I've heard a lot over the last few weeks about the importance of having a "strategic plan" for our schools. Those who have emphasized the importance of having such a plan believe that we shouldn't make any decisions regarding the long-term future of our schools (such as closing a school and redistricting) until we have fully reviewed many different sources of data and reached out to the entire community to get "buy in." They also insist that hasty decisions will have long-term negative consequences for our district, our schools, and our community.
It is hard to oppose "strategic planning." Kind-of like it is hard to oppose most platforms Miss America contestants run on (e.g., anti-child abuse, pro-literacy, pro-environment, etc.). But I've got to say, I think we can actually do serious harm by refusing to make a decision until every possible piece of data is known and every person in the community has been individually consulted. This will be an extremely unpopular thing to say in Amherst, but I believe there is such a thing as too much talking/planning/discussing (if you don't believe this statement, I challenge you to sit through Town Meeting this spring).
I've pushed consistently over the last few months to close Marks Meadow as a way of starting to solve our structural deficit (though in fairness, let me point out that this idea as an effective way to save money was initially brought to me by several Town Meeting members, including parents with kids in the elementary schools, and that I only proposed that we seriously consider it AFTER then-superintendent Helen Vivian announced that she believed we had a major budget problem that would best be solved by pairing the elementary schools ... a "solution" which ended up costing $100,000 a year MORE than our current system). And some parents and community members have strongly resisted the idea of closing a school until we have done a "strategic plan" to make sure that this idea is really a good one. But here is what concerns me -- as we sit around and develop this plan, we are losing $687,000 a year (what it costs to maintain four elementary schools).
But here is the reality: we already have done a HUGE amount of planning. This planning includes:
1. In 2006, the School Committee paid for a report (issued April 2007) by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC) which provided demographic and enrollment projections for our elementary schools. This report CLEARLY states that our projected enrollment in K to 6 through 2016-2017 varies from 1368 to 1417. The largest of these numbers, importantly, is the projection for the upcoming school year. And as was clearly indicated in the report given by Superintendent Maria Geryk at last Tuesday's meeting, three elementary schools can easily handle next year's projected enrollment. So, what do we know? We know we have the ability to educate all projected K to 6 grade students in three buildings at least through 2016-2017 (and that isn't even considering the option of moving 6th grade to the MS, which could always be done if enrollments suddenly increase dramatically).
2. In 2007, the Amherst School Committee put together the Amherst Schools Organization Committee, which included me (in my role as a parent -- prior to my election) as well as School Committee candidate Meg Rosa. This report is available (http://www.arps.org/node/453) and clearly indicates that we have a massive equity problem 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%!). So, what do we know? We know that the schools are massively different from each other, and that these differences almost certainly impact the educational experience.
3. In 2008, a town-wide group (FCCC), which included School Committee candidate Irv Rhodes, met for several months to examine the long-term financial situation in Amherst (and this group presented their findings to community groups and solicited considerable community feedback). Their report (http://www.amherstchoices.org) clearly states that we have a long-term fiscal problem (and one that will NOT be solved simply by an override or a one-time fix from the federal government). So, what do we know? We know we have a long-term problem in that our revenues are smaller than what we spend.
So, I guess I look at these three pieces of data that we do have -- knowledge that our current projected enrollment for the foreseeable future fits fully well into three elementary schools, knowledge that our schools have massive inequity, knowledge that we have an on-going serious structural deficit -- and I come pretty readily to the conclusion that closing Marks Meadow is the right decision ... and hey, this could be seen as the FIRST step in our strategic plan. Sure, we could--and knowing Amherst, we probably will--study this growing budget and equity problem for another 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 years. As School Committee member Elaine Brighty said at the last meeting, she is "delighted we're being so cautious and careful." But I've got to agree with School Committee member Kathleen Anderson, who spoke about the hazards of taking things really, really slowly ... because anyone who pushes for a strategic planning process that delays the decision to close Marks Meadow is actually making a decision to maintain the very real inequities in our schools and a decision to cut other valued programs (such as reducing instrumental music from 3.4 positions to 1.7 positions, and cutting 1.7 intervention teachers and 2 classroom teachers -- these are all only Tier 1 cuts).
I agree that there are other budget issues in our schools that need to be solved, and ideally these issues could be examined in a strategic planning process. But I can't see how delaying a decision on closing Marks Meadow helps solve our budget OR equity crisis -- in fact, it will lead to a GREATER budget crisis because the delay will cost us $687,000! I may well be in the minority on this committee and in this community -- but I guess I'm all for studying a situation (as we've done with the projected enrollments study, and the school organization committee, and the FCCC), and then just making a decision and moving forward ... In sum, I'm a "rip the band-aid off" kind of girl.