My Goal in Blogging

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hampshire Gazette Article on My Blog

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

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

Other people object to the forum.

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

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

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

The place for debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Carey can be reached at


Ed said...

Last line the most relevant: anyone else can have *their* blog on the school committee or the schools as well. This is, after all, a free country....

Neil said...

"it's almost an ethical issue for an elected official to be so opinionated in one direction or another before all the information is clearly provided. Catherine is really committed to doing the right thing,"

First, I'm glad Hightower is engaged.

Second, Hightower's choice of the word "opinionated" is misleading, IMO. I would say "clearly compelled". Opinionated has a connotation I'm not sure Hightower intends but I should not guess.

Third, what is the ethical concern Hightower raises? Is it unethical to have assessed the situation, been compelled by the data, and communicated that point of view to whomever wants to hear it? How might that communication unreasonably influence a board's decision making process, a process in which we expect members to do their homework and make their best argument to produce the best outcome?

How is it unethical for an SB member to express an opinion about an issue that is in front of the School Board, strongly or otherwise?

I would argue that transparency, the kind provided by Sanderson here in this blog, is exactly what we need in government and elected office.

I don't see how ethics is an issue at all.

The questions would more reasonably be put to process, what reasonable restrictions would support a process, and what process would produce the best results.

If there is a concern about process in producing the best decision, this blog has created a forum for Sanderson's process to be evaluated by others, questions to be raised, and conclusions to be challenged.

...just my opinion.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, and the interim Co-Super hates the idea of a electronic suggestion box.

Looks like we found one anyway.

Ed said...

Heaven forbid, but I agree with Neil here.

What this blog represents, if its critics are correct, is a politician tipping her hand -- and giving those who disagree with her ample opportunity to go to the rest of the school committee and counter her arguments.

It would be like if UMass (sorry Neil) was to announce in November that they intend to increase the North Village rents the following June, thus giving folks time to organize protests and to lobby the Board of Trustees. (They instead usually make this announcement in July for the prior June....)

What Dr. Sanderson has done here is announce what she things, and further explain why she thinks it. What more can you ask of a politician or elected official? And in doing this, she essentially is encouraging those who disagree with her to present *their* statistics and facts and projections so as to convince her that she is wrong.

Compare this to, say, the Amherst Town Manager who is flirting with civil right lawsuits on a weekly basis...

Anonymous said...

Remember: part of the ammunition in any argument in town or in the schools involving the substance of an issue is to complain about the process by which it's being addressed. And since Catherine Sanderson has taken a position that would upset the status quo, one....must....figure out.....a way to sllllloooooowwwww her doooowwwwwn.

How dare Catherine Sanderson have an opinion before we've had a chance to chew it to death in umpteen public forums over a period of years? We learned this in the Charter debate: the process is not truly democratic unless it's horribly inefficient producing outcomes several years too late.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Thanks, Ed, Neil, Larry, for the comments supporting my right to blog ... and express my opinions in this way. One more point: I am (at times) wrong. I've made mistakes, and I could be making one now. So, I would actually hope that this blog would be a way for people to call me on those mistakes, which in turn would help me gain correct information, and potentially revise my opinion.

In fact, I learned today from a school administrator that some of the information I presented yesterday on the cost per student at Crocker Farm (seemingly the highest in our district) is wrong -- because CF is a Title 1 school, some of the administrative staff (math coaches, reading teachers, etc.) gets paid out of a separate budget. So, it is likely (these are rough estimates) that CF actually spend about $1,000 less per student than would appear, since those costs aren't covered by Amherst tax payers. So, here, I gave numbers, I got corrected, and I'm going to update that blog entry.

I know that Tracy Hightower and some other parents from MM believe that I came to my decision too quickly (although I do virtually everything quickly, including talk) -- but again, I have yet to hear anything that is factual and data-driven leading me to believe that I'm wrong. So, comments about how it is a special school, or small schools are better for the kids in that school, or parents can't be involved in the same way with a larger school or one that is further away indicate particular values placed on those things, but still don't suggest that my numbers/calculations are wrong. Again, I'm totally open to seeing data that suggests my numbers are wrong OR that proposes specific other ways to save an equivalent amount of money. But I have yet to hear specific realistic suggestions (asking all families in the district to pay $1,000 was suggested, but this just isn't feasible).

