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.

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 (http://www.arps.org/node/475), 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.

52 comments:

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Catherine, I too was disheartened by Super Vivian's speech. I was disappointed that she had so clearly championed a major change and then a month later is clearly championing no change, just cuts. I have been part of the reorg committee and saw no data to support that about-face. In fact, if anything, I was resistant to a major change at first but became convinced that major change was the only way after seeing the preliminary data.

I also objected to her statements about the proposed closing of MM...before she can say that the other schools would be too crowded, she needs to show us that with data. And before she states that many families would leave if they cannot go to a small school like MM, she needs to substantiate that. I think it is possible that parents might choose to pull their kids from our schools no matter what scenario occurs next year...including the one where we keep our current configuration and make drastic cuts. But we cannot plan around that possibility.

Finally, like you, I think that although redistricting will be painful for many, it will also help address some of the clear inequities among our schools. In my mind, drawing those new boundaries (for all scenarios under consideration) should be a priority of the Central Office.

I anxiously await the numbers on February 10th.

Stefan Petrucha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefan Petrucha said...

Hi -

Sorry for the repetition, but I wanted to move my (slightly amended) comment here, since your latest post was more germane to the meeting I attended.

After attending last
night I was very impressed with the intelligence and sincerity of everyone involved in this painful, complicated process, and I’m thankful to Catherine Sanderson for creating this blog.

I’m a Marks Meadow parent and would admittedly hate to see this gem of an institution shut down.

That aside, I recognize Amherst is in terrible fiscal straits and that closing MM may be a viable fiscal choice. Having looked at the map I also agree it seems obvious that redistricting is the right thing to do.

HOWEVER, much as the superintendent's claims should be backed up, near as I can tell from the meeting, the actual savings in shutting down MM have not been clearly shown either.

At the meeting, the chairman held up the budget projections that all the major options were based on and wondered aloud if the numbers were “pipe-dreams” or not.

While I understand how in dire straits closing a school may seem an obvious choice for big savings, clearly the devil may yet be in the details – especially when dealing with a budget that has a half-million dollar “swing” in the shortfall.

Unless and until more is known about the cost of any redistricting plans, including the cost of teachers and administration retained to handle the larger number of students transferred to the existing schools, as well as some estimate of how many MM parents would be taking their children out of the system (reducing the budget further), arguments about the extent of the savings are theoretical at best.

As to that issue of students leaving the system -- Catherine has heard from MM parents who would prefer a larger school, myself and my wife do not and would likely remove our child.

As I suggested elsewhere, since MM is so small, a simple email survey asking MM parents Yes/No/Maybe about whether they would remove their children from the system might prove useful.

Beyond that, the only thing about closing MM that does seem certain is that it would the ONE plan on the table that could never be undone – the space, as I understand it, would be reclaimed by UMASS, and, unlike other admittedly draconian cuts, be gone for good.

It's possible once more solid numbers appear that I would (sadly) support the closing of MM, but I'm nowhere near that yet.

- Stefan Petrucha

jwwolfe said...

I'm a Fort River parent and I'm deeply concerned about two things that Catherine raises in her latest post: The integrity of the process and the integrity of our acting superintendents. We need to see real numbers that detail 1) the actual budget deficit; 2) savings that can be gotten through reforming aspects of current policy (e.g., by fixing the ESL program with its problematic clustering and expensive busing); 3) the actual savings achieved by implementing each of the proposed plans; 4) the building capacity and class size that each proposed solution would create; and 5) projections for future budgets and how acting or failing to act now will affect those future budgets.

I've been extremely disappointed that the acting superintendents have bluffed and blustered their way through this important issue, at times even trying to bully parents who offer good faith suggestions.

One thing that I'm not sure has been mentioned that's related to all this is that these acting superintendents have proposed some fairly radical measures (again, without much evidence of their efficacy) that the new, permanent superintendent will have to cope with in his or her first days on the job.

Whatever the School Committee does, it should be evidence or fact based and agreed upon after an open and frank debate.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Thanks for the comments -- glad that people are finding this blog helpful. I just want to respond to a few questions that Stefan asked.

First, just to be clear -- we are going to have to save a minimum of $600,000 ... and that is very, very likely to be a massive underestimate -- it will likely be a million, and it may be more. The point here is that it is not like the half a million swing goes from "no cuts" to "half a million." Even at the low end, we don't have a way to save that much money OTHER THAN making huge cuts/raising fees unless we close Marks Meadow.

Second, in terms of the actual costs associated with having more students in the other three schools - -there are virtually none (the teachers just move to other schools; the cost savings is in the administration you don't have, plus the fewer teachers needed). Although the schools would be bigger (somewhat) than they are now, they would still be smaller than the schools have been in previous years (with the same number of art teachers, guidance counselors, music teacher, etc.). For example, Fort River is projected to go from 441 to 477 kids (if Marks Meadow closes) -- but Fort River had between 475 and 513 kids in all the years from 2000 to 2007. And you just don't need an extra art teacher/guidance counselor if you have 8 to 10 more kids per grade (that is why all the schools have a librarian -- it is not like Fort River now has two librarians because it is twice the size of Marks Meadow or whatever; both schools have ONE principal and one nurse, etc.).

Third, in terms of the number of Marks Meadow families who would leave if the school was closed -- I'm sure there would be some. But I'm equally sure that many, many kids in the other schools would leave if they were facing paying fees for buses, no instrumental music, larger class sizes, etc. So, it really isn't fair to just ask how the Marks Meadow families would feel if their school closed -- one would also need (obviously) to ask all families in all the schools whether they would leave if you eliminated all those extras.

Relatedly, and I brought this up last night, if we can find $100,000 in next year's budget (IMPOSSIBLE without closing MM), we can then offer Chinese or Spanish to all kids from K to 6th grade in all elementary schools ... that seems like a way we could potentially lure back some of the kids from the Chinese Charter School -- which again could more than off-set any MM families who choose to leave the district if their school closes.

I know that closing a school is a very difficult and emotional decision ... but I think one has to weigh the needs of all kids in the district, and I continue to be strongly convinced by all of the data I've seen that the only solution to saving significant amounts of money -- which thereby would allow us to maintain what I see as the key priorities in our elementary schools (free busing, rich instrumental music program, small classes, etc.).

Stefan Petrucha said...

Thanks for the response, Caroline – you make a compelling case. To respond in order…

First, I understand that even at the low end the cuts are massive, but while you clearly believe there are only two choices, other options were brought up at the meeting, among them, renegotiating with the unions for a temporary wage freeze, an override (which I voted for last year and would again) or putting the arts and music on hold for a year. There are arguments for and against all of that but the fact remains that there ARE other ways to save money.

While these are not long term solutions, changes in the economy (notably healthcare, a huge budget factor) and regionalization (which creates the possibility of extending the MS to sixth grade) may create a situation in a few years that would look very different.

Secondly, has the budget breakdown for the different options (closing, regrouping, etc.) been posted online? There weren’t enough to go around last night and I can’t put my hand on the copy I had earlier.

But if I read you correctly, eliminating MM administration and a few teachers adds up to more than half a million dollars? The three schools wouldn’t need ANY additional staff/supplies/anything other than the teachers? Does this take into account the cost of redistricting?

Third, the argument against surveying only MM families about who would opt out again assumes only two choices – cuts or closing – yet if one of the school regrouping options combined with, say, a salary freeze, for example, none of the factors you list for other families opting out would necessarily exist, whereas MM is either closed or not.

Also, if you could clarify something for me, I’d appreciate it – when discussing the savings for closing MM, you say Fort River (for example) even with the additional MM students will have just as many students as usual. If MM isn’t closed, there’d be even fewer Fort River students, so I don’t understand where the overcrowding, one of the factors you list for families at other schools opting out, is coming from.

Lastly, while offering Chinese or Spanish sounds like a wonderful idea for luring back Charter Students (and for enhancing education overall), it doesn’t strike me as prudent to try to find an extra $100k during a budget crisis where we may be short by a million.

Likewise, while redistricting is a great idea in general, depending on the cost, this may not be the wisest time to do it.

