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.

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!


LarryK4 said...

Blogs are a two-way-street.

"Just because you CAN blog doesn't mean you SHOULD blog," is like saying:

"Just because all Americans are protected by the First Amendment doesn't mean they should, you know, actually use it." Yikes!

And I thought we were an educated community.

Cathy C said...

First, thank you Catherine. Thank you for being informative, transparent, and brave. Thank you not only for blogging, but for representing Amherst with a clear mission, “to push for a greater emphasis on academic excellence for all children in the Amherst schools.” That is what I am looking for too.

Second, I too was frustrated at the School Committee meeting 2/10. I personally would have much rather heard comments from the school committee members to know where they stand, then the lengthy public opinions. (I have noticed in the past – you are not always in the majority) I heard a lot of fear in the face of change and challenge. I don’t want to make any cuts to our schools (I personally LOVE the instrumental music program and have 2 children benefitting from it), but I also recognize that cuts are absolutely necessary with the money available.

Next, I agree with the comment someone made about making a timely decision so that people know their personal situation sooner then later. The uncertainty is stressful. When strong leaders make justified choices, we can have confidence.

What people need is hope. The reason I can usually subside my emotions about these proposed cuts is because I know that we can make it work. I have confidence in our collective ability to adjust and succeed. We have terrific principals, teachers, staff, volunteers… who will continue to do their best. No matter the challenges , we can pull together as a community committed to academic excellence for all children in Amherst schools.

Anonymous said...

There are many school districts that have only one librarian that rotates between the various elementary schools. We should consider this option.

Anonymous said...

So you are saying that children with special needs/learning disabilities are less important than those who have a "talent" with music? Aren't schools for teaching? To me, music lessons are for children whose parents have expendible income. I'm ALREADY paying for outside tutoring for my child to supplement what he gets in school, and yet, you'd rather see those intervention teachers be let go than a music program? Isn't it time we focused on getting ALL our children through the school system with an education, rather than focusing on the ones who are gifted and leaving those with special needs to flounder?

Anonymous said...

I accidentally posted this comment under the wrong heading so I am repeating it here where it belongs.

Thank you Catherine for this blog. It is an invaluable source of information and a great place to thoughtfully discuss the budget crisis facing our schools.

I have an operational question. Three tiers of cuts have been laid out, each tier more draconian then the previous one. How does the SC work with the unknown money factor in deciding what to cut. Does it prepare 3 budgets - one for each tier. And then go with the appropriate one based on the amount of money we have? Or does the SC assume that we are automatically at Tier 3 and prepare a budget with draconian cuts, and then add things back in if more money appears? How does all of this work practically?

Anonymous said...

First, I would like to thank Catherine for maintaining this Blog, especially in the midst of continued criticism. It is clear that this Blog presents her opinions on various issues and I welcome the opportunity to be informed about her positions—should I ultimately disagree with her I can vote her out the next time but at least I know exactly where she stands.

Second, I did attend the meeting last night and felt similarly frustrated. We do need to make significant cuts in our school budgets. We can no longer trim things and pray that money falls from the sky later to off set deficits (whether we are hoping for overrides, state meal tax options or federal stimulus plans). I appreciate that the principals (and others) worked carefully to craft three different budget scenarios that attempt to maintain core values that many parents feel are important. So while the budget does cut the instrumental music program even at Tier 1 (perhaps moving to a fee-based program at Tier 1 would be a sensible idea?), it does not reflect an immediate move to increased class sizes (classroom teacher positions are retained). Unfortunately the Tier 1 Budget is a best case scenario and in terms of the long-term as well as immediate budgetary constraints we as a community must find additional ways to contain costs; looking at school reconfigurations then makes sense.
Of the four elementary school restructuring options that were presented, only two, which both would lead to the closing of Marks Meadow would potentially be associated with any significant cost savings. This would be a painful choice for our community but I strongly believe that Marks Meadow will be closed, whether this year or in future years. We have declining school enrollments so our need for 4 schools is becoming difficult to justify . Marks Meadow is growing older and will eventually need renovation/repairs but it is not owned by the Town (and doesn’t seem to be a major priority in terms of Umass Building Projects) which presents challenges in terms of how we would maintain/renovate the physical structure over time. The need to close seems inevitable, and sooner rather than later, may be reasonable given the long-term economic situation we face in our community (and everywhere for that matter). If we are talking equity for all children than this is the equitable choice.
Claire Hamilton

Ed said...

Addressing the SPED issue:

Yes, I am going to say this. At some level and at some point, we are going to have to shift from the concept of "any educational benefit" to the "reasonable educational expenditure" in Special Education.

Chapter 766 was groundbreaking not only nationally but in the world. Places like the now-closed Belchertown State School were hellholes that no civilized society could tolerate. And the exclusion of those with less cognative ability from society was the legacy of some very bad things in the 1920s that also included the German National Socialists.

But we have gone to the other extreme.

I once taught a high school class that had a kid with an IQ of maybe 80 sitting right next to a kid who had (as a sophmore) had already been accepted to Harvard (and would later go on to graduate first in his class both there and from Harvard law). There is no way that you can teach both children at the same time -- what text do you use?

We are spending so much to education such a small percentage of the population that there comes the very basic issue of collective fairness. At some point we have to say "enough" - at some point we have to make the difficult choice of either spending the ENTIRE budget on a small fraction of the children, or making the difficult choice of setting a cap on what we will spend for any individual child.

We also need to start looking at outcome-based objectives for SPED. ARE the children -- 20 years out -- always better off than they were in the BTown State days? I am not always sure that we are even more humane in our current approach to DMH/DMR clientele....

BUT WE NEED TO EDUCATE ALL THE CHILDREN. There are multiple intellegences and there are things like physical education, music education and other such things that we need to expose children to now lest they never have the ability to enjoy them later.

I am fairly conservative, and I am by no means an advocate of many of the things I have seen in PK-6 in the past 20 years, but there are three points that simply can not be ignored:

First, we are largely cheating those students with median to genius IQ levels. We have brought in some Gifted/Talented (Amherst more than most) and I am not a fan of tracking (homogenius grouping) on the elementary level, but there is an issue here.

Second, these students with median to advanced IQs -- particularly the boys -- tend to get bored and tune out and then drop out of school. With lots of bad consequences...

Third, I am not going down this road anywhere as near as the left will, but we simply can not have a MCAS-only PK-6 curriculum. We need to have art, we need to have music, we need to have physical education -- all of which the classroom teacher taught herself 50 years ago. We need this.

