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: email@example.com.