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.

Monday, January 12, 2009

School Reorganization Meeting, January 7, 2008

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

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

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

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


Anonymous said...

I doubt that taking such a drastic measure as closing Mark's Meadow under temporary superintendents is advisable. A calmer approach is more likely to be workable. From what I see in the papers and this blog, there is a lot of hype that is incendiary. If people focus on cuts that will cause the least disruption to the effected children, then I'm sure a different solution can be derived. Closing Mark's Meadow places the greatest portion of the burden of the cuts on the Mark's Meadow community; an approach that is unfortunate and, even worse, not without precedent. It's disappointing that there seems to be such a recommendation forthcoming in advance of the public discourse.

Steven Brewer said...

As a parent from the Mark's Meadow community, I will be very disappointed if the committee recommends closing the school. The school, and what it means for our children and community, is a large part of the reason we chose to live where we do.

Mark's Meadow is a unique school in Amherst -- the only remaining neighborhood school -- and plays an important role in the community. Closing the school will hit North Amherst disproportionately hard, but will also be a loss for the whole town.

My greatest concern about closing Mark's Meadow is that it is probably an irreversible decision. Once closed, the space will be permanently lost to the community.

It's true that it seems like a simple solution to just close a whole school, but just as you could lose weight quickly by cutting off an arm or a leg, most people wouldn't recommend diet by amputation. I hope the committee will consider options that distribute the pain and disruption more evenly and implement changes in ways that could be reversed as the economy recovers.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Having attended the meeting on January 7th, I have to agree with Catherine that either of the pairing models does not seem to work--financially or logistically. Thus, at this point, we are left with either closing Marks Meadows or making drastic cuts to retain the current school configuration. I am very anxious to see what those cuts will look like and hope that our elected officials do demand all the necessary data before making such a big decision.

In a recent Gazette article, Super Vivian seems to retract her original enthusiasm for a pairing model because of the looming possibility of K-12 regionalization. How real a possibility is that and how soon might that occur? I think that is a key piece of data that is needed in order to make a decision.

Finally, although I share Anon 7:59PM's trepidation about closing a school while under interim Supers, I also realize that next year's budget is in such dire straights that any decision that will be made is likely to be drastic and there is no real choice but to make changes now, regardless of the status of our current leadership.

Anonymous said...

Abbie said

Could Anonymous please suggest how we might close a $500,000- $1,000,000 budget gap without closing MM and not disrupting MM students? All the proposals on the table will cause major disruption to both MM students and students from ALL the other schools. I could go through each model to illustrate how MM students would be affected. However, I leave that responsibility to Anonymous.

It is untrue that the greatest burden would be placed on MM students. Students from all the schools will be shuffled around during the reorganization to make way for the MM students. Are you discounting those students? In fact, it would be likely that all the MM students would move to WW (so maintaining relationships). However, students from the other schools will move individually and not as part of a whole. One could make the argument that those students will stand the greatest burden. As Catherine states, she recognizes that her kids would possibly move to CF but she understands that flexibility and adaption to our current situation are needed.

By the way this is just the beginning- this recession (hopefully it won't transform into a depression) will last several years. Next year will be worse. We can't afford to wait to make obvious decisions until we get a permanent superintendent.

It's unfortunate that time couldn't be on our side but redistricting was going to happen anyway and now it can be combined with cost-saving measures.

If we keep MM open "as is" which seems to be the position of Anonymous and Steven Brewer then the majority of the cuts are likely to hit class size at the other schools but not MM given the organization of mostly only one class/grade at MM. So it sounds like those MM parents who demand/want the status quo would let the kids at the other schools bear the burden so they can keep their "boutique" school as is. Does seem responsible or fair?

But in the end, the schools are going to change, MM will not be the same NO MATTER WHAT (look at the models). The issue is how are we going to trim/SLASH $500,000 to $1,000,000 from our budget which has already been trimmed to nearly the minimum?

For every protest, I'd like to see suggestions.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Abbie, I share your thought that even with the closing of MM, the burden wouldn't necessarily be greatest on those children. Like you, I think if MM is closed (and given the geography) most of those kids will move as a group to WW (the next closest school). This would cause a domino effect which would ripple out and spread out the burden among most families in town.

