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.

Friday, January 30, 2009

NEW Amherst School Committee Meeting

The Regional School Committee meeting scheduled for Tuesday, February 3rd has been cancelled. The next meeting of the Regional School Committee will be Tuesday, February 24th - this is when the 2009-2010 budget will be initially presented, so that would be a good meeting to attend for information about potential cuts at the middle and high school level.

A special meeting of the Amherst School Committee is now scheduled for Tuesday, February 3rd at 7:00 p.m. in the Amherst Regional High School library. The only item of business on the agenda will be to clarify the budget options to be presented at the February 10th School Committee meeting - meaning the specific financial estimates the School Committee expects to receive from the Superintendents regarding the various elementary school reconfiguration options discussed at our last meeting. This is NOT a meeting at which a vote for or against any of these options will be taken.

Please Come Meet the Superintendent Candidates

The Screening Committee for the Superintendent Search is pleased to announce that three candidates have been selected as finalists for the position of Superintendent of Schools. The three candidates are:

Dr. Alberto Rodriguez -- visit on February 4 and 5; Public Forum from 7 to 8:30 pm on Wednesday, February 4th (high school library); Community Breakfast from 8 to 9 am on Thursday, February 5th (middle school cafeteria);

Dr. Isabellina Rodriguez -- visit on February 9 and 10; Public Forum from 7 to 8:30 pm on Monday, February 9th (high school library); Community Breakfast from 8 to 9 am on Tuesday, February 10th (middle school cafeteria);

Dr. David Sklarz -- visit on February 11 and 12; Public Forum from 7 to 8:30 pm on Wednesday, February 11th (high school library); Community Breakfast from 8 to 9 am on Thursday, February 12th (middle school cafeteria).

All members of the community are invited to meet the candidates, ask questions and offer written feedback to the School Committee about the candidates.

Dr. Alberto Rodriguez currently serves as Principal of Westland Hialeah Senior High School in the Miami-Dade School District, a position he has held for two years. Dr. Rodriguez has worked in the Miami-Dade District for approximately 12 years and has held the positions of Region Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and was Principal at both Miami-Killian Senior High School and American Senior High School. In his current position, Dr. Rodriguez opened this 21st century high school, based on the philosophy of preparing students to become productive citizens in an increasingly diverse, global economy. Prior, as Assistant and Associate Superintendent of the nationally acclaimed The School Improvement Zone, Dr. Rodriguez successfully led school reform of 39 chronically low-performing schools. Dr. Rodriguez obtained his undergraduate degree in Social Studies from Florida International University, followed by an M.S. in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University and an Ed.D in Educational Leadership from Barry University. Dr. Rodriguez is certified as a Social Science teacher of Grades 6-12, holds K-12 School Principal certification in Florida and is licensed as a Superintendent of Schools in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts.

Dr. Isabellina Rodriguez is currently Superintendent of Schools in Northampton, Massachusetts, a position she has held since 2004. Dr. Rodriguez began her work in Northampton as Director of Pupil Services in 1994. In her current position, Dr. Rodriguez has worked collaboratively with the administrative team, the School Committee, and the community to design a comprehensive plan to address the achievement gap, which is proving successful. Prior to joining the Northampton School District, Dr. Rodriguez worked in the Springfield Public Schools, serving first as a Bilingual Special Education Teacher for six years, then as an Evaluation Team Leader/Crisis Support Teacher, and finally as Supervisor of Special Education. She has been an adjunct faculty member of both Elms College and of Westfield State College. With an undergraduate degree in Special Education from Westfield State College, Dr. Rodriguez secured an M.Ed from the same institution in Educational Administration, then an Ed.D in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Rodriguez holds Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education certification as follows: Teacher of Students with Severe Special Needs, Supervisor/Director of Special Education, and Superintendent of Schools.

Dr. David Sklarz currently serves as Superintendent of Schools in West Hartford, Connecticut, a position he has held for 14 years. Prior to assuming this role, Dr. Sklarz served as Superintendent in Santa Cruz, California; Deputy Superintendent in Charlestown, South Carolina; Middle School Director in Ridgefield, Connecticut; Middle School Principal in Marblehead, Massachusetts; and Interim Principal and Assistant Principal in Concord, New Hampshire. In addition, Dr. Sklarz was a Department Supervisor/Teacher in Ipswich, Massachusetts. In his current assignment, Dr. Sklarz has led a large, diverse district with rapidly changing demographics; a district in which six of sixteen schools is nationally recognized as exemplary by the United States Department of Education. Dr. Sklarz obtained his undergraduate degree in Education and History from UMASS/Boston, then secured his MA in History and Asian Studies from Salem State College, completed a CAGS in Management Systems from Boston University, and obtained an Ed.D in Administration and Policy Analysis from Teachers’ College at Columbia University. Dr. Sklarz holds licensure as Superintendent of Schools in the State of Connecticut.

Superintendent Article From the Gazette

Northampton superintendent a finalist for top Amherst education job

AMHERST - Northampton's superintendent is one of three finalists for the top schools job in Amherst.

Isabelina Rodriguez, superintendent of schools in Northampton since 1994; Alberto Rodriguez, a principal in the Miami-Dade school district; and David Sklarz, superintendent of schools in West Hartford, are contenders for the Amherst post, officials announced this morning.

Amherst Regional School Committee members interviewed semi-finalists last weekend from a pool of 20 applicants.

"These three, I think, are very interesting, " Andrew Churchill, chairman of the Amherst School Committee, said this morning. "I think it's going to be a really good array of choices for the community to give us input on."

