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.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Facing the Reality

I've heard a lot from many people over the last few weeks about whether this is the time to make major changes in our school district -- can we really, in the midst of interim-superintendents (who of course have now departed), an election for new School Committee members, and a massive budget crisis, make such big and important decisions -- closing a school, redistricting, moving the 6th grade to the Middle School, and so on. And in all honesty, I'm really torn about this. On the one hand, in an ideal world, it would be great to have a new superintendent leading us through a long strategic planning process -- in which we spend 2 or 3 years reviewing various pros and cons (fiscal, educational) of all options, getting community feedback on each of the various decisions, and then ultimately choosing how we best want to go. On the other hand, I see us facing a huge crisis in our schools RIGHT NOW -- we do have, in the best case scenario, an $800,000 budget gap at the elementary school level and a $1.4 million gap in the regional school level. And therefore choosing to NOT do something because this is an uncertain time in the leadership of our schools is actually choosing to DO something else. Maybe that "something else" feels less scary than closing a school/redistricting/moving the 6th grade -- because the reality is, we are going to have to do SOMETHING to close the budget gap (and counting on Obama/an override to save us is silly and irresponsible).

So, what are the "something else" options we are choosing to do if we are not willing to take a bold step?

  • One option is to cut the "optionals" in our district, such as instrumental music at the elementary school level (that saves about $200,000) and world language in middle school (that saves about $200,000). Does that feel like the right way to go?
  • Another option is to have giant class sizes. As I read in today's paper, Northampton -- facing a 3.1 million gap (somewhat greater than our combined 2.2 million gap) is planning on cutting 48 teachers (23 teachers across all four elementary schools, 11 at JFK Middle School and 14 at Northampton High School), which will result in class sizes even in the elementary school level between 37 and 44 students. We could certainly achieve significant cost savings by agreeing to have classes get this large. Does that feel like the right way to go?
  • Another option is to reduce support for elementary school kids who are struggling in some way -- intervention teachers who help with math/reading, English language learners (ELL), etc. Tier 1 elementary cuts save close to $200,000 by cutting this support, and Tier 2 elementary cuts save over $250,000 by cutting this support. Does that feel like the right way to go?

As I stare down the next four Tuesday nights -- certain to face emotional parents/teachers/community members who plead for us to save their preferred program (instrumental music in elementary school, Marks Meadow, 7th grade language, Russian and German in the high school, and so) -- I have one and only one request: Tell us what you want us to CUT in order to save your program. I'm totally willing and able to hear those requests -- but I really don't want to hear requests that don't recognize that reality.

Everyone who reads this blog knows the choices I'd make to save my preferred programs:

  • close Marks Meadow and use the $400,000 we save to fund instrumental music ($200,000), K to 6 world language ($100,000) and two intervention teachers ($100,000);
  • move 6th grade to the MS and the $100,000 or so we save to fund 7th grade language for all students (AND potentially maintain a full-time MS librarian).

And it is fine if these aren't your preferences -- and I'd truly like to know if these ARE or are NOT how you'd like me to vote. I just want everyone to recognize that encouraging the school leadership to delay making a decision about doing something drastic in this time of uncertainty in and of itself leads to doing something drastic -- it is just something drastic in a DIFFERENT way. That reality can't be ignored. Because I see eliminating instrumental music in elementary school as drastic, and I see having giant class sizes in all schools as drastic, and I see having no world language until 8th grade as drastic.

As this week's Editorial in the Amherst Bulletin notes, "Perhaps the folks who say that there's too much focus on money don't have the same financial worries that most Americans do. For many, making do with less is a stark reality. It's really no different for the schools. This is not about the vision of School Committee members. It's about making tough decisions in the face of hard times. Accepting that reality will not make the discussions any easier, but it will keep them properly focused." I couldn't have said it any better myself.

And one more thing, another column in the Bulletin this week by the "Amherst Center" proposed creating a School Committee blog, in which all members of the public could thereby communicate with the entire School Committee electronically: "What if the entire School Committee could have its own online blog, where all of the members could post topics for discussion and discuss them together, along with any interested members of the community? It would introduce a new level of exchange into the board deliberation process. And it would enable the community to chime in without having to make the meetings in person." I obviously think this is a great idea (nice job, Amherst Center!) -- but given that I imagine it will take some time for the School Committee to set up such a blog, I hereby allow, and in fact encourage, all School Committee members to chime in on this pre-existing blog whenever they would like using their own names, so that members of the public can have the opportunity to exchange views with the entire School Committee. I have no idea if other members of the School Committee currently read my blog, so feel free to express your support for this idea (of creating a separate School Committee blog and/or having them post on my blog) to other members of the School Committee directly at:

Friday, February 27, 2009

Superintendents Vivian and Sprague Resign; Maria Geryk Appointed

The Amherst-Pelham, Pelham, and Amherst School Committees announce acceptance of the resignation of Interim Co-Superintendents Helen Vivian and Al Sprague for personal reasons. Concurrently, the School Committees have appointed Maria Geryk as Interim Superintendent, effective February 27 through June 30, 2009.

Ms. Geryk has served as Director of Student Services for the district for the past six years. She has current certifications in the following areas: Intensive Special Needs, School Psychologist, Supervisor/Director - Pupil Personnel Services, and Superintendent/Assistant Superintendent.

The School Committees appreciate the services of Dr. Vivian and Mr. Sprague and wish them all the best in their future endeavors.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Meeting to Select Superintendent

The School Committee will meet at 7:30 pm this Monday, March 2nd, to deliberate and vote during an open meeting for the new superintendent. This meeting will be held in the high school library (and I imagine will also be shown later on ACTV). I'd strongly encourage everyone to attend to learn who our next superintendent will be (assuming the offer is accepted!) -- and to see how all School Committee members vote.

UPDATE: If you would like to learn more about any of the candidates, you can see their resumes on the ARPS website (, and watch the evening sessions online at the ACTV website ( Since this blog actually isn't read (I assume?) by other members of the School Committee, those who would like to convey thoughts about any of the candidates should do so directly by sending an email to: I do believe this is an extremely important time for the Amherst schools, and hope that parents, teachers, and community members will share their impressions of the candidates with all members of the School Committee.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

February 24, 2009, Regional Meeting

This meeting largely consisted of a reivew of the proposed budget for 2009-2010. This proposal included preparing budgets (as we saw for the elementary school budget) at three levels: Tier 1 (which is the "best case" scenario and still cuts 1.4 million from level services), Tier 2 (a "medium case" scenario, which cuts 1,773,151 from level services), and Tier 3 (a "worst case" scenario, which cuts 2,217,839 from level services). Let me say at the outset that I don't believe we'll get to Level 3, but Level 1 seems intolerable already.

So, here is what is cut in Level 1:

At the district level, many staff positions (three secretaries in the central office, an administrator) plus professional development funds and professional leave funds (among other smaller cuts).

At the middle school level, 2 positions in world languages (meaning that world language would only start in 8th grade EXCEPT FOR 7TH GRADERS WHO HAD BEEN TAKING CHINESE AND HENCE COULD CONTINUE WITH THAT LANGUAGE, and only Spanish and French would be offered in 8th grade), the librarian (meaning that the middle school library would be staffed only be a library paraprofessional), a guidance counselor, a health/PE teacher, and four teaching positions (meaning we would have one fewer "team" of teachers).