If the budget cuts tend toward the million mark, this will all be moot – MM will have to close, staff cut, fees imposed, music cancelled, and so on.

The bottom line is, I’m convinced we need more reliable numbers before narrowing our choices down to two. While I appreciate your conviction, until we at least have figures from the Superintendent about the validity of the budget options, some sense of the cost of redistricting and the State budget, it seems to me that pursing anything less than three options, (straight cuts, one of the regrouping plans and closing MM) would be highly imprudent, if not irresponsible.

Again, my sincere thanks for your response and all your incredibly hard work!

Rick said...

Thanks Catherine for such a refreshing focus on facts – which is much harder work than just stating opinion.

I see these reports on the ARPS site:

http://www.arps.org/node/473
https://www.arps.org/node/70

but none that show a breakdown by line item of estimated costs savings from both closing MM and doing the paring plan. I would think those line items would include (for the MM closing plan):

• Removing the cost of one building: heat, electricity, maintenance, etc. I would think that might be the largest savings.
• Eliminate one school’s-worth of administration.
• Busing savings? Fewer buses needed because routes to one school eliminated?

I was also thinking: suppose we were starting from scratch here and Amherst had no elementary schools. Would we build four? Could be, I have no idea, but thinking that way might help come up with the “right” answer.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

I'm going to try to be brief in my response, but here goes:

1. There are many options for reducing the gap, but all of the other options (meaning other than close MM) are very small in terms of savings. So, yes, we could cut all music and art, AND have large class sizes, AND charge for busing, and probably make it. Some people (probably you!) would say that is a good choice. I don't -- but again, this is a judgment call, and definitely different people would weigh the choices differently.

In terms of the other options you raise for cutting costs -- an override won't do it -- it is too little money, and I think there is ZERO chance that would pass this year (and I fought long and hard for the last one). You can't ask the teachers to give up their raises ... and the union hasn't come forward making that offer.

2. It is certainly true that things can change -- and once you close MM, you've closed it. However, here is what won't ever change: it is inefficient to have a very small school, because when there are a few extra kids in a grade, you need a new teacher. So, if 5 new 3rd graders move to MM, the class size of 25 may go to 30, and we would like move to two classes. If 5 new 3rd graders move to WW or FR, we distribute then into 3 (or 4) classes, and there is minimal impact on classes. That is the key thing in a nutshell -- which is why MM will always be a not cost-effective school. And yes, if regionalization happens, we could indeed move the 6th graders to the middle school -- which again would mean that MM is even less needed (e.g., that would move 200 kids out of our schools, which is more than attend MM!). So, regionalization doesn't make keeping MM a good idea.

3. The savings are presented in my blog (see an earlier entry) -- but the gist is that any of the models gets us from 70 classrooms in the district to 63 classrooms ... which saves about $350,000 (7 teachers X $50,000 per). Closing MM also saves a bunch more because it saves other positions (nurse, librarian, principal, art teacher, etc.). So, it is roughly double the savings (double because the other plans all increase transportation costs, which closing MM doesn't).

4. Would there be other costs? Well, we would pay for a redistricting consultant, but I'd say that is money well spent, given how inequitable our schools are. There would be costs associated with moving furniture/books, etc., but that is a one time expense ... if you don't close MM, you pay the salaries yearly! And sure, there are supplies, but they are the same supplies that would have been given to the kids at MM -- so that isn't an additional cost.

5. Sorry -- I should have been clearer about how you get overcrowding in the other schools if you don't close MM. The idea is that we will have to save somewhere -- so we will have to fire teachers and thus have larger classes if we don't have adequate cost savings. If you are trying to save let's say $400,000 at Fort River, that is going to mean cutting some teachers, which means classes are larger.

6. We pay $13,000 for each child who goes to the charter school, and we lost 12 kindergarteners this year to that school. If adding world language K to 6 -- which benefits all kids in all schools -- let's us keep 7 or 8 kids (again, this is 1 or 2 kids PER grade at the school), we've totally paid for the $100,000 that it will cost to have our 1300 Amherst elementary kids have world language. That strikes me as a much more fundamental educational benefit for all kids than having four elementary schools.

7. Rick: we don't pay utilities for MM, so those actually aren't savings (too bad!), and it is likely that busing costs will be the same (we just would bus MM kids to WW). But we do save a ton by reducing an administrative team. The other interesting thing is that U Mass has said it gives us use of MM instead of other benefits ... so I think we could at least make a good case for increasing their input to the schools if we gave them back their building! But of course, that is speculative.

One final thing -- February 10th is when all numbers are supposed to be presented. I agree that they should be given to the community (and the SC), and have been promised numbers on each of the following dates: December 18th, December 29th, January 7th, January 13th. And I'm 0 for 4 on getting them!

Again, there is no right answer to this question -- some parents would say keeping MM is worth cutting art/music at all the schools, charging kids fees to ride the buses, having large class sizes, and eliminating field trips. Others would say they'd rather close a school and maintain those aspects of our schools. It is a judgment call, and the five members on the SC are going to have to make it sometime this spring. I'm just being honest about what I see as the best way to preserve the things I value in our schools for all kids.

jwwolfe said...

What frustrates me is that we have a higher level discussion with more reference to facts and figures on Catherine's blog than I've ever seen at a School Committee meeting.

Stefan Petrucha said...

Again, thanks for the time and the valuable info. I likewise realize that gathering this data is infinitely more difficult than reacting to it. I think I’m almost done here, but still have a few more questions/responses and beg your kind indulgence.

1. For the record, I don’t know that I’d swap the art and music programs for everyone in Amherst for the sake of saving MM – I might consider it as a temporary stopgap if there were strong indications the programs could be restored in short order.

You say we can’t ask teachers to give up their raises. Is that a technical or an ethical issue? Ethically it certainly seems fairer than telling some/many of them to give up their jobs. Once asked, I suppose they could just say no?

2. The reasons for keeping MM aren’t fiscal – they’re related to the quality of the school and the preservation of a uniquely diverse community. It is a highly desirable school with, I believe, a waiting list to get in, so it is obviously filling a need.

3. Thanks for the numbers!

4. Wouldn’t the question of money well spent this particular year depend on how much the consultants and redistricting costs?

5. Thanks for the clarification!

6. Do you know, or have any way of knowing, how many kids actually would be kept by adding languages? If not, how can we be sure that this wouldn’t result in a net loss? Suppose it only lets you keep five kids, returning $65k and a loss of $35k? Is this a good year to be taking that sort of risk?

As you point out, there is no right answer and different families have different priorities, but this seems to me yet another argument for keeping a third choice on the table, so that as many of those priorities remain reflected in the dialogue as reasonably possible until such time (Feb 10?) that the numbers prove one or more unfeasible.

All best,

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

I'm truly glad for a dialogue.

1. The budget is bad this year, but will be worse next year (in part because we'll end up paying a bunch more to the Chinese Charter School). Losing art/music isn't a one year thing (and the same with the rest of the cuts -- bus fees, no field trips, fewer guidance counselors, etc.). It is a permanent change in the district that would be continued for the forseeable future.

Most teachers won't lose their jobs -- under any of the plans, we need only 7 fewer classrooms. Typically we have that many teachers leave/retire in a given year throughout the district. So, the others would really have no motivation to give up raises ... and the union negotiated those in good faith, so I don't think we are willing to ask (is it ethical or legal? I'm not sure!).

2. I know the reasons for keeping MM aren't fiscal ... but as an elected official, I need to be thinking about the impact of any change/cuts on all kids. And I weigh the fiscal consequences of NOT closing MM as having a more negative impact on the community of 1310 kids as a whole than closing a school. Although one could argue that it is more negative for MM kids than others, I don't agree with this -- the MM kids would travel together in a group to a new school. Kids at all other schools (certainly FF and WW) would be separated in some way from some friends as those schools were restricted. Moreover, I also hear from some MM parents that they do NOT share the romanticized views of the small school - they see their children as having fewer opportunities to develop lasting friendships in a school with as few as 19 or 20 kids in some grades coupled with 30% turn-over in a year, coupled with no flexibility in terms of child-teacher match. So, again, even MM parents may differ on their views about the costs/ benefits of closing MM (but those who think closing it would be good are feeling tremendous pressure to not state that to others!).