Ed said...

> because CF is a Title 1 school,
> some of the administrative staff
> (math coaches, reading teachers,
> etc.) gets paid out of a
> separate budget.

"Title 1 *school*"? I am not so sure this is right - my understanding always was that Title I money was tied to specific students, not a specific building. Federal money for children of migrant workers and possibly more.

If I am right on this, the money would go the school that the child goes to -- and I would be surprised that the other 3 schools don't also have some Title 1 money. Unless, of course, Amherst has ghettoized all the Title 1 children into the same school and that would be illegal. I think.

School finances is not only a complex issue but also outside my field, so I may be wrong on this, but I have never seen a "Title 1 school" before....

Stefan Petrucha said...

Hi Catherine –

There’s no ethical question in my mind but I believe at least part of the problem some MM parents and teachers have with your posts, reflected by Tracy’s comments in the paper, and my own blogging, isn’t the speed of your decision, but its prematurity.

While it’s admirable to decide quickly once all the facts are in, it’s arguably reckless to do so beforehand and perhaps doubly so to do it in public. As a grossly extreme example, wars have been started over “certainties” that turned out not to be.

Again to your credit, your words are often chosen carefully (more so lately), data well presented and the line between fact and opinion made clear. There are other moments, however, as when you ask, in sundry variations, how else we can save $1M+ w/o cutting out the Arts/Music and instituting fees, where the line abruptly vanishes.

In fact, there’s been a major indication that the $1M+ figure you’ve been using will turn out false (Gov. Patrick’s recent announcement that Chapter 70 educational funding will be held harmless for 2009 and maintain level funding for 2010 -- summary at

At lower levels of cuts, which may turn out to be realistic, other suggestions and valuations become more reasonable. For example, comments on the value of the small school are not an aside, or even only about MM, as you suggest.

The vast majority of newer studies (see my post elsewhere for the references) puts the effective range for K-6 school size at 300-400, with better performance at lower numbers (another large, recent study I quote puts the Optimum size for K-6 at 150 students and shows ways in which the cost per student can be reduced – worthy reading material).

Closing MM puts two of our three schools outside that range and eliminates the choice of MM likely permanently. Depending on how the numbers work out, a better scenario for overall improvement of Amherst schools might be to increase the MM students (current capacity is 230 I believe) and lower the numbers at the other schools. The fact that UMASS pays for MM upkeep could bring the relative cost per student down quickly and bring all the schools closer to an optimal range for education.

We all conflate fact and opinion in the heat of a rhetorical flourish, but if you’d consistently stuck to the hypothetical, as in, “IF it turns out we have to save $1M+, which seems likely to me…” I for one would have had far less issue with your rhetorical style.

I do apologize for any of my own phrasing which may have added to the rancor, and hope the discussion going forward keeps the line between fact and opinion clear on all sides of the issue. All best -

Anonymous said...

Ed said, "Unless, of course, Amherst has ghettoized all the Title 1 children into the same school and that would be illegal."
You got that right Ed. Look at the districting map and who/why kids are sent there from across town.

Ed said...

As to ghettos, it is mentioned elsewhere in a different context that all the ELL students are sent to the same school.

Now my field is curriculum not enrollment policy, but I really am not quite sure that is legal.

I know this isn't legal in housing law, one of the apartment complexes lost a lawsuit to someone for doing exactly this -- they put all of the foreign-born (read "ELL") families into the same portion of the complex and that was ruled discriminatory.

Boulders? I am not sure who it was, as I wasn't directly involved, only hearing about it from a woman who worked for the association that brought the suit. Not the ACLU, someone else, this was a while back....

But ELL is -- by defineation -- national origin. So you are segregating them based on that? Well, ummmm......

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Ed, not all ELL kids are sent to one school. By and large, those who speak Spanish go to Crocker Farm, those who speak Chinese go to Wildwood, and those who speak Khmer go to Fort River. But you are right; this is segregation of a sort. It is also an equity issue as well as a financial issue, since we pay to bus all these kids to schools which may not be their neighborhood schools. I believe the Student Services folks are running numbers for the School Committee with respect to how much this costs the district each year and what our schools would look like if we stopped this practice (as recommended by the Massachusetts Department of Ed since 2002). I hope these numbers will be available by February 3. Perhaps Catherine can tell us more...