At the high school level, 6.5 positions would be cut among faculty (it is not clear what these cuts would have impact in terms of classes), an assistant principal, the preschool/child study program, and some athletics (the ski team would be cut, plus freshmen football, JV ice hockey, JV ultimate frisbee, JV volleyball, plus some assistant coaching positions). These cuts in faculty would mean that all students would have 2 study halls a year (meaning 2 of their 15 classes would be study halls).

Here is what is cut in Tier 2:
  • 3.5 faculty positions at the high school (not clear what these would be)
  • 2.6 faculty positions at the middle school (meaning no world languages at all)
  • more professional development

Here is what is cut at Tier 3:
  • 3.0 faculty positions at the high school (again, not clear what this would be)
  • 5.0 faculty positions at the middle school (again, not clear what this would be)

We then heard questions from the School Committee and from parents/students/community members in the audience. I'm not going to go through all of these questions, but do want to point out a few of particular note.

First, I raised the issue of what would the cost savings be of putting the Amherst 6th graders in the middle school. I have not seen these numbers, but my understanding is that if you put the 6th graders in the middle school, the Amherst elementary budget would then pick up some (1/3, since they would be 1/3 of the kids in the building) of the administrative budget. So, the Amherst elementary budget would pay for 1/3 of the nurse, assistant principals, principal, custodian, librarian, music teacher, etc. Now, if this could happen, I imagine it would save maybe $100,000 or so. And since the savings of cutting all 7th grade language is $118,000, I think it is possible that moving the 6th graders into the building would allow 7th grade language to continue. We are going to get numbers on this for the next meeting -- however, there seemed to be resistance to this idea from many board members (especially those from Leverett/Shutesbury/Pelham, whose 6th graders would not come to the middle school early). Again, this may or may not be a workable idea for many reasons, but I think having the numbers on what this plan would bring into the middle school would at least allow a more informed decisions (e.g., maybe parents of kids from those towns would prefer to have 7th graders get to take a language)?

Second, Kathleen Anderson asked about teachers turning down raises, which would go into effect on July 1st -- and this would be a tremendous cost savings (perhaps as much as 1.2 million dollars). This is obviously a very appealing plan to many parents ... but in all honesty, my feelings about this are mixed. On the one hand, I do think this is a really bad economy, and thus terms agreed to in better times are now having unintended consequences. I know I'm not getting a raise this year (faculty at Amherst College will receive NO raises), nor will my husband (who works for the state), and certainly other towns have frozen salaries for their workers. Thus, it does seem like teachers/staff should at least consider whether this is a way to go (to save jobs of their colleagues in our schools). On the other hand, although I was NOT on the School Committee when this package was signed (and thus I truly don't know whether raises of this magnitude were appropriate in terms of their future impact on our budget), I also believe that these raises were negotiated in good faith, and that we should live up to the promises we made to our teachers/staff about what they would be getting paid (particularly because these raises were negotiated as part of an agreement for all teachers to receive evaluations every three years). I also believe we'd like Amherst to be known as a good place to work for teachers -- so that we can continue to attract great people who want to teach in our district (thus, I'm OK with being a town that pays well!). So, I'm frankly pretty mixed about how I feel about this idea -- it would certainly be nice to have these extra funds (and they certainly would make a difference in our very lean budget), but I also question whether balancing our budget by taking money from teachers/staff is the right way to go (certainly we also need to be thinking about how we are spending the money we do have VERY carefully to see what other cuts could be made).

Third, we heard comments from parents/teachers/students/community members about the importance of world languages. Let me start with the facts on the language enrollments: in the middle school, 167 students take Spanish, 143 take French, 56 take Latin, 43 take Chinese, 20 take German, and 17 take Russian (this is combining the numbers of kids in 7th and 8th grade in these classes). We heard passionate pleas about how we should not make decisions about what classes to teach based only on enrollments, but I also think that it is irresponsible in the time of tight budgets to ignore the enrollment numbers. And these numbers suggest to me that cutting German and Russian at the middle school level just makes sense -- I don't see how we can offer these languages when the per student cost is so high. On the other hand, I really think we should be offering language starting in 7th grade (I actually think we should be offering language starting earlier than 7th grade). I'd be entirely in favor of offering a choice of 2 or 3 languages in middle school, and then allowing students to broaden to take other languages (or continue with their original language choice) in high school.

Fourth, I raised a question that I continue to hear from high school parents about whether we should move to a semester from a trimester system. In the current budget cut scenario, all stuents will be forced to take two study halls (meaning two of their 15 classes per year will be study halls, and 13 would be regular classes). But if we moved to a 7-period a day system, they could take 13 classes per year and one study hall (which would be the same number of classes, but a reduction by 50% in the number of study halls). This may seem like a small difference -- but in the trimester system, 12% of their year is spent in study halls, whereas it drops to 7% in a semester system. I also wonder if a semester system would better allow our students to take advantage of taking college courses, which could help reduce some enrollment pressures/class sizes. To me, this schedule change at least seems like something that should be considered.

Finally, I haven't talked much about what classes would be cut at the high school level, because frankly those decisions haven't been made/proposed. But I do think we should very carefully consider enrollment decisions and what our "core mission is" when choosing what to cut. I'd like to know how many students are in various classes at various levels and across disciplines (e.g., math, science, English, social studies, arts, language, etc.). In tough budget times, having information on the number of kids effected seems important, and I believe enrollment should be a factor that is considered in what is cut. I hope we can get some of these numbers at the next Regional School Committee Meeting.

January 20, 2009, Regional Meeting

This meeting began with public comments. Steve Rivkin asked a question about the status of the review of the new 9th grade science curriculum. A review was completed of the entire science program (I can't find a link to this report on line -- but I have a copy so if you want one, email me privately and I'll send it to you), but this report was not designed in a way to answer basic questions about whether the new required ecology/environmental science course is in fact effective. Instead, the report provides information on student liking of different sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics, etc.), and includes no information that will allow a true evaluation of whether the new required course is meeting its goals. I echoed the concerns raised by Steve Rivkin about this evaluation, and was discouraged that other members of the School Committee seem not to have read the evaluation and/or are not concerned by the lack of rigor in this report (which the school district paid to have completed by an outside source). Marianne Jorgensen then noted that Principal Mark Jackson is responsible for the evaluation, not the School Committee, which seems to me to be very unfortunate -- it really isn't the principal's job to take care of evaluations, and it seems to me that we should have such evaluations be conducted in a thorough way through the superintendents' office. Once again, I see no sign that a rigorous evaluation of this new required course will be done.

The rest of the meeting turned to a report presented by the Student Services Office, including information on English Language Learning and Special Education. I've consistently heard concerns from parents regarding special education services in our district, and thus was glad to hear that a parent survey will be conducted this spring. I'd like to see such reports of parent views presented to the committee, and posted on the web, so that we can have a sense of how well parents feel we are meeting the needs of kids who receive special education -- and so that we can learn how we might do this work better.

We then heard a preliminary report of the budget--which frankly seems rather grim (but I'm going to hold off on the details of this, because the real information on budget cuts was presented at the next meeting).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Importance of Long-Term Planning

One thing I've heard a lot about over the last few weeks is the importance of long-term planning for our schools. And I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment -- because frankly, making decisions based only on the short-term too often leads to wasted resources. I've thought about this issue of long-term planning with respect to many issues that have come up over the last few weeks, and in all of these cases, I see a tendency to focus on the short-term, and not on the long-term. Let me give you a few examples.