Sklarz has run an extremely high-performing district in West Hartford," Churchill said.

Alberto Rodriguez has served in one of the most diverse districts in the Miami area and overseen 55 schools in his former post as assistant superintendent there, Churchill said.

And Isabelina Rodriguez is very strong in special education and bilingual education and has been successful in forming partnerships with area institutions of higher education, he said.

"Northampton is really working well with Smith College and they also have a really well developed volunteers-in-the-schools program. We were excited about her potential to really make better connections with all the resources we have," Churchill said.

Rodriguez began her work in Northampton as director of pupil services in 1994 and worked in the Springfield public schools before that as a bilingual education teacher.

If chosen, she would follow Department of Public Works Director Guilford Mooring and Assistant Town Manager and Finance Director John Musante in leaving posts in Northampton for Amherst.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Superintendent Finalist Visits

The following announcement is now on the Amherst Regional Schools website -- and I strongly, strongly encourage all parents and community members to attend these three meetings to meet, hear, and then share your views about the candidates (information about the candidates, including names and bios, will be released later this week):

Save these Dates!

The School Committee is anticipating that three finalists will be visiting the district over the next two weeks. Each will spend 2 days in the district and participate in public forums as follows:

Candidate 1 - Wednesday, February 4
Candidate 2 - Monday, February 9
Candidate 3 - Wednesday, February 11

Each of the public forums will be held in the High School Library at 7 p.m. All members of the community are invited to meet the candidates, ask questions and offer written feedback to the School Committee about the candidates.

Also, please remember that these interviews are a two-way street ... we want to hear what YOU think about each of the candidates, and we also want to convince the candidates that they would like to work in Amherst!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hampshire Gazette Article on My Blog

Below please find an article about my blog -- and the heat it has generated over the last week -- by Mary Carey that appears in today's Hampshire Gazette. I'm posting it here since I know not everyone gets the Gazette.

Amherst School Committee member's blog furthers heated debate
Staff Writer

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

AMHERST - An emotionally charged discussion of whether to close Mark's Meadow Elementary School to save money has moved to a School Committee member's blog.

A lively back-and-forth has developed in recent days at "My School Committee Blog," run by board member Catherine Sanderson.

Sanderson, on her blog and elsewhere, has repeatedly said closing Mark's Meadow would save the most by far of several elementary school reconfiguration plans discussed as possible cost-saving measures. This is based on the School Committee's preliminary calculations. School officials have projected a budget shortfall in the $1 million range.

Some who have posted to her blog thank Sanderson, who has been answering all the questions they raise, for the information she is providing.

Other people object to the forum.

"May I express how out-of-line I believe the #My School Committee Blog,' written by Catherine A. Sanderson is, in its effort to push the agenda of closing Mark's Meadow School?" writes John Keins, a Mark's Meadow teacher, in a letter to the Amherst Bulletin.

Keins says he finds some of Sanderson's assertions on the blog to be "erroneous conjecturing." In one post she says she has spoken to some Mark's Meadow parents who are not opposed to closing the school and would welcome sending their children to Wildwood Elementary School. Keins expressed doubt that the claim is valid.

Other posters to "My School Committee" consider the merits of the forum in the comment section.

The place for debate

"This blog is ... the place in Amherst to have an informed debate about education," writes Joel Wolfe, a University of Massachusetts professor of history. "The SC meetings are largely a farce and the public is treated shamefully."

An anonymous poster asks whether there are parameters for officials blogging: "Many towns and cities have very specific guidelines and rules for how public officials and employees can blog because of some of the legal implications," the poster notes.

"In most instances, a disclaimer that the blog is the personal opinion of the blogger is not usually enough. Does the town of Amherst have a #blogging policy?'"

A group of parents has written a letter to "implore the committee to withhold judgment and cease publicizing unconfirmed information," saying the decision to close Mark's Meadow should be made only under "careful professional review, hard numbers and community input."

Mark's Meadow parent Tracy Hightower, one of the letter writers, said she isn't opposed to Sanderson answering questions on the blog, but fears Sanderson's tone of certainty may sway some people who are not following the discussion closely.

"I think the sentiment is that since the School Committee is an elected board they shouldn't be advocating so much for a certain procedure until they have the information."

Hightower thinks "it's almost an ethical issue for an elected official to be so opinionated in one direction or another before all the information is clearly provided. Catherine is really committed to doing the right thing," Hightower said. "I'm just concerned about how vocal she's been for this one particular plan."

Sanderson said there is nothing hidden or half-baked about her calculations. The way the elementary school population is divided now there are vast inequities, she said, and taxpayers are paying more per child to be educated at Mark's Meadow where class sizes are smaller than at the other schools.

Among the disparities often cited are that some 60 percent of students at Crocker Farm qualify for free or reduced lunch compared to 22 percent at Wildwood.

Unless substantial cost savings can be found, it is likely that music and art programs would be cut and children charged for riding the bus, Sanderson said, changes that would hurt students from lower-income families most. Said Sanderson, "As an elected official, I 100 percent think I have a responsibility to every school child in Amherst."

To those who object to her sharing her opinions on her blog she said, "It's called #My School Committee Blog.'" The emphasis is on the "My," she said. "Anybody else who wants to have their own School Committee blog can set that up and have their opinions on it."

