One of the issues that has been raised over the last few weeks on my blog is the appropriate balance between size of school, quality of learning, and cost effectiveness. As a School Committee member, and as a parent of three kids, and as a tax payer, I care a lot about what goes on in the schools and how we get the "biggest bang for our buck." That's one of the reasons I like to look at data ... if we are choosing to spend a lot of money on a given program, we should make sure that we are getting benefits out of that program in terms of educational outcomes (and yes, I'd like to see measurable outcomes, not just anecdotal reports regarding people's beliefs about that program). That's one of the reasons I've pushed so hard on School Committee for actual data that demonstrates the effectiveness (or perhaps ineffectiveness) of what we are doing.
In service of that goal, I ran some numbers this weeked on spending at each of the four elementary schools, based on the 2007-2008 budget as a function of the number of students at each school (why did I use that budget, instead of the current budget is a good question -- more on that later in this entry). Because the schools are really different in terms of the percentage of kids with special needs and the percentage of English Language Learners, I didn't include any of the costs associated with Special Education OR Bilingual Teaching. But I added up all of the costs for all of the other budgets in each of the following categories: art, music, PE, reading instruction, teachers, computers, supplies, library, guidance, psychology, custodial, and adminstative. Then, I divided by the number of kids in each school that year to get a sense of what are per pupil costs are (again, ignoring special ed and bilingual teaching). Here is the data:
Fort River: $5,105 (with 478 students)
Wildwood: $5,495 (with 418 students)
Marks Meadow: $6,302 (with 185 students)
Crocker Farm: $7,171 (with 255 students)
These numbers seem very striking to me ... because they mean that the per-pupil expenditure varies by basically $2,000 as a function of school. And I don't think this is fair (OK, maybe I'm biased -- my kids go to Fort River). Now, why are these expenses so different? One issue seems clearly the size of the school -- our two largest schools are the two cheapest per student, and that makes a lot of sense (e.g., the cost for music instruction and library is pretty similar at all four schools, and yet FR has more than twice as many kids as MM). I've made this point on this blog before (small schools are inherently cost-ineffective, although they can and do have many other special qualities). Another issue that seems clearly to influence the amount spent per student is the income level of parents at that school -- the school with the most kids on free/reduced lunch BY FAR is Crocker Farm. In turn, it seems likely to me that those kids may need more help (including smaller classes, more reading instruction, more school supplies, etc.) than those at many of the other schools. Again, solving the issue of the massive inequity in our schools in terms of income might well lead to more equitable per pupil spending at our schools.
In addition to looking at numbers in terms of costs per pupil, I also looked at class sizes per school (another way of calculating equity). These numbers also look very different by school (some of these have been reported in earlier posts, but I'm repeating them here for ease of comparison). Fort River has the largest class size average (19.7), with a range of 17 to 25. Wildwood has the next largest class size average (19.3), with a range of 17 to 22. Marks Meadow has the third largest class size average (19.1), with a range of 16 to 25. And Crocker Farm has the smallest class size average (17.7), with a range of 15 to 22. These massive variations in class size (again, from 15 to 25 across the four schools and seven grades) would be much easier to even out with either of the pairing plans OR three schools (simply because more classrooms at a given grade level in a given school lets you even out the numbers better). This is frankly why all three of the plans now being discussed (closing MM, pairing CF/FR and MM/WW, creating three K to 4 schools and a 5/6 school) achieve SOME cost savings (about 7 classrooms, or $350,000).
I also want to emphasize the importance of taking a long-term look at the budget situation, and not simply making choices that will only temporarily solve a problem. For example, in 2007 and 2008, Town Meeting spent $300,000 (because it was a capital expense) buying two portables for Marks Meadow. That is a lot of money ... and obviously it was done to be able to provide more flexibility to Marks Meadow so that kids at that school didn't end up with super-large classes, required . However, if you look at the enrollment projections for MM for next year (180 students), we only need 9 classrooms (and there are 10 classrooms in MM, plus the two portables, which apparently we do not even need). This is why we need to focus on what the enrollment projections are -- so that we don't make expensive decisions (like buying two portables!) that really don't help us manage enrollments in a cost-effective way.
So, what are these projections? For next year, we project 1309 kids in k to 6. This changes slightly (1300 in 2010, 1288 in 2011, 1307 in 2012, and 1359 in 2013). So, we could have as many as 50 extra kids in our schools (over next year's projections) in four years. However, I'd say two factors make me think this is not very likely (this is my opinion, just to be clear).
1. These projections were developed PRIOR to the start of the Chinese Charter School, which is now enrolling about 10 Amherst kids per year (so, it is pretty likely that we might be high by as many as 70 kids).
2. Both U Mass and Amherst College now have virtual hiring freezes, as they attempt to solve budget crises they are facing. In turn, this means they won't be hiring as many young professors/staff/graduate students as they expected (and these people are the most likely to have kids who attend our schools).
So, what's my conclusion? It seems to me (again, this is an opinion here) that we could easily fit our projected enrollments into three buildings for the next five years (and maybe longer). Again, there might well be reasons why some parents/teachers would want to keep four schools open, but in terms of the "will our kids fit" and "will class sizes be massive" questions, the answers to me seem clear ("yes" to the first, "no" to the second).
Now back to my earlier point about why I ran the numbers using the 2007-2008 budget, and not the current 2008-2009 budget. The reason is that the School Committee apparently asked (this was before I was on the SC) for a more stream-lined version of the budget, which is what we now receive/review. This means that expenditure by school isn't reported ... which I think is a problem. I've therefore asked that we return to at least providing the option of a full budget (including line by line items by school) to those School Committee members who would like to see this level of information. I also think it would be important to calculate these by schools numbers each year, and over time, so that we can make sure that the kids at the different schools are having as equitable an experience as possible.
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.