This meeting focused on three topics: a presentation of the School Improvement Plan for Crocker Farm, an update on the 2010 budget, and a motion (more on this later) about closing Marks Meadow school. Maria Geryk also announced that discussions about the math curriculum/textbook are on-going, more data is being gathered to make a decision about whether to adopt Impact 1 for the 6th grade, and that a decision will be made and announced at the May meeting. I'm very glad that she is taking adequate time to really get questions answered and make sure she has all the necessary information before deciding how to proceed -- and as the parent of a 5th grader, I am very eager to hear the outcome of this decision and to learn more about the curriculum for 6th grade math!
First, Mike Morris, principal of Crocker Farm, presented the School Improvement plan for Crocker Farm. I am going to guess that this plan will be soon available on the web, so I'm not going to go through all the details, other than to say that I felt this plan focused on really the three crucial aspects of what our schools should be: curriculum, consistency/high expectations, and community involvement.
Second, Maria Geryk presented a brief update on the 2010 budget. Basically the cuts list for each of the levels looks largely the same, and we hope to have more information in April (as more is learned about state aid/federal money). She also said that she will be reviewing how the cuts at each level (e.g., intervention teachers, instrumental music, computers, etc.) will impact kids in our schools. I believe this information will be presented in April.
Third, I made a motion -- which had been shared previously with the superintendent, all the principals, and all the School Committee members -- that we close Marks Meadow at the end of the next school year (2009-2010). (This motion is pasted at the end of this blog entry.) This motion was seconded by Kathleen Anderson. After the motion, Elaine spoke about some concerns she had about the motion, including timeline, Kathleen spoke about her support for the motion (including the need to not take too long to reach a decision), Sonia spoke about her desire to make sure we could still offer appropriate transportation for all kids to go to the school that best fit their needs (such as by language), and Andy spoke about the need for public comment over the next month prior to an intended April vote. Andy also spoke eloquently about the benefits of having this motion maintain Marks Meadow for the next year (to allow time for transitioning well), provide a real sense of urgency to the regionalization discussions, and allow the new superintendent to arrive NOT having to faced this immediately (which I agree with and this was one of my main goals for proposing it now).
Because of the magnitude of this decision, we did not vote on it tonight, but will take a month to let the public weigh in, and then vote on it at our April meeting (that is the current plan, although of course the School Committee could also decide to take longer to discuss it). I believe more information will be presented soon to the PTOs/PGOs and a community hearing will be set up in early April -- I'll post information on these when it is available on this blog. The key thing for Amherst residents, however, is that the 2 new members of School Committee will now be asked to vote on this motion, potentially at their first meeting. All three candidates were at attendance at tonight's meeting, and have been attending our meetings regularly, so they are all up to speed on this, and other, issues that are coming before us (just as I attended meetings regularly last spring before my election to help create a smooth transition). So, if you have feelings about this motion (pro or con), you have two weeks to ask the three candidates where they stand and how they would vote!
Motion: Close Marks Meadow at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, and re-district to create three elementary schools with proportionate numbers of children on free/reduced lunch for the start of the 2010-2011 school year
We’ve heard a lot over the past few months about the passion the Marks Meadow community has for their school, and it is clear that this is a highly successful school, with a caring principal, dedicated teachers and staff, and involved parents and families. I therefore do not make this motion easily, or lightly. However, after considerable analysis, thought, and discussion, I believe that closing Marks Meadow at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, and redistricting our elementary school population into three schools with proportionate numbers of children on free/reduced lunch for the 2010-2011 school year, is the best decision for all of the children in our community. There are three factors that have led me to make this motion today.
First, the School Committee has gathered extensive data about projected enrollments in our schools. The 2007 New England School Development Council report gives projected enrollments in K to 6 through 2016-2017 that vary from 1368 to 1417. The largest of these numbers is the projection for the upcoming school year, and as was presented to the School Committee at our last meeting, three elementary schools can easily handle the projected enrollment for the upcoming year, and thus for the foreseeable future.