Mary Carey can be reached at

Monday, January 26, 2009

Thoughts on School Spending

One of the issues that has been raised over the last few weeks on my blog is the appropriate balance between size of school, quality of learning, and cost effectiveness. As a School Committee member, and as a parent of three kids, and as a tax payer, I care a lot about what goes on in the schools and how we get the "biggest bang for our buck." That's one of the reasons I like to look at data ... if we are choosing to spend a lot of money on a given program, we should make sure that we are getting benefits out of that program in terms of educational outcomes (and yes, I'd like to see measurable outcomes, not just anecdotal reports regarding people's beliefs about that program). That's one of the reasons I've pushed so hard on School Committee for actual data that demonstrates the effectiveness (or perhaps ineffectiveness) of what we are doing.

In service of that goal, I ran some numbers this weeked on spending at each of the four elementary schools, based on the 2007-2008 budget as a function of the number of students at each school (why did I use that budget, instead of the current budget is a good question -- more on that later in this entry). Because the schools are really different in terms of the percentage of kids with special needs and the percentage of English Language Learners, I didn't include any of the costs associated with Special Education OR Bilingual Teaching. But I added up all of the costs for all of the other budgets in each of the following categories: art, music, PE, reading instruction, teachers, computers, supplies, library, guidance, psychology, custodial, and adminstative. Then, I divided by the number of kids in each school that year to get a sense of what are per pupil costs are (again, ignoring special ed and bilingual teaching). Here is the data:

Fort River: $5,105 (with 478 students)
Wildwood: $5,495 (with 418 students)
Marks Meadow: $6,302 (with 185 students)
Crocker Farm: $7,171 (with 255 students)

These numbers seem very striking to me ... because they mean that the per-pupil expenditure varies by basically $2,000 as a function of school. And I don't think this is fair (OK, maybe I'm biased -- my kids go to Fort River). Now, why are these expenses so different? One issue seems clearly the size of the school -- our two largest schools are the two cheapest per student, and that makes a lot of sense (e.g., the cost for music instruction and library is pretty similar at all four schools, and yet FR has more than twice as many kids as MM). I've made this point on this blog before (small schools are inherently cost-ineffective, although they can and do have many other special qualities). Another issue that seems clearly to influence the amount spent per student is the income level of parents at that school -- the school with the most kids on free/reduced lunch BY FAR is Crocker Farm. In turn, it seems likely to me that those kids may need more help (including smaller classes, more reading instruction, more school supplies, etc.) than those at many of the other schools. Again, solving the issue of the massive inequity in our schools in terms of income might well lead to more equitable per pupil spending at our schools.

In addition to looking at numbers in terms of costs per pupil, I also looked at class sizes per school (another way of calculating equity). These numbers also look very different by school (some of these have been reported in earlier posts, but I'm repeating them here for ease of comparison). Fort River has the largest class size average (19.7), with a range of 17 to 25. Wildwood has the next largest class size average (19.3), with a range of 17 to 22. Marks Meadow has the third largest class size average (19.1), with a range of 16 to 25. And Crocker Farm has the smallest class size average (17.7), with a range of 15 to 22. These massive variations in class size (again, from 15 to 25 across the four schools and seven grades) would be much easier to even out with either of the pairing plans OR three schools (simply because more classrooms at a given grade level in a given school lets you even out the numbers better). This is frankly why all three of the plans now being discussed (closing MM, pairing CF/FR and MM/WW, creating three K to 4 schools and a 5/6 school) achieve SOME cost savings (about 7 classrooms, or $350,000).

I also want to emphasize the importance of taking a long-term look at the budget situation, and not simply making choices that will only temporarily solve a problem. For example, in 2007 and 2008, Town Meeting spent $300,000 (because it was a capital expense) buying two portables for Marks Meadow. That is a lot of money ... and obviously it was done to be able to provide more flexibility to Marks Meadow so that kids at that school didn't end up with super-large classes, required . However, if you look at the enrollment projections for MM for next year (180 students), we only need 9 classrooms (and there are 10 classrooms in MM, plus the two portables, which apparently we do not even need). This is why we need to focus on what the enrollment projections are -- so that we don't make expensive decisions (like buying two portables!) that really don't help us manage enrollments in a cost-effective way.

So, what are these projections? For next year, we project 1309 kids in k to 6. This changes slightly (1300 in 2010, 1288 in 2011, 1307 in 2012, and 1359 in 2013). So, we could have as many as 50 extra kids in our schools (over next year's projections) in four years. However, I'd say two factors make me think this is not very likely (this is my opinion, just to be clear).

1. These projections were developed PRIOR to the start of the Chinese Charter School, which is now enrolling about 10 Amherst kids per year (so, it is pretty likely that we might be high by as many as 70 kids).

2. Both U Mass and Amherst College now have virtual hiring freezes, as they attempt to solve budget crises they are facing. In turn, this means they won't be hiring as many young professors/staff/graduate students as they expected (and these people are the most likely to have kids who attend our schools).

So, what's my conclusion? It seems to me (again, this is an opinion here) that we could easily fit our projected enrollments into three buildings for the next five years (and maybe longer). Again, there might well be reasons why some parents/teachers would want to keep four schools open, but in terms of the "will our kids fit" and "will class sizes be massive" questions, the answers to me seem clear ("yes" to the first, "no" to the second).

Now back to my earlier point about why I ran the numbers using the 2007-2008 budget, and not the current 2008-2009 budget. The reason is that the School Committee apparently asked (this was before I was on the SC) for a more stream-lined version of the budget, which is what we now receive/review. This means that expenditure by school isn't reported ... which I think is a problem. I've therefore asked that we return to at least providing the option of a full budget (including line by line items by school) to those School Committee members who would like to see this level of information. I also think it would be important to calculate these by schools numbers each year, and over time, so that we can make sure that the kids at the different schools are having as equitable an experience as possible.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Out of Line" to Blog?!?

