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.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Amherst panel offers twist in school closing

Hampshire Gazette story
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

AMHERST - The proposal to close Mark's Meadow Elementary School and send its 194 students elsewhere, which the School Committee plans to vote on tonight, has a new financial twist. The committee is asking the University of Massachusetts, which owns the building, to continue to make it available to the school district, or to reimburse the town for the cost of educating the Mark's Meadow children who live in tax-exempt UMass housing.

Closing Mark's Meadow in the fall of 2010 would save the school district an estimated $673,000 a year. A motion before the Amherst School Committee in March to close Mark's Meadow was revised Monday and is now contingent on UMass agreeing to one of these options. Tonight's School Committee meeting will start at 7 p.m. in the high school library, with the Mark's Meadow motion the first item on the agenda. Committee members will debate it and vote, and there will be an opportunity for public comment afterward, said Andrew Churchill, the committee chairman.

"The agreement between the university and the schools involves Mark's Meadow and negotiations on how that would change haven't been completed," he said. "It seems like an important point to clarify before we say we're going to vacate the school."

Town officials have made the point in the past that about 50 children a year attend the town's elementary schools while living in UMass housing that's exempt from local property taxes. An annual payment in lieu of taxes to cover these costs to Amherst would be between $675,000 and $725,000. UMass has responded to this argument by pointing out that it makes Mark's Meadow available to the town at no cost, Churchill said. UMass officials declined to comment for this story.

If UMass allowed the school district to continue using the building, the two alternative high school programs in South Amherst and East Amherst might move there, said School Committee member Catherine Sanderson. Students in these programs have had difficulty fitting in at the high school. "This would be an ideal solution," Sanderson said. "It would be better for those kids to be in one building rather than two, and it would be wonderful to have it on a college campus so they could see the university as their future."

If a regionalized kindergarten through grade 12 district decided to include the sixth grade in the Regional Middle School, it could accommodate the extra students by moving the superintendent's office, and those of other administrators, to one of those vacated buildings, she said. "This is an opportunity for the university to collaborate with our schools," Sanderson said. UMass could facilitate its recruiting of faculty and graduate students by having strong elementary schools with small class sizes, she said.

There are 1,327 children in Amherst's four elementary schools, down from about 1,800 just 15 years ago. Mark's Meadow is the smallest school.

While the School Committee estimates the annual savings from closing Mark's Meadow at $673,000, the first-year savings would be $125,000 lower because of moving expenses. These savings would not have an impact on the debate over the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, because they would take place in the following year.

But Mark's Meadow could still be an issue, said Churchill. "We have this structural gap, with costs rising faster than our revenues, and to put a stake in the ground to make a structural change to reduce our costs in the future might give the town more confidence in using reserves to get us through next year," he said.

The children attending Mark's Meadow could be accommodated at the other elementary schools, according to proponents of the closure plan. A redrawing of the geographical lines showing which children go to which schools could help equalize the percentage receiving free or reduced-price lunches, proponents say.

But parents of Mark's Meadow students have spoke out in defense of saving the school at a series of forums on the issue. They have maintained that Amherst needs a plan to deal with future growth, and any new school would cost millions of dollars. They have said that closing Mark's Meadow would fill only about a quarter of the shortfall in the elementary budget for next year, and that the small class sizes offered at Mark's Meadow result in more successful students.


Migdalor Guy said...

This sort of last-minute maneuvering seems typical of the sort of Rove-esque tactics that have been employed all along throughout this campaign to rid Amherst of one of her jewels, Marks Meadow. Now the cowards on the School committee driving this bus to hell can hide behind UMass and blame them if things gang aft agley-and blame them either way things go. Nice job folks, playing a town and gown threat scenario in a community with 5 colleges. Hope it comes back to bite you in the foot.

First, Sparta, now it's Rome. SPQR.

-Adrian A. Durlester aka Migdalor Guy.

Amy said...

Wow, Migdalor Guy
Thats a lot of venom and hate for people who are trying the best they can to make the best of a bad situation.

It is not the school committee's fault that we are in a budget crisis and these tough choices must be made.

Grow up.

Anonymous said...