4. Let's say the consultant costs $5,000 (won't be more than that). Let's say it costs us $100,000 to move the portables and furniture/ books/supplies. That is still a cost-savings in this plan of more than $200,000 compared to either of the transition models. And these are ONE TIME expenses. There is just no way to say that closing MM isn't the most cost effective model BY FAR (which thus has the greatest potential to let us keep as many of our current programs as possible without introducing fees).

6. For me (again, this is my value judgment), if we could have a net loss of $35,000 and teach 1310 kids a world language next year (that would be $27 a kid!), that would be a great deal. And yes, I do think it would be a strong statement about our Amherst schools to be able to say we offer world language starting in Kindergarten, for many reasons. Opting instead for four elementary schools (and no music/art program, plus bus fees) doesn't seem to me to be the right choice.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Stefan, I wanted to address your point about teacher salaries. In my work with the Facilitation of Community Choices Committee, I worked closely with all the budget numbers for all aspects of Amherst, including the schools. The salary increase on average for teachers has been ~5% a year in recent years. This includes STEP raises, etc. so it does not mean that every teacher gets a 5% raise per year. But, it does mean that there is essentially a 5% raise pool each year...well beyond what most of the rest of us receive for raises annually and beyond the annual revenue increase for the town of Amherst. This, combined with the fact that ~80% of the cost of our schools is personnel, helps explain some of the fiscal crisis. The increase in health insurance costs also contribute but that is another story.

At the same time, our teachers (and other unionized school employees) are working under a previously-negotiated contract that locks them in to this rate of pay increase. So even though you are right, if our school employees took no raise this year or even split a raise pool of 2.5%, the budget problem for this year would essentially be solved (I ran these numbers for Catherine based on budget information I had from last summer), this is not really a generally acceptable solution because it would be breaking a contract. Could our school employees voluntarily offer to scale back their raises, keeping them in line with Amherst's revenue stream (i.e. in good budget years, they get higher raises and in lean budget years they get lower raises...as is the case with most private sector jobs)? You bet. Will that happen? Doubt it. Thus, the unfortunate fact is that our School Committee and our school administration really do need to focus on where else they can make those now-estimated $800K to $1.4M in cuts.

Stefan Petrucha said...

Thank you Alison and Catherine for the information.

I’d never suggest breaking a contract, but with the budget tight and getting tighter, asking for a renegotiation in light of a fiscal crisis couldn’t hurt. I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I personally would forsake a pay increase to prevent job loss to others, and I hardly think I’m alone.

I find the notion that my view of MM is somehow “romanticized” offensive, but hey, I think I used the word irresponsible in an earlier post, so we’re even. :)

A few years ago, we moved here from Yorktown Heights in Westchester County, NY where the well-funded elementary school was larger than the middle school here. It was not a bad school by any means, but from our first visit to MM we were deeply impressed – the influx of students via UMASS from all over the world, coupled with the small size and the friendly, familial atmosphere engendered by Nick and the rest of the staff make it a wonderfully unique place.

That very day we met another parent who'd moved to Amherst, not for Amherst schools, but literally for MM -- and they'd done a huge amount of research before making that decision.

Some see the transience as a weakness, but I’ve always seen it as a strength. This is not romantic – my children have benefited as a result in MM in ways they did not in a larger school.

I understand there are doubtless silent parents who’d prefer a larger school, but you can’t likewise disregard the fact that many parents have also chosen to be at MM. I hear from Tracy Hightower that in the 6th grade alone, 1/6 of the kids are there by choice. This seems more an argument for school choice than for closing MM.

Catherine, your argument creates a choice between offering languages in three schools or canceling the arts and music in four schools – a Hobson’s Choice. I remain convinced there isn’t enough information yet to determine that those are only choices -- or even that those choices are possible.

I also laboring under the vague delusion that healthcare reform may become a reality this year, and offer some relief to a huge source of budget problems.

One lingering question is whether Amherst as a community values having a small school option.

I’ve been talking with Tracy about doing a survey about who might opt out if MM were closed. Catherine pointed out that in fairness this should include the rest of Amherst, and questions about who would opt out of other schools if the arts and music programs were cancelled. Now I’m thinking it should also include a)who might opt in or prefer MM to the other schools and b) who might opt back in if languages were offered.

I hope we’ll have the survey together shortly, and while it’s accuracy may be as subject to doubt as many of the budget numbers we’re dealing with, it may shed some light on these issues.

Pax.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Two requests:

1. Let's not get too "romantic" about class size -- please make sure we're talking about 15, 20, 25, or 30 when we talk about "small" and "large" -- it's all relative:-)

2. I assume the MM School Governance Council will be doing the survey. Please, if you do, *don't* have it be a "will you opt out or would you prefer larger class sizes to smaller class sizes or bus fees or maybe somebody to teach Chinese if we could figure out how to staff that" or something.

Please focus on what really matters here -- and having a few families take their choice money/charter money elsewhere is NOT what really matters here. Please have the ELL staff *sit* with the international families from North Village to find out *not* whether they'd opt out -- that's not what most North Village families are going to even think about -- but rather to find out how many of them are currently able to participate in their kids' school activities, help in classroom, attend evening events, because it's a short walk (by non-spoiled-American standards:-) and is on a very easy PVTA route -- 5 minutes door to door. If the international families generally participate at x% rate *because* of the easy access via walking and PVTA, that % is going to drop a huge amount if you shift the MM kids to any other school.

I really couldn't care less how many privileged white families like mine who bought a house to be walking distance to a little school take their choice/charter money and run in the face of this financial crisis!

I care *a lot* about the very special way the very small MM staff and families embrace the very complex mixing of brief-stay international families. If I wanted small class sizes of all white kids I'm sure I could find a lottery-based school choice slot in a neighboring Western Mass town. Moving all the MM kids together doesn't begin to address this issue -- it's the family relationships to the school community that improve the kids outcomes. That's our experience, which might sound weird to people whose kids ride the bus a longer distance and who aren't *in* the school on at least a weekly basis, some daily.

Thanks, all. It's sure not easy.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

It is fine to do a survey ... I'm always glad to get information, and I'd be interested in seeing what you find - but I do hope you make it anonymous and objective, because I have heard from families at MM who are feeling pressured to speak against the closing but are actually hoping we close it and their kids get to go to Wildwood! But when school leaders (superintendent, principal, PTO leaders) say things in a public meeting and on TV like "grave digging, ripping apart a community," it can be hard for people to feel comfortable expressing other views (especially if people with a particular view are reading/collecting/writing the survey).

A few other things for you to consider:

1. I can guarantee that WW families would not be happy if we eliminated that school and made it a 5/6 (an option MM families clearly wanted to remain on the table). So, again, a survey should also ask WW families if they want their school changed so dramatically.

2. If families from MM, WW, and FR all spoke against redistricting, because they like their schools (which are MUCH wealthier than CF), the SC could still (and I think SHOULD) redistrict to deal with the massive inequity in the school populations. It just isn't a "popular vote" type of decision.

3. As I've said before, even if all MM families said they would leave the schools if MM closed (and I think this is very, very unlikely, for many reasons), we still would need to consider how the 91% of kids (MM is only 9% of the school population) would feel facing tremendous cuts in music/art, paying for busing, etc. Remember, we do NOT save a million by cutting arts/music alone ... it is not that simple (and even if it were that simple, I still don't know how I'd vote). It is also raising fees -- charging kids to ride the bus! -- and eliminating other staff positions, etc. So, the survey should be clear about that -- the type of school we would then offer to all kids would be very, very different if we choose to keep MM open. People should just be aware of what they are choosing.

Stefan Petrucha said...

I’m drafting the survey in conjunction with Tracy Hightower. I’ll do my best to make it as objective and anonymous as possible, but I assure you that like all human endeavors and budget estimates, it will be flawed.