And thus we are going to have to --- at some point --- put a top end limit on what we spend for SPED...

Anonymous said...

Given the fact that for years we have been paying hefty fees for our kids to play sports at the MS/HS level there should be some sort of fee for music lessons.

Stefan Petrucha said...

After seeing the numbers last night and wracking my brain over them, I’m sorry to say that in my admittedly amateur opinion, the potential closing of MM is starting to make sense.

The figures are still preliminary, but since they’ve been calculated by the financial office, I trust them more than previous estimates – and they’re worse! I’d hoped the other reconfiguring plans would prove viable, but sadly they showed losses (!) instead of savings. I’d hoped the savings estimates for the closing of MM wouldn’t be as great as predicted, but while I stand by my critiques of both the reasoning and tone that’s appeared in sundry posts, Catherine is correct in saying she owes no apology for her numbers there.

At even the lowest tier of cuts, instrumental music is on the chopping block, and I think that’s a mistake for the entire district. Further, while I doubt we’ll face the worst case scenario, it’s completely reasonable to believe we’ll face more than the first tier cuts.

It was suggested at the meeting our economic doldrums would last a decade – I think that’s extreme and unreasonable. I don’t think it unreasonable to expect them to last two years or so and plan accordingly. In fact, I think it would be wise.

While the value of both MM and IM is clear in my mind, I can’t explain how to pay for them. I’d love to say I have a great idea for coming up with more money, but I don’t. Unless the teacher’s union steps up and expresses a willingness to delay or reduce their contractual raises (teacher’s union are you listening?) I don’t see how such a big gap can be closed.

I’m just one thinker, and again, an amateur. If someone comes up with something that makes sense, I’m there. I’ll certainly let everyone know if I come up with one myself.

I support the idea, suggested at the meeting, of raising property taxes, but don’t see it happening. We bought our forty-four year old home two years ago, haven’t made any renovations, and just got hit with a $1k property tax increase. Add that to an unexpected drop in our income and we’re scrambling to pay the bills.

In spite of that, my love and respect for MM is such that I’d vote in favor of increasing taxes in a heartbeat. At the same time, I know a family that home schools, suffered a job loss, and is now trying to sell their house because they can no longer afford it. I can’t ask them to support more taxes.

To back up a bit, if we somehow wind up at First Tier cuts, I don’t believe we CAN’T find the money to keep MM and IM. If at all possible, I think it’s far, far, far wiser to delay redistricting until next year so the proper time and thought can be given to the process.

Beyond that, if closing MM comes to pass, I’d strongly suggest we try to hang on to the MM building in case the situation changes in the future (free utilities!).

I also implore the council to further study the option of moving the 6th grade to ARMS while closing MM. I realize the numbers there are particularly unknown, but it strikes me as the best of the bad choices. In addition to creating a stronger middle school community, it would reduce overall size for all the elementary schools – and I do believe school size impacts achievement. It would also set the stage for regionalization.

This is depressing. It’s easy to toss the blame on the current economy, but I see it more as a sad comment on Amherst’s leadership. It’s a reflection on their inability to plan, innovate, increase our tax base, and on and on that we’ve been brought to a point where eliminating an educational gem like MM becomes thinkable – but that’s where I believe we are.

Ed said...

Yes, I am going to say this too -- and warning, I am one of those Evil Republicans (for those who haven't figured that out yet):

There are two concepts of public discourse. There is the liberal (small "l") one that truth is stronger than falsehood and that if everyone can present an opinion in an open and free encounter, the good ones will obliterate the bad ones. There is a related belief in the collective ability of the populace to determine that which is right and to do it.

The concept of letting people govern themselves was a very novel approach in the 18th Century and by no means accepted by all of that era...

On the other hand there is the belief of people like Marcouse that "bad" speech can not be permitted. That people exposed to "bad" speech and thoughts will go down the road of believing them. That the populace are little more than sheep, that they can not be trusted to govern themselves.

This is Plato's Cave -- where the sunlight reflects off the enlightened leader.

Bluntly, there is the liberal (small "l") and there is the fachist. The liberal wants the other side to express itself so as to show its stupidity thus defeating itself, the faschist wishes to censor.

So you have an elected representative (who can vote any damn way on anything) essentially nailing her thesis to the church door. She is saying "here I stand, now debate me on the facts."

And some of the Amherst Liberals (note "L") -- who are more faschist than liberal anyway -- are seeking to censor her instead of debating her. That is what this is all about.

And as one who has spent countless hours trying to figure out what various UMass officials are thinking, it is a refreshing perspective to see someone in a position of power lay out what she is thinking and the reasons why.

And what her critics don't realize is that she literally is tipping her hand to her opponents. Very few politicians are brave enough to do this, and for this she should be commended, not attacked.

Ed said...

The Cost-Shifting Music (etc) Option.

I am not saying this is good, only that it is an option (and one that UMass appears to be adopting).

Lets say it costs $1000 per child for the music program so we can keep the numbers simple. And that household income distribution is on a nice bell curve with the standard deviations in the nice places (it isn't...).

We subsidize half, with a cost of $1000 and a price of $500. Those in the median range pay this ($500). At the first standard deviation we double it ($250/$2000) and then at the second we do it again ($125/$4000).

I am keeping the numbers simple here, when you get out to the families on public assistance and the families with 6-figure household income, the first group essentially is charged nothing and the second multiple times the cost of the program.

In any other community there would be issues with those in the middle, but Amherst essentially has no middle -- if you have children in the schools you either have a 6-figure household income or live in a subsidized apartment -- everyone else has long moved to Belchertown...

You also have the problem of the wealthier families switching out of the school program to private instruction because (to them) it would either be the same price or perhaps cheaper. As well as the concept of universal education and the wealthier children being denied access to things that their parents may not see a benefit for.

(Think Archie Bunker -- he didn't need music, his child doesn't either...)

But I am throwing this out there, even though I am not fully in support of it, as an option.

Neil said...

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.

This is a responsible approach.

What is the time line for learning facts about what level of cuts are necessary? (And what is the time line required to execute each of the three reorgs?)

Laying that out seems to be pretty important in terms of time frame for decision making.

If I were on the Select Board or Town Meeting, I would try to get override on the ballot not because I agree with the policy but becuase I think residents who do should be able to vote (again) on it.

I think our tax rates are high, and our evaluations are increasing even while every other town in the state has decreasing valuations.

The value of my house and my ability to pay more taxes are two very separate issues.