On the other hand, closing MM would represent the sad closing of a school which is a loss for those kids who would be attending next year. That represents about 160 kids who are currently there and would still be there next year (i.e. not moving on to ARMS), but I have also seen a statistic that suggests that there is up to a 30% turnover rate at MM (largely due to the enrollment from UMass families, I imagine), so we are possibily down to 112 kids who are currently in MM and who would be there next year. Still heartbreaking for those kids and families, no doubt, but only about 9% of our total elementary population. And at this point, MM cannot even hold the kids it is intended to...kindergartners from MM are currently being bused to FR since there is no room for them at MM. That, in my mind, is a huge burden on our youngest and most vulnerable kids.

I hope if the closing is put into effect, every effort will be made to allow these kids to retain as much of a sense of community as possible...could they keep their principal at their new school, for example? I also hope that if the closing is put into effect, there will be more concrete data in place first (i.e. exact savings, location of redistricting lines, how this would fit into a potential K-12 regionalization, etc.). Perhaps we will hear more on this tonight!

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Hmmm...I already get plenty of coverage as a Select Board member (and formerly as a School Committee member, & Comp Planning Committee member/chair -- at one point you could watch me on all three ACTV channels at once:-) but since my darling husband piped up, and since I attended the January 7 meeting as an observer, I just gotta drop a couple remarks. Thanks, Catherine:-)

1. Abbie: In regards to your late December post: "To the Marks Meadow parent, I have searched my heart to see if I might feel the same way if Wildwood were to close and my kid had to go to a different school. I honestly wouldn't as long as my kid would get the same kind of education as other kids in the system. Remember we are all in this dire situation together, all kids will have to face sacrifices in terms of larger classes, maybe no music, etc. Lets stop thinking "ME" and start thinking "EVERYONE".

Believe it or not, us protective MM families are indeed thinking of everyone. And I think both your and my view of our worlds is equally valid. Mine includes the reality that since my older son (now 9th grade) has been at MM since K (I observed the K while he was in preschool:-), I see so many special qualities about that staff's ability to thoroughly embrace a highly transient population (no, we aren't supposed to use that word:-), family variety by every diversity measure, child-sized scale of building, large functional windows in every classroom, walls(!), restrooms within most classrooms, an auditorium, eating lunch in classrooms instead of getting yelled at in the herd in the cafeteria, parents riding PVTA to school events, etc. that when I walk into WW or FR, it is no exaggeration to say I am *horrified* at how big those schools are!! That may sound crazy to those who've only experienced elementary schools of 350+, but I love the small school (boutique:-) feeling, even though we've (all MM families, forever) had to make sacrifices in terms of best matches for our kids learning styles (our bigger schools have 3 or 4 teachers per grade level) and class size due to the simple fact that there are 10 classrooms for 7 grade levels (now 12 including the portables). And I don't think my kids *are* getting the same kind of education other kids in the system are now, and I never have believed that -- but is that bad? In our case, overall, no. For others, yes. This reorganization is a way bigger issue than anyone defending "their" school, but those experiences are real and cannot be discounted -- just weighed along with everything else.

2. Don't discount the 5/6 model yet: as Catherine pointed out at the Jan 7 meeting & on this blog, the numbers we saw Jan 7 for the (3) K-4, (1) 5/6 model weren't "apples to apples" to the other options (just like the "status quo" option isn't available -- since we are going to see HUGE changes no matter what), so don't dismiss it yet (although I'm willing to give up on the pairings, myself). And I got the strong impression from that Jan 7 meeting that the 5/6 model had some real support for the potential for being part of an "upper school" campus, with 5/6 being in WW, very near 7/8 in MS, and 9-12 right next door to that. And toward being positioned for 1) moving the 6th grade to the MS, if enrollments continue a slow decline, and 2) regionalization with Shutesbury & Leverett & Pelham at the K-6 level.

