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, May 19, 2009

Budget woes force closure of Amherst's Mark's Meadow Elementary School

Budget woes force closure of Amherst's Mark's Meadow Elementary School
by The Republican Newsroom
Tuesday May 19, 2009, 10:56 PM

AMHERST - Mark's Meadow Elementary School will close at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, a victim of the state's budget crisis.

In an emotional vote before more than 70 parents, teachers, school and town officials the school committee voted 5 to 0 to close the school Tuesday night.The closing was proposed by committee member Catherine A. Sanderson in March. Since then the committee has held five public forums to receive comments and questions, heard from parents and others at committee meetings and received dozens and dozens of e-mails.

Because of a reduction in state aid, the committee needs to trim $1.5 million from its budget, with the closing expected to save a net amount $532,000 after accounting for initial costs to move and pack; and $673,000 after that. The Finance Committee has told school officials it will allow the use of reserves for fiscal 2010 to help cover the gap until the school is closed.

Chairman Andrew M. Churchill his voice breaking said, "my kids went to Mark's Meadow, which makes this difficult." But he said "we need to get this under control."

State aid is 30 percent of the budget, but it hasn't kept pace with budget needs. Every year, the committee has to cut more and more from the schools. Committee members believed that if they didn't close this school, more difficult cuts would happen at all four elementary schools.

"We need to make structural changes to save money," he said.

"Any way you look at (it) schools are going to be different," he said.

Churchill pointed out that enrollment has dropped from 1,800 to 1,300 over the past 15 years and there is an unconscionable concentration of poverty in one school. Students from the four schools will be redistricted in such a way that there will be a similar proportion of children on free and reduced lunch in each of the schools.

"This is patently unfair to Mark's Meadow. It's a wonderful school. It's a successful school." But it is the smallest school and logically he said it's easier for the other three schools to absorb the students from the school.

The committee did not take comments on the closing at Tuesday's meeting because it held so many public forums. But resident James B. Oldham shouted that he wanted to be heard and complained the public forums were opportunities to sell the change and not real forums.

Sanderson said earlier Tuesday that closing the school is the best option. People don't want an override, they don't want to give up art or music and don't want class sizes to increase.

"It's not like a tooth fairy is going to drop a bunch of money. We have to live within our means."

Churchill said that incoming superintendent Alberto Rodriguez has been in the district the last four days and was part of the discussion. "He sees this as a piece of a broader strategic discussion."

During a three-minute break after the vote, people huddled in small groups talking. Principal Nicholas W. Yaffe said the closing is sad. "I'm not convinced they are going to save as much money (as they think.)"

The school, he said, provides "a sense of community" to a vulnerable population.

"It's not something that can be replaced easily." Many students at the school are children of the University of Massachusetts international students.


Anonymous said...

What a miserable night for things that have no price.

Anonymous said...

I commend the SC for taking the bold steps needed to help the entire school district's budget situation, even if it is an unpopular stance.

FR Alum said...

What about the SC horrible planning over the past 5 years that have lead to this problem?

This budget issue didnt happen over night!

No commend for closing a school that functioned so well and has helped so many in this community.


Anonymous said...

I think there actually _is_ a sudden change in the finances of the town, due to decreases in state aid.

Does the promise of help from the Finance Committee mean that the more draconian cuts can be avoided this year?

If not, why not close MM this year?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Anonymous 11:49 - things do have a price. Teachers, for one. If we keep MM open, we have to find another $700,000 to cut. I tried really hard, and I couldn't find another way to cut this in a way that I didn't feel was ultimately worse for all kids (including those at MM).

Anonymous 7:02 - thanks for your post. It was bold. But I think right.

FR Alum - I can't do anything about decisions that were made before I was elected a year ago. I think it is possible that the raises that were negotiated with teachers were a mistake, and I think it is highly possible that purchasing two portables (for $380,000) for Marks Meadow that are not being used as classrooms was a mistake. But I have to make the best decisions I can given the situation, and I did NOT create the situation (in fact, I pushed hard for the 2007 override, which failed, which would have helped our financial situation). And I do believe that all the schools function well, and will continue to function well -- closing MM just lets this happen in three buildings, not four.