I agree redistricting per se should not be part of the survey – it is an ethical situation.

I intend to focus on which schools parents would choose, and under what structural circumstances they’d opt out or possibly back in. The numbers may help clarify the importance of a small school choice, whether finding a $100k on languages in a 3 school system is fiscally a good idea, and so on.

Alisa, you make great points, but while you may not care about privileged families who drop out, if it’s not “a few” it becomes a fiscal consideration for that given scenario. I’m not in any case suggesting decisions be made based on the results, but if the numbers are large enough, they should be taken into consideration. Hey, if few parents respond, it won’t clarify anything at all and should be disregarded. At best it will be one piece in the puzzle, not the picture itself.

To be clear, I’m a freelancer with a negative bank balance currently trying to figure out how to pay a sudden and large increase in my property taxes without going further into debt. I’m in a position to write the survey, have it approved by sundry forces, and tally results. I could also handle emailing and a mailing, but I’m not in a position to spend the time to sit down for extended interviews with anyone. Others may step up for that. As I promised in the first graph, this will be flawed, but may prove useful.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Stefan, the FCCC had good luck using Survey Monkey and also through using the PTO-type groups at all schools to help spread the word and enourage responses.

Stefan Petrucha said...

Alison - thanks for the tip, survey monkey looks terrific!

It does bias toward those with computer access, but can be augmented with paper surveys.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Stefan, yes, it does bias toward those with computer access, and we also supplemented with paper surveys, but we got the majority of our responses on-line. If you can work with the computer teachers at each school and/or the librarians at Jones (all places with publically accessible computers), you can really expand the reach of your on-line capabilities. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Abbie says:

My feeling is the survey will be deeply flawed. Some (many?) of those that want MM to stay open will say they will opt out, even if they wouldn't (either can't afford private or can't transport their child (children) everyday to the choice school (all of which are very very far away)). I think you could automatically discount any of the UMass international students that respond with an opt out, for example....


Is bad data worse than no data- you bet!!!

I understand the idea that MM isn't just a school but provides a focus for a community. I am just not sure that is the job of tax payer's money and the school district. Public schools, in my view, are for educating KIDS.

I also bet that kids of graduate students will likely do just fine at WW. Will it be as good as MM, maybe not but is the cost/benefit ratio appropriate and equitable?

Here is my financial view: remember that the Superintendent didn't bring in a budget at 2% as directed. Why they didn't do that is a mystery and Town Meeting would be unlikely to miss that discrepancy and demand a 2% budget. This means we still need to trim $300,000 WITHOUT any decrease in local aid (predicted to be $1-1.4 million). I hate to be doom and gloom here but in case people in the Amherst bubble haven't noticed we are in the WORST recession since the great DEPRESSION!!

So maybe we can cut another $300,000 by cutting more admin, and getting rid of music. But if we get hit with needing to cut $1-1.4 million, we start major teacher cuts (i.e. like 20-28!) That is about one teacher/grade at EVERY school. You can do the math with the current class sizes provided by Catherine in a previous post. It looks grim (some are 30+). And it ain't going to improve next year. So think about having your kid learning in their most formative years where they should learn to love learning in classes that size (for SEVERAL years).

Does that prod anyone to come up with alternatives that save real $$$??

So I am waiting to see the State budget (due on the 28th) when I assume we will know the cuts to local aid.

Stefan Petrucha said...

Abbie –

I think it’s precipitous at this stage to assume people will lie on the survey. It’d also give voice to MM parents who’ve apparently spoken anonymously to Catherine about their preference for a larger school, so I may well be helping seal MM's doom.

Of course public schools are for educating KIDS, but, as part of that education, a small school allows kids to apprehend their own relationship to community and institutions in a personal way that larger schools can’t – and frankly I think kids carry that with them the rest of their lives in terms of how they respond to any institution or community they become involved in. Being one among a hundred where everyone knows everyone's name is different from being one among five hundred. Our community as a whole may prefer to try to retain that educational option.

And yes, real budget numbers may well render all moot.

Anonymous said...

Catherine: Just to set the record straight there are 12 classrooms available at Mark's Meadow. 10 original classrooms and 2 portables. Capacity for 240 students assuming 20 per class. Still a small school by national standards. Currently there are 190 students at MM give or take a few students who have just joined MM school or left because a parent has completed their graduate studies at UMass. And there is no way of knowing until August how many children will be moving into North Village (graduate housing) and subsequently how many students will move into the MM District. Last year MM sent 7 Kindergarten students to FR most of which opted back to MM for the 2008-2009 school year. MM also educates between 25 to 30 students each year from other schools in the district, who choose MM for its small school learning system. Please correct your assumptions for redistricting or proposals for closing MM.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous ... just to clarify -- the projections for next year are that MM will have 9 classrooms NEEDED ... I understand that 12 classrooms are available (10 regular, 2 portable), but enrollment projections for next year are that MM is only at 180 students (compared to 191 this year), and hence we would only have 9 teachers in that building. It doesn't matter if there are extra classrooms available -- those classrooms would sit empty and we wouldn't hire extra teachers. And our projections for the foreseeable future indicate nothing ever hitting 200 at any point (so the assumption that we could fit 240 students in MM is of course true, but the projected numbers don't indicate that this is likely/plausible at all). We've also heard recent reports that with the current budget crisis, U Mass won't hire as many professors (and will fire some), and have as many graduate students, so it is most likely that the MM numbers will drop even further.

But here's the key thing -- please tell me how we can save 1.4 million if we don't close a school. I know many MM families don't want to lose their school -- I know many WW families don't want their school to be moved to a 5/6 school. And my own kids are now at FR and I wish they could stay there and not change schools. But I just do NOT see another way to save this amount of money without severely changing the nature of our schools for the foreseeable future. So, I wish all of those who are so quick to criticize me could instead propose real solutions that would realistically solve this massive fiscal crisis that we are in. If you come up with another way we can save this money (again, in a way that feels like something right for ALL kids in this community -- which to me does not mean charging kids for riding the bus or eliminating all music or guidance counselors or having class sizes of 30+), let me know.

Stefan Petrucha said...

Catherine,

I’m sorry if you feel the expression of our concerns, and the questions asked as a result of those concerns reflects a quick criticism without providing alternative solutions, but any extreme plan (such as shutting down a school) deserves extreme examination.

My impression is that as more information comes in, both in terms of finances and community desires, the solutions will become more obvious – and may well include closing MM.

Until then, the type of question being asked creates the answers possible. For instance, you ask “please tell me how we can save 1.4 million if we don't close a school” as if the amount of cuts needed and the savings from closing MM are rock solid – and they’re not.

The preliminary budget presented at the meeting already cuts $500k. My understanding is that the expected range of budget cuts is between $500k and over a million. Therefore, even assuming a cap of $1.4million that means we need an additional $0 - $800k, in cuts, not 1.4 million.

As for the projected savings from closing MM, with great respect and appreciation to your work and the work of the board, the numbers for the four options studied have not been reviewed by another source. At the meeting the Superintendent was asked and agreed to review the figures for accuracy.

So both the $1.4 million figure *and* the savings from closing MM are in doubt.

The better question to ask, I think, is how can we be asked to consider closing a school without more solid data and community input?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Stefan,

Thanks for acknowledging that we may indeed need to close MM -- I appreciate that awareness!

Let me make two key points about the budget that you saw last Tuesday -- it was a 3.6% over last year's, when the request from the Finance Committee was a 2.0% increase (Abbie made this point in an earlier email) -- so, what you have seen would have to be cut by another $300,000 to even get to that recommendation (making it $800,000 in cuts). Those aren't small numbers, and this is the BEST case scenario.

In addition, the savings weren't presented by what they were going to impact -- but when you save over 300,000 in "school-based staff," you are talking about teachers -- meaning you are cutting some things (e.g., guidance counselors, aides, music teachers, classroom teachers, etc.). They didn't just find the $500,000 as "extras" that we didn't need ... these are real people, doing real jobs, and their absence next year will impact the quality of life for some kids (maybe not MM kids, but other kids potentially!).