Migdalor Guy said...


You keep insisting that your decisions are all based on numbers, data, facts and figures.

Have you ever considered that these are NOT the only factors to consider in making a decision? I do not believe public officials need to be dispassionate. Quite the opposite. Passion matters. "Feelings," and other intangibles matter. These should all be taken into account. If we wanted dispassionate decision making, we'd turn it all over to the computers as so many cautionary science-fiction stories have illustrated. And we all know how well most of those stories work out.

Your critics are being passionate because they are passionate. You should not just simply write off that passion. As a public official, you are duty bound to consider those intangibles. You cannot simply disregard them because they are opinions driven by personal involvement. Had our founding fathers neglected the intangibles, what kind of democracy would we be today?

Stop being an automaton or a Stepford wife-be a human being, and consider things besides numbers and data in your decision-making. That is what your critics are asking.

Ed said...

> those who speak Spanish go to
> Crocker Farm, those who speak
> Chinese go to Wildwood, and those
> who speak Khmer go to Fort River.

That is still segregation on the basis of national origin. No difference between segregation on the basis of race or religion -- it would be like sending all the white kids to the north end of town and the black kids to the south -- and that clearly is illegal....

I really don't believe this to be legal....

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Migdalor Guy:

It is kind of ironic, but I actually feel like I am responding to the passion and emotion that I'm hearing (and I'm hearing A LOT more than what you are reading on this blog). I'm responding to the emotion of parents who say to me that their child loves art more than anything else at school. And the parent who says that what is special about the Amherst schools is the very rich instrumental music program (check out the 7 pm concert Thursday, January 29th at the middle school!). And the parent who says that she couldn't afford music lessons on her own, so is so glad her kids get them for free through our public schools. I'm also hearing passion from principals and teachers and guidance counselors who say our elementary schools will be "unrecognizable" if we force through such large cuts and eliminate art/music/therapeutic aids/math coaches/guidance counselors. Again, there are a lot of emotions and a lot of passion -- it is not just the emotion and passion at Marks Meadow, but of the entire community, that I need to hear -- and then, after I've heard that passion/emotion and looked at the cold, hard facts, I need to make the best decision I can. I'm sorry if it isn't the decision you prefer -- and again, if you have specific ideas of other cuts that could be made that you think would be better, in the totality, for all kids, I am truly eager and willing to hear them. I don't take being on the School Committee lightly, and I take my vote on the budget very, very seriously -- because I know that it will impact the lives of many kids (including my three).

And I also have my own passion/emotion -- including as the person who spear-headed a new $80,000 playground at Fort River, with the assumption that my daughter -- who is four and in theory should enter Fort River this fall -- would play on this playground, but that if we close MM, redistricting will likely move her (and my other two kids, including a current 5th grader who would then go to Crocker Farm for his LAST year of elementary school, and then move the next year to the Middle School). But I realize that it isn't really appropriate, as an elected official, to make a decision based on my own biases of what I want for my own kids. And the reality is, I place a higher value on having all kids get instrumental music and art and computers and math coaches, etc., than I do on having my kids attend a particular school (even a school as special as Fort River!).

That isn't right or wrong, and that isn't good or bad -- it is just my opinion, my values, my priorities. I respect that you feel differently, and that you would make a different choice.

interested observer said...


Would you have students whose native language is Spanish, or Chinese, or Khmer spread out among all our schools and employ in each school staff fluent in each language to help them learn? We can do that. Where is the extra money coming from?

The Way I See It said...

I am a little troubled by the fact that the information being put out there is incomplete about the possible cuts and other budgetary issues. I don't think that closing Marks Meadow is an insurance policy against the elementary schools not losing some of their arts and other programs. Cuts will have to be made but decisions should not be made hastily. Catherine, you also seem to give more weight to studies and data that support your opinions and immediately find flaws in any studies or data from people like Stefan who see the benefit of small schools and who understand that there is more to this discussion than saving money. Even some of the studies that you have quoted are not definitive but you should look at the data more objectively, from both sides of the issue, unless your mind is already made up, which seems to be the case here. Long term planning is key, and we have seen over the last eight years what happens when decisionmakers make hasty decisions with incomplete and inaccurate information. Our children deserve more from us, especially since the quality of their education will have such a profound effect on their futures.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

To The Way I See It:

Three quick things:

1. I have acknowledged, repeatedly, that studies can be interpreted in different ways, and that there is not definitive evidence that one type of school size is better/worse for all kids. I think I've said that repeatedly in all my posts.