How does the fact that the negotiations are not complete affect your vote to close MM tonight? [the negotiationsbetween UMASS and the SC (or whoever is negotiating for the school district) - to maintain use of the MM building]

Do you feel that you may need to put the vote off a bit until negotiations with UMASS are settled? Otherwise, you (the SC) give up your hand (if MM is voted closed) - UMASS can just take back the building, knowing full well that the school has already been voted to be closed.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Adrian - I seriously think that no matter what I do, you will see it as evil (and Rove-esque). Parents at MM have suggested that walking away from the building without a firm agreement with U Mass is a bad idea, and suggested some time ago that I modify my motion to reflect this concern. I assume if I had ignored this suggestion, I would be accused of ignoring this suggestion. But if I take this suggestion, I'm accused of last minute manuevering? And you can accuse me of many, many things -- but cowardly?!? Cowardly to propose a motion that has generated this much attack, from you and others? Is this truly how you would describe this motion?!? I will vote to close MM regardless of whether U Mass gives us a penny or the building ... but I do think it might be helpful to have information on what they will offer for others on the committee. Thus, I modified my motion and posted the article describing this change on my blog -- in my typical cowardly, Rove-esque way. I remain confused as to why this is a threat to U Mass - - a threat that we will close MM and return the space to them, which I hear they'd like? Or a threat to have a high school in that space instead of an elementary school? Hard to see what is threatening about giving U Mass such a choice.

Amy - thank you!

Anonymous 12:27 - exaxctly ... hence the revision to the motion.

Anonymous said...

Adrian told us in that demagogic Bulletin column (closing MM is like killing a family member)that Adrian was a musician.


Michael Greenebaum said...

My guess is that the University will be delighted to rejoin the two halves of the School of Education if MM is closed.

Anonymous said...

I understand your drive to try to save money in a time of crisis. I've followed the blog, attended the meetings, talked with community members, and I feel I need to share these thoughts.

We are all facing very painful and difficult decisions. However, I have to say that the tone and words you use, and the way in which you have dealt with those who disagree with you has made all of this more painful and divisive for the community. You mock people and scoff and scowl at public meetings. You sarcastically label MM families and students, most recently calling them the "Lucky" ones, among other smarmy terms, and carelessly throw out divisive and condescending statements. You even take jabs at your fellow SC members who have a differing stance!!

While I admire your hard work and dedication to a cause, I wish you had gone about this with more care. And I know, politics is a tough game, but please consider the effect that tone, body language, and language may have.

The issue of closing a school is already divisive. While I do feel that some MM folks have been overly combative and rude. Their tactics don’t represent the majority of us. On the other side, some who agree with you have been nasty towards MM parents. I think many would agree that you have helped create an unfortunate bitterness between various communities. It is your overall approach that has helped cultivate an “us-against-them” atmosphere. All of this is very unfortunate and unhealthy in an already stressful time, and could have been avoided. Please consider these thoughts, and if the vote goes through tonight, I hope this all achieves what you want it to.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 2:09 - well put.

Michael Greenebaum - I agree. And will they give us $$ to educate kids living in U Mass housing? They should.

Anonymous 3:48 - I have sat through 11 meetings in which Marks Meadow parents have stood up and said a number of things that have been hurtful to me, and to parents and teachers and staff in the district who are associated with other schools (I've heard repeatedly complaints from others about the comments made vocally at meetings and in the paper by MM families/staff). My kids attend the largest school, Fort River, and we happen to consider that an excellent school, with caring teachers and staff. So, think for just a moment about how it feels to have attended 11 meetings in which people stand up and say things about how the other schools are poor learning environments, are full of mold and cause asthma, are over-crowded, have caring and impersonal staff and teachers who don't know the kids at all, etc. Then think about how your tone and body language would be if those comments were directed at the school where your kids go. I have talked repeatedly in meetings about how all the schools INCLUDING Marks Meadow are great, and how all the teachers/staff are caring at ALL the schools. Perhaps you can point to specific examples of when my tone has been divisive -- and perhaps you can understand that after weeks of criticism in the press and at meetings and in my blog from MM parents and teachers and staff, I get tired and frustrated. It is pretty easy to post an anonymous criticism of my tone and behavior on my blog ... why don't you use your name, and then see how it feels when people directly attack you for what you write? That would probably give you a better sense of how to understand my tone and behavior after nearly four months of such attacks. This hasn't been easy for me -- and I've been the one who has taken the most abuse, because I think it is responsible for me to look after all of the children in all of the schools. And the MM families and teachers THEMSELVES have said that their school provides a better education -- hence we shouldn't close it -- so why in the world isn't that a "lucky" situation for those families? I have no idea how my fellow SC members will vote on this motion, nor have I taken a single jab at anyone on the committee for having a differing stance - name literally one example of this. If others on the committee want to keep MM open and make $700,000 of other cuts, that is totally their prerogative, and I will accept that vote and hope those cuts can be made with as little impact to the kids in our district as possibe. I'm not playing politics here at all -- if I was, I wouldn't have made such a clear stance that would generate so much attention and negativity. I was elected to try to make good decisions on behalf of all the kids in Amherst, and that is why I think closing MM is the way to go. If my decision has "helped create an unfortunate bitterness between various communities," I don't know how that could have been avoided -- do you? Give me a serious suggestion for how stating that I think closing a school is the right decision would have gone over better if I had had a different tone -- or watch the meeting in which I made this motion and hear my words. I think you don't like the decision, and you don't like the fact that some people have found the comments by some MM families (e.g., killing the weakest member of a family) to be offensive. But don't try to hide anonymously by saying you are OK with the decision, you just don't like the tone or my behavior. The reality is that we have a FINITE amount of money, so I made a choice about how I'd like to spend that money, and I stated that choice very clearly and very objectively (nothing about us versus them). So, think carefully about how that us versus them started ... and whose tone/language has been divisive. And then respond using your name on this blog and describe exactly who has been divisive and when.