3. Regionalization with Shutesbury & Leverett & Pelham: as Catherine will no doubt continue to cover, a School Committee-appointed task force will be studying that very soon. Even if Shutesbury & Leverett decided to join us -- which I believe they would not do unless absolutely compelled by the state -- it is NOT going to happen in the next two to three years, at *minimum.* The state just doesn't move that fast, nor do school systems.

4. Do some soul-searching on what would be best for our community & our future as a people, as well as good for your child and your wallet before you even look at the necessary cuts to the status quo: everyone talks about class size, but does it really matter if it's 22 or 27? Of course "it depends" -- but aside from all the personal experiences we could all share, it's my understanding that class size research is generally comparing class sizes of *15* to larger sizes -- not 22 to 27. So are you willing to consider class sizes of 27 as long as the 4-6 grades get to have group instrumental music lessons/band/orchestra? Or do you want 22 & drop the group instrumental program? Are we really willing to sacrifice the significant teaching all our librarians do, to get to a place so many of our neighbors have found themselves where library staff simply process books a couple days a week? Do we serve our kids better with technology teachers & labs or with more classroom machines, with less tech support? Will you still buy lunch if it costs more? How do all our kids experience teachers of color if we can never afford to keep new hires? Is it OK to close all the buildings at the end of the school day/after school program day to save on staff & utilities, but prevent there from being any evening activities?

5. And finally:-) I believe we all really do care about equity as well as about saving money. So I hope you will all -- meaning all community members, no matter your reorg preferences -- support redrawing the boundaries for *whatever* school configuration the School Committee chooses sooner rather than later. If you've seen the boundary map, or talked to people in the other schools, you know what I'm talking about -- it's a crazy quilt! Even if we had money, and weren't going to consider any of these reorg options, redrawing the boundaries of our "neighborhood" schools should have been done already (on my watch (sorry:-(, and is becoming more critical year by year. We simply are not providing equity of experience with such widely varying rates of F/R lunch/socioeconomic status amongst the 4 current buildings. Let's remember: every reorg option *includes* redrawing the boundaries -- everyone is going to be affected to some extent by any change, not just MM families.

Thanks to all for working so thoughtfully on this! One of the Brewer family mottoes: "Look before you leap -- but he who hesitates is lost"


Steven Brewer said...

All of the students in Amherst are going to be affected by the budget shortfall and those individuals who have to switch schools will be affected more than others. Closing a school, however, will concentrate this effect for the particular community affected and, as I said, disproportionately affect North Amherst.

Calling Mark's Meadow a "boutique" school is pejorative reading of my comments. All of the schools have a unique character and culture. Although Mark's Meadow may represent a particularly good fit for some students, I wasn't arguing that one school was better than another.

My point was that the loss of the unique characteristics of Mark's Meadow represents a reduction in the diversity of learning environments available to the town. Moreover, it will likely be an irreversible loss.

Everyone is going to have to sacrifice -- I am hopeful a way can be found to share the sacrifice more evenly than to close Mark's Meadow school.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments. Just to share my own reactions to some of the ideas/concerns expressed.

First, I understand that parents of kids at MM could feel that they will be most affected -- but I don't think this is accurate (as Abbie and Alison point out). If my kids are forced to go to CF (a likely possibility based on where we live), I don't think they would feel better if they knew that their old school (FR) was still open and that some kids still got to go there (including many of their friends!). They would experience it as a loss because they would have to move -- and I would feel it as a loss as a parent (particularly as a parent who spear-headed a massive effort to build a new playground). I just don't think the kids who will change schools will feel the loss more if a school closes than if they have to move from that school but it stays open.

Second, in some ways, the MM kids will be least impacted (again as Abbie and Alison point out) -- because the push would be clearly on those kids all moving together as a group to a new school (presumably WW). Kids at the other schools (particularly FR and WW) would be more impacted, because friendship groups would be divided (most kids at CF would probably stay at CF, since that school is currently the smallest, wouldn't take any MM kids very likely, and would gain two portables). And for some kids at MM now, it would be a huge win to go to one of the other schools permanently -- right now, many MM kindergarteners have to go to another school for Kindergarten, and then return to MM -- those kids might well prefer to get to stay at their new school.