As many of you will read in today's Bulletin, a letter from John Keins, a teacher at Marks Meadow, resoundly criticizes my use of this blog as a "bully pulpit to further the agenda of those associated with it." He raises two main points to make his case:

1. I make the claim on my blog that "the vast majority of families now attending Marks Meadow do so because it is their assigned school, not because they necessarily chose it because it is small."

2. I also make the claim on my blog that "I have heard from families at Marks Meadow who are feeling pressured to speak against the closing but are actually hoping we close it and their kids get to go to Wildwood."

He also, more generally, blames me for "erroneous conjecturing" and taking an "improper stance by blatantly espousing her opinions with little solid data to back them up." He also believes that public officials are supposed to be objective.

So, let me now give my response to each of these concerns.

First, as it states clearly at the top of my blog, my blog is "MY BLOG." I am giving my opinions, and certainly even elected officials are allowed to have, and even give, opinions. (And there are no other people associated with my blog, for the record). This is precisely the same way in which teachers and families at Marks Meadow can give opinions, and as other School Committee members have given their opinions on many issues that come before the committee. But more importantly, what is very clear for those who read through my multiple postings, is that I am giving data throughout -- I'm giving projected class sizes in each school, I'm giving projected enrollments by grade at each school, and I'm giving projected cost savings for each model. These numbers aren't just "my opinions" -- they were created by a team of school leaders, and presented at a large and public meeting (which representatives from Marks Meadow attended, including the principal) on Wednesday, January 7th. In fact, many people have actually praised my blog for providing this type of data that is often hard to find in this district. Now, it is MY OPINION that given the cost savings associated with each model and the relative costs/benefits of various ways of reaching a balanced budget that closing Marks Meadow is the best solution. That is indeed entirely my own opinion, but it is based on the objective data that I have seen -- and that, I would say, is precisely the role of an elected official -- to make sure that data is presented, to examine the accuracy of that data, and to then reach an opinion (which I'll have to do when I vote on the budget later this year). Perhaps Mr. Keins and other MM families are concerned that I have reached my opinions sooner than they would like -- because certainly final cost savings numbers are still coming in (as is our funding from the state). But while some small adjustments may appear in the final budget projections in the next month or so, the reality is that the cost savings to be realized from closing MM are immense, and are always going to be immense. As I have written REPEATEDLY, the cost savings from closing MM are achieved by increasing cost efficiencies in class size and thereby reducing need for about 7 teachers (which either of the pairing plans would also accomplish), coupled with the administrative cost savings (principal, secretary, nurse, librarian, music, art, guidance counselor, etc. -- which are ONLY achieved in this plan), and those two types of costs added up are just too important to disregard in the face of a projected million+ budget gap. Mr. Keins and some Marks Meadow families may disagree with my opinion -- they may believe that the community should prioritize having a small school, and that the benefits of having this option outweigh the high cost to all kids of keeping this school open (because we will then obviously have to reach these cost savings in other ways). But that is their opinion, just like my opinion is that closing MM is the best way to reach these cost savings -- we are just weighing the information differently in reaching our opinions.

2. I've looked at the data on School Choice ... and 92% of the kids in Amherst go to their assigned school -- so my statement that the vast majority of kids go to their assigned school seems accurate (92% is, in my opinion, a vast majority). So, Mr. Keins may believe that many families are choosing to go to Marks Meadow, but the reality is that 27% of the families at MM live in U Mass student housing. This is rental housing, meaning that those families haven't made the decision that many people have in this district to buy a house in a particular district so our kids could go to a particular school. I'm quite willing to bet (even without a survey) that when families are arriving to attend graduate school at U Mass, they choose that housing because it is convenient, relatively inexpensive, and is easy to find even from a distance -- not because they are particularly interested in having their children attend a particular elementary school. Do some families buy/rent houses in the MM district so their kids can attend that school? I'm sure that does happen -- I bought my house in the Fort River district so my kids could attend that school. But in my opinion, the fact that 9% of families might prefer a small school (because the MM kids represent only 9% of elementary school kids in our four schools -- and again, at least SOME of these are at this school simply because it is their district) just doesn't justify spending a million a year keeping it open precisely at a time in which we are trying to save a million. That just doesn't seem fair to me to ALL the kids in the district (including those now at MM) who are going to have to pay for music, pay bus fees, have large class sizes, etc., if we don't close MM and hence have to find other ways to balance the budget. And I'm frankly particularly concerned because I see ALL of those solutions as placing a disproportionate burden on low income families -- who do make up 31% of our district (who won't be able to pay for private music lessons, who will find paying for the bus very onerous, and so on).

3. Mr. Keins may or may not believe me ... but the reality is, I have been contacted by MM families who would prefer to have their kids in a larger environment. This is not a slight against the principals or staff or teachers at MM in any way ... it is just that some families feel that their child would benefit from having a broader interaction with more kids, particularly at a school with a very high turn-over rate of kids each year (30%). So when Mr. Keins challenges me to "spend a morning in the Mark's Meadow school" to find a single parent who would prefer for their child to go to a different school -- I haven't needed to spend a morning to find such a family ... because those families have found me. Some of those families are now choosing to not attend Marks Meadow (in some cases because their child had to go to a different school for kindergarten, given the space constraints at MM, and they preferred for their child to stay at the new school; in other cases their child is now at MM, but they are recognizing that the peer group is just very small, and they have serious concerns about that). Mr. Keins should recognize that it is hard for families to share these concerns honestly with teachers and PTO leaders at MM when the public norm at MM is so strongly tilted in one direction. And hence those families are approaching me privately with their concerns.