2. I have also acknowledged, again, repeatedly, that there are multiple factors that need to be weighed -- those include facts and emotions, from parents and teachers at ALL the schools (again, I can't pay attention to ONLY some of the vocal MM families; I also need to consider the feelings of the MM families who aren't so happy right now AND the families with kids at the other schools).

3. Have I made up my mind? Well, I've seen last year's budget, and I have a good sense of how we spend our money. I am on the Budget Coordinating Group, and I have a good sense of the projections for how short we are going to be (and how much money we need to maintain our current level of services) this year AND in years to come (and I certainly agree that we need to take a long term look at this situation). And I have a good sense of the types of cuts/choices that will have to be made to achieve a balanced budget for next year. So, given all of this information that I've gathered and analyzed, I've made up my mind that closing MM is the best choice (as I've said repeatedly).

So, what could change my mind? If the budget projections come in and actually we don't need to cut any money to maintain our current services/programs/class sizes, then of course I would change my mind (this isn't going to happen unless Obama does something really major in the next month, but if it did, sure that would change my mind really quickly). If the school administration comes in and says they've found a really good way to cut a million in a way that won't impact many kids at all (as in, we suddenly find that we are wasting a million dollars somewhere and we can cut that and it won't be missed at all!), then I'll change my mind (but again, I've been through the budget, and I can't see a single cut that we could make of a sizeable magnitude that wouldn't hurt a lot of kids). So, unless one of those two things happens, yes, I've made up my mind. But here is the good news:

--I am ready and willing to hear any and all ideas that ANY parents or community members have to make other cuts that would save $700,000 (the best guess of what closing MM saves us);

--I am only one member of SC, and I have one vote. I can vote to close MM, and it can stay open as long as the other four members of SC feel that there are other better cuts to make. I'm just telling you how I'm going to vote -- and I'm voting to save music and art and small classes and free buses (because those are precisely the things that will go first when we have to make deep, severe cuts -- there just aren't other things that save enough money that we could cut, again, in my opinion).l

Debbie Gabor said...

1. Questions for Catherine: when you hear the final number that needs to be cut from the elementary budget, is there any dollar amount below which you would say closing Marks Meadow is unnecessary? If so, is there any reason to expect that the amount to be cut could be this low? When will you know the exact budget cut amount?
2. It's true. Catherine is wrong sometimes. The concert on Thursday is at Fort River!
3. Anyone who has met Catherine knows that "automaton" could quite possibly be the *least* accurate word ever used to describe her. As evidenced by the enormous amount of time and thought she gives to our schools, there is absolutely nothing apathetic or mechanical about her.
And a "Stepford Wife"? The analogy is not only completely off the mark but also simply offensive.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...


1. Thanks for correcting the concert location ... as I would have arrived at the wrong place!

2. Good questions: the budget got released from Duval Patrick today, and we should get an unpdate very soon on how it impacts Amherst directly. I think it is better than one might have hoped (education was saved!), but we are still going to get hit (in part because Amherst depends heavily on lottery aid, which is going to be cut in the budget). So, I don't have numbers yet on what the exact cuts are, but I think around a million is a pretty good guess (and that may be conservative -- $900,000 might be more accurate -- but again, I'm guessing here). But it won't be as low as $500,000.

In thinking about what number would allow me to feel comfortable voting to keep MM open, I'd need to see what the cuts proposed by our budget office are. As one of the superintendent candidates we met with over this weekend (more than one, actually) said "Budgets should be a reflection of our schools' mission." And I really agree with that.