Second, the town of Amherst, and the schools in particular, are facing a real and lasting structural deficit. As detailed last fall by the town-wide FCCC group, this long-term fiscal problem cannot be solved by an override or a one-time fix from the federal government or teachers giving up promised raises. Instead, we need to find ways to achieve lasting and significant cost savings in how we run our schools. Closing Marks Meadow will not, in and of itself, eliminate this structural deficit entirely, but it will get us closer to solving it, which is a step in the right direction. After paying the transition costs in the first year, closing this school would save approximately $700,000 in the second year, largely due to reducing staff positions (which would then lead to even greater savings in every subsequent year because the salary base on which raises are computed annually would be permanently reduced). Although there are other ways of reducing this deficit, such as eliminating instrumental music or intervention support for kids who struggle on the MCAS, I believe these changes would interfere with the fundamental values this community holds for our schools in a way that having three, as compared to four, elementary schools does not.
Third, the 2007 report from the Amherst Schools Organization Committee clearly indicates that we have massive inequity in our elementary schools: Wildwood is the wealthiest school, and Crocker Farm is the poorest, with a spread in terms of kids on free/reduced lunch from 22% to 60%. I believe maintaining four schools with such inequity conflicts with one of the key values of this district--social justice. Although it is conceivable that we could redistrict into our current four schools, all of our children can clearly fit into our other schools, with quite similar class sizes to what we have now, at a cost that is roughly $700,000 a year lower, which makes the plan to move to three schools clearly superior.
I have thought considerably about the pros and cons of closing Marks Meadow and possible timelines for doing so, and I’ve listened to many voices – parents (including many from Marks Meadow), teachers, principals, administrators, and community members. My own feeling is that keeping this school even for this next year is very expensive precisely at a time in which funds are so limited. However, all of my listening to other voices instead leads me to propose that we make the decision to close Marks Meadow now, but allow for one whole year of planning to ensure the smoothest possible transition. This delay, not in making the decision but in implementing the decision, will give the administration time to thoroughly coordinate all aspects of this transition (including moving teachers and staff, planning bus routes, learning more about potential regionalization, considering where 6th graders should be educated, and seeking input from all stakeholders on strategies to help ease the transition). It will also give families time to say goodbye to their current school and to visit and get to know their new school.
Some members of the community have urged the committee to wait for the arrival of the new superintendent before making any major decisions, and I have given this issue of timing considerable thought. Dr. Alberto Rodriguez will arrive this summer needing time to get to know our community, and with many projects and issues on his plate. I believe he deserves a chance to get to know our community and build up support and good will before we ask him to take on the immense and emotional challenge of deciding whether to close a school and redistrict, and the reality is that taking such time, while we watch our structural deficit grow, will result in such extreme budget cuts in the upcoming year or two that we will be forced to make fundamental changes in the nature of the Amherst educational experience. It will also maintain the current inequity in our schools, which I see as highly problematic. I therefore believe that the School Committee should make the difficult decision to close a school and redistrict prior to his arrival so that Dr. Rodriguez can instead focus on factors that directly impact the education of all our kids, such as mentoring new teachers, establishing greater horizontal and vertical alignment in our curriculum, and helping us reach our goal of educating every child, every day.
This decision is an emotional one for me, and for the entire community – parents, teachers, staff, community members, kids. Closing a school with a rich history of exemplary and innovative teaching to a diverse study body is of course heartbreaking for the community. This decision will also mean that many of the children in our community will change schools. As a mother, I realize that two of my children will leave the only school they have ever known, and thus I share in the community’s sense of upheaval on a very personal level. But I believe that an even graver and long-lasting upheaval would result from failing to acknowledge and address the very real financial, educational, and social justice challenges that our schools face today and for the foreseeable future. I therefore ask each person at this table and in this room to weigh all of the pros and cons of this motion, while keeping in mind the educational interest of EVERY Amherst child. In the final analysis, Marks Meadow is a wonderful school for all the same reasons that the other three schools are wonderful: because it is run by a highly skilled and diverse staff offering differentiated instruction and a range of services to a diverse study body. As difficult as it is to accept, reducing the number of schools we operate will allow us to maintain our capacity to educate all Amherst children in this way not only in the short-term, but, more importantly, in the long-term.
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.