In sum, let me be very clear about one thing: I am not in favor of closing Marks Meadow. I am, however, strongly in favor of maintaining what I believe most parents value about the Amherst schools: small class sizes, appropriate support staff for kids who need it (guidance counselors, therapeutic aids, etc.), a rich music and art program, FREE buses, and so on. And I have run the numbers the very best way that I can -- and I can't see another way to cut a million from our budget and preserve those things I want to see in our schools. This is indeed my opinion ... and if Mr. Keins or any Marks Meadow parents have specific ideas for ways we can save a million from our schools without closing MM--and without disadvantaging the poorest kids in our district (by charging for buses and music, eliminating support staff who work with kids who are in need, etc.), I'd love to hear them.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Superintendent Search Update

Just wanted to update everyone on the very important search for a new superintendent: the current plan is for the finalists (3 or 4) to come to visit Amherst the weeks of February 2nd and 9th. There will be opportunities to meet and ask questions of each of the candidates during public forums, and to then give feedback to the School Committee. Please look for more announcements in the next week or so about the specific times/dates of the public forums for superintendent candidates and try to attend if you at all can. One more thing: please remember that these public forums are a two-way street ... we need to not only determine which candidate is the best fit for Amherst, but also to convince that person that he/she would like to work here (and good candidates will very likely have offers to go elsewhere). I see hiring a great superintendent as an essential step in creating a school system that is truly a model of excellent public education for all students. What a time of great potential for our district.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Amherst Meeting, January 13, 2008

This meeting focused almost entirely on two issues: the budget situation (grim) and the potential school reorganization (related to the budget issue, and also grim, but in a different way). First, Rob Detweiler presented information on projected cuts of nearly half a million to next year's budget ... stating that the next round of cuts would be deeper (probably at least a million, potentially more). Specific information on the nature of the cuts was not given, so I can't comment on those -- but that information will be given at the next Amherst School Committee meeting on February 10th (please put that date in your calendar now).

Next, we turned to the issue that had brought many parents to the meeting -- the potential school reorganization. This part of the meeting began with Superintendent Vivian reading a 2-page statement that entirely reversed her recommendation of only a month ago -- she apparently now believes, despite all reports that the economy continues to be very bad and major cuts will have to be made, that we should continue to have four elementary schools, and simply make careful cuts and raise fees. In addition, her statement spoke at great length about her strong opposition to closing Marks Meadow School. This statement is available on the district homepage (, so you can read it yourself -- but in brief, she made (in the fourth paragraph) three statements that are based entirely on her opinion, not any data or facts, and seem to be, in the words of several parents I talked to who attended the meeting, "fear-mongering." These statements were as follows:

1. Closing MM will lead to three extremely crowded elementary schools;
2. Many Marks Meadow families clearly prefer a small school, and thus will likely leave the district for the charter school or choice out of the district, thereby costing the district a great deal of money; and
3. Redrawing the attendance boundaries for the entire district will be very difficult and lead to serious disruptions for many students.

I am extremely concerned that the superintendent's comments, particularly because she presented absolutely no data to back up any of her assertions. First, and as Steve Rivkin and I pointed out in our recent op-ed in the Amherst Bulletin, even a quick examination of the school enrollments over the past 20 years show that the three larger schools can in fact accommodate all current students and projected enrollment into the foreseeable future with class sizes below 25. Three elementary schools can easily handle an additional 19-34 students per grade (projected enrollment at Marks Meadow). Next year’s projections show that the average class size at the three schools will be: 16.7 at Crocker Farm; 18.8 at Wildwood; and 19.6 at Fort River, and there are 3 or 4 classes per grade at both Wildwood and Fort River and 2 or 3 classes per grade at Crocker Farm. If you put an additional 10 students per grade at Wildwood and Fort River and an additional 5 or so at Crocker you would get average class sizes of between 18 and 23 throughout the district. The two portable classrooms currently at Mark’s Meadow would obviously be moved to Crocker Farm to create additional classroom space.

Second, the vast majority of families now attending Marks Meadow do so because it is their assigned school, not because they necessarily chose it because it is small. It is likely that some like the size and others would prefer a larger school (I've heard now from several Marks Meadow families who feel uncomfortable speaking out "against" their school, but would prefer for their own children to attend a larger school, where they would have more potential classmates during a 7-year period and would have more ability to match their children with teachers that fit their child's learning style). It is of course not surprising that families feel a strong attachment to their current school -- my own kids have a great attachment to their school (Fort River) and would be sad to leave it (and we too, like many of the MM parents who spoke, bought a house where we did so my kids could go to that school). However, whether many of the families would leave the district for charters or other districts is entirely speculative on the part of the Superintendent. More important, I believe that it is far far more likely that serious cuts to programs at all schools and the elimination of K-6 neighborhood schools would lead to these types of costly defections. The fact that the savings from the closure of Marks Meadow could be used to maintain and perhaps even augment current programs including neighborhood K-6 schools for all district students seems too important to dismiss out of hand. I also believe that the proposed cuts to maintain all four schools would have a disproportionate impact on low income families -- who would be forced to pay for the bus, would lose music lessons for their children, would lose guidance counselors, etc. And I find this very, very problematic -- major cuts just don't impact all kids equally (and wealthier families can more easily opt out of public schools).