We are already burdened heavily with high taxes and we have the schools and services to show for it. Sometimes, you must tighten your belt. That time has come.

At the same time, residents should recognize the benefit of living in a town with more job security due to a large presence of higher ed.

Keep up the good work Sanderson and I'll keep current on your work here and in the local paper.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Well, thanks (mostly) for all these comments. I’m going to try to respond to each (briefly):

1. Larry: As always, thanks for the blogger-to-blogger support!

2. Cathy: Thanks for the kind words. I too would have liked more time for the School Committee to respond … but I think that became VERY hard in the heat of the pretty constant hostility (meaning that we are unlikely to know where others stand until the final vote – hardly seems ideal to me). I also think time is of the essence, and we need to make sure that families/schools/teachers have time to plan for whatever the future is (are we closing a school? Moving the 5th graders to the MS this fall? Cutting instrumental music?).

3. Anonymous: The Tier 1 cuts do include sharing a librarian between two schools. We could have just one librarian for all the schools … but that still saves only $150,000 (a drop in the bucket, really). And I don’t know that I’d be in favor of this plan simply to save a school.

4. Anonymous: I have no idea where you get the idea that I prioritize music over intervention teachers. As was clearly presented last night, we have 11 intervention teachers in the district. At Tier 1, we close 3 of these … but ALL instrumental music. My point is that by closing MM, we could have instrumental music AND intervention teachers (we could save at least two of the three, so we’d have 10 instead of 11).

5. Anonymous: Good question about the operations. We will continue with three budgets for a month or so (although some changes could be made – we could move instrumental music off the Tier 1 list, but then we’d have to find another $173,000 to save – and I don’t see anything easy from Tier 2 that could swap). Then, we should have more information about whether one of the “end” options isn’t likely (e.g., we don’t get help from the state, so the best option is gone; we do, so the worst option is gone). Then, we prioritize the list so that if/when more money comes through, we add back. Does that help?

6. Anonymous-Claire Hamilton: Thanks for the support. I obviously agree that we just can’t keep MM open in the long-term (even 2-3 years), so really, the question becomes how long do we want to spend $600,000 a year keeping it open (when we could think of many other ways to spend that money at this critical time). That is ultimately the choice.

7. Anonymous Ed: I am not going to get into the Special Ed talk because it is complicated to handle right in this forum. Maybe I’ll do a separate blog posting on this later.

8. Anonymous: I agree that we should have some fees for instrumental music – the question is, what should those be, and how much revenue would that generate (given that we would, I hope, NOT charge fees to those on free/reduced lunch). Remember, the kids all have to pay to rent an instrument, so they are already paying those fees (and that is often in the $300 range per year). I do worry about pricing out people from participating.

9. Stefan: I can’t even begin to tell you how impressed I am with your posting. It is thoughtful, thorough, and wise in multiple respects. Thank you. I agree with you that the numbers are bad, that instrumental music is a horrible thing for this district to lose, and that this is a very hard economic climate for many families in which to even contemplate an override. I also agree that we should try to hold the building AND that we should consider seriously moving the 6th graders to the middle school. In fact, maybe we could move the 6th graders to the middle school AND then move the central office/superintendents’ staff to Marks Meadow! That would help create room for the 6th graders AND let us keep the building (and pay no utilities).

10. Anonymous Ed: Thanks, as always, for the support. You may dislike me and you may dislike my opinions, but hey, at least you know what they are! You would be amazed at the continual criticism I’m getting on my private email from some Marks Meadow families still for doing this blog. So, I do appreciate this. Though I’ll have to admit – is this brave? Or stupid?

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Hi Catherine-

Before folks go too far down this road:

"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."

Please check with the MASC -- because the last time we asked about this, we were told MGL prevented us from charging fees for programs that took place during the school day -- which is why we charge for athletics and why we don't charge for group instrumental music lessons. If we can't legally charge fees for group instrumental music lessons that take place during the day, we can get that concept off the table.

That will of course lead to, "let's offer group instrumental music lessons before or after school for a fee." Even if we imagined that our current instrumental music teachers would be willing to teach that way (and let's remember, these people are professional teachers and professional musicians), and even if we offer fee subsidies, I guarantee that the participation rate will decline, and we will end up far more tilted toward white families of means than the current almost-every-person-in-the-class participation rates. Doing things outside school hours works for people of means, doesn't work as well for people with more complex schedules and fewer choices. Instrument rental costs are already cutting some participants out of the mix, even with valiant attempts to get all those kids covered out of the teachers' pockets and limited "scholarship" funds.

I absolutely believe that our group instrumental music lessons are a cornerstone of Becoming a Multicultural School System. We cannot let this program go. As much as I dislike disagreeing with the principals who worked so hard to come to this agreement on Tier 1, 2, 3 cuts, I also know that group instrumental music lessons are inconvenient to the daily schedule -- but it's an inconvenience we absolutely must continue.

As many of you know, I was on the School Committee for five years. I almost accepted losing group instrumental music lessons and even the renowned Russian program in the Regional schools, because after all, something has to go. But those are two things that we can't afford to lose. Reminding us of what was also mentioned last night: the Regional cuts are also going to be very bad.

Yes, I'm a Mark's Meadow parent, I was one of the people making sure it wasn't at risk of closing in 1999-2000 when the School of Ed dumped us:-) as a Lab School, and yes my kids have both been part of the instrumental music program. Although my 5th grader turned in his flute this year because he wouldn't practice, and my 9th grader won't be part of any instrumental music program in 10th grade because 1) we don't have a marching band, and that would be more his style, and more importantly, 2) that he's probably going to have to take two directed studies in 10th grade, meaning if he takes band, he gets no electives in 10th grade.

"Just because you can, doesn't mean you should" is one of our family's catch phrases. With all due respect to my friends at Mark's Meadow, that phrase doesn't apply to blogging, it applies to being rude and refusing to see the need for community to come together rather than for some to win and some to lose.

Thanks, Catherine.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...


Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful post! I have a friend with a kid in the Shutesbury schools who said she DOES pay for music lessons ... but sure, I'll check out whether that is legal! And I fully, fully agree that instrumental music is a must keep ... but I'll tell you, what do YOU see on the Tier 2 list that costs $172,000 to swap? It is basically all intervention teachers (sounds really scary for our struggling students) or what I see as key support people (science coordinator, librarian, computer teacher). I can't find a choice I can live with here ... or that I want to live with, anyway.

Which leads me to closing MM.

So, how would you prioritize those items?!?

And thanks (I think?) for sticking up for my right to blog?!?

Meg Rosa said...

