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

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.


Anonymous said...

How is "worst case scenario" defined?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

This will be explained tonight, but it is based on a number given to us by the Finance Committee, which reads as follows:

MOTION: The Finance Committee supports the process recommended by the Budget Coordinating Group asking the Town Manager, Schools and Library to develop a list of spending cuts for 2010 that reflect the reductions for lottery and additional assistance recommended in the Governor’s proposed budget to illustrate the worst-case scenario.

So, this number takes into account what we've already heard from the state in terms of lottery aid and other assistance AND assumes that we don't get any help with these reductions (which I hear is rather unlikely, so we frankly probably are NOT looking at worst case scenarios, but we also probably aren't looking at "only" the 2% level either -- my opinion is that the middle level is the most likely).

Bill said...

How do you justify closing the elementary school with the highest achievement as demonstrated by MCAS scores when you ran for school committee on a platform of demanding excellence in our schools? What programs will you put in place to ensure that the closing of Marks Meadow that you seem set on will have no negative impact on the quality of education? Class sizes will clearly increase in the remaining three schools which has been documented to have a negative impact on quality. I don't see how you are following through on the issue that got you elected by this action and as a voter who supported you I feel that you owe me an explanation. Additionally, budgetary convenience does not suffice when you are talking about the education of my children.

Bill Killough-Hill

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Dear Bill,

Thanks for using your name -- I appreciate it.

To answer your questions:

1. I did run on a platform of academic excellence, and that is what I will push throughout my term on School Committee. But that doesn't mean academic excellence for only SOME kids (a point I made very clear during my campaign) -- so, no, I'm not about to focus on creating academic excellence for ONLY kids at Marks Meadow (when that choice by necessity means reducing things for kids at the other schools). Academic excellence for all kids requires resources, and resources are limited, so I need to make sure that we are using those resources wisely. So, making severe budget cuts impacts academic excellence for all kids -- things like cutting a science coordinator, reducing money for professional development (which helps teachers learn how to differentiate instruction), and so on. Things that we can't afford unless we close Marks Meadow (as was clearly presented last night).

2. After your statement that Marks Meadow has the best MCAS scores, I looked up the spring 2008 scores on the DOE website. I'm not going through all the numbers (which would take a ton of space/time), but the CPI index (which measures success on a 100-point scale) actually shows great success in ALL our schools.

Here's the data:
In 3rd grade, MM was 2nd of the 4 schools in reading, and 3rd in math (WW was first in both categories).

In 4th grade, MM was 1st in reading (beating CF by .5 points!), and 2nd in math (FR was first).

In 5th grade, MM was 2nd in reading (after WW), and 1st in math (WW was 2nd).

In 6th grade, MM was 1st in reading (CF was 2nd), and 1st in math (WW was 2nd).

So, to me this shows that all of the schools are having success in particular subjects at different grades (each school was first in a category AT LEAST ONCE). Although one can claim that MM scores are particularly impressive given the diversity of the school, I'd say this evidence shows that CF is actually doing particularly well, given the much greater percentage of low income kids in this school compared to any of the others. Anyway, my point here is that ALL the schools are having success -- not just MM -- and I think that is a testament NOT to a single small building but rather to the quality of teachers we have in ALL of the schools (which I see as one of the keys to academic excellence).

3. In terms of class sizes, I've seen projections for class size at EVERY SINGLE YEAR if Marks Meadow closes. And the average class size does NOT change from what it is now. Some classes are a little bigger, and some are a little smaller (meaning the huge classes in some years at MM would be eliminated). It just isn't true that closing the school leads to increases in class sizes, and this data will be presented at the next meeting. That has been very, very carefully monitored. Closing a school will also eliminate the need for an extra transition for the MM kindergarteners who now get bused to other schools and then return to MM for 1st grade (a transition that is not ideal, for obvious reasons).

I believe my actions are 100% in line with what I campaigned on -- and in fact, if I pushed now for keeping Marks Meadow open, I would be pushing for DECREASING academic excellence ... by reducing intervention teachers (who are needed for kids who struggle on MCAS), cutting instrumental music (yes, I see this as part of academic excellence), and reducing other key staff who support academic excellence (librarians, science coordinators).

Anonymous said...

First let me say thank you, Catherine for this blog. I find it an invaluable source of information. I also value the opportunity it gives for thoughtful discussion of the issues.

I have an operational question. You laid out three tiers of cuts, depending on how much money the schools have to work with. When will we know which tier we are at? Will the School Committee develop three different budgets, making three sets of cuts and then run with the one that is appropriate based on the money we have? Or, does the SC assume the worst and develop a Tier 3 budget, and then add things back if the money allows it? How will the budget cutting process work practically?

Anonymous said...

Hello Catherine,
I have just read from the article in the Amherst Bulletin the superintendents' piece of the school committee members'responsibilities and I am a bit confused.

1) A school committee member in his/her relations with the community should:
*Remember that he/she represents
the entire community at all times.

3) A school committee member in his/her relations with his/her fellow school committee members should:
*Realize that statements or
promises should not be made
regarding how he/she will vote on
matters that will come beofre the

My confusion lies in this 'blog' where it appears that you may be either not aware of these responsibilities or if so, ignoring them.

I say this with no malice, but since you have taken it upon yourself to so clearly state that the closing of Marks Meadow will salvage the deficit in the town's school budget haven't you defied these responsibilities in some way?

Thank you.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous: In terms of the decision-making timeline, my understanding is that we are going to get more information within the next month - as it becomes clear what state/national assistance is or is not available. We will keep three different levels of budgets until that time, although we may re-rank the priorities (e.g., change things from Tier 1 to Tier 2, etc.). The Superintendent and principals will also rank-order the items on each of these Tiers, since of course it is likely that we will not receive the precise amount of money expected under any of the tiers (could be a little more or a little less).

Anonymous: Thanks for the question -- and no malice taken. I've just done a new posting on this because I know a number of people found the column confusing. Let me say two quick things: the representing the entire community is about considering all of the community's needs (that is why, as I've said MANY times, I am trying to focus on what is best for ALL of the kids, not just the kids of those with the loudest voices); saying how you will vote before a matter that will come before the committee suggests that you have already made a decision and will not be swayed by other information. I have said that if the budget crisis is as it appears to be, I'd resolve this by voting to close Marks Meadow. Obviously if the fiscal situation changes in some way, I'd vote differently, and if people could convince me that the harm to the entire community would be greater by closing Marks Meadow than not closing Marks Meadow, I could be swayed by that information.

I should also say that what the interim acting-Superintendents were quoting from was policy developed by the current Amherst School Committee. They were not quoting from material developed by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which is what I use as the basis for my posting today.