Anonymous 9:40 - yes, the finances are indeed worse due to the general economic recession and declines in state aid. The hope was that voting to close MM would increase the likelihood that the Finance Committee would give us money to avoid major cuts this year, and I'm still hopeful on this front. Closing MM this year would have been (I believe) the right choice IF we could have made the decision in January or February -- but redistricting all four schools just takes too long to do in a few months, so I don't think this is feasible now.

Anonymous said...

I would like to know what will happen with the preschool located at the high school. Last I read in the paper it will be closing. There are now rumors going about that it will stay open but only for teachers kids. I am assuming that this is truely just a rumor, yes?

Rick said...

I applaud Andy Churchill, Catherine and the entire School Committee for having the guts to make this very difficult decision.

Also thanks to Catherine for doing what I thought was a very good job on this blog of sorting out what all the bad choices were.

LarryK4 said...

Congrats CAS,

You done good

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:01 - I hear it will stay open with some cuts to staff and an increase in fees, so that the program has no negative effect on the school budget. And any kids can go to the preschool -- not just the children of teachers.

Rick - thanks for the support. It took guts, but it really seemed, and seems, like the right thing to do, given the alternatives. And the blog actually really helped me think through and "talk" through these choices with people in a very helpful way!

Larry - thanks for the support ... again, it feels like the best of a number of bad options.

Anonymous said...

Wait, wait, wait.......Are you SURE, and I mean absolutely SURE, that you gave Jim Oldham enough opportunity to talk on and on and on???

And in those few opportunities for him to talk on and on and on, did you really LISTEN to him?

And how do we know that you really LISTENED? And how do we know that you weighed his personal opinions more heavily than those of every other person who spoke for closing Mark's Meadow? I think that I could tell, Catherine, that you had already made up your mind while you simply PRETENDED to listen. That's a real disservice to this community....that is, to PRETEND to listen.

See? We don't know the answers to these questions. As always, there was a problem with the process. There was not enough study. Not enough community input. We were not done talking.

What you have done is irreversible. Far more irreversible than saying to some elementary kid that we've tabled the instrumental music program for you, kid, while we continue to study what to do with Mark's Meadow. Dismantling and withdrawing programs for elementary kids now could be a temporary thing, after all, but closing a school is forever! We need, oh, only about 10-14 more public forums to really talk this out.

This calls for a do-over, another vote. (Hmmm...I feel a petition for a Town Meeting warrant article coming on with nine of my closest friends.)

Abbie said...

Yes, the brilliant Jim Oldham had the solution to all our financial problems and he wasn't allowed to TALK? He has figured it out, while all the other less brilliant folks were unable to...

But wait! We have heard Jim Oldham. He wrote an article in the Bulletin. Nothing in it provided solutions or strategies above those already on the table.

Irv was clear and right on the mark. This is just one of many things that are going to have to happen (and some of those things include those Jim wants). BUT included with those things is the cost savings of closing MM, something that cannot be ignored.

MOVE ON. Use your energy for something constructive. Please. TM is not the place for this fight, it is a SC decision. We ONLY vote the budget. It is over.

Anonymous said...

Why are you people thinking that because they voted to close MM, we still get to keep everything? WE DON'T!! DO you really not understand that YET? Everything is still on the table. There is not enough money to continue lots of the programs we love in our schools. Closing Mark's Meadow was a SMALL piece of the pie in terms of cuts!!!! We still have A LOT left to cut out as well.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 11:34 - I actually couldn't tell in parts of your post if you were joking or not ... but I'm going to assume you are being serious (?). I agree that we did not allow people to talk on and on and on. We did for 11 meetings, and then we didn't anymore. I have said for 5 months now that I have NOT made up my mind -- and if any parent (from MM or elsewhere) had of stood up and championed a real alternative plan that made sense for all kids, I would have adopted that instead. So, if a parent pushed to keep MM open as a special magnet small school (with no art/music/PE/librarian), I would have gone for that. I would have been convinced by a groundswell of support for huge classes for a few years, which is what they are doing in Northampton. (Neither of those things ever happened). But I was certainly not going to be convinced by a few parents saying that MM was a special place, or that the other schools were too big, or that MM had a better learning environment/MCAS scores, and so on (which is what I kept hearing). Those sentiments may all be true -- or be true for some families -- but they do NOT tell me how to resolve a budget gap for this year and the foreseeable future, which is what I had to do. I just didn't hear any alternatives that would have addressed it -- and I asked for those on my blog repeatedly and at every meeting. If you want MM to stay open, I need to know HOW to do that in a way that works for ALL kids. I know some MM families feel that this is a terrible decision -- but I don't think that what is special about an Amherst education is a building. I think it is the staff, teachers, parents, and kids. And those things will all stay -- in a new building.