I was one of the many that stood up last night and said something. I am running for School Committee, I am a Marks Meadow parent, I am the co-chair of our PGG, on the SGC and Diversity Committee. I am an Amherst High School graduate!! I have also been working recently with a group of lovely women from all 4 schools, on Amherstopoly. This is a major project that is bringing all the schools together for the greater good.

This spirit needs to be felt across the board. We all need to come together and make this right for our kids! They deserve nothing less. Closing Marks Meadow will have major impacts on all the schools. All families in this town will feel it. There are people worried about their children's social groups. These are kids!! They will, if we as parents let them, go on to meet many more kids and have so many friends that we could find ourselves having a hard time planning as many play dates as the kids may want! This is a huge opportunity for them! We have to give them the permission to embrace this change. We have to continue to talk to them about the positives of this.

We need to make sure that whatever building they end up in, we continue to work to improve it. So Crocker Farm needs some help with a play ground. If Fort River can pull together to make it happen, then maybe it can be done at Crocker Farm too. We, as a town, should really want that for these kids!! Playgrounds last for generations. Many of our children's children could be playing on the same ones our kids are now. This is totally an investment into the future of our town.

We need to take care of all of our kids!! We need to stop talking and do it! We can't wait for someone else to come around and do it for us. We get one shot at raising our kids. Let's make it great!!

Who is good at finding and writing grants for things like arts, more science clubs in all schools, math/mind game clubs, playgrounds, etc. Can we put a group together that could work on this?

Can we come up with a list of parents who can and will sign up to help out in the classrooms on a regular basis. If we have to cut teachers support, parents should be able to step up and help.

Can we come up with as many solutions as possible and really work hard to make things happen for these kids? Are we all willing to put our money (time and energy too) where our mouths are and make this right for the kids?

We can do this!

Rick said...

A big thing that Catherine is getting at in this post is not so much the details about what she thinks are the exact solutions, but rather is saying:

“People, wake up. This is a big problem that is not going to get solved by ‘creative solutions’”.

I totally agree with that. It’s pretty simple: you want decent schools, you gotta pay for it. In 2007 the majority of people (53%) decided they didn’t want to pay. This is what happens when you don’t pay.

And on top of that, we decided not to pay (via increased property taxes) at a time when (since 2001/2003) we have pocketed state and federal income tax cuts. It is no coincidence that state aid started to drop at the same time state income tax rates got cut (2002). Total aid is about $19 million below where it would have been had it kept up with inflation (2002-2008). Yet we are not willing to make up some of that difference in a property tax increase, even though we have the state and federal income tax cut money in our pockets to pay for it. It doesn’t feel like you have more money? Well if so, it’s not because of taxation.

Either this is a good thing because it is forcing cuts that should have been made anyways, or it’s a bad thing – you decide.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Yes, I absolutely am sticking up for your right to blog!

I am not one of the people who thinks we have too many administrators. I've never thought that. However, given the current and foreseeable future, I suspect we need more significant cuts in administration in Central office and possibly to the assistant principal positions (here's where I lose a bunch of political allies, ouch), because life is indeed changing. We no longer have the luxury of saying, "it can't be done."

If we end up having to move MM kids, I agree with the idea mentioned that we move the Central Admin to MM building so we aren't technically "closing" MM. Yeah, yeah, moving costs, but it keeps our options open as we see how the economy shakes out.

We need to feel assured that we are doing right by all the special needs all our kids present, but that we are using some judgement (ooh, that word:-( about how best to meet those needs. Again, mandates in mind, we have some flexibility and we need to prove our creativity, just as we did when we brought so many Out of District placements in-house -- better for kids and better for finances. This approach needs to apply to ELL and Special Education programs.

I'd also like to see us be clearer on what "preserving class size" really means throughout our ongoing decision making. If I was Empress:-) faced with these economic conditions:-( I'd be willing to have K classes up to 22, moving up to 25 and 30 for upper elementary. Horrors, I know, but again, I believe this is a long haul permanent change in the fabric of our reality, not just a "batten down the hatches and hold on for a couple years" situation. Basically, more intervention and specials and larger classes rather than vice versa.

Enough random remarks that will already get me hate mail. Thanks. Alisa

Sue Cairn said...

One thing rings true for me when I look at the numbers....if we cut instrumental music we will NOT get it back. Unless Obama waves his magic wand and makes money grow on trees, it will be politically very difficult to get it back in the budget in future years. In addition to the fact that we will lose years of building the program. The same is true of MM..if we close the school, we likely won't ever open it as a school like it is now. So my plea to School Committee is to look to the long term. What are our needs going to be in 5 years (i.e. budget projections, enrollment projections, etc.) and lets make a decision for next year that also makes sense for down the road. As a community, we can't afford to be rehashing these decisions again in a year. Lets make the tough decisions NOW based on the long-term.

Personally I think it would be disastrous to cut the music program (for all the reasons that have already been mentioned). And we need MORE science in the elementary schools, not less. Our para and ELL staff are already bare bones - can we really afford to cut it more?

My optimistic side is hopeful that we will only end up with Tier 1 cuts, and we'll find a way to keep MM open and keep the music program intact. But if that is not possible, then lets make decisions that move us forward as a community and look to the long term.

Alison said...

Catherine, as you know, I am a huge supporter of your blog and appreciate knowing what our elected officials (or at least one of them) are thinking!

I am also glad you responded to Cathy C.'s comment because I shared her frustrations with the meeting last night--I thought it was going to be a Q&A session with the SC and school administration. I had my Q's all laid out but when it became clear that the public comments were much more along the "personal story" line, I stayed in my seat. Clearly, the public needed a forum to vent.

Instead, I will post my questions here. Any answers you might be able to supply would be greatly appreciated.

1. If we did close MM, that would still not close our budget gap (in either of the three scenarios laid out for us). If we went with that option, what else would need to be cut from the budget? Last night people seemed to think it was "close MM or cut instrumental music." Would we still be in danger of losing instrumental music even if we closed MM? A list of Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 cuts that would need to be made along with the closing of MM would be helpful.

2. I was impressed with the man last night who had more information on our instrumental music program. I am speaking particularly about the 521 kids he indicated were served currently by the program and the fact that it was "good bang for the buck." He made a good point. My related question is: homework clubs and associated late buses are relegated to the Tier 3 cuts. How many kids are served by those clubs? Would we get more "bang for the buck" if we moved those costs to Tier 1 and reduced the amount we would need to cut from instrumental music? I realize that the total cost for the clubs/buses are way less than those for instrumental music, but it might be something.