First, there is the issue of the magical Obama stimulus plan ... and the hope that this money (maybe as much as a million dollars for the Amherst schools) will solve our budget problems. This is a very tempting view, because it would allow us to avoid making some of the cuts on our list. But the reality is, this money, even if it comes (and I've heard that this money may go less to Amherst than other towns in Massachusetts, that it may be divided into two different budget years, that it is already taken into account in terms of expected state aid, etc.) is NOT going to solve the very real problem we have in Amherst -- that our costs exceed our revenues. I'm not going to go into the "why" of this reality, but you can see the FCCC report ( which describes this long-term problem -- a problem which will NOT be solved by an override or a one-time fix from the federal govenment (which both seem like lovely, simple short-term solutions, but only serve to delay solving this very real problem). And I want to see us really solve, or at least get closer to solving, this very real budget deficit that we are facing yearly.

Here's another example of a short-term solution that I believe was ultimately very costly. In 2007, the School Committee asked the town to purchase two portable classrooms for use at Marks Meadow (to avoid having to have mixed grade classrooms). This was a pretty expensive purchase ($380,000 ultimately was spent by the town, although as much as $400,000 was originally budgeted for this purchase). The School Committee clearly felt pressure to add classrooms to this building, because of problems Marks Meadow parents and the Marks Meadow principal expressed at School Committee meetings (including overcrowding in classes with only one grade, and difficulties with the mixed-grade classrooms). These problems were probably particularly salient since two of the five members of the Amherst School Committee from 2004 to 2007 (when this decision to purchase portables was made) were parents at Marks Meadow (Alisa Brewer, Andy Churchill). In fact, there was even discussion at a School Committee meeting about buying FOUR portables!

So, let's see the current state of the portables: they are NOT in use right now as Marks Meadow classrooms at all, and for the next school year, the projected number of classrooms needed at Marks Meadow is 9 (and there are 10 classrooms already -- meaning the two portables PLUS an additional classroom are not needed for next year at all). OK, but does this mean that the enrollments these two years were simply low, and thus we actually will need those portable classrooms in the future? Unfortunately, I don't think so based on enrollment projections.

In 2006, the School Committee paid for a report (issued April 2007) by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC) which provided demographic and enrollment projections for our elementary schools (which seems like very useful information to have). Here are the projections given in that report for K to 6 enrollment:

2006-2007: 1396
2007-2008: 1390
2008-2009: 1400
2009-2010: 1417
2010-2011: 1396
2011-2012: 1395
2012-2013: 1407
2013-2014: 1406
2014-2015: 1391
2015-2016: 1383
2016-2017: 1368

I take three things from these numbers. First, the single largest number of kids expected in our elementary schools for the next 8 years is 1417 -- and that is the expected number for the upcoming year (meaning next year's enrollments are the HIGHEST they should be for the next 8 years). Second, these numbers suggest a downward slope -- the last two years projected have enrollments that are the lowest of all the years projected, indicating that it is unlikely that in the two years immediately following these projections, we will suddenly see increases of 100 or so kids per year. Third, these numbers seem to be WRONG ... in that they are high! These projections from just two years ago (April 2007) suggest we will have 1417 kids next year ... but our own projections now show 1324 kids expected (so, we are off, by close to 100 kids). Now, does this just show our numbers are unreliable? I don't think so. I think you can see exactly why our numbers are off -- when this report was issued, there was no Chinese Charter School, and this school now takes about 10 kids per grade. Thus, I think it is not surprising that our projected enrollments are high, and I think it is pretty clear that we can take these projections and subtract 100 to get a good sense of what our numbers will be going forward.

So, what does all this mean? I think they suggest that we really need to consider the long-term consequences of our decision-making. First, I think a long-term perspective would NOT have led to the purchasing in 2007 of two portables for Marks Meadow (we aren't using them this year, we won't use them next year --even if the school stays open, and we likely won't ever need them again given that our enrollment projections next year are the highest we'll see in the next 8 years). We've also now learned that these portables are VERY expensive to move, which is also not ideal (again, another example of short-term decision-making -- had we known they would cost $70,000 each to move, perhaps we would have thought more carefully about where they should go). Second, a long-term perspective would say we are NOT going to have a problem fitting our current elementary school population in three buildings -- not next year, and not for the next 8 years. So, we could continue to keep Marks Meadow open as we debate how best to spend our limited school dollars (at an annual cost of approximately $687,000 a year after the cost of making the transition), but I don't think this approach focuses on the long-term consequences of this decision. There are simply too many other things we need and want to fund in our elementary schools -- including small class sizes, instrumental music, and intervention support for kids who need it.

Taking the long-term perspective in this case is hard ... because closing a school is emotional for families, teachers/staff, and the community (as we saw at the last two School Committee meetings). And so it is easier for us to just wait to make this decision -- wait until we have a new superintendent, wait until the new School Committee is elected, wait until we see how much the stimulus package will bring us, wait until the recession turns around and we have more state aid, wait until we see if an override passes, wait until we see if enrollment figures climb (which sure, could happen in 10+ years). But waiting also has consequences -- and when we are trying to spend our limited school dollars in order to provide the best education we can for ALL kids, it is very hard for me to see that spending an extra $687,000 a year while we wait is the right way to go.

NEW Amherst School Committee Meeting, March 3rd

Just wanted to let people know about a new Amherst School Committee that will be held on Tuesday, March 3rd, at 7 pm in the high school cafeteria. This meeting will include updated information on the plans that are still on the table (keep four schools, close MM and keep three schools K to 6, close MM and move the 6th grade to the MS), and hopefully more information on economic stimulus funds, state aid, etc. I'd highly recommend coming to this one!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Thanks for the Blogging Support

This is a quick one -- but I just want to say that I've been amazed at the outpouring of interest/support in the issue of my right to share my opinions in a blog. This support now includes famous town blogger and Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, as quoted in the Amherst Bulletin a few weeks ago, and infamous (?) town blogger, Larry Kelley (who has a couple of posts on his blog expressing support, as well as a clip of the Marks Meadow parent criticizing me for blogging at the last School Committee meeting:

And after this most recent School Committee -- which included, disturbingly, not only a parent blatantly criticizing me for sharing my opinion but also a huge round of applause from the parents/teachers in the audience--my right to blog has also been given support from other local bloggers, including each of the following:

• Ron Miller (
local-school-committee-blog-becomes-budget-battle-flash-point.html), who writes: “Sanderson has a right to blog. She makes it clear up front in the blog why she blogs and what she will and won't write about. She has a right to an opinion and a blog is actually providing more unfiltered insight into the thoughts of town officials than we are likely to get through the local town weekly. I don't think this is really about her blogging. I think it's about frustration with the funding system. It's the same everywhere I look, but suggesting an official can't blog (express their first amendment rights) to me is just silly. You might not like what she has to say, but she has a right to say it and you are probably getting a deeper understanding of her views and decision-making process than you would otherwise.”