And from what I hear (I'm also on the Budget Coordinating Group), aid from the state is likely to be lower than what we anticipate (meaning that cuts of at least a million, and possibly as high as 1.4 or 1.5 are likely). That is why we need to be prepared to find big ways to cut -- which is why I'm saying "find me another way to cut 1.4 million than closing MM." That is IN CASE WE NEED TO FIND THAT MUCH (which I still think is a real possibility). If it turns out we need to save only $100,000 than maybe we make a different choice ... but I think this is very, very unlikely.

One more thing -- running the numbers is not high level work. It involves a calculator. You can do it this weekend on your own -- so saying that "we ran the numbers" and they are going to be checked implies that running the numbers involves access to some high level data/statistics (and thus I would NOT hold out hope that a careful checking of the numbers finds that the actual cost savings of closing MM is really very small -- I've heard from school). Running the numbers means one thing -- take the projected enrollments by grade/school next year, and figure out how many teachers you'll need in each of the models. These numbers are all on my blog, so you can run them yourself. The only way ANY of the models (the pairing, the 5/6 school, closing MM) save any real money is by reducing the number of classrooms in use -- and you can estimate $50,000 per teacher. Then, if you close MM, you add additional costs for principal, nurse, librarian, etc. (which is why that model saves a lot more). But seriously, go with my class projections (these are run by Rob Detweiler, who is in charge of all school budgets), and figure out how we can keep MM open and reduce 7 classes in the district next year. You can probably save 7 classrooms (again, I've ran the numbers REPEATEDLY) by instituting very large class sizes at the big schools (e.g., having classes at FR and WW divide into two classes of 27ish instead of 3 classes of 19ish) -- but of course you then have to save MORE than 7 classrooms to equal the cost savings of the MM closing because you still have to pay a principal/librarian/nurse, etc. So, there are ways that you could save some additional $$ and keep MM open -- but is that fair to those at the very largest schools (who do make up 65-70% of the school population). That is the kind of thing we need to be evaluating.

One final (I promise) thing -- I think we need to remember that all of the principals/teachers in all of the schools care about kids and get to know them. I've heard from staff at other schools who frankly feel slighted by some of the things that MM families have said about how their staff really knows the kids, etc. Many kids at Fort River (the largest school) feel close to adults, are greeted by teachers, know the principal, etc. We tend to think that comes from children being in the same building for a long period of time -- so, the MM families might, for example, find that their kids are less well known if their kids spend only two years in that building (even if it is the same size) but then move to Wildwood for 2nd or 3rd grade. Just remember, there are good, caring people in all buildings who get to know the kids, and we should all be working now to try to find a solution that benefits ALL kids (not just those in one building).

Stefan Petrucha said...

Catherine –

I’ve been acknowledging the possibility that MM may need to be closed since my first post. What I, nor has any other MM parent I’ve heard from, ever stated or implied is that the principals/teachers in the other schools don’t get to know their students.

The educational value of the small school is not a fantasy, it’s been shown in study after study (one of our parents is currently reviewing a few). The first question is whether we actually have to eliminate that choice, the second is, given different scenarios, is at what level of budget cuts we as a community want to.

Meanwhile, MM parents have been accused of “romanticizing” their “boutique” school, putting their needs selfishly ahead of the rest of the community, and now “slighting” the staff at other schools – all because some of us don’t’ want our school, an institution that’s been part of the Amherst community for decades, eradicated in a rush to judgment, based on rudimentary, un-reviewed and assumptive calculations of cost savings during a transient economic crisis.

All due respect, Catherine, but I’m tired of this vapid villainization and I beg you to try to show more sensitivity in the future. WE are part of the district as well. Our questions and our objections are valid.

You’ve said if we need to save only $100k, then “maybe” we can make a difference choice. What if it’s $200k? $300k?

As for anyone with a calculator being able to run numbers, sure, but the problem becomes which numbers to run about what. I’m simply not as confident as you about the simplicity involved in that process.

For instance, in terms of overall class reduction, what happens if additional students are brought to MM to bring it up to the 240 student capacity it currently has? Likewise, has the $100k moving expense been deducted from projected savings? That alone reduces the projected savings substantially for the first year.

You’ve argued the move is a one-time cost, but again, the crisis we’re in is transient. If things turns around in a year or so and/or regionalization comes to pass, budget pressures will ease and other options may make more sense than closing a school.

The budget is a work in progress – my understanding is that there will be additional cuts made, and that the next version will include specifics about where those cuts will be made, at which point an intelligent conversation can be had about the ramifications.

I’ll look forward to having that intelligent conversation – in other venues.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

With all due respect, this budget problem is not "transient." Read the Facilitation of Community Choices report (www.amherstchoices.org) or the annual reports of the Finance Committee (www.amherstma.gov). The costs that would be incurred by moving (and last time I checked, some moving costs would be required not only for the MM model for also for the two pairing models) are nothing compared to the long-term savings of reducing personnel. Should these moving costs be ignored? No. But Catherine's point that they are one-time costs really is important.

Plus, at the reorganization committee meeting on January 7th, it was pointed out that in order to convert MM and CF to K-2 schools and WW and FR to 3-6 schools, it would involve even more substantial moving costs since even toilets would need to be moved/adjusted to accommodate the specific age groups now clustered in those schools.

A point you continue to make, though, Stefan, is that we need to see read numbers. I agree! I hope when we next see all those calculations, they will include the detailed costs of moving under all four proposed scenarios.

Anonymous said...

I'm just wondering if they redistrict will they still bus kids across town for ESL? Our elementary schools will never really be diverse until this ends.

Daniela Calzetti said...

Dear Catherine,

thank you for starting this blog. By reading your postings and
those of others, chiefly the emails from Stefan, I have learned a lot
of additional information on the issue of the budget crisis, its
potential impact on the Amherst school system, and the various options on the table.

I also want to thank Stefan for reporting a different point of view
from yours. I always find it essential to hear different sides of a story.

For the record, I moved to the area with my family a couple of years
ago. Our two children both attend Mark's Meadow. To provide a little
bit of context to what I am going to say below, we moved from
Baltimore, where our children where in the private school system (and
would have remained in the private system, hadn't we moved here). At
the time UMass was trying to attract both my husband and myself over here, we had a competing offer from one of the Universities of
California. Although the offer from UC was a lot more attractive to us
both professionally and economically, what ultimately brought us here to Amherst was the *high quality* of its public schools.

We were thus rather alarmed when we learned that the budget situation
is going to require serious re-thinking of the structure of the public schools, with likely major cuts to resources.
Like every parent in the Amherst school system, we would like to preserve as much as possible the quality of the education it provides.
I am also hoping (but this could simply be wishful thinking) that, in the wake of President Obama's committment to the schools in his inauguration speech, the future may actually be less bleak than it looks today.

Thus, it may be important to take decisions that are not a one-way road.
Closing a school is such one-way road, since once accomplished, it cannot be undone. Once the know-how and the expertise of its body of teachers and staff is lost or disbanded, and the building is given back to UMass, I don't see a realistic way to get things back together.

One of the reasons to avoid drastic decisions is that the search for
the Superintendent is still ongoing. I would prefer to leave to
him/her (and his/her expertise and better judgement) the final
decision of what to do with the schools. Closing Mark's Meadow is a far more `final' move than any of the other alternatives currently on
the table, and would present the incipient Superintendent with a `fait accomplit' that she/he may or may not agree with.

Another reason is the actual budget savings that such closure will
accomplish. From direct experience (although I am an astronomer, I was
also in a managerial position in my previous job in Baltimore), I have
learned that when a plan for a re-organization is not done by experts, figures tend to look more optimistic than they will be in reality.
For example, you point out that the Mark's Meadow building belongs to
UMass, and the University (accordingto what I understand) picks up much of the tab for the costs. Thus, very little (if any) savings here.

The cuts in the number of classes can be, as easily, accomplished by
similar cuts at any of the other schools (or from all schools), and
some re-districting (something you are very much hoping for, from what
I read) to rebalance the classroom numbers. Indeed, the other options
currently on the table `spread the pain' of such cuts among all
schools.