3. I was also impressed with the suggestion of staggering any cuts to instrumental music among the three tiers. Along the same lines, might it be possible for us to reduce instrumental music rather than eliminate it outright? Reduce to two positions, for example, and start strings in fourth grade (instead of third) and band in fifth grade (instead of fourth) so that we could still retain some program for our kids?

4. Following Stefan's comment, has the School Committee approached the unions that represent our school staff about reducing their raises for this year, next year, etc? I understand that our Town Manager is going to ask the municipal employees union(s) to reopen their contracts but nothing could be done without the school unions agreeing as well. Since about 80% of our costs are personnel, reducing raises could add up to significant savings. Is this being explored at all?

5. Where is the ELL busing in all of this? There was a discussion about whether or not to continue this program (both from the perspective of what is best for those kids as well as from the perspective of the extra busing costs/time). Is this being considered in any/all scenarios?

And a final thought. I would like to second Irv Rhodes' comment last night that this fiscal crisis is NOT temporary. I served with him on the Facilitation of Community Choices Committee and the budget gap over the next five years continues to grow. Even without the current economic crisis (our numbers were projected during the summer, not in the fall). Amherst does have a serious structural deficit. Thank you for being willing to face this.

Meg Rosa said...

On a side note. If we do end up closing Marks Meadow, what are the chances we could make it into a community center? Have a gym open year round for kids to be able to come a play in. Art and music rooms for kids to do projects in. The Garden out back for families in the town to work on and enjoy and possibly expand? The auditorium for performing arts, etc.

Anonymous said...

Ed, I must disagree with your comment that, " but Amherst essentially has no middle -- if you have children in the schools you either have a 6-figure household income or live in a subsidized apartment -- "
There is a huge "middle" in Amherst and we are struggling! We can't afford the money to rent an instrument so our kids don't do music. We can't afford the HS athletic fees so we skip that too. We make to much to get help and to little to not feel the pinch and make those choices. 6 figure salaries? Not even close. And don't even think about an override because we can't pay that either and the market is so bad we can't sell.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Trying to catch up with my personal responses:

1. Neil: thanks for the blogging support. I think the time line is about a month ... we will now more about the details of the two close MM scenarios AND info. on state aid. I'd say mid-March should be informative. And until then, we keep moving down all paths to keep options open.

2. Meg: I think parents stepping up is important ... but I also think we need to FIRST solve the massive budget crisis! And hey, I coordinated the entire Fort River playground project -- I'm glad to take that on again next year if my kids go to Crocker! We should also remember, however, that these are tough economic times for all ... and thus many grants are actually drying up (as Dr. Rodriguez described happened in Northampton). I just think we need to try to be realistic about what is possible.

3. Rick: Thanks for pointing that out! Rick and I worked closely on the FAILED override in 2007, so I think we both have a sense of the reality of the problem ... and the real challenge of getting one passed (which I see as even less likely now, when many are hurting financially).

4. Alisa: I agree with all you said. If MM closes, we must find a way to keep the building. We should seriously consider how we are allocating resources to ELL and special ed. And yes, maybe class size needs to be on the table. I for one would LOVE to hear from the entire community whether having four schools is MORE or LESS important than having class sizes of 20 to 22 versus 23 to 25. Anyone?

5. Sue: We have done projections for 5 years and they are clear -- enrollment is flat or dropping, and budget gaps are increasing. And if you find a way to keep MM open and keep instrumental music that feels morally good, let me know == it involves either cutting four intervention teachers (meaning we lose 7 of our 11 teachers who work with kids who have trouble with math/reading/writing) OR we cut a librarian, a computer teacher, AND the science coordinator. Pick your poison here, OK? And that is IF we only have Tier 1 cuts!

Ed said...

> You would be amazed at the
> continual criticism I’m getting
> on my private email from some
> Marks Meadow families still
> for doing this blog.

No, I wouldn't.

Ed Cutting

Ed said...

I know this is not going to be popular, and I have a personal financial interest in seeking the schools hire more and more people, but the simple fact is that the taxpayers are tapped out.

The amount of money, collectively, that we are spending on education is slightly more than sustainable. We can probably maintain 80%-90% of it, but we are not going to go beyond this. It is not going to happen, no matter how much we wish it could.

And thus the issue is how to do it cheaper and better. Back in the 1950s the attitude was build a bigger highway -- and now instead of that, we look at using what we have better. In the '90s it was hire more people and build a bigger school staff. Now we need to think about using what we have better.

You simply are not going to get a higher piece of the pie until at least 2040, it simply isn't going to happen. (Think Baby Boomer Retirements if you don't like the mess we have right now well enough...)

Ed said...

> There is a huge "middle" in
> Amherst and we are struggling!

If I am wrong I will admit it, I was looking at new home sales from about 2000 onward and my personal knowledge of the Amherst rental market in the same period.

Alison said...

Community feedback on class size: My daughter went through 7 years at Fort River and NEVER had a class under 23. My son (now in his seventh year at FR) had one year of 28 kids in his class (due, as I understand it, to move-ins...I guess they started out with 26). So when people keep talking about "keeping small classes," I always wonder where that is! (Actually, from following this budget discussion, I now know.)

Rick said...

Ed: not sure why "the taxpayers are tapped out" when they have been paying just 2.5% per year more in property taxes (a little less than inflation) and got state and federal income tax cuts since 2001-2003.

MA is now lower than the US average, see page 5 of this:

LarryK4 said...

Well gee Rick, maybe some of the MILLIONS of Americans incinerated over the past few months by the economic meltdown having to go on unemployment could also factor in?

And remember in Massachusetts you also have something called "new growth," and in Amherst for many, many years it added an additional 2% to the tax levy thus bringing it up to almost 5%--well above inflation.

But now with all the NIMBY's "new growth" is down.

And let's not even talk about Amherst having a property tax stream that is 90% Homeowners and only 10% Commercial.

Sue Cairn said...

I love Meg's positive attitude about parents/community coming together to raise funds and support the schools. And I think that will help to a point (like with playgrounds, instruments, etc.) But that won't be enough to make a dent in the budget deficit we are now facing.

If it comes down to a choice between keeping MM open or cutting music/ELL/paras/Science for all students...then closing MM is the most logical option for the longterm. And I just don't see the financial scenario getting any better. I'd hate to cut music/ELL/Paras/Science this year, and then have to revisit this next year and close MM anyway. If closing MM makes the most sense for the long term, then lets do it now and see if we can preserve some of the other programs for the long term. And I think Meg's ideas might help with that.