• Andrew Shelffo (, who writes: “I find this shocking. It's clear to me what the speaker meant is that she's uncomfortable with the fact that Dr. Sanderson doesn't agree with her. It's not the medium Dr. Sanderson is using to express her opinion that's the problem; it's the opinion. The implication is that people should keep dissenting or disturbing opinions to themselves. The implication is that blogs are somehow evil because they allow people to express their opinions. It's chilling to think that people can believe that an appropriate way to respond to someone who disagrees with you is to find a way to silence that person. I want my public officials to be open about how and why they vote they way they do, and a blog can be a perfect platform for sharing that information. I applaud Dr. Sanderson's blogging efforts and hope that she'll continue to show how effective a good blogger can be.”

• Greg Saulmon (, who writes: "That criticism, though, is based on a curious assumption: that a committee member who blogs is the only committee member who has a pre-formed opinion on an issue, and that the other members remain completely neutral until a meeting takes place. It's an assumption that I assume is very inaccurate. A blog, then, actually offers a measure of protection. When a committee member posts her thoughts on an upcoming policy decision, she's starting a dialogue with the public -- and that dialogue is the opportunity for the public to make its case. In the 22-comment thread that followed Sanderson's post on music, readers agreed and disagreed with her statements. Over the course of several responses to her readers, Sanderson contributed an additional 1500 words to the dialogue. On the other hand, a non-blogging committee member carries her biases and pre-formed opinions into a meeting largely untested; the meeting will be the first time her thoughts are subject to public review.”

So, I want to thank those who have chosen to express their support for the apparently revolutionary idea that at least some people like to know what their elected officials think and how they make decisions, and like to have the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with those officials (which presumably could influence the decision-making process). My blog is the best way I've found to allow this dialogue to occur -- and I do believe I will make better decisions because I'm going to hear a lot of community feedback about my ideas, I'm going to have to defend my decisions, and I'm going to clearly be held account if/when I'm wrong. But at least community members will know where I stand and why.

ADDITION: Obviously I have no control over the comments that anyone posts to one of the blogs that I am linking to in this point, nor is my linking to these blogs intended to imply that I condone any such comments. I believe the debate about education in Amherst is furthered by providing specific objective information (data, evidence), and not by using personal attacks of any sort.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Ideal Dynamics of a School Board

As most people who are reading this blog probably know, I'm a social psychologist, meaning I teach and do research on how people interact (in close relationships, in small groups, in the world, etc.). One of the central topics addressed in my field is social/group influence and in particular the phenomenon of groupthink. What is groupthink? Here is what I just pasted from wikipedia:

Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance.

In thinking about the phenomenon of groupthink (which I teach in my Introduction to Psychology class each fall), it struck me that the discussions I've witnessed at School Committee Meetings often share many of these characteristics. There is a great focus on consensus ... prior to my arrival on the board, I watched meetings for a year -- in this time, I saw NOT a single non-unanimous vote on anything. I see very, very little focus on critical testing of anything -- we assume our schools/curriculum are good because the experts say they are. We assume we are spending precious dollars wisely because the experts say we are. And I see very little focus on presenting dissenting viewpoints (other than my own). In fact, when I've expressed dissatisfaction with decisions and/or the decision-making process, I've been told that we need to have a retreat to work on collegiality.

I believe that I have a very different view of the role of the School Committee than most other people on this board. I'd like to see members of the board engage in active, vigorous discussion, even debate, of issues that come before us, and their pros and cons -- instead of listening politely to reports (from experts and/or the public), thanking people for giving them, and then moving on. For example, I've heard from many people that instead of hearing person after person talk about the power of music/Marks Meadow on Tuesday night, they would have liked to hear School Committee members openly discuss what they saw as the different priorities in the budget and how they'd suggest balancing a budget (I too would have liked this).

Here are a few specific examples of what I'd like to see during School Committee meetings:

  • I'd like to see the board request that reports that come before us have data and evaluation built in, including objective information on the outcomes of a given program/curriculum, and to include some type of comparison to other districts. So, if we approve a new required science curriculum for 9th grade, I'd like to see specific information on how (and when) we are going to examine the effectiveness of this curriculum and I'd like specific information on how this approach is (or is not) in line with what other districts are doing.

  • If we choose to spend money on a particular strategy or approach for working with English Language Learners, or Special Education students, I'd like to see some review of research literature that shows why we are taking this approach, and I'd like to see a plan for collecting outcome data on whether this approach is working. So, if we are busing kids to different schools so that kids who speak the same language at home are in the same school together, I'd like to see research/literature that suggests this is the right approach to be using, and I'd like to know how other districts are teaching ELL students (do they use this approach also, or a different one?).

  • If we choose to move from a semester to a trimester system in our high school, I'd like the decision to include a review of what system other schools are using, specific ways in which the success of this change will be evaluated, and the timeline for assessing this decision. So, I'd be interested in knowing the impact of this change in school schedule on student achievement (SAT-IIs, MCAS, grades), attendance/drop-out rates, and ability to take classes at our local college/university.

Considerable evidence suggests that groups that use a groupthink strategy -- pushing for consensus, agreeing with a powerful leader (SUPERINTENDENT), discouraging dissent from rogue group members, refusing to criticize or even question decisions -- can and do make serious errors. So, I think the School Committee could be making BETTER decisions if we used a better decision-making process. In turn, I'm going to push for active, vigorous questioning of all of our programs, curricula, and budget ... and I hope the result will be better decision-making about how to allocate scarce resources (time, money, staff) in our district.

To end on a slightly lighter note -- here's a clever parody on groupthink: It is kind of long (I think 9 minutes), but definitely worth watching.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Roles and Responsibilities of the School Committee

Following the piece by the acting interim-superintendents in yesterday's Bulletin (, a number of people have noted (on this blog and in my private email) that they were surprised to read about these rules and restrictions of School Committee members. I therefore went through all of the materials I received during my Orientation last summer from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees to clarify the rules and responsiblities of a School Committee member.

Here are a few I found particularly note-worthy:

-Establish and periodically review educational goals and policies for the school in the district. Policies should be reflective of the fact that the School Committee has oversight or and responsibility for the school system, the direction in which the system must go, and establish criteria to determine if its goals and practices are being met.

-Work to ensure that necessaray funds are appropriated for the district and that a balance is maintained between needs and resources in the distribution of available monies.

-Evaluate the performance of the superintendent.

-Review prior to all School Committee meetings the information provided by the Superintendent and when possible communicate any questions or concerns to the superintendent prior to the meeting to provide an opportunity for a response.

This orientation also included helpful information about the responsibility of individual School Committee members. This information included the following statements:

-"You are never required to agree, comply, silence yourself, or follow anyone else's leadership."

-"You do not have to agree with what the School Committee has done on any particular issue. Often spirited dissent is healthy in a democracy."

-School Committee members have all of the same rights that individual citizens have, such as "To speak freely and to be critical; to address the media at any time; to speak to any constituent at any time; to disclose information not legally confidential."

Perhaps most importantly, this orientation provided guidance as to what was expected of me, and all School Committee members, as elected officials: "As a member of a School Committee, you are a public official and a public figure, with rights and responsibilities. Voters elected you to take a stand, argue for public policy, and explain your actions." So, you may agree or disagree with my views on any number of matters, but I believe this blog makes it clear that not only am I taking a stand and explaining my actions, but also that these actions are precisely in line with what is expected of me as a member of School Committee.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Making Tough Choices

As you can probably imagine, I've heard a lot from many people over the last few days -- by email, by phone, in person, and of course at the School Committee Meeting. These people have made passionate arguments about the merits of their position -- the importance of a small school which by all accounts is succeeding in creating a warm and academically rich environment by some, the importance of the instrumental music program which by all accounts is truly extraordinary and has touched the lives of many kids by others (and some have made both arguments). Both of these are the types of things that we want to foster in the Amherst public schools.