Keith Murray said...

My kids attend the largest school, Fort River, and we happen to consider that an excellent school, with caring teachers and staff. So, think for just a moment about how it feels to have attended 11 meetings in which people stand up and say things about how the other schools are poor learning environments, are full of mold and cause asthma, are over-crowded, have caring and impersonal staff and teachers who don't know the kids at all, etc. Then think about how your tone and body language would be if those comments were directed at the school where your kids go.

Sounds personal to me.

Perhaps you can point to specific examples of when my tone has been divisive

I could do that but there is only 24 hr in a day

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Keith Murray - thanks for using your name. Do you feel your post helped the dialogue move along in a constructive way? Do you feel it helped the tone moving forward? Do you feel it helped model the type of behavior you'd like to see me use? Just curious.

Anonymous said...

Instead of closing MM get rid of the fluff:

Assistant principals

I never had any of this stuff when I was in Grade school and I am now a fine upstainding citizen.

Mark Wheaton

Anonymous said...

I would really like to hear/see a more detailed respone to anom 3:48 because the issue of your body language and meaness to others on your blog or the school committee has come up in many oif your blogs. your written respones are as defensive as your verbal responses and body language. You have a lot to offer but those gestures and responses make you lose a lot of credibilty

Anonymous said...

Mark Wheaton

You appear to be someone who wants to keep MM open, but...

In a single sentence, you label some pretty important staff as fluff, and you make a capitalization and spelling error,
while presently yourself as a
proud product of fluff-free schools.

Come clean! Are you using this blog to give the appearance that those who support keeping MM open are dingbats, or are you just someone who thinks we need a little levity at this point?

Not Keith Murray said...

Keith Murray - thanks for using your name. Do you feel your post helped the dialogue move along in a constructive way? Do you feel it helped the tone moving forward? Do you feel it helped model the type of behavior you'd like to see me use? Just curious.

Actually my name is not Keith Murray (he is the most beautifulist thing in the world!) LOL

To answer your ? NO

I am glad though that I am not the only one who thinks so little of you

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

John Wheaton - you consider those things fluff ... others don't. But it is hard for me to keep open a school we don't need and choose to deprive all kids of art/music/librarians. I guess I would make a different choice.

Anonymous 8:17 - my blog is designed to faciliate discussion and interaction on education issues that impact the Amherst schools. I'm glad to respond to any such issues/concerns, but I'm not going to spend any more time discussing whether someone likes me or my personality or my body language. I think if I vote as you'd like, you like me and my tone just fine. And I think if I don't vote as you like, it becomes pretty easy to point out things you dislike about me -- but that just isn't relevant to improving education in Amherst.

Anonymous 8:21 -- good point!

Not Keith Murray - glad you are having some fun on my blog. Cool! Hey, and since those who criticize me RARELY use their names, maybe you are actually just ONE person who repeatedly posts criticizing me under different fake names! How clever of you!

Neil said...

I have followed this debate in all of its phases with great interest and close scrutiny. I have no doubt the people engaged in the process - parents, teachers, board members - care greatly, want to make the right decision, and are under a great deal of stress... stress that can bring out the worst in them. If we focus on the result of the stress instead of the decisions at hand, we all lose.

Try to conduct yourself like adults and stop focusing on peripheral issues. Try to give each other the benefit of the doubt and not take every gesture personally.

That said, I want people like Catherine and Steve and Irv guiding our schools because I believe their knowledge, experience, insight and evaluation processes gives us the best chance for the best schools, especially in these trying times.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Neil - thanks for the very thoughtful post.

Anonymous said...

Okay now that we know that MM is a done, lost deal what about other issues that have arisen here in this blog and at recent school committee meetings gone by?
Is the superintendent, current, ever going to be investigated for the programs she ran where kids were severely mistreated?
Are the SAC and ESA schools going to recognized on the website and telephone directory recordings??
Is someone going to re-evalute the many, many extra and overlapping positions on the administrative level before they ask teachers to forgo their cost of living increase?
Are the paraprofessionals, who work tirelessly, going to be given back the hours that were scoffed away from them in years past??
Much fixing needs to be done here, much!