Third, redistricting would not be easy given the strong views held in the community about many of our schools and the natural desire to remain with current friends and teachers. Nonetheless, the district is not that large, and a careful planning process that would ensure that all students would be able to remain with a sizable group of current classmates seems entirely plausible. One could certainly consider a plan that would move all Marks Meadow students en mass to one of the other schools (in fact, these students would stay together with ALL of their friends, whereas some children in both CF and FR would certainly move, thereby splitting up friendship groups). In addition, one of the pairing plans that that MM families pushed to keep on the table was having three K to 4 schools and a 5/6 school -- this plan would obviously eliminate the Wildwood school as we know it -- which those kids/families/teachers would also see as a huge loss (and this is a much larger school), yet not a single family from Wildwood complained about this as a model. I also remain very concerned about the massive inequity in our schools, and believe that a redistricting to three districts would thus not only achieve very important cost savings, but also allow us an opportunity to create much greater equity in our schools. I've pasted the current district map at the start of this posting to show you how ridiculous our current districts are -- and frankly, we would probably achieve cost savings on transportation alone if we had kids going to schools that were closest to where they actually lived!

Despite the Superintendent’s efforts to oppose even considering the closing of Marks Meadow, the School Committee unanimously asked to keep this option on the table, which I think is frankly the only appropriate action we could take, given that this is the most cost-effective model. However, we also agreed (this was NOT my preference) to keep the other two models on the table (pairing the schools, creating three K to 4 schools and a 5/6). We are supposedly going to receive numbers related to all of these options (cost savings, cuts, etc.) at the February 10th model — so stay tuned (though I think it is very unlikely that we will actually be able to get good data on four different models in four weeks -- another reason why I preferred just focusing on the closing MM as an alternative to our current system). But even if timing was not such a huge issue (which clearly it is), I think the issue I’ve heard repeatedly from parents and teachers about the two transition models is that the pairing model (K to 2, 3 to 6) makes only a three year school for the first experience, which seems very rough. In addition, this plan doesn’t work PHYSICALLY in our district — we don’t have the classrooms at MM to take care of all the K to 2 kids now at MM and WW. And the other model (3 K to 4s and a 5/6) introduces a 2-year school, which in turn means that we have another two-year school (which hasn’t been perceived as very successful in the case of the Middle School). Thus, both of these seem to have pretty major problems in the opinions of many parents/teachers I’ve talked to, and those problems are very hard to get around, given our current configuration of school buildings. In addition, neither of these models saves very much $$ -- about $300,000, which is less than half of what we save by closing a school (meaning those models would create a transition AND require additional cuts).

But the most important issue for me is that if we move to either of those models for next year, we are in effect blinding the hands of the next superintendent ... Because if we go to either of these models, we can’t close MM for the foreseeable future (because it would mean redistricting and moving kids again), and even if we decide not to close MM this year, I just think it would be irresponsible to take this massive cost-saving option off the table for the new superintendent to consider next year.

Monday, January 12, 2009

School Reorganization Meeting, January 7, 2008

A group of about 40 people (all four elementary school principals, parents and teachers from all schools, all elementary School Committee members, the superintendent, and several administrators) met for three hours on Wednesday, January 7th to discuss the various options for reorganizing the elementary schools. I am not going to go into all of the many issues discussed because this information is going to be distributed at the School Committee meeting on Tuesday, January 13th -- and because hard data (e.g., dollars saved in each plan, specific districts) was still not presented. But I'd strongly encourage you to attend the School Committee meeting -- or catch it on TV -- because it should be a thorough discussion of the various options.

After the meeting, I talked with a number of parents and teachers in the district, and I've given a lot of thought to the various options discussed (and the pros/cons of each). And it is my strong belief that the best plan for next year is to close Marks Meadow. I do not say that lightly -- I know that closing a school is emotional for many people -- and I do not say that without the full awareness that closing one of our schools means redistricting all of our schools -- and it is very likely that my three kids would therefore move from Fort River to Crocker Farm (based on where we live, that seems likely). But the reality is that virtually everyone I have talked to has praised the K to 6 model -- they like the connection families and kids feel to a single school, they like they awareness teachers/staff have of kids as they watch them grow, they like the advantages of having older kids serve as reading buddies and role models in the orchestra and band (and having the younger kids keep the older ones more kind and gentle!), they like the ability to have multiple kids in the same school, and so on. The two grade-level reorganization plans eliminate many of these pluses (especially the pairing one, which would have kids in a school for only K to 2), and these plans would both mean kids are on the school bus for longer periods of time twice a day -- which strikes me as not insignificant. In addition, closing a school is the ONLY way for us to realize substantial savings (more than twice the savings of either of the other models), meaning that with either of the grade-level plans, we'd gain transitions and more bus time and less connection to a school -- AND still have to make more cuts to balance the budget! It just doesn't make sense to me.

So, what about just keeping the four schools open, and making serious cuts? Well, we could do that, and we may do that -- I certainly don't know how other School Committee members feel about that option. But I've heard about the cuts that are being considered to balance the budget, and I believe they would make the elementary schools significant less good than they are now. Things like cutting the instrumental music program, charging fees to ride the bus, increasing class sizes, eliminating the world language (that is now at Wildwood and could be brought to the other schools if we could find $100,000 in next year's budget). Those cuts sound much more painful to me than closing a school -- which would allow us to preserve what is so special about our elementary schools.