So, what do I prioritize? Small class sizes to me is first -- especially for the younger grades (K to 2), less so for the older grades. Next would have to be the support people in the building -- guidance counselors, librarians, resource teachers, etc. (these people are especially important for children who need extra help in some way). Third would be our specials -- music, art, computers, PE. There are kids that go to school BECAUSE of these specials, and taking away what is most valued in their day could dimish their whole attitude towards school. I'd put all of those things as key priorities -- and if we could save ALL of those things and still keep MM open, I'd definitely vote to keep MM open. But given my best guess at the numbers, I believe we'd have to lose more than one of those things that would, for me, change the fundamental nature of our schools if we were to decide to keep MM open. I'm just not comfortable making that vote, knowing what the impact on our kids (including the kids at MM, who would also lose music, art, resource teachers, etc.).

Again, others may feel differently -- some parents have written to me to say that losing music/art for a year or so wouldn't be so bad, etc. But again, I have to think about the majority of kids in our schools, and I feel the costs of any of those cuts would be too much to bear. And unfortunately, I think the reality of our budget for next year is going to to involve this type of difficult choice. There just isn't a lot of "easy" stuff to cut anymore.

Meg Rosa said...

Question for Catherine, and others who may know the answer.

You said above:
"And unfortunately, I think the reality of our budget for next year is going to to involve this type of difficult choice. There just isn't a lot of "easy" stuff to cut anymore."

So given the option to close MM is taken this year, and we are next year at this time looking at the '10/'11 budget. Knowing that things look bad, as it stands right now (with not too much more Fed or State aid)
How does that budget look as far as what we would be looking at cutting?

Is it possible that we close MM and still have to fully cut (or extremely cut)the arts and gym next year or the following year? Classroom support? Guidance? Nurses?

What else could we lose on top of losing a school and probably more than that, in the '09/'10 year?

So to me it looks like the numbers you (and others) have been working with say that closing MM for this coming year, would save us about half the money we are going to have to cut out of the budget right? That number includes the administrative staff and teachers, right?

What else would have to be cut, on top of that, this year to make the budget?

I guess I would like to see a more accurate picture of what things would look like, besides classroom sizes.

On the flip side of that, if we kept MM open this year. What would be an accurate picture of the classroom, day, week, month of a student look like? How often would they have arts, etc?
I think I need more specifics, and many others probably as well, to really get a better picture of what closing MM really does beside staff and what it looks like to keep it open.

So really I am asking about two different budget years here and I think many of us need a better picture of what the different scenarios look like, as specific as possible for now. There may not be a choice in some peoples minds, after having a better idea of where things actually stand.

Thank you very much!!!

Meg Rosa said...

One more question that I am not clear about.

I have heard the Wildwood and Fort River are due for upgrades. What kind of upgrades are these? How are they paid for?

One bigger question with this group is, how will the kids be affected by the constriction going on in the school while they are trying to learn? (Please understand that I know very little about the history of those two schools.)
Thanks again!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...


Thanks for the good questions! Here are some quick answers.

First, I think you are (sadly) right that closing MM isn't going to make up all the budget short-fall. We'd have to lose some other stuff, and that could mean music OR art OR math coaches/resource teachers/paraprofessionals OR teachers (meaning larger class sizes at some grades in all the schools). Basically closing MM probably gets us $600 to $700, and we need to then save another $200 to $400. So, if we only have to save $200, we could probably cut ONE of those other categories only (e.g., close MM and then choose one of those other cuts). If we keep MM open, we would likely need to choose all of those cuts (let's say each one of those saves us $200,000 -- we then need to make four or five of those to keep MM, not just 1). Those are rough estimates -- I may be wrong (e.g., maybe cutting art saves only $150,000), but this is the type of decision-making we all need to be doing. The reality is, there isn't much that goes on in the schools that isn't PEOPLE (it is 80% of the budget), so when you make cuts, you are cutting people/positions.

I am certainly willing to think creatively -- in some districts, one principal serves for two schools -- so, we could technically eliminate the MM principal (have another principal also cover that school), but again, this would have to be one of many other cuts that would need to be made. Alternatively, we could go to VERY large classes (e.g., approaching 30) in most grades in all four schools, and that would probably allow us to keep MM open (because that would allow us to cut enough teachers to pay for the administrative team in MM).