Rick said...

To clarify what Larry is talking about:

"New growth" means new buildings and improvements to existing buildings and adds 1.5% to Amherst property tax revenue (past 10 year average). But the average bill on the same-old-unimproved-house increases 2.5% per year without an override.

Although this year is messed up because revaluation, which takes 2007 data, caused single-family homes to go up by 5.5%, but commercial and condos dropped. Apparently that’s what the data shows and I guess they have to go by that.

More here:

BTW that doesn’t make sense to me – why single family has to go up by 5.5% to offset condos and commercial since I believe there is so much more single-family property, but that’s what it says.

But just so everyone is clear, the total property taxes collected by the town cannot go up by more than 2.5% from year to year on property that already existed. Of course it will go up more than that if new property is built.

And yes, this is bad and is not news: “[Amherst has] a property tax stream that is 90% Homeowners and only 10% Commercial.”

Emily said...

As the mom of a soon-to-be kindergardener, I love this blog, Catherine's transparency, and the way she lays out what the heck is going on. I find that surprisingly hard to come by in this area, where I often feel I'm forced to read between the lines in newspaper articles, and am constantly asking people "in the know" what the real deal is. Here's the real deal! If Marks Meadow parents are upset about this blog, it really does seem like just blaming the messenger. Thanks for all of the work and time you take on this, Catherine. (You're not busy enough?)

Meg Rosa said...

Thank you Sue!!
I do understand it won't help with the budget issues, but it could help with moral!!I believe that will be key to making any of these budget options work. Even closing MM, doesn't take care of the whole budget gap. I believe we are all aware of that now. It is a sad situation, and as I was quoted in the paper "It sucks!" It really does. Any of these options leave us with schools that look very different than ones we know today. We can lose instruments, SPED help, paras, librarians, and the list goes on and on.

So, yes to me it seems, unless we can come up with another solution which I still hold out hope for, I do believe we will end up closing MM. With that being said, there are right ways to do it and wrong ways. I do not know if it is realistic to be done this year. Maybe it is. Seems like a lot of work to me. Another point is that it took about 6 months to get the portables up and running at MM, so if we are going to rely on them for the fall, we should get busy moving them very soon! (maybe it can be done faster than that, but that's what it took for them in there current home)

I feel we should come up with a criteria for redistricting that will benefit all students, then hire an outside source, someone that does this and only this for a living, to make the new lines based on equality. Yes, this will cost some money, but if we are going to do this, we better do it right the first time!! I feel that the redistricting is part of the budget, but should be handled separately from the budget, to make sure that equality is the driving force behind it.

I do not feel it is appropriate to redistrict this year, if we are not going to close MM or any of the other options, until the following year. That would not be fair to any families, and could end up being a lost year for a lot of kids.

The 6th grade in the middle school-

This I love!! I would like it more if it were a regional option. When I was in that building, it was three grades (7-9). We all fit quite well, and the classes (not class sizes, but classes as a whole)were larger then. This gives us flexibility in the elementary schools that we may lack by closing MM, also the possibility for future growth. I know people like the K-6 model. Honestly 6th graders are physically not at the level anymore. They are much more developed now than even 10 years ago. It would also give the kids a sense of belonging to the MS. Right now, it is a transition school. Come in one year and then they are heading back out again the next. It's too fast. We lose a lot of parent involvement because of that. I know parents don't do the same level of involvement in the MS and HS as they do in elementary but it is good to have them there and be able to plan enrichment things for the kids.

So how do we really figure out which cuts are best? I think every person in this town could give you a different answer. Override, same thing. That is why I am saying that we can work hard to pick up the slack that may come from some of these cuts, ourselves as parents. If art is really important to your family, maybe there are other ways to provide more services to all students.

I know money is tight everywhere, but if we put together a strong group of parents who are really good at finding and writing grants, that can give us more options. There are still grants out there. It is always worth a try! If we get all the other Parent groups 5013C status, then they will be eligible for more grants than they currently are. MM does have this now and I believe one of the other schools might as well.

All I am saying is that we are going to have to make cuts. So at the same time we are doing that, we should also be looking at ways to get some of those cuts back, maybe in different forms.

Would it help if parents are given a school supply list at the beginning of each year (like a lot of other districts have) and we each provided a certain amount of things for our children's classrooms? This could be based on income, if needed. A lot of the teachers pay for stuff out of their own pockets now. Getting parents into the classrooms, as math tutors or reading helpers, or just teacher helpers. That would be a huge help, especially if these services are cut.

Listen I am totally brainstorming here. These may not be able to happen at all, but it is worth looking at. Anything we can do to help, is worth looking at. Our principals worked pretty hard to make that list. It is a hard list. We are looking at cutting more stuff than we really have the ability to cut. So again, all I am asking is that we come together as a whole community and come up with some ideas to help this situation.

Meg Rosa said...

Oh and as far as the Blogging goes,
For me I like being able to have a place to come to where we can learn more about what is going on. I hate the attacking that happens!! (Completely unnecessary) I think that the School Committee as a whole should have a Blog so we can get a chance to talk to all of them. Really open up the conversations that happen. Give the entire process some transparency.

Adrienne Levine said...

Catherine, many thanks for your tireless efforts, well considered thoughts and strong leadership.

Given the current situation we face, there are no good options. Some of this certainly could have been avoided had the 3-Year Amherst Plan/override been passed in 2007. A number of us, you included, worked so hard to get the message out, but the citizens made their choice and, unfortunately, here we are today.

Sue Cairn said...

One thought on cutting district administrators...if we want to attract high quality Superintendents to our district, one of the things they will be looking for is "is there adequate administrative support for me to get the job done?" I've heard rumor that this is one reason one of our current candidates is looking at Amherst...they feel they can accomplish more in a district where they have an adequate, if not stellar, admin. team (compared to the district they are currently in.) If we expect our leaders to perform at a high level, we need to provide them with the support to do that.

Ed said...

On taxes - two things.

First, one can argue the undertaxed/overtaxed issue any way one pleases. I suggest that one needs to look at Romney's increase in fees before celebrating an income tax decrease, but I digress.

Second, and notwithstanding the above, we still live in something resembling a democracy. If enough of the people really want to see the police cars painted pink, they are going to *eventually* wind up painted pink, no matter what....

If enough of the populace thinks that we are spending enough/too much money on the schools (and this IS the reality folks) then we aren't going to have more money to spend on them. This is reality.