My preference is to close Marks Meadow and thereby save about a million a year. It would leave us with 61 classrooms in three schools, and class sizes about what we have now (18.6 for kindergarten, 19.1 for 1st grade, 10.9 for 2nd grade, 20.3 for 3rd grade, 21.4 for 4th grade, 22.4 for 5th grade, 22.1 for 6th grade). This is 9 fewer classrooms than in our current four school model, at a savings of about $450,000 (9 classrooms X $50,000 per teacher). We'd also save money on the administrative team (principal, nurse, librarian, etc.). And transportation costs would not increase -- we'd just bus those kids to other schools. Unless the budget projections are even worse than anticipated, we could largely solve the entire budget problem with this closing -- and perhaps even find some extra money (if the budget gap comes in closer to $500,000 than a million), which would allow us to add world language (Chinese or Spanish) in all three schools K to 6. This sounds to me like a great opportunity to maintain -- and even potentially improve -- the quality of elementary school education in Amherst.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

January 6, 2009, Regional Meeting

This was a pretty short meeting because most of it was spent in Executive Session (choosing semi-finalists for the Superindents position). The public comment consisted entirely of questions from parents about the middle school pool closing -- and it seems like many other districts have chosen to keep the pools open while working on a solution (and have parents of those on tehe swim team sign a waiver). I suggested we talk to our lawyer about this as an option -- the risk of death from the drain in our pool seems to be zero, and we could certainly fix the problem AND do necessary pool repairs later this spring/summer, after the team's season ends in February.

I also asked a question about when we were going to have an update on the evaluation of the 9th grade science program -- as has been promised repeatedly yet never shows up on an agenda. As I've written about before, the evaluation that occurred last spring (only after my election and then my insisting that something was done) was very incomplete and cursory, and thus won't allow us to evaluate the impact (positive OR negative) of the new required 9th grade science curriculum. I really hope the Superintendents and School Committee members will take the role of evaluating this unprecedented new curriculum seriously -- and it is disappointing to me that I seem to be the only one who actually would like to know whether this new science curriculum is effective.

I can't blog about things that occurred during Executive Session, but I will say that I think we have a great set of semi-finalists to interview, and I'm confident that we will be able to bring several strong finalists to town to meet with parents, teachers, administrators, students, and community members. Although we are still early in the process so timing could always change, I believe finalists will be coming to town in early February -- and it would be GREAT to have good turn-out at all events so that the School Committee gets a sense of community feelings about each candidate. I will post information about candidate visits as soon as they are available -- and I'm sure this information will also be widely distributed in the press, on the ARPS website, and through the schools.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

School Reorganization Update

Given the high rate of community interest in the potential school reorganization plans, I am describing the latest numbers ran by the schools in terms of the current option for next year (but this model does NOT include the projected cuts that would have to occur) as well as the three other plans (pair CF/FR, MM/WW; close MM; CF/FR/MM K to 4, WW 5-6). The group will be meeting tomorrow night to discuss these options (this group includes all the principals, plus teachers and parents from each of the schools, and administrators), and I'll blog more after that meeting. But for now, here are the numbers:

Current FY10 projection without cuts
Crocker (16) 268 kids
K (3) 15.7
1 (3) 15.3
2 (2) 15.0
3 (2) 17.5
4 (2) 18.0
5 (2) 21.5
6 (2) 15.5

Fort River (23) 441 kids
K (3) 19.0
1 (3) 17.0
2 (3) 18.3
3 (3) 21.3
4 (3) 20.3
5 (4) 18.8
6 (4) 19.5

Mark's Meadow (9) 180
K (1) 24.0
1 (1) 23.0
2 (2) 17.0
3 (1) 21.0
4 (1) 19.0
5 (1) 25.0
6 (2 ) 17.0

Wildwood (22) 413 kids
K (3) 19.3
1 (3) 17.3
2 (4) 17.3
3 (3) 21.3
4 (3)18.3
5 (3) 19.7
6 (3) 18.7

70 classrooms

Here's the key data: we don't know the cuts/cost savings with this configuration (to be determined soon, but there would be cuts); there is a pretty big range of class sizes; the schools look VERY different in terms of equity (range of kids on free/reduced lunch is from 22% in Wildwood to 54% in Crocker); and there are a number of educational pros and cons (least distruptive to families -- no one has 2 kids in 2 schools; minimizes transitions, meaning that staff know kids and families for up to 7 years; maximizes cross-age activities; maintains the idea of "neighborhood" schools; maintains inequities in class sizes, with some large classes at MM and some small classes at CF; perhaps most importantly, it is unclear what cuts will look like.