Second, both WW and FR are due up for renovations -- these would be paid for by the state (NOT the town of Amherst). These renovations would get rid of some of the inefficiencies of these buildings (e.g., both of these schools have many "half-walls" which means that you can't use all four classrooms within a given quad). After those renovations occur, both of those schools could house even more kids -- although again, our projections show declining enrollments, so I'm not sure that this will even be necessary for sometime. I also think that moves to regionalization will potentially push our 6th graders to the middle school within a few years (which is where 6th graders are in MOST districts), and that would free up about 200 spaces in the other schools right there.

Let me know if you/others have more questions! I do think we will get OFFICIAL answers on budget options on the 10th ... I'm just sharing my thoughts now so people can start to see the weighing of the priorities as we make difficult decisions.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Hi Catherine!

As I've said, asking a question to a blog that I could get answered specifically & accurately before public opinion got fully formed is something I try to avoid, and usually I try to avoid suggesting people might be inaccurate on a blog, too. But...:-)

It is so true that I am no longer on the School Committee and have not kept up with many, many details. However, I was surprised to see this comment:

"Second, both WW and FR are due up for renovations -- these would be paid for by the state (NOT the town of Amherst). These renovations would get rid of some of the inefficiencies of these buildings (e.g., both of these schools have many "half-walls" which means that you can't use all four classrooms within a given quad)."

for the following reasons:

1. I believe we've always worked under the assumption the state would pay for a *portion* of the FR & WW renovations, possibly more than 50%, but certainly not all of it (they usually have a formula for which community gets what reimbursement level); this is where an Amherst debt exclusion override comes into play (you pay higher taxes til the item is paid for, then the tax rate goes back down, unlike the general overrides we've talked about the last few years). I don't believe there is any way for us to get renovations 100% paid for by some source outside Amherst.

2. FR & WW renovations seem real important to the folks of Amherst who understand the shortcomings of all our buildings, but in comparison to some of the crumbling dumps we're told some kids in MA have to face, we're not even close to the front of the line in terms of priority for State funding. Amherst schools populations are not growing, as they are in some other MA communities, so we don't get any "points" for that, either

3. The focus of the renovations at FR & WW has in the past been on HVAC and other "non-sexy" renovations, and not at all on replacing the half-walls -- that's a whole other level of HVAC issues. So please check the specifics on what's been requested most recently (as we reserved our place in line) and ask what realistically we think we might be getting.

Although we ask for a lot:

Only one of our three made the 162 list (WW), and that one's on hold:

And here's the state's summary based on their inspection (yes, they did come to each school):

4. Along those same lines, we are never going to get any money from the State for a *new* school building unless we get a huge uptick in student enrollments (not via choice:-) *and* a bunch of other communities have already had their more serious needs met.

Little Mary Sunshine

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Alisa -- no offense taken -- thanks for the updated information (which I'm sure is accurate) on (a) the likelihood of having renovations done on FR and WW - slim; (b) who would pay - partly Amherst; and (c) what the renovations would accomplish - not enough. Good to have out there, and thanks.

That being said, I don't think that renovations are needed to these schools to meet capacity demands next year or in the foreseeable future ... my best read of our projections is that we can fit all the kids (without over-crowding) for as long as we have projected, and, as I've said before, these projections don't take into account the Chinese Charter School OR the hiring freeze at local colleges (meaning our numbers are actually lower than even projected, I'd bet).

Also -- we could certainly hold on to MM school and use it in some other way (for superintendents' offices, administrative support, etc.). Then, if I'm wrong and projections are off and we have too many kids -- we could certainly open it up again in a few years. I don't think this is a "lose it now, lose it forever" sort of thing.

Meg Rosa said...

WOW! Catherine, I like hearing that!! That's exactly what I was saying about creative thinking!! We have a town full of great thinkers, so I really feel we need to put them to work!!! We need to keep thinking positive, and express positive thoughts to our kids as well. We can make this very difficult choice, and do it really well!!

Thank you for all of the information from my questions! Just as a follow up to the WW and FR updates. That is really not a factor in this decision, from what I can tell. Is that right?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Meg -- glad the information was helpful ... and no, I don't think the renovation POSSIBILITY is a factor that should be considered in the decision. If anyone realistically saw that we couldn't fit the kids in the three buildings, we couldn't actually consider closing a school. It is the assumption that enrollments are flat or declining that makes considering doing something as drastic as closing a school possible.

Feel free to send other ideas/questions, etc. when they occur!