Abbie - Yes, indeed. Thanks.

Anonymous 8:23 - sad, but true. And we will wait for the final state budget and information from the Finance Committee on what last cuts we need to make. But because we've closed MM, there will be fewer of these tough choices to make next year.

Anonymous said...

It's Anon 11:34 again.

Catherine, I was joking.

And since you weren't sure, I think that's an indication of what you've gone through. I guess that I should be careful with satire that strays too close to reality.

There will ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS be criticism of process in Amherst, especially at the point that one side faces defeat on the substance. And it gets very personal, to the point of accusing the decisionmakers of "thought crimes".

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 11:34 - thank you for clarifying ... I literally read your post like 5 times trying to figure it out ... I think after being accused of trying to kill off the weakest member of the family (which apparently equivalent to asking a child who goes to MM to go to WW or FR), I am unable to distinguish between reality and satire. But I'm relieved!

Anonymous said...

What's the current plan for the music program? Is it cut completely at this point? Or just part of it?

Now that MM is cut, I guess you have to wait to see if the Town is willing to dip into reserves, and how much reserves the elementary schools will get for 2009-2010. If reserves are given to the schools, does the SC or the superintendant decide what gets 'put back' into the budget?

If we want to resurrect the music program on our own - what are the options for getting it funded through AEF? (For example, if people donate money to AEF, specifically for the music program, is the AEF allowed to pay for salaries of music teachers?

How much exactly does the music program cost? Is it just the salaries of the (2? 3? music teachers)? And what does it cost for, say, starting the music program in fourth grade? Vs third grade?

Anonymous said...

What you've been through, Catherine, is what every elected leader must go through in order to effect meaningful, essential change in Amherst.

It's inescapable. It involves attacks on your character, your use of language (see Dick Teresi's column in the Bulletin),how you spend your time, your willingness to listen, how much time you have compared to others, your sensitivity to the feelings of others, etc. etc. But this is what it takes in Amherst, and it's not surprising that most people would opt to stay out of it and not run for these thankless unpaid elected jobs.

If and when the elementary music program gets completely cut, I intend to feel the same and argue differently than many of the folks who argued against closing Mark's Meadow. That's my commitment. No analogies to killing off family members.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:19 - if we can maintain a Level 2 budget, elementary instrumental music gets pushed back a year (strings start in 4th, not 3rd, band starts in 5th, not 4th). I don't think that is ideal, of course, but I can live with this. If the cuts are worse, meaning we get less state/town aid than anticipated and/or we don't get reserves, we are going to have to make more cuts -- and the superintendent makes those decisions (but with guidance from the principals, teachers, SC, parents, etc.). I think then we will once again be facing serious choices -- do we prioritize music over small classes, or intervention teachers, or assistant principals, and so on. I think we will know more about this within a few weeks -- and of course I'll keep the blog postings updated to reflect any proposed changes.

In terms of AEF/other options ... we can't rely on outside funding for teacher salary, which is the problem (we can use it to buy violins, but not pay a teacher). And we can't charge fees for things that happen during the school day (we could if music moved to after school, but that would REALLY change the nature of the program and who could participate).

The music program as of now costs roughly $172,000 a year (paying about 3 teachers). Holding off a year reduces that some.

I do recognize music as a priority to many, and I believe it fits with our district's commitment to social justice and offering all children a chance to experience "excellence" in some way (I hear from teachers that this can be a place where special needs kids really shine).