But the reality is, we have a very, very severe budget crisis, and thus we have to make very tough choices. The list of cuts proposed by the principals and superintendents speak to these choices -- we have a limited pot of money, and we must choose how to spend that money wisely (and yes, some people have said we should push for getting a larger pot of money -- but that isn't in our control, and thus I don't think we should count on funds from an override, economic stimulus package, etc.). The reality is, we are going to have to make some tough choices.

So, let's look at the proposed budget and what is impacted (the full budget proposal is on the ARPS.ORG website -- this is public information):

Tier 1 (these are cuts that are DEFINITELY going to happen -- this is the "best case" scenario):

Special education -- 2 teachers, one secretary ($135,029)
Intervention - 3 teachers ($184,800)
Instrumental music - 3 teachers ($172,800)

(There are some other cuts, such as an IT administrator, computer teacher, cafeteria paras, a custodian, 2 other secretaries, and supplies, but these are the "big ticket" cuts).

Tier 2 (these are cuts that are somewhat likely -- they are the "medium case" scenario):

Science coordinator ($54,000)
Librarian, PLUS library paraprofessional ($73,000)
Intervention - 4 teachers PLUS a paraprofessional ($235,000)
ELL teacher ($54,000)
Computer teacher - $54,000

Tier 3 (these are cuts that are unlikely -- they are the "worst case" scenario):

All homework clubs and afterschool buses for homework clubs - $28,000
8 teachers - $400,794
ELL teacher - $54,000

So, when you look at these options, they all, to me, seem bad. Because as much as we want to say it isn't this group versus that group (close MM or keep instrumental music), our dollars are limited, and hence we as a community, and unfortunately we as a School Committee, are going to have to vote on a budget. And that budget will reflect our choices between very tough options.

As I said at the start of this posting, I've heard a lot from parents who want to keep Marks Meadow open (although increasingly I'm also hearing from Marks Meadow parents who believe the right decision is to close this school). I've also heard a lot from parents who want to keep instrumental music (although increasingly I'm also hearing from people who say we should consider starting music later on and/or charging fees to help reduce its cost).

But there is a third group that I haven't heard from at all -- literally not one call, not one email, not one passionate plea at a School Committee meeting. And that is the group of parents who have kids who use many of the services that will disappear under Tier 1 (so they are definitely occurring) and Tier 2 (so they may occur). These include people who have kids who need intervention support because they are having trouble with math, reading, and/or writing (we lose 3 of our 11 positions at Tier 1, and a total of 7 of our 11 positions at Tier 2), as well as people who have kids with special needs (we lose 2 special education teachers and a paraprofessional at Tier 1). And in addition to these two groups of kids, I worry about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may be more in need of the types of services we are cutting, because these services and opportunities may be less available at home. If we lose a computer teacher (and 1 is at Tier 1, a second is at Tier 2), kids from families with computers at home will be fine. If we lose librarians (2 library positions are at Tier 2), kids from families with lots of books will be fine. If we lose a science coordinator (this is a Tier 2 cut), kids from families who talk about science and expose their children to science will be fine. But precisely these cuts -- to computers, library, science -- will disproportionately impact some kids, and I worry that in the midst of all the very loud voices (save our school! save instrunmental music!), these kids are the most likely losers in all of this -- because these voices are the silent ones in our community.

I don't know where any other member of the Amherst School Committee stands on these choices, and how they'll vote, so I certainly can't predict what the ultimate resolution to this budget crisis will be. But I strongly believe that we are going to have to make tough choices, and I hope that members of the community will give serious thought not to just what they want to see saved in our budget (I think we all understand the push to save Marks Meadow and instrumental music), but rather what are the cuts that we are willing to live with. If you want to save Marks Meadow AND keep instrumental music, you have to go up to that list above (see ONLY the Tier 2 cut options, because the Tier 1 options are GONE), and find $172,800 we can move from Tier 2 to Tier 1 to save instrumental music. If you can find a swap here that you think makes sense, let me know -- seriously. Because I can't find one that I would feel good about making (even if those parents aren't showing up to meetings and pleading their case).

Over the next month, more information about the budget will become clear, and the School Committee will hopefully be gathering information at public forums about these choices and how the community feels we should make them. I hope when you attend these meetings, and/or communicate with School Committee members, you'll consider the values you'd like to see our schools reflect, and that the choices you ask us to make reflect those choices. It isn't as simple as close Marks Meadow or save instrumental music ... but it is precisely as simple as if you want to save something from being cut, you have to cut something else. And I'd truly likely to hear from the community -- anonymously or by name -- how'd you make these tough decisions. But since I'm just ONE member of the School Committee (and, as some of you have noted, not always the member in the majority), you should communicate those views NOT just to me, but to all members of the School Committee (and in fact, to the principals who propose the budgets and to the Superintendents who make the final choices). Let the dialogue begin (or should I say, continue?).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

February 10, 2009, Amherst Meeting

OK, so here are the numbers (my understanding is that these are all posted on the school website, so I'm giving a SUMMARY here):

First, we learned about the budget cuts that will be necessary to maintain a 2% growth (per the Finance Committee's recommendation): these include several cuts to special education (a teacher at Wildwood, a teacher in the Building Blocks program at Fort River, a secretary), cafeteria paraprofessionals (WW and FR both lose one position each), 3 intervention teachers (1 math, 2 english language arts), AND the entire instrumental music program (no band, no orchestra). This is the "best case" scenario -- which involves cutting $800,000 from the budget. There are other things (e.g., a guidance counselor at WW, a computer teacher, a custodian), but these are the big hits, in my opinion. This is at the level of needing to cut $799,923.

Second, we learned about what happens under the "worst case but we get some revenues back": we lose all of the above cuts (which are "Tier 1") plus the science coordinator for the K to 6 district, another computer teacher, a librarian, 4 more intervention teachers (again, these are for kids who struggle with math or reading), and an ELL teacher. This is at the level of needing to cut $1,288,776.

Third, we learned about what happens when we have the worst case scenario (from the state), but get no extra revenue. We lose all of the above, PLUS we lose homework clubs at all schools, afterschool buses, and 8 teachers (larger class sizes). That is at the level of needing to cut $1,865,570.

Then, we learned about the estimated cost savings of each of the four plans, which was, in my opinion, not very surprising:

1. The pairing and 3 K-4s, 1 5-6 plans each COST more money than what we currently spend ($85K more in the pairing plan, $55,000 more in the three K-4 plans after the first year, in which they costs EVEN more due to transition costs). Needless to say, these options aren't realistic ways to solve the budget crisis (lets find even more ways to spend money we don't have!), so the School Committee voted unanimously to take these off the table.

2. The close Marks Meadow plans save on a yearly basis either $671,000 (if 6th grade stays in the elementary schools) or $575,000 (if 6th grade moves to the Middle School). They save less the first year (only $406/$310) because of the transition costs. The specific ways in which these plans save money is pretty clear - they save on average four classroom teachers (because the class sizes can equalize out better than with four schools) and the administrative/support staff. The School Committee voted to keep both of these options on the table.