Here's what closing Marks Meadow would look like:

Crocker (16) 347 kids
K (3) 20.7
1 (2) 21.5
2 (2) 20.9
3 (2) 23.0
4 (2) 21.4
5 (3) 22.4
6 (2) 22.1

Fort River (22) 478 kids
K (3) 20.6
1 (3) 21.5
2 (3) 20.9
3 (3) 23.0
4 (3) 21.4
5 (3) 22.4
6 (4) 22.1

Wildwood (22) 477 kids
K (3) 20.6
1 (3) 21.5
2 (4) 20.9
3 (3) 23.0
4 (3) 21.4
5 (3) 22.4
6 (3) 22.1

60 classrooms (total)

Here's the key data: requires redistricting all schools (can't just divide MM kids/families into three schools, so other kids/families would have to be moved); this plan would save 10 teacher salaries PLUS the salaries of an administrative team (principal, office staff, nurse, etc.) which would total $825,000; this plan would leave us with an average class size of 20.6 to 21.5 in K to 2, and 21.4 to 23.0 in 3 to 6 (slightly larger than the current projection, but of course that projection doesn't include ANY cuts); this plan has many of the same advantages of our current K to 6 system (least distruptive to families -- no one has 2 kids in 2 schools; minimizes transitions, meaning that staff know kids and families for up to 7 years; maximizes cross-age activities; maintains the idea of "neighborhood" schools); this plan could improve equity in the schools by including some redistricting; this plan includes more equitable class sizes; this plan is logistically hard (it redistricting all schools); this plan has larger average class sizes, and more kids per school; this plan has an extra burden on MM families; closing a school is traumatic; if we leave the UMass building, we won't be able to get it back later.

Here's what the pairing plan (K to 2, 3 to 6 schools: CF/FR, MM/WW) would look like:

Crocker (14) 286 kids
K (5) 20.8
1 (5) 19.4
2 (4) 21.3

Fort River (21) 423 kids
3 (5) 19.8
4 (5) 19.4
5 (6) 19.7
6 (5) 21.8

Mark's Meadow (13) 260
K (4) 20.5
1 (4) 18.8
2 (5) 20.6

Wildwood (16) 333 kids
3 (4) 21.3
4 (4) 18.5
5 (4) 21
6 (4) 22.5

64 classrooms total

Here's the key information: this plan assumes can find another classroom at MM (perhaps by moving a "special" to auditorium) OR could have only K-1 at MM and 2-6 at WW; this plan would save 6 teacher salaries (at an estimated savings of $324,000); this plan would lead to class sizes of (K-2) 18.8 - 21.3 and (3-6) 18.5 - 22.5; this plan would have a more equitable distribution of kids on free/reduced lunch (26% in the MM-WW schools, 37% in the CF-FR schools); this plan could have some educational benefits (age-appropriate focus in each schools; maximizes opportunities for grade-level collaboration by teachers; maximizes opportunities for special grouping of kids based on ELL or special needs); this plan creates more equitable and smaller class sizes; this plan is easily understandable in terms of redistricting (e.g., families already know which district they are in); this plan creates a new configuration of neighborhood schools -- North and South; this plan creates one additional transition, with a large number of peers going together; this plan has the staff knowing kids, families for fewer years per school; this plan limits cross-age activities; it is possible that this plan would lead to staggered start times given bus schedules, and it is not clear how the bus schedules would work (e.g., would kids stay on one bus for two drop-offs at different schools, or would two buses go through each neighborhood).

Here's what the 3 K-4s, 1 5-6 (in Wildwood) plan:

Crocker (17) 312 kids
K (4) 18.6
1 (4) 17.2
2 (3) 16.7
3 (3) 20.4
4 (3) 19.0

Fort River (21) 384 kids
K (4) 18.6
1 (4) 17.2
2 (5) 16.7
3 (4) 20.4
4 (4) 19.0

Mark's Meadow (11) 201
K (2) 18.6
1 (2) 17.2
2 (3) 16.7
3 (2) 20.4
4 (2) 19.0

Wildwood (18) 401 kids
5 (9) 22.4
6 (9) 22.1

67 classrooms total

Here's the key information about this plan: it involves redistricting all schools (and assumes distributing WW K-4 classes evenly across other three schools); this plan saves 3 teacher salaries ($162,000 -- ALTHOUGH I DO NOT THINK THESE NUMBERS WERE RAN CORRECTLY -- IF YOU MAINTAIN SAME CLASS SIZES THAT WE HAVE IN THE PAIRING MODEL, YOU ACTUALLY SAVE AT LEAST FOUR TEACHERS, POSSIBLY MORE); this plan creates class sizes in (K-4) 16.7 - 20.4 and (5-6) 22.1 - 22.4; this plan could target range through redistricting; this plan has complete equity 5-6; this plan creates age-appropriate focus; this plan creates 5/6 and 7/8 middle school complex; for Amherst kids; this plan creates more opportunities for grade-level collaboration by teachers and more opportunities for special grouping of kids by ELL/special education; this plan creates more equitable class sizes (and very nice sizes for K-4); this plan could improve equity through redistricting; this plan requires redistricting all schools; this plan creates one additional transition; this plan involves the staff knowing kids/families for fewer years; this plan limits cross-age activities; this plan creates a particular burden on WW families; it is possible that this plan would lead to staggered start times given issues in busing.

OK, so there are the big options ... in looking at the choices, it seems pretty clear to me that closing Marks Meadow is the best option -- it would save a lot of money at a time in which money is in short supply, and thus preserve the educational experience for ALL kids. Although I understand that closing a school is hard, the Marks Meadow kids could move together (or largely together) to a new school (likely Wildwood?), and other kids would also have to move as part of the redistricting (and my own kids, who now go to Fort River, would potentially move to another school). It may be possible for us to scrape by next year with larger classes, more fees (I hear rumor of fees for taking the BUS), elimination of orchestra/band, etc., but I just don't think that is the answer. In fact, if we can find $100,000 in the budget, we can add (based on a world language grant) either Chinese or Spanish to ALL the elementary schools, so our kids would have exposure to another language (like the Wildwood kids ONLY now have) from K to 6. That seems like a great plus that would benefit all kids.

Stay tuned to see how the discussion goes tomorrow night ... I'll certainly keep you posted.