We have spent the past 25 years (nationally) adding much needed money to K12. And the era of growth is over. Sorry, this is reality.

Rick said...

@ Ed: I certainly don’t disagree with you on the current reality. But reality can be changed by changing people’s minds, which I don’t see as being impossible over time. But probably it’s been off topic go into this here as the current reality is just to figure out where best to cut.

Anonymous said...

Look at what our neighbors have to do:

Belchertown freezes wages of 500 town employees
By steve
Created 02/11/2009 - 10:25

* belchertown
* government
* local
* news

BELCHERTOWN - A wage freeze for all town employees was enacted by the Board of Selectmen Monday in a move to avoid layoffs.

"There will be no C.O.L.A.s (cost of living adjustments) until further notice," said Michael Reardon, selectmen's chairman.

Board members said foregoing raises will save the jobs of some town employees in the coming fiscal year, which promises to be a difficult one financially with cuts in state aid. The new year starts July 1.

The wage freeze applies to all approximately 500 employees of the town, including teachers and other school employees. A 1 percent raise for employees would cost the town about $150,000, Reardon said.

Current forecasts show the town with a deficit of about $950,000 for fiscal 2010.

"It will be the only way we can make it through this budget cycle without deep cuts in programs and services," said Town Administrator Gary Brougham. The wage freeze would minimize the loss of jobs, but not guarantee no jobs would have to be trimmed, he said.

Signal to unions

Reardon said contracts with all seven of the union bargaining units for town employees expire July 1. No COLA increases are scheduled before that date, he said.

The wage freeze essentially serves notice to unions as they approach the bargaining table for new contracts, Reardon said. The freeze, he said, "is where the discussion begins" during negotiations.

"We will continue to honor our existing contracts," said Selectman James Barry.

"This is not the time to look for bonuses or raises," said Selectman Ronald Aponte. "This is the time to maintain jobs."

Board members said town employees should realize that raises for s

ome would mean layoffs for others. "We need to protect not only those people heading for retirement but also those less-senior people," Reardon said.

He estimated that $150,000 in raises would cost five or six people their jobs with the town.

"Everybody needs to pitch in. What we're talking about is people's livelihoods," said Reardon.

Layoffs, Barry said, would likely mean long-term unemployment for workers because few companies are hiring. And Reardon said layoffs would only add to the downward spiral of the economy.

Anonymous said...

I am wondering 1)if there is any data on the music program in terms of enrollment--how many kids are in the music program and are the children enrolled representative of our general student population and 2) last night Nick Yaffee mentioned teacher concerns about the program because of scheduling issues and children missing instructional time--has this become an issue from the teachers' perspective. I'm asking because while I would generally support a music program and was thrilled to discover Amherst had such a program I'm not sure how effective our program is in practice. Do we have any evaluation data on this program?
Claire Hamilton

Sue Dunbar said...

Hi everyone...
I am one of the instrumental music teachers. I would like to respond to Anonymous from 2/11 at 5:51 a.m.

He/she states, "So you are saying that children with special needs/learning disabilities are less important than those who have a "talent" with music? Aren't schools for teaching?" ...
followed by, "Isn't it time we focused on getting ALL our children through the school system with an education, rather than focusing on the ones who are gifted and leaving those with special needs to flounder?"

The Amherst instrumental music department doesn't limit our work to "gifted" students. What I love most about these kids is that the majority are not gifted. What are they? Bright, inquisitive, curious, shy, non-English speaking, boisterous, special needs, and just plain special.
Also, we ARE teaching. We are reinforcing math skills with complex rhythmic counting, increasing physical stamina, right-brain skills, science activities such as acoustics, and the list goes on. We supplement everything in the regular classroom. I invite you (and anyone) to follow me around for one day to see exactly what the program does for all involved. Please don't think that special needs children are excluded. They are present in every ensemble and are welcomed by their classmates. That IS intervention.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Well, I've had 387 people see my blog today ... which is a record (I think the most before was close to 200). So, again, you may not like me, but at least you know where I stand. Answers to assorted questions:

Alison: I see it as if we close MM, we can bring instrumental music back at Tier 1 (easy), probably at Tier 2 (at least some instrumental music, maybe all if we cut something else), but we still get no music if we are at Tier 3. I don't know the number of kids served by the homework clubs and buses ... but I will say these are kids who are struggling on MCAS and don't have parental support (in some cases), AND it only costs in total (all four schools) $28,000. So, I'd probably defer to the principals on this and keep this at Tier 3. I agree that we could reduce music some (e.g., a year later at strings/band) ... still hate to see that (because they need to know something before they can play as a GROUP, so that piece might get lost since that is usually 2nd year), but yes, this is a creative way to save it -- thanks for the suggestion! I'm not going to comment on the union issue since this verges on inappropriate for me to give an opinion on teachers giving up raises (see, even I have some standards). I will say this has occurred in some other communities. I don't know about the costs of ELL busing or where we are with that -- I'll try to find out. Finally, I totally agree that we need to think LONG-TERM. Let's not do this again next year!

Meg: I am not sure if a community center is realistic. I think our deal with U Mass is that we get to use MM as a school ... but I'm sure people in the school administration are thinking about some creative uses! I hope to hear more about that at a future meeting.

Sue: I agree, as is obvious, that closing MM is the clear choice (and that if we don't do it now, we really do lose some things permanently, which we will have trouble getting back when we close it in a year or two). I also agree with your point about needing SOME central administration support -- so that we have someone in charge of curriculum, evaluation, data, etc.! Remember, working here is HARD -- Town Meeting, three separate School Committee meetings, etc. Let's not make it even worse by giving this person NO help!

Adrienne: Thanks for the thanks -- is it too early to ask you to be my campaign manager in 2011 (might need more help then).

Emily: Thank you for the lovely comments. I don't think we know each other, and this is really appreciated! I think your child will love WHICHEVER school he/she attends next year -- I'll also have a kindergartener at a school TO BE DETERMINED so maybe we'll meet sometime.

Anonymous: I'm not going to comment on the union salary thing ... but yes, some other districts have done that.

Sue Dunbar: Hey, thanks for adding your voice and pointing out so eloquently the benefits of the music program for ALL kids. Another person had a question about whether these kids are representative of the general population or not -- do you know the answer? Also, I too was surprised to hear that teachers find it so disruptive -- is this a common issue? Would love your voice if you are willing to share your knowledge.

Anonymous/Claire Hamilton: I heard last night that over 500 kids participate (and this is a lot, given that we have 1300 kids in our elementary schools and you can't participate in anything for the first three grades). I am trying to get the answers to your other questions -- which are good ones and I just don't know (see my questions to the next person below).