We then heard a lot of discussion from parents regarding two distinct topics: saving Marks Meadow and saving instrumental music. I won't go into details on either of these (you can watch the ACTV broadcast for the full effect), but I'll say briefly that many Marks Meadow families spoke passionately about their love for their school and their idea for "creative solutions" to raise revenue, and many instrumental music enthusiasts (parents and high school students) spoke equally passionately about their love of instrumental music and its various benefits. There was also a specific critique raised of "School Committee members" who blog (ummm, I think that would be me), so for those of you who actually like my blog, perhaps you'd want to make that known to others ... it didn't seem to be so popular to some of the Marks Meadows families (who I guess would rather remain in the dark about how School Committee members feel about the budget crisis).

It is pretty obvious how I feel, so I'm not going to go through all the issues again (e.g., can kids only learn in small schools, is closing a school short-sighted, can't we find another way to solve this, etc.). Maybe I'll have the time/energy to go through those issues again later this week.

But here is what I was thinking as I drove home: I'm not getting a raise this year (I work for Amherst College) and my husband isn't getting a raise this year (he works for the state of Massachusetts in the Attorney General's office). We are a two-income family and we aren't struggling to survive or keep our house, but we feel our bills are piling up, with three kids and assorted activities, the mortgage, oil heat, etc. So, we are making choices all the time -- we go out to eat less, try to use fewer babysitters, and have the house set at a lower temperature (so I wear a coat all the time inside). We typically take a one week vacation in August, and we've put all plans for that on hold (have let the house we've stayed at for the last few years go because we didn't want to put down the money). We are constantly deciding how we want to spend the limited discretionary money we have -- do we want to see a movie in the theater, or would we rather go out to dinner? Do we need to have a big birthday party at a bowling alley for our son who is turning 8 in two weeks, or could it be a smaller (cheaper) gathering at home? Does our 4-year-old daughter really need new snow pants, or could she get by with last year's snow pants, even if they are a little short? Should I make coffee at home or stop by Dunkin' Donuts on my way to work? Anyway, these are the types of decisions my family is making, and they sure aren't fun -- I'd rather go on a vacation and buy new snow pants and have the big birthday party NOT in my house and not have to wear a coat in my own house and drink more expensive coffee that I don't have to brew myself. But we don't have an endless supply of resources, so we make choices that feel like the best of the options we have at a given time.

And what I heard a lot of tonight I frankly found very frustrating because they are NOT realistic solutions -- let's ask for an override (I worked on the last one -- it didn't work then, and it won't work as long as we continue trying to justify four elementary schools in the face of an increasing budget gap), let's come up with "creative solutions" (I'm waiting to hear what those are), let's just wait a few years (OK, but for now, what do we do -- eliminate all elementary school music while we wait for the economic crisis to pass), small schools are the best (OK, but what do we tell the 87% of the district that suffers through their "too large" schools while we take away instrumental music from all kids?), and so on. The reality is that we have a budget crisis. It isn't just this year and it isn't going to go away. It is getting larger and larger each year, because we do not have the income to sustain our current programs. So, we need to make tough, tough choices. And yes, those are going to come down ultimately to choices BETWEEN different things, because that is how we all solve our family's budget crisis. Do we want to keep Marks Meadow open, OR do we want to have instrumental music and save 3 intervention teachers? Do we want instrumental music OR do we want to save four intervention teachers who work with kids who struggle on math/reading? If we find an extra $50,000, do we spend it on a science coordinator, a librarian, or an ELL teacher? Again, those are the questions we should ALL be asking each other and ourselves. Counting on Obama, or meal tax revenue, or an override is just not realistic -- if it happens, and it happens soon enough, of course we will take that information andthose funds into account. But for now, we have to plan for what we know and what we control -- and that means asking tough questions and making tough choices.

So, how do I solve this budget crisis? Well, I have three answers (and for those of you reading this who don't like when I give opinions, you should STOP NOW):

1. If we are at the best case scenario, you need to save $800,000. To do that, I think we close Marks Meadow (saves $300,000 to $400,000 the first year, another $200,000+ in every subsequent year), and bring back instrumental music with the money we save. We then have an "extra" $100,000 to $200,000 to spend (on a special education teacher? guidance counselor? librarian? cafeteria paraprofessionals?). You also gain an extra $200,000 in each subsequent year, which hopefully could be used to bring back some of the other stuff we would have cut.

2. If we are at the "middle case scenario," you need to save $1,288,776. I'd close Marks Meadow and make and all of the cuts in Tier 1 EXCEPT instrumental music. I'd cut two of the four intervention teachers now on Tier 1 (that saves about $108,000). And then I'd add fees for instrumental music -- $200 or so a year, with kids on free/reduced lunch paying nothing. With an estimated 500 kids playing instruments each year, that should lead to something like $70,000 in revenue. We then would need to cut another $223,000 to $323,000. Those cuts would NOT be easy ... but they would be largely one year cuts, because the next year, we'd have an extra $200,000 in revenue after the transition costs of moving to three schools would be set. I don't know how I'd make them -- here, I'd defer to the principals for their best advice about minimal impact.

3. If we are at the "worst case scenario," you need to save $1,865,570. The choices then frankly get really easy. You have to close a school. You have to get rid of instrumental music. You'd have all the Tier 1 and Tier 2 cuts (including 2 librarians, 7 intervention teachers, 2 computers teachers, special ed teachers, the science coordinator, and so on). And then you still have to find another $177,000 to $277,000 to cut ... which can, at this level, pretty much only come from cutting teachers (3 to 6 positions), which could certainly lead to larger class sizes (remember, you've already realized four extra teaching positions you don't need from closing a school -- this would be ON TOP of those four positions). This one seems really dreadful to me.

The reality is that making those choices is precisely the job of the School Committee. It isn't fun, and it isn't easy (both of which I've heard today). There is nothing easy about spending time sorting through all the numbers and all the data for all the plans, and then making a decision about which cuts are OK and which just feel too awful to make. There is nothing easy about sitting in an auditorium for nearly 3 hours while people openly criticize me for blogging and for trying to close a school. But I didn't run for School Committee to be popular or to be liked -- I ran for School Committee because I felt like I would be willing and able to make tough decisions that would be in the very, very best interest of all of the kids in our community, and that I would communicate my reasoning behind each and every one of those decisions in a highly public way (as I'm doing right now). I know people are frustrated about the budget situation and wish that things were better. So do I.

But I can sit back and keep my mouth shut (like every other one of my colleagues on School Committee do right now -- do you have any idea how any one of them feels about this budget crisis?), which would clearly be the easier and safer way -- or I can tell you what I'm thinking and how I reached this decision, and you can then have a chance to prove me wrong. And hey, I'm up for re-election in the spring of 2011 -- feel free to vote me out then. Until then, I'm going to keep blogging ... and presumably facing abuse from assorted anonymous posters!

Yes, We Have Numbers

At about 8 am today (TUESDAY), we received numbers that show the recommended cuts to the current configuration of four elementary schools at both the 2% level (as requested by the Finance Committee), the "worst case scenario", and the "worst case scenario" IF we also get some economic stimulus help (so, three sets of recommended cuts). These numbers will be presented by the Superintendent tonight, and they will clearly show the choices we will have to make in the relatively near future. I strongly encourage all parents and community members to attend tonight's meeting -- it should be very informative. And I then look forward to hearing from ALL members of this community as to the types of choices they think we should make. What these numbers clearly show (and there weren't any real surprises) is that we can't "have it all." We are going to have to make some tough choices, and I expect that we will hear a lot from many voices about how to make these choices over the next month.