Thus, the only potential saving from closing a school like Mark's
Meadow would come from the additional staff usually present at a school (administrative staff, nurse, librarian, etc.). I believe that in the case of Mark's Meadow, we are talking of a handful of FTEs (Full Time Employees).
I doubt that such a small number of FTEs can be the `make or break' of
the budget, especially if we are talking of a $ 1 Million-plus
problem. But I am ready to be surprised.
I am certainly eager to learn how the various options on the table will pan out in terms of actual savings from each. In the end, I firmly believe that any decision must be based on as accurate a budget projection as possible.

I am sure that, like me (and others who have posted on your Blog), all the other parents in the Amherst school system are very concerned about the impact that the inevitable redistricting following a school closing will have on their children.
Forgive me if I am skeptical about the `keeping most classes intact',
as you portray in one of your letters. Any serious redistricting with an eye on efficiency (needed in a time of budget crunch) is likely to disband most, if not all, current classes. Your statement on `having children attend the nearest school to their home' clashes with your statement about class integrity. I would perhaps much favor some flexibility in the attendance of alternate district schools, to help those parents with concerns about their own district school (e.g., those you mention as being concerned about the small size of Mark's Meadow).

However, what concerns me the most is not which solution will ultimately be adopted, but the fact that none of the solutions
currently being considered solves the budget problem, and none
produces a long-term substainable system. I have seen many numbers
being tossed around, but most of them appear to only account for about 1/2 (at most) of the $1-$1.4 Million deficit. Your cry `Where are we going to find those money?' is a well posed question, and one that has not been fully addressed yet.

I suspect that the Town of Amherst will ultimately not need to `decide
between closing Mark's Meadow or keeping the arts and music programs in the other schools' (another of your sentences).
It will likely be necessary to cut those arts and music (and other)
programs anyway, if the remaining ~$ 600K will have to be found.
A realistic future within the framework of cutting so much money
calls for larger classrooms *and* vastly less resources.
I suspect that offering new language programs (Chinese or other languages) may end up not being realistic, as Stefan already pointed out. And may also end up not being effective.
I have met and spoken with a few (not many, but there aren't many to start with) of the parents of children at one charter school here. The language offerings are one, but not the only one, of the criteria for preferring a charter school. Some parents have mentioned the `small size' and `more individual attention' as one factor for their preference.
I suspect that those parents are unlikely to be lured back to the `standard' schools, with larger classes and less resources, in exchange of a language offering that may evaporate in a near future at the next budget cut.

None of my statements above answers the basic question of `where to find the money'. I have a suggestion, that I am going to elaborate below, although I suspect that it will be hugely unpopular.

The only straightforward calculation that can be done in this situation is that each single child in the Amherst School system carries about $ 1,000 "debt" (for lack of a better word) towards the system.
One could envision a *temporary* tuition system that tries to recover much of that debt from the families of the schoolchildren. That same system could be set-up to be scaled according to family income (thus, avoiding to unduly penalize families of lower income).
I would like to stress the word *temporary* to signify that this should be considered an exceptional measure, subject to yearly review and a high threshold for being renewed.

This works under the assumption that the budget may actually get better in the not-so-far future, and yesterday's Presidential speech certainly gives me hope.

This temporary solution would accomplish one important goal:
preserve, through `rocky' times, the high quality of the Amherst Schools, and maintain access to the resources they need to accomplish their mission.

Sincerely,
Daniela Calzetti

Anonymous said...

I am just wondering why is we are so set on closing MM that it has not been talked about closing CF? I understand the building is much newer and more updated, but the cost savings are substantially higher than closing MM. We don't pay much, if anything to run MM and there are only about 50 more kids at CF than MM. That district is the one that needs the most work done on it anyways. With MM being able to hold 240 kids and the other schools have been said to have enough room to hold all the MM kids, this seems more logical to do. Even being a temporary solution. We can still hold onto the building and continue to house the preschool but with costs much less than closing MM would be.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Dear Daniela,

I am glad that you are finding the information in my blog useful, and thank you for your thoughts about the current situation. As a parent with kids that will be the Amherst elementary schools next year, I certainly wish the budget situation was different than it is. That being said, I just want to respond briefly to a few of your points.

1. We are going to have a budget deficit of at least a million, possibly more. That is the reality, and that is the reality for next year and the year after as well (others have referred to the FCCC report, so I won't go into those details). So, this is not a temporary situation -- we are spending more money than we have, and things will get worse as we lose more and more over the next few years to the Chinese charter school (about $250,000 now per year, estimated to climb to $750,000 in five years). That is the reality, so I just don't see the current situation as short-term or transient -- and thus I'm trying to think about the long-term future of our schools, not just a year or two.

2. The projections of kids in our schools is clearly flat at best, and probably declining. And the other kids can absolutely fit in the other schools for the foreseeable future -- those schools are under what they were even as recently as 3 or 4 years ago, and both Wildwood and Fort River are due for renovations (by the state), which could allow them to handle even more kids, if needed. Another likely possibility, with regionalization in a few years, is moving the 6th graders to the middle school, if unexpected crowding occurred. It just isn't realistic to assume that closing MM will lead to crowding -- it will actually lead many of the kids now at MM to have SMALLER classes next year (because the class size projections for three of the grades at MM are very large next year, but not large enough to break into two classes -- meaning they would be larger than any of the other classes at that grade in the district).

3. As a parent at Fort River, I really disagree that the other plans "share the pain." My kids will feel plenty of pain (trust me, they tell me all the time!) if they have to move from Fort River, which is a distinct possibility if we close MM and therefore redistrict. We bought our house where we bought it so our kids could go to that school, I served as Parent Council president for three years at Fort River, and I chaired a playground committee at Fort River to build an $80,000 playground. We would be very, very sad to leave that school, and yet I know that given where we live, we would very likely move to Crocker. Again, many Wildwood families would move to Crocker as well. And even for families that don't have to move themselves, everyone would experience a loss because kids would be separated from their friends (this would be much more so for kids in WW and FR, since MM kids would move together and most or even all CF kids would stay in the same school). Remember, the proposal is NOT to close MM and just spread those kids at random to the other schools -- the proposal is to close MM and redistrict the entire town, which yes, would cause pain all around.

4. I'm not sure about your point in terms of keeping classes intact -- the SC has already said that all MM classes would move together to a different school (obviously WW) ... that doesn't mean all MM kids would be in the same CLASS at WW, but it does mean they would all be at the same SCHOOL together (and again, that is in contrast to kids now at FR and WW). In terms of the district configuration, as you can see from the map on my blog entry -- MANY kids do not now go to the school closest to where they live. The most obvious example of this is the huge number of kids who are closest to CF, but go to WW. If you got rid of that issue right there, the equity across the district would be vastly improved (because CF is the poorest school and WW is the wealthiest school). What is not apparent from the map is there is a huge group of kids at CF who live in the Boulders apartment complex ... and yet the houses that surround the Boulders go to WW! That could be easily solved with redistricting, and I continue to say that is the morally right thing to do (and yes, it could be done without closing MM, but then kids could potentially have to move multiple times if we then close MM in a year or two).

5. In terms of the issue of cost-savings ... you are 100% right that closing MM isn't going to solve a million+ budget problem. There are going to be other cuts, and that is clearly the reality. But closing MM will save $600,000 to $700,000 (you say it is just a few extra FTEs, but those are actually some of the most well-paid positions in the schools, so saving those positions isn't small change). So, closing MM gets us about half, maybe more, towards creating a balanced budget. To me, it would be irresponsible to overlook this. We would (very likely) also have to cut other things (e.g., music) and add other things (e.g., bus fees), and that is a sad reality.

But if we are going to do those things anyway (a point you make, and I think is probably right, sadly) ... what else could we possibly cut to save another $600,000 to $700,000? The only solution is staff ... and that will mean more teachers (leading to larger classes) and other support people (e.g., guidance counselors, therapeutic aids, etc.). This is actually a pretty easy thing to run the numbers on -- and what I've heard from various people in the schools is that "the schools will be unrecognizable next year" if we have to suffer through cuts of a million plus. So, as a School Committee member, it would be impossible for me to ignore the cost savings that are projected to come from closing MM -- which could get us at least half of the way there (and yes, this would be a continuing savings, because we would not have to pay for the administrative staff for four elementary schools again).

