the cuts to the instructional core will be worse.

One alternative, as was mentioned at the December 9th meeting, is to pair the elementary schools (Crocker Farm-Fort River, Marks Meadow-Wildwood), and to have children attend one of these schools for the early elementary grades, and the other for the later elementary grades. This plan would in fact achieve significant cost savings: preliminary estimates are in the $300,000-400,000 range. This would still leave a sobering amount to cut, but the cuts would not be as bad as the alternative under the current configuration. This option also offers potential educational benefits (e.g., curriculum alignment, grouping options, teacher development) by yielding a larger number of classrooms per grade level in each building.

Reconfiguration has been studied for some time – the schools are not rushing into it. There is understandable concern among many parents and children about such a change, which may seem to many to have come out of nowhere. In fact, the district has been exploring various alternative plans for reorganizing the elementary schools since the 2007-2008 academic year, when the school committee charged an Amherst Schools Organization Committee with analyzing the pros and cons of various configurations, including the current one.

This committee included current principals Ray Sharick and Mike Morris and current school committee members Andy Churchill and Catherine Sanderson, as well as teachers, parents from each elementary school, and then-superintendent Hochman. This committee investigated a number of options, including the pairing model described previously as well as other reconfiguration models. In addition, this committee conducted a thorough review of available literature on school configuration models and their impact on student achievement, curriculum, instruction, transitions, impact on children and families, equity, transportations, and costs. (For the executive summary of this report, see .)

The district also commissioned a study of our current elementary school buildings, their capacity and their suitability for 21st-century educational expectations. This study was completed in 2007 by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), a private non-profit organization with expertise in school demographics and planning.

These reports and current district data are being incorporated in district decision-making as we confront the fiscal crisis and seek educationally sound options for moving forward.

District principals and superintendents have been meeting to explore options. The principals of the four elementary schools have been meeting regularly and intensively with the superintendents and central office staff to look at the educational and fiscal impacts of various options for dealing with the budget crisis. Two of the principals were on the Amherst Schools Organization Committee and have incorporated their knowledge of that committee’s work into the leadership team’s discussions. The proposal to consider pairing the elementary schools came out of these discussions with the principals.

Based on these discussions, it appears that there are a number of potential benefits – educational, equity, and fiscal – that could come from the pairing model mentioned above. We are now moving to consider this option against others, and to collect extensive public input in that option-weighing process.

Options under discussion include (1) maintaining our current system of four separate K-6 elementary schools in the context of up to $1.2 million in cuts, (2) the pairing of schools as mentioned above, (3) closing Marks Meadow and moving those students to other schools, and (4) providing three K-4 neighborhood schools and one 5-6 intermediate school (another option identified by the Schools Organization Committee).

The process for public input and decision-making. To inform the decision-making process, at the December 9th school committee meeting, the superintendent invited community members, particularly elementary school parents, to join school and district leaders on a study committee to deliberate on the pros and cons (financial and educational) of reconfiguring our elementary schools. Numerous people have responded, from all four elementary schools and the wider Amherst community. The district welcomes additional expressions of interest (see below for contact information).

From this group of volunteers, the superintendents will select a group that represents all schools and stakeholders to work with school and district staff as an initial study committee. This initial study committee will consider what questions, problems, and strengths are associated with each of the potential options, and advise the superintendents on how to move forward. The first meeting of this initial study committee will be in late December. The work of this group will inform the district’s decision-making and provide a foundation for future meetings with stakeholders, including a public hearing to be held by the school committee in January.

Regardless of the choice we make, given the fiscal crisis, the sad news is that without significant unexpected revenues our elementary schools will be changed next year. We have to make the best choice we can about which kind of change is best for our children. We look forward to your input in this process.

To provide input for the initial study committee to consider, to volunteer to participate, or for more information, please send an email to the superintendent at


Anonymous said...

First of all, thank you for helping to educate the community about school changes that will directly affect our families. I have read the Amherst Schools Organization Committee report, and there is one idea included that I hope is still on the table, for it seems to make the most economic and developmental sense.

This idea is to move the district's sixth graders to the middle school. If the sixth grade classrooms were vacated to accommodate K-5th grade students in three elementary schools, then one of the elementary schools could shut down, yet the other 3 schools could avoid overcrowding. The logical school to shut would be Crocker Farm, which according to the committee's report has been plagued with diversity issues. Shutting down this larger school would save the district much more money than shutting down Marks Meadow or bussing children and keeping all four schools open.

Shutting any of the schools is extremely distasteful, but so is separating families, fracturing communities and forcing children through yet another transition in their elementary years. I know the Superintendents and School Committee are doing their best to work through this serious budget problem and decide what's best for the children. I hope that this very logical option is not overlooked in the process.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should have a talk with our neighbor Belchertown about how this is working for them. I recall reading they redid their bus routes a couple of years ago and saved big money. I know there are rules regarding stops for the younger kids but maybe the older ones could walk to neighborhood stops. Maybe it would make up for them not having PE in high school!