Third, I don't see the big deal at all about it being a permanent decision (meaning we may be able to work with three elementary schools right now, but enrollment patterns could change)-- we have projections right now for district-size going all the way to the school year starting 2016-2017. These projections show an estimated 1417 kids for next year -- WHICH IS THE HIGHEST ESTIMATE FOR ANY YEAR UP THROUGH 2016-2017. In addition, and this is a key point, the projection based on this report said we would have 1417 kids next year .. and the current projections are that we actually only have 1310. So, why are we so off on our numbers? One reason is clearly the Chinese Charter School, which is taking about 12 kids per grade from Amherst. So, I'm just not concerned that we are going to run out of space in three elementary schools -- even with our current projections, there is an empty classroom in each of the three schools next year IF we close MM.

Finally, as Alisa points out, I do care about equity ... and the schools now just aren't equitable at all, and I think that matters for us all. Moving to three schools lets us really re-work the boundaries to create three roughly equal-sized and equitable schools, which I think is good for all. Could we redistrict and keep four schools? Sure -- but then we'd still have to find a way to save a million a year, and I don't see any way to do that without all of us feeling a lot of pain.

Steven Brewer said...

To be clear, I'm not concerned only about the effects on students -- there will undoubtedly be a large effort to make sure that the students are impacted as little as possible. But the loss of the school will affect more than the children.

Marks Meadow is also a center for the community of North Amherst. We have an extremely diverse population, including many families of international students. The closing of the school will make it much more difficult for these parents to participate in the life of the community. The loss of the school, will mean the loss of after-school programs, meetings, and classes that are in the community and on the bus route. We're not just talking about the kids.

Regarding the permanence of the decision, if we close Mark's Meadow, we are likely to lose access to the building. The school could never be reopened. Even if at some future date, a new school was built for North Amherst, it probably wouldn't be a neighborhood school like Mark's Meadow.

Current models may show declining enrollments, but models are only as accurate as their underlying assumptions. Our economy and university demographics may change dramatically over a short period of time and make all of our models moot. In preparing for an uncertain future, we should try to preserve *flexibility*.

And, even though it sounds like you've already made up your mind, I appreciate you at least reading my comments.

LarryK4 said...

Well, just to keep Steven happy with parity why not consider closing the South Amherst Campus school that only serves a very few kids.

How much does that operation cost especially when figured out per student?

Stefan Petrucha said...

After attending the Jan 13 meeting 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 – to the point where we would remove our child from the Amherst system. That aside, I recognize Amherst is in terrible fiscal straits and that closing MM may be a viable fiscal choice.

HOWEVER, near as I can tell, the actual savings in shutting down MM have not been shown. 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 redistricting, 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.

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.

- Stefan Petrucha

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Stefan, according to the information we were given as a committee on January 7th, closing MM would save ~$600K (this value was originally stated as $825K in the packet we were given before the meeting). This compares to the $324K that would be saved through the pairing model and the $162K that would be saved with the K-4/5-6 at WW route. But these were just estimates.

And unfortunately, there is no real way to calculate how many parents would pull their kids out of the Amherst schools under any of these scenarios. Even if parents wanted to pull their kids, unless they are homeschooling them, they might not have other readily-available options since charter and choice options are enrollment/lottery dependent and private schools are enrollment/financially dependent. And I remember Dror Schmerling's comments from last night...if we could somehow offer Chinese in the elementary schools (or another language), perhaps some of the parents who have opted for the Chinese Charter School might opt back into the Amherst publics!

Stefan Petrucha said...

Hi Alison -

Thanks for your response - I have seen those numbers, but don't believe they include the redistricting costs brought up at last night's meeting, or the number of additional teachers/administrators/supplies/tansportation needed at the other schools to compensate for the new students.

My point is that since these are estimates, a swing could bring the real savings closer to the the $324K savings from the pairing model.

As for calculating how many parents would pull out of the system, in the case of MM, the school, I think is small enough to simply ask. An email survey of Yes/No/Maybe would give some idea, probably just as accurate as the current estimates!