6. There is no way we can legally require -- or even suggest! -- that families pay $1,000 per child. Frankly, I think relatively few families would be willing/able to do this. More importantly, we can't pay for teachers or staff out of donations at all, so while donations can help pay for some things (e.g., musical instruments, library books, art supplies), they can't pay for any staff ... which is 80% of our budget and hence is where we are all going to really feel the pain next year. So, although that is a creative idea, it just isn't plausible.

Thanks again for the considerable thought you've clearly given this - and I hope you can attend the meeting on February 10th when we learn what the real projections look like for all the plans.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Dear Anonymous,

Closing CF isn't an option largely because it isn't possible to fit the kids into the other schools -- we need 60 to 63 classrooms (depending on class size) ... closing MM (and moving the portables to CF) gives us 63 classrooms. Closing CF gives us only 57. The kids just won't fit in the other three schools -- and your numbers are off on the school enrollment of each -- MM has 191 students this year (180 projected for next year), and CF has 265 (projected for 268 next year). So, CF actually has 70 to 80 students more than MM.

Another key reason that closing MM makes more sense is that MM doesn't have the capability (even with the portables) of having two classes per grade (just 12 classrooms total). CF has 16 classrooms, meaning even now, they have 2 or 3 classrooms per grade (which helps even out small variations in a given grade).

In addition, closing MM makes more sense for several other reasons:

1. To minimize time on the bus (which is also $$ for bus driver time and fuel), it is better to have 3 schools that are in different parts of the district. Having two schools (WW, MM) relatively close therefore means VERY long bus rides for many kids (who live in South Amherst).

2. CF is the newest of our schools, and thus is in very good shape (as you note). If you haven't seen CF, you should walk through it -- it is in GREAT shape compared to all the other schools (and has much more land than MM for playground/field area).

3. U Mass now pays nothing for the kids who go to MM and live in graduate (tax-free) housing ... they say the trade is they "give us MM." Some people believe it is possible that closing MM could then lead us to be able to charge U Mass for those kids we are educating for free, which could then be a net benefit to the schools' budget (closing CF doesn't create this benefit).

But the big reason is that we just can't fit the kids in MM, WW, and FR -- that is the big reason.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention that Crocker Farm houses the preschool, and the facility is distinctly set up to support that program. Closing CF would then involve the renovation of another school to house the preschool. In addition to the aforementioned fact that there isn't enough room to house all the CF kids in the other schools.

Daniela Calzetti said...

Dear Catherine,

I would have plenty of additional questions for the answers/replies you give to my points, but I only have one that I would like to clarify.

You mention that 80% of the school budget is for paying salaries (which, correctly, cannot be paid out of donations). This means that 20% is not salaries. Out of a school budget of about $ 20 Millions for the Amherst schools, 20% is about $ 4 Million.

Thus, I am not sure why you say that if we were to ask families to contribute towards the $ 1.4 Million budget deficit, the donations could not be used. After all $ 1.4 Million is smaller than $ 4 Million; unless there are other `catches' I am not aware of.

Best,
Daniela Calzetti

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, Daniela,

By all means, have families donate to the schools -- I know we could use the money (for books, art supplies, musical instruments, etc.). I certainly did not mean to imply that families shouldn't donate to the schools -- many families/community members already do donate to the schools in many ways (money, time), and I'm sure the schools would welcome such donations at any time (financial gifts are regularly and formally accepted during many School Committee meetings). But the reality is, unless many families make a commitment to regularly commit a very sizeable sum to our schools each year, that just isn't going to have a major impact on our budget because those donations aren't predictable -- and again, can't pay for staff. If you would like to spear-head such an effort, I commend you! But the reality is, these are very tough economic times for many families, and I'm just not sure how realistic it is to expect many/most/even some families to donate at the level you suggest ($1,000 per child). At Fort River, the Parent Council recommends a donation of $20 per child each year to pay for events/activities/teacher support ... and we have found that fewer than 50% of families choose to donate even that relatively small amount (and we raise only $6,000 to $7,000 per year).

Best,
Catherine

Anonymous said...

Looking over the blog I am struck over and over again at how many have lost perspective on the issues at hand. We have a serious budget crisis looming. You can quibble about the lack of accuracy of the numbers but the basic fact is we don't have enough money to keep the status quo. So painful as it is difficult decisions will have to be made.

Bottom line: closing a school will save the most money. It will also involve redistricting - which will be painful for ALL students in ALL schools, because the communities in ALL the schools will be disrupted. It is also the right thing to do.

My kids will probably be redistricted to another school. We are all sad about that. But I would rather see that happen than sacrifice the things that make the Amherst school system so special - Art, music, instruments, support - even in a diminished capacity.

Anonymous said...

Since this seems to be an open forum for commentary ... I am a Fort River parent. While I sympathize with the MM community, I take offense at the implication that because FR is larger it is impersonal or any less of a community than MM. When I walk in our school I know all the teachers and most of the kids. Our fall event is a sight to behold with all the kids and parents mingling in the fields and playground - enjoying the community that is our school.

Yet I understand that there is a good chance that this community will be pulled apart when redistricting or pairing of schools occurs - because it looks like it's coming. And as much as this stinks - reality is reality. Do what needs to be done to preserve our schools in spirit. Keep as much as we can of our special programs. Make it fair for all the kids. We will rebuild our communities.

Another Fort River Parent said...

I second that thought! I have been a Fort River parent for over 10 years and it IS a community! And the fact that it is a K-6 school makes it even more so...it has been amazing to watch all those kids grow and fantastic for my sixth graders to be able to turn around and volunteer in the classrooms of their former kindergarten teachers, etc. We, also, might be redistricted under any scenario but I would rather change schools and keep a K-6 environment than keep Marks Meadows open to benefit a relatively few children, many of whom leave after a year or two because they are graduates students and not tax-paying homeowners in town.

Stefan Petrucha said...

I’d posted so much here I was planning to bow out at least until Feb 10, but I want to make it absolutely clear I’ve never said or implied that FR or any of the other schools are NOT communities. Nor have I said that large schools are impersonal or that teachers and staff don’t know the names of the children. I have said that the children have an easier time apprehending the entirety of the community when the school is smaller.

I have also said that small schools offers a unique and valuable choice which we should be extremely cautious about eradicating from the district.

For those of us who insist we look at facts, the fact is that hundreds of studies have born out the small school difference. As an example a 2006 Research Brief on elementary school-size in Chicago reviewed dozens of studies conducted in a range of settings about this issue. The brief can be found online at: http://www.rda.aps.edu/RDA/Documents/Publications/05_06/ES_School_Size.pdf

It concludes that academic achievement in a small school is often superior to large schools. It also concludes that student attitudes toward school are better, that small schools have lower incidences of negative social behavior, and that all these effects are especially positive for minority and low-income students.

I understand we don’t have the money to keep the status quo, but I’m offended by the notion that it’s “quibbling” to suggest we base extreme decisions on accurate numbers. Redistricting will alter all our communities, but eliminating MM will destroy (likely permanently) an entire community, an institution, and a valuable choice.

What if it becomes a question of reducing, not eliminating the arts and music? What if it’s art OR music? What if… etc. etc. How many of us would be willing to close a school then? I only suggest we use solid facts before insisting there are only two options.

Again, thanks to Catherine for making this forum available to all of us.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, Stefan,

Thanks for the nice comment about the forum my blog provides, and for providing the research link about the benefits of small schools. I've actually read this literature on the impact of school size myself (as part of my work last year on the school reconfiguration committee), and I just want to be clear about what this research says -- small schools are indeed better, but they are defining small as 300 to 400 students (in fact, this size school at the elementary level is seen as ideal), and large as in the thousands -- 3,000 to 5,000 (as you might see in very large urban schools). So, there is absolutely no data that I've read or seen (including the link that you sent) that suggests kids benefit more from being in a school with 180 kids (the size of MM) more than a school the size of our other schools (which, if MM closes, will be between 350 and 475 kids).