Monday, February 9, 2009

My View on Music

I was not going to do a new entry tonight ... but after reading a series of emails from parents, and kids, and then hearing from someone that I was being described as the driving force behind eliminating instrumental music in our district (!), I feel compelled to write something. First, let me say that I still have NOT seen the current cuts, so I do not technically know whether instrumental music is being proposed as a cut. However, I've now learned from teachers that they have been told this is on the list, so I imagining that this is true.

The instrumental music program in the elementary schools (band, orchestra) costs a bit under $200,000 a year. This is therefore a big ticket item, and particularly since it is not something that is tested on the MCAS (and actually takes time out of the school day from subjects that are on the MCAS). So, it was pretty obvious (as I've predicted for weeks/months now) that this was going to be a likely cut when we are trying to find a million or so in the budget to save.

And I think cutting instrumental music is a very BAD idea. (The rest of this is all now my opinion, for those who aren't keen on opinion stuff -- this is your warning). Here's why I think it is a bad idea:

1. Our music program benefits ALL kids. We offer this program at ALL schools. We offer it cheap so that kids whose parents can't afford private lessons can still participate. When we cut instrumental music in the elementary schools, those kids from wealthy backgrounds will get private lessons. The kids from less wealthy backgrounds just won't play an instrument. In a district focused on social justice, this seems like an outrageous cut to me. We have a rich music program at the MS and HS ... but this program will be just destroyed if we cut music at the elementary level (or it will be almost entirely composed of kids from wealthier backgrounds).

2. The music program at the elementary school level may be the hook that keeps some kids motivated/excited by school. I've heard from many parents that music is the one thing that their kid loves about school. I've heard from parents that music is the one area in which their child gets self-esteem and self-confidence. Different kids have different gifts and skills and talents and abilities ... and taking an opportunity away from kids who have passion about music seems wrong.

3. Lots of research indicates a connection between music education and other types of learning (especially math, but other areas as well). It is good for the brain.

I've written a lot in earlier posts and how I prioritize things, and again, I haven't seen the list of cuts, so I can't comment on the merit of any of them. But I'll tell you one thing I'd find very easy -- if we have a choice between keeping instrumental music (which benefits ALL kids at ALL schools and has advantages for the music program in the middle and high school) or keeping Marks Meadow open (which benefits at most 13% of the district, and at probably three times the cost of instrumental music), the choice for me is clear. So, once again (like it or not), I want to be very clear about where I stand (Stefan, I expect I'll hear from you in like 10 seconds).

Friday, February 6, 2009

More Info on Superintendents

Just a quick note to alert parents and community members to new information that has been posted about each of our three Superintendent candidates: their resumes (curriculum vitaes) and multicultural statements are all posted on the website. We all owe major thanks to Kathy Mazur (who is coordinating all aspects of the superintendent search) and Nina Koch (who is keeping the website updated) for adding these two pieces of information to our website during what is obviously a very, very busy time in our district. This is a great step in increasing community awareness of the candidates who we will see in the next few weeks, and I hope it will give people greater awareness of the experiences and views of each of our superintendent candidates.

Update on the Numbers

As I noted following the last meeting on Tuesday, February 3rd, the School Committee voted unanimously to request specific information regarding the costs associated with each of five plans (current configuration at 2% cuts and "worst case" scenario, the pairing plan, the 3 K to 4s and a 5/6, closing MM and keeping three K to 6 schools, closing MM and moving the 6th grade to the MS). This information was requested to be given to School Committee members today so that we would have the chance to review the information and clarify any issues prior to the meeting on Tuesday.

Although I am not allowed to discuss any of the numbers I have received until the Tuesday 7 pm meeting, I will say that we were NOT given all of the information we requested and I find that very disappointing. I hope that we will be given the information that has now been requested at two separate School Committee meetings prior to the meeting on Tuesday, but it just is not clear to me if we will receive that information prior to the meeting (which of course would allow us to look over that information, check calculations, and get clarification prior to having to discuss this meeting with the community and potentially make some recommendations going forward). I hope all parents and community members will attend the meeting on Tuesday to learn what information will be given at that time -- I believe it will be a very interesting meeting in potentially many respects. I will certainly blog about that meeting later that evening and provide a full presentation of the numbers that are presented at that time, as well as my own opinion about those numbers.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Amherst School Committee Meeting - LOCATION CHANGE

Just want everyone to know -- given the expected added interest with the unveiling of the financial realities of the five plans, we are holding the February 10th School Committee Meeting at Marks Meadow (in their auditorium). Please attend to hear the latest information -- I'll also post all the numbers on my blog later that night, and give updated information about when that meeting will be shown on ACTV.

And also remember that you should try to attend the Superintendent Forums next week: Monday, 7 to 8:30 pm (HS library) or Tuesday, 8 to 9 am (MS cafeteria) for Dr. Isabellina Rodriguez, and Wednesday, 7 to 8:30 pm (HS library) or Thursday, 8 to 9 am (MS cafeteria) for Dr. David Sklarz. The third candidate (Dr. Alberto Rodriguez) will be in town on Monday, February 23rd (7 to 8:30 pm, HS library) and Tuesday, February 24th, 8 to 9 am (MS cafeteria). It is VERY important for the School Committee to hear your thoughts about the candidates, so please try to attend an event for EACH of the three candidates.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Amherst School Committee, February 3, 2009

This was a very brief meeting just to clarify the options that the School Committee would like numbers on (from the Superintendent's office) to review at our next meeting on February 10th. Specifically, we requested three things:

1. A prioritized list of program changes, cuts, and additions that would occur for the budget with both the 2% increase recommended by the Finance Committee AND the "worst case" scenario.

2. Fiscal savings, personnel cuts, and classroom impact for each of the following FOUR options:

--Pairing K-2/3-6 (FR-CF, MM-WW)
--Three K to 4 schools, WW as a 5/6 school
--Closing MM and redistributing those kids to the other three schools (K to 6)
--Closing MM and redistrbuting those kids to the other schools (K to 5) AND moving the 6th graders to the MS

This last option is something that apparently would help relieve concerns about overcrowding in the other schools if we simply close MM, and also could have some pedagogical benefits for 6th graders (perhaps introduction to World Language, greater family involvement with the MS if it goes to a 3-year school). As the parent of a 5th grader, this plan would clearly impact me personally (especially with that 7 am bus pick up), but I am very glad that our administrative staff has worked to really explore a range of options at this critical budget time.

3. An initial estimate of the time, financial, and other costs of reconfiguring the district for each of these plans (e.g., how/when could redistricting occur, would much time/cost to move teachers/books/furniture, how to move the portables, etc.).

My understanding is that the School Committee will have these numbers on Friday, so that we can review the figures over the weekend in preparation for our meeting on Tuesday. The Tuesday meeting will also be held in a larger forum -- potentially the MS auditorium (stay tuned for announcements on this). I believe there will then also be time for parents/community members to share thoughts on these plans on the 10th, but also in some parent group forums at the elementary schools in late February/early March. It sounds like we will need to vote on a plan sometime between mid-March and early April (to prepare a budget for Town Meeting), so that should give us at least a month, maybe more, to get community input and gather additional data (e.g., redistricting models), before taking a vote on the budget.

