As many of you will read in today's Bulletin, a letter from John Keins, a teacher at Marks Meadow, resoundly criticizes my use of this blog as a "bully pulpit to further the agenda of those associated with it." He raises two main points to make his case:
1. I make the claim on my blog that "the vast majority of families now attending Marks Meadow do so because it is their assigned school, not because they necessarily chose it because it is small."
2. I also make the claim on my blog that "I have heard from families at Marks Meadow who are feeling pressured to speak against the closing but are actually hoping we close it and their kids get to go to Wildwood."
He also, more generally, blames me for "erroneous conjecturing" and taking an "improper stance by blatantly espousing her opinions with little solid data to back them up." He also believes that public officials are supposed to be objective.
So, let me now give my response to each of these concerns.
First, as it states clearly at the top of my blog, my blog is "MY BLOG." I am giving my opinions, and certainly even elected officials are allowed to have, and even give, opinions. (And there are no other people associated with my blog, for the record). This is precisely the same way in which teachers and families at Marks Meadow can give opinions, and as other School Committee members have given their opinions on many issues that come before the committee. But more importantly, what is very clear for those who read through my multiple postings, is that I am giving data throughout -- I'm giving projected class sizes in each school, I'm giving projected enrollments by grade at each school, and I'm giving projected cost savings for each model. These numbers aren't just "my opinions" -- they were created by a team of school leaders, and presented at a large and public meeting (which representatives from Marks Meadow attended, including the principal) on Wednesday, January 7th. In fact, many people have actually praised my blog for providing this type of data that is often hard to find in this district. Now, it is MY OPINION that given the cost savings associated with each model and the relative costs/benefits of various ways of reaching a balanced budget that closing Marks Meadow is the best solution. That is indeed entirely my own opinion, but it is based on the objective data that I have seen -- and that, I would say, is precisely the role of an elected official -- to make sure that data is presented, to examine the accuracy of that data, and to then reach an opinion (which I'll have to do when I vote on the budget later this year). Perhaps Mr. Keins and other MM families are concerned that I have reached my opinions sooner than they would like -- because certainly final cost savings numbers are still coming in (as is our funding from the state). But while some small adjustments may appear in the final budget projections in the next month or so, the reality is that the cost savings to be realized from closing MM are immense, and are always going to be immense. As I have written REPEATEDLY, the cost savings from closing MM are achieved by increasing cost efficiencies in class size and thereby reducing need for about 7 teachers (which either of the pairing plans would also accomplish), coupled with the administrative cost savings (principal, secretary, nurse, librarian, music, art, guidance counselor, etc. -- which are ONLY achieved in this plan), and those two types of costs added up are just too important to disregard in the face of a projected million+ budget gap. Mr. Keins and some Marks Meadow families may disagree with my opinion -- they may believe that the community should prioritize having a small school, and that the benefits of having this option outweigh the high cost to all kids of keeping this school open (because we will then obviously have to reach these cost savings in other ways). But that is their opinion, just like my opinion is that closing MM is the best way to reach these cost savings -- we are just weighing the information differently in reaching our opinions.
2. I've looked at the data on School Choice ... and 92% of the kids in Amherst go to their assigned school -- so my statement that the vast majority of kids go to their assigned school seems accurate (92% is, in my opinion, a vast majority). So, Mr. Keins may believe that many families are choosing to go to Marks Meadow, but the reality is that 27% of the families at MM live in U Mass student housing. This is rental housing, meaning that those families haven't made the decision that many people have in this district to buy a house in a particular district so our kids could go to a particular school. I'm quite willing to bet (even without a survey) that when families are arriving to attend graduate school at U Mass, they choose that housing because it is convenient, relatively inexpensive, and is easy to find even from a distance -- not because they are particularly interested in having their children attend a particular elementary school. Do some families buy/rent houses in the MM district so their kids can attend that school? I'm sure that does happen -- I bought my house in the Fort River district so my kids could attend that school. But in my opinion, the fact that 9% of families might prefer a small school (because the MM kids represent only 9% of elementary school kids in our four schools -- and again, at least SOME of these are at this school simply because it is their district) just doesn't justify spending a million a year keeping it open precisely at a time in which we are trying to save a million. That just doesn't seem fair to me to ALL the kids in the district (including those now at MM) who are going to have to pay for music, pay bus fees, have large class sizes, etc., if we don't close MM and hence have to find other ways to balance the budget. And I'm frankly particularly concerned because I see ALL of those solutions as placing a disproportionate burden on low income families -- who do make up 31% of our district (who won't be able to pay for private music lessons, who will find paying for the bus very onerous, and so on).
3. Mr. Keins may or may not believe me ... but the reality is, I have been contacted by MM families who would prefer to have their kids in a larger environment. This is not a slight against the principals or staff or teachers at MM in any way ... it is just that some families feel that their child would benefit from having a broader interaction with more kids, particularly at a school with a very high turn-over rate of kids each year (30%). So when Mr. Keins challenges me to "spend a morning in the Mark's Meadow school" to find a single parent who would prefer for their child to go to a different school -- I haven't needed to spend a morning to find such a family ... because those families have found me. Some of those families are now choosing to not attend Marks Meadow (in some cases because their child had to go to a different school for kindergarten, given the space constraints at MM, and they preferred for their child to stay at the new school; in other cases their child is now at MM, but they are recognizing that the peer group is just very small, and they have serious concerns about that). Mr. Keins should recognize that it is hard for families to share these concerns honestly with teachers and PTO leaders at MM when the public norm at MM is so strongly tilted in one direction. And hence those families are approaching me privately with their concerns.
In sum, let me be very clear about one thing: I am not in favor of closing Marks Meadow. I am, however, strongly in favor of maintaining what I believe most parents value about the Amherst schools: small class sizes, appropriate support staff for kids who need it (guidance counselors, therapeutic aids, etc.), a rich music and art program, FREE buses, and so on. And I have run the numbers the very best way that I can -- and I can't see another way to cut a million from our budget and preserve those things I want to see in our schools. This is indeed my opinion ... and if Mr. Keins or any Marks Meadow parents have specific ideas for ways we can save a million from our schools without closing MM--and without disadvantaging the poorest kids in our district (by charging for buses and music, eliminating support staff who work with kids who are in need, etc.), I'd love to hear them.
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.