Stefan Petrucha said...

Hi Catherine -

You're welcome!

While it's true the brief defines "effective" size as 350-400 the only definition of "small school" is "less than 350" not "300-400".

Another study I've been reviewing defines small as "less than 250."

In the brief I cited, there is no reference to what number constitutes a large school. Do you have sources for your statement that the studies referenced define large schools as "in the thousands?"

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Stefan -- I'm working at home today, so I don't have a specific cite - but it is a summary by Kathleen Cotton, who you can probably google to get the cite? Briefly, what I remember is the school size-achievement issue is a U-shaped relationship -- 300 to 400 seems ideal, and both smaller and larger are less good (for obviously very different reasons). If I can find the cite quickly, I'll post it.

Catherine

Stefan Petrucha said...

Hi Catherine -

Thanks for the info.

From what I googled, she passed away in 2002 and at least one of her articles,New Small Learning Communities: Findings
From Recent Literature, is no longer available for free. If you do have the time to find the site, that would be terrific.

Meanwhile, the studies I have been able to find don't suggest the bell graph you describe, with smaller schools performing as good or better -- though I imagine the numbers may change by the time you reach 50 students or so. :)

Stefan Petrucha said...

Eep! Just saw the new post. Haven't read the letter in the Bulletin yet, but it seems like a mess.

Anyway, I emailed Debra Heath, who compiled the brief I cited, for some clarification on school size numbers, and I will post if/when she writes back.

Meanwhile, I did find these two other references (note the phrase maximum):

“the figure most commonly accepted (for small school size) is 300 or less.”
http://www.education.com/reference/article/Ref_Advantages_Small/

“research suggests a maximum of 300-400 students for elementary schools”
http://www.edfacilities.org/rl/size.cfm

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Stefan, and others,

The paper I was recalling is as follows -- you can Google this and read it yourself, but here is the cite:

Matthew Andrews, William Duncombe, John Yinger. 2002. "Revisiting Economies of Size in American Education: Are We Any Closer to a Consensus ?" Economics of Education Review 2, 1: 245-262.

This article summarizes a lot of research on class size, and concludes that the ideal elementary school is between 300 and 500 students. Which we could have if we closed MM.

Stefan Petrucha said...

Thanks for the cite -- I'll try to find it.

Meanwhile, Debra Heath, the woman who wrote the brief I quoted responded to my email. She was unable to offer further insight on at what point a school becomes large (I can post the whole letter if you like) but did say, "Chicago studies have found that schools with fewer than 350 students are 1.25 times more likely to pursue a systematic approach to improvement compared with other schools, and they also tend to get more positive reports about leadership, parent involvement and professional community/orientation."

Stefan Petrucha said...

Hi Catherine -

I haven't been able to find the source you mentioned online -- I'll try other sources.

Meanwhile is that "ideal" number you mentioned -- 300-500 -- from memory or a quote? Honestly, all the material I have been able to find online consistently puts the cap for "maximum" "optimal" or "ideal" at 400.

If that's the case, according to your numbers, closing MM would leave only one school at that figure -- CF at 370 kids.

FR would be 477, WW 455
both outside the "maximum" arguably a point against closing MM - for the sake of the other schools.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Stefan -- I am going to attempt to post the link to this article on my blog -- it says "moderate size schools are best" and it suggests that number is 300 to 500.

Stefan Petrucha said...

Found it!

The study can be found as a PDF at http://www-cpr.maxwell.syr.edu/efap/Publications/Revisiting_Economies.pdf. (anyway I can more efficiently post a link?)

Anyway, it doesn't say, near as I can tell, "moderate size schools are best" rather that they're the best compromise between size and achievement. Lower sizes produce better achievement.

From the Intro:
“More recent research on student performance in schools indicates that small may be beautiful. “All else held equal, small schools have evident advantages for achievement, at least among disadvantaged students”

Page 4 defines 300-500 as a “moderately” sized school. It does NOT say this is an “optimal” size in the sense of achievement but only as “a balance economies of size with the negative effects of large schools.” In other words the best balance of achievement versus size – not the optimal size for education.

Lastly, on p 20 it sites surveys that define “small” schools as “under 200.”

I admit my review is cursory, but so far it seems to back the contentions of the original review I posted. I will take a close look.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Glad you found it ... and sorry for not being clearer about what it meant -- I assume that as a School Committee member, I actually do need to balance needs for achievement with cost efficiencies, and thus was encouraged that this review of research reveals that 300 to 500 student elementary schools best achieve this balance. If a study revealed, for example, that the "optimal size" is 180 students -- should we then push to build 4 more elementary schools so that all students could go to an "optimally sized" school?!? The reality is, we also need to weigh how much running schools of various sizes costs, and how much it costs per child (and MM is very high on these numbers).

A parent at one of the other schools called me today with an interesting proposition -- would the MM families who want to keep their school open (and see a small school option as vitally important) be willing to get rid of a principal (have that job simply overseen by the superintendent), and get rid of music and art and a librarian in their school ONLY (let's assume that making those cuts would achieve a balanced budget)? Because if we choose to keep MM open, those families are in effect forcing other families to incur these costs for their own kids. Just another way of thinking about how to balance the needs of various families/kids.

Stefan Petrucha said...

Catherine -

If you review the posts, the conversation was about quality of education and at what size -- never about cost efficiencies. The study did not make the point you claimed it did, so in response, you're attempting to shift the ground to a different point -- something I've noticed you do often.

Changing horses in midstream can be an effective rhetorical device to try to muddy the waters -- it is not an effective technique to get at the truth.

As for your other point -- how utterly bizarre! MM parents won't be "forcing" anyone to do anything! We're in a minority, as you point out, and in any case, the decision, as far as I know, belongs to the School Committee.

Another of the increasingly sad efforts to villainize MM Parents for trying to prevent a rush to judgment -- another tactic that comes up often in your posts. At least you're no longer accusing us of "romanticizing" the small school!

If and when the choice realistically comes down to the odd scenario you describe, ask again.

Stefan Petrucha said...

I’d originally planned to stop posting until the numbers became clearer, but was drawn back in to clarify the odd belief that MM parents somehow felt our other schools were not communities. I’m bowing out again, but want to try to make my views as clear as possible one last time in this forum.

Despite Catherine’s insistence it’s “simply” a question of running the numbers “every which way”, I don’t believe such an important decision should be based on information derived from any single volunteer and their calculator.

Information on state cuts will be coming in, and our paid professionals will provide numbers about the impact. Those, I believe, are the only numbers worth considering when something as drastic as closing a school is on the table.

If those actual numbers show that all arts and music for the district will be cancelled and that bus fees will have to be instituted and there are no viable alternatives on the table, I will not argue against the closing of MM.

If the numbers are somewhere in-between, when weighing all options, I want the committee and the community as a whole to consider the specific educational value of the small school and the impact of the closing on the other schools. I don’t believe the pulse of Amherst should be based on the smattering of voices represented here, hearsay (people talking to Catherine on the side) or assumptions about what parents want and why. If you’re closing a school, parents should be asked about their preference, anonymously, but as a whole.

The small school advantage (most often defined as below 300) remains real. The 2006 study I cited is about one thing – the students, their performance and achievement related to school size. The older study Catherine references is about finding a compromise between school size and cost effectiveness. It does NOT claim, as she stated, that the best school size for students is 300-500. It says, instead that this is the best compromise.

In study after study, smaller schools show advantages over mid-size (300-500) and large schools (500+). The most commonly agreed upon figure for an “optimal” elementary school size is 300-400. Eliminating MM will also put two of our schools (FR and WW) out of that range, likely permanently.

Though I disagree with Catherine’s assumptions, am disappointed by a public official making conclusions about extreme decisions before all the facts are in, and find some (not all) of her arguing tactics flawed, disingenuous and (occasionally) unnecessarily derogatory in tone, I again thank her for creating this blog and leaving it open to all opinions.