Superintendent Visit POSTPONED

Due to a death in his immediate family, the visit of Superintendent finalist Dr. Alberto Rodriguez scheduled for February 4th and 5th has been postponed. Details of the rescheduled visit will be posted as soon as they become available.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Blatant Fresh Air Program Plug

This blog posting is NOT about the schools or education in Amherst (sorry) ... but it is about something that I think would be of interest to many Amherst families -- the Fresh Air Program. This is a program in which kids from New York City children who live in disadvantaged communities come and stay in a rural/surburban town (like Amherst!) for two weeks each summer. We've hosted a Fresh Air child (Nasheen) for three summers now, and hope to have him back this year for his fourth visit (he was 6 when he started coming, so he's really grown up with my kids). It has been very rewarding for my family, and really not so much work -- he goes to day camp with one of my kids, shares a bedroom with my oldest son, and just hangs out doing whatever we are doing. Anyway, if you are interested in learning more about this program, you can check out their website: I'm also glad to answer any questions -- either on line or off (, 256-4977).

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Why Redistricting Makes Sense

As of this fall, I will three kids in the Amherst schools -- a 6th grader, a 3rd grader, and a kindergartner. The older two attend Fort River, where they've gone since kindergarten. So, not surprisingly, they have a strong attachment to this school, their friends, the teachers, and staff. And I understand that redistricting may well move my kids (based on where we live, most likely to Crocker), and may well move some of their friends (to Wildwood, based on where they live). But as much as I'd like for my kids to stay at Fort River, with their friendship groups intact, I believe redistricting our elementary schools is essential.

As you can see on this map of our districts, many kids don't actually attend the school that is closest to their house (meaning we are probably spending more money on school buses than we need to and meaning some kids are spending more time on the bus than they should). The most glaring example of our districts being poorly configured is the cut-out that sends the kids who live in the apartment complexes closest to Crocker Farm to Crocker Farm (appropriately), but the kids who live in the houses surrounding these complexes to Wildwood (inappropriately, in my opinion). In turn, we now have four districts that look very different from one another in terms of the percent of kids on free and reduced lunch -- Wildwood has a low of 22% and Crocker Farm has a high of 54%. This is just a massive difference, and there is no way that it can't impact what occurs both in and outside of the classroom on a daily basis (again, this is no slight to the families or teachers at Crocker Farm -- or the excellent principal, Mike Morris -- a former student of mine at Amherst College!). But it just doesn't seem right or fair to have four elementary schools with such dramatically different populations.

This difference in socioeconomic population in the different schools is created in part by the way we have districted -- I can't imagine that there aren't more kids on free/reduced lunch who live in the apartments (and go to Crocker) than that live in the houses surrounding those apartments (and go to Wildwood). But is also is created in part by the decision to cluster children who speak particular languages together. As a few people have questioned in their comments on earlier postings, we cluster English Language Learners (ELL) by language into the different elementary schools -- Spanish at Crocker, Chinese at Wildwood, Khmer (Cambodian) at Fort River, and Korean at Marks Meadow. Although one may disagree or agree with this clustering (I'll talk more about this later), the reality is that MANY more of the ELL kids at Crocker are on free/reduced lunch than those at the other schools: 94% of the ELL kids at Crocker are on free/reduced lunch, compared to 65% of the ELL kids at Fort River, 62% of the ELL kids at Marks Meadow, and only 37.8% of the ELL kids at Wildwood. One more point: the % of kids who are ELL at each school also varies dramatically. At Crocker Farm, there are 265 students, and 55 ELL students, meaning 21%. At Marks Meadow, there are 191 students and 34 ELL students, meaning 18%. At Fort River, there are 454 kids and 59 ELL students, meaning 13%. And at Wildwood, there are 406 kids and 37 ELL kids, meaning 9%. Thus, the biggest gap seems to be between Crocker Farm (with 54% of kids on free/reduced lunch and 21% ELL kids) and Wildwood (with 22% of kids on free/reduced lunch and 9% ELL kids).

So, why do we cluster kids by language? This decision was driven in part by cost-efficiencies, meaning it is easier to have kids who speak the same language work with a single teacher. It has also meant that it is easier to make sure that Crocker (the school with the highest % of ELL students and families) has staff who are bilingual and the resources needed to translate school materials that get sent home into Spanish. However, it is not clear whether this plan (which requires some kids to be bused out of their home district -- 42 ELLs right now are transported, plus another 13 former ELLs) will continue. My understanding is that district staff is considering whether to continue this program of language clustering (based on both educationally and financial criteria). However, it seems very clear to me that the policy of clustering Spanish speaking kids at Crocker Farm has certainly increased the number of kids on free/reduced lunch at this school, and because Crocker Farm is a relatively small school (265 students -- somewhat more than MM, but many fewer than FR and WW), even a relatively small increase in kids on free/reduced lunch being moved to this school has a pretty significant impact on the % of kids on free/reduced lunch at the school (if the same number of kids were sent to WW or FR, it would just have a much smaller impact).

Last week I posted calculations of how much (approximately) we spend per student at each of the four elementary schools. An administrator then contacted me to let me know that CF receives Title 1 funds, which are given to schools serving a certain percentage of low income kids (MM also receives some Title 1 funds, but much less, since the percentage of kids on free/reduced lunch is much smaller at this school). So, just to clarify to all, Title 1 funds are given based on the % of kids on free/reduced lunch ... so clearly CF is getting these funds (and thus their per pupil costs are reduced by this amount -- perhaps as much as $1,000 per child). MM also benefits from Title 1 funds, but at a much smaller rate (CF serves 143 kids on free/reduced lunch, compared to 69 at MM).

One final thing -- several people have suggested (on my blog, on other blogs, and in School Committee meetings) that the push to close MM is really just a way for us to redistrict, and hence closing MM is just a strategy to accomplishing the bigger goal of redistricting. I both agree and disagree with this view. On the one hand, I do think we need to redistrict -- as I've pointed out throughout this entry. But if I thought it were fiscally responsible to keep MM open for the long-term (meaning the next 5 to 10 years, not just scrapping together money and cutting programs to find a way to keep it open NEXT year), then I'd be pushing for a careful look at how to redistrict into four districts that are more equitable. But given that I don't see the numbers (increasing budget crisis, flat or declining enrollment projections) as justifying keeping MM open, I think it would be a real mistake to redistrict into FOUR districts now. Let's say we decide to redistrict this year and move kids around (this would include moving kids at ALL the schools in some way). Then, let's say that in a year or two, it becomes increasingly clear that we just can't keep MM open (the numbers drop as projected, we pay more to Charter Schools, the budget gap increases even more -- as it is projected to do, etc.). Then, if we close MM, we'd have to redistrict AGAIN, which means that the younger kids could move to three different schools during their elementary school years (e.g., I could easily imagine a kid who goes to FR now gets redistricted to MM, then moves to WW when the redistricting occurs). That is why it is really important to NOT make a decision about how best to redistrict until we have a realistic sense of whether we can sustain MM for at least the next 5 years. I think moving kids three times in three to five years is wrong, and I worry that re-disctricting before we've made the decision about whether we can keep MM open long-term could have this very unfortunate result.