Meg: First, I do think redistricting should occur, and actually I talked to someone earlier this week who consults on this -- he said it actually is better done IN HOUSE, because it is done by the transportation people who know about bus routes. I think we will work on getting more information about this process for the next meeting. I totally agree that we need to do this RIGHT.

The question then becomes -- if we have to close MM, but we can't redistrict fully (right) for this fall, what do we do? Maybe we could move the MM kids by grade all together? And allow siblings to stay together? I don't know -- this seems hard. I'll see if I can get information on how long a redistricting plan would take.

I agree that 6th grade in the MS makes sense ... for many reasons (including freeing up space in the other schools). I actually don't think we would then NEED to move the portables -- my understanding is that those would not necessarily be needed, which then could help us on time and money. I hope we can get more information on this soon, too.

Ummm, you go right ahead and ask about setting up individual blogs for each School Committee member or a whole School Committee blog! Somehow I can't really see everyone embracing that, but hey, maybe I'm wrong -- maybe they too would like to be attacked in public and in the press by parents and teachers!

Mary May said...

I have read several comments suggesting that we "keep" the building if Mark's Meadow School closes. Suggestions have been made ranging from having Administration moved to having a community center etc. Have folks forgotten that UMASS owns Mark's Meadow School? From everything I've heard, UMASS could find a use for this space in a heart beat. There are several programs that are currently operating in spaces far worse than Mark's Meadow and there's no place for those programs to go when their space is renovated. Before we brainstorm more ways to use the building, perhaps we should really find out if UMASS would continue letting us use it without an elementary school within its walls.

Ed said...

Furculo Hall -- that is what UMass calls the Mark's Meadow school building and I am fairly certain that there is no way that it could be used for a community center even if both UM and Amherst wanted to do that.

The building is encumbered by the bond issue that built it back in the '50s and while I haven't researched this particular series of building bonds, I suspect that you will find that the building is restricted to instructional purposes. College student instructional purposes...

The school exists because that was part of the instructional purposes of the teacher certification programs they had back in the day. I am not quite sure how it was allowed to remain there after the partnership ended but it sometimes is possible to leave something that you never could start from scratch now -- sort of like "existing nonconforming use" in zoning.

So using it for a new purpose and one totally unconnected from the university -- well remember that we are dealing with lots of state rules here, it is hard enough to throw away an old stove at UMass...

And on a political reality, one of the three departments in the School of Education is still, 30 years later, in a "temporary" location a couple of miles away (Hills South, technically a Men's Dormitory). My gut feeling is that were Mark's Meadow to close, the EPRA department would move in there, the speech/hearing folk in Arnold would move over to Hills, and UMass would put students back into the rest of Arnold dorm.

It would make sense to have the entire School of Education in the same building -- there is at least one state vehicle maintained just to shuttle between the two buildings.

You also wouldn't want a community center there. There are the three new North dorms, the other three might be built at some future point. There is a shortage of parking in the area, and the street is increasingly busy as it directly funnels two state highways to campus and this is the worst place to put a community center.

Remember the bar that was in the basement of the old nursing home, next to the Clark House and the rest? It was in the wrong place and inherently problematic -- as would this. You don't want a community center at that location, the land use of the neighborhood has changed dramatically since the 1950s when Mark's Meadow was built, it no longer is even an ideal location for an elementary school.

Yes folks, Mark's Meadow should be closed because it does not meet our 21st Century specifications for elementary schools. It does not have a secure perimiter, it has too much traffic in the immediate area (and we won't even get into how they are college students), it doesn't even have a private driveway for buses.

I do not believe that you could open Mark's Meadow as a new school today. And for all of the above reasons, a community center there would be a bad idea.

Navneet said...

I empathise with all the MM parents who will mourn the loss of their school. However, I would like to point out, as many before me have said, it is not only the MM children who will be affected if MM was to close. Many other children will have to be redistricted and may potentially lose all their current friends and community as they know it, I know mine will.

To make this out to be a tragedy that is somehow going to ruin our childrens' lives is a mistake. Children are resilient and adapt better than adults. It is our responsibility to present this in a positive light, as a community coming together to provide a solution during tough times, and this is a solution in which are children are going to play a very important role.

As for the personal attack on Catherine abour her blogging - I am glad that she does, what about freedom of speech? Catherine set the standard for transparency, and clarity of information, even before the Obama administration did, and this clearly benefits all of us. I can only hope that more of our elected officials take the same stance and I am hopeful that we will select a school superintendent who also embodies the same level of honesty, integrity, and accountability to the tax payers.

One comment on the suggestions brought up during the 2/10 school committee meeting, regarding fund raising, raising taxes, adding additional fees - how does that align with Amherst's committment to social justice? Raising taxes is not the answer, instituting more fees is not the answer. When we are talking about the large numbers of children who are on free/reduced lunch, are we really going to ask these families to pay more taxes and fees? All it will do is drive many people out of town. That is not the Amherst way.

We need to look at how we got into this situation, and how to prevent it from happening again. I agree with Steve Rivkin who commented during the SCM that we need to be fiscally responsible. We need to re-evaluate our education system and build it from the ground up and focus on what education is really about, we need to get back to basics

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Whereas I agree with Meg Rosa, who said we need to pull together as a community.

I absolutely deny that this is a simple financial equation. And let's be clear: we haven't done *anything* "wrong" to get us to this spot in the road. Amherst accumulated (and later spent) reserves over a long period during which our neighbors simply suffered.

As my earlier post about group instrumental music lessons would reflect, of course I agree with much of the rest of this post as regards Becoming a Multicultural School System BAMSS (our local plan for social justice). We are in direct conflict with those values by pricing educational opportunities out of reach.

And once again, it's not just a building, it's a part of the fabric of our entire Amherst community. Yes, our other kids all across town will be "affected." Yes, of course kids are resilient. In five or ten years, whatever we end up doing will seem "normal" -- just like it used to be "normal" to have French and Spanish instruction in all Amherst elementary schools, and just as it used to be normal to send all the "different" kids down the hall or out of the building, so the standard classroom teachers could teach more kids per classroom.

Life has changed. Permanently. We may have to lose the Mark's Meadow community as it's existed for over 30 years, but I am more than tired of people indicating that it's just a building interchangeable with any other Amherst school. It's not. And those of us wanting to work out community-based solutions are simply not going to work with people who don't appreciate that -- and then we all lose.