Rich - thanks, as always, for your thoughtful post. You did miss the "attacks on where you live" and "your tone and body language and personality" in your list. As I have said repeatedly, I didn't run (and I don't spend such a huge amount of time per week) to make friends or be liked. I ran to make a difference in terms of what education in Amherst is for all kids, and I'm going to give it my all for my three year term/sentence (less than 2 years to go).

Anonymous said...

When you say that outside funding (no matter the source presumably) cannot be used to fund teacher salaries, is that because of some union contracts? Meaning that there is NO possible way for any teachers or staff who teach during the school day (PE, Art, Music, Computer, Libarians, Paras, Aides, etc) - to be funded from non-school budget sources?

Is this specific to Amherst teacher union contracts or to Massachusetts teacher union laws?

Where we used to live in another state, the parents' group of the five elementary schools (AEF equivalent) funded the Art, PE, Librarians and Music teachers' salaries & had them rotate through all the schools. You can imagine the budget there was a lot worse than here and that was more than 5 years ago.

Anonymous said...

How could on the one hand every proposal or suggestion to save money be dismissed by the SC when presented by concerned participants and yet you asked in this blog for a solution to rescuing the budget shortfall other than closing MM?? I am honestly trying to understand the hypocrisy in this. Suggestions to make better use of the many students in our community (we do live in 5-college area--last I checked) by setting up programs to utilize their services perhaps in exchange for school credit therefore releasing the same paid postions is simply a wonderful idea and one that although was brought to the committee never was even explored or encouraged...
Wait a minute--aren't their two members of the SC with direct contact to some of these students?And PipeLine--is a fine example of the success of this idea, only it would involve more students, with more incentive, to do more work in the classrooms in all our elementary schools...
The decision to close MM may have been voted on, but hardly over.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 12:41 - I honestly don't know the answer to this question. I'll find out and post it.

Anonymous 1:22 - I have repeated every suggestion for balancing the budget I've heard on this blog -- cut assistant principals, cut art/music, increase class size, seek volunteers, charge for busing/music/books, etc. NONE of these saved $700,000 a year ... without severely hurting all kids. If you find one now, send it to me, and I can push to reverse the vote based on the new solution. We do have college students, but please remember -- these students are NOT on our school year cycle -- they don't arrive until after our schools start, they are away much of January, they have a spring break in March, and they leave in May ... in addition, I have no idea what types of services/classes/programs they could provide that would let us cut teachers/staff (even if we could work out the schedules). Let college students who are NOT certified teachers do what exactly? Pipeline is a wonderful program -- but it takes place AFTER school and in the SUMMER ... it does not take place during school time, and it involves TEACHERS in the Amherst schools, and college student TUTORS (NOT college students teaching). Again, what exactly do you think college students could do, and do you believe they would provide a better education for our students than our certified and experienced teachers?

Anonymous said...

Too bad we couldn't find a way to access the huge corps of service volunteers being created by President Obama:

250,000 positions being created, up from 75,000, including Classroom Corps, Senior Corps, Service Learning, requiring 100 hours of service from each college student, etc. I once did Americorps and it was extremely valuable experience, providing money towards college tuition at the end of one year of service.

Couldn't college students at least replace paraprofessionals? There's no degree or licensure requirement for those positions.

Anonymous said...

5:16, did you bother to read anything so far? Students are not 100% available for the entire school year, and do you want paras or babysitters? Our paras are trained to do their jobs, what you are saying is an insult.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 5:16: I'm sorry if you don't appreciate my proposing an idea that might be useful in the future to our school system. I have been listening. I also appreciate the work our paras do. I'm only proposing that college students could be trained to do what paras do. The Americorps program would allow students a year of experience, following graduation and before entering into the general work force, to gain experience in the field (of education). The Federal Gov would pay for them and all we'd need to do is apply and be eligible to host such a program. I don't understand the hostility. Is that just too threatening an idea for you to entertain? As a parent, I have to say I hope (and am guessing pretty confidently here) that you are not an educator in our elementary school system, because you might be the type of person that'd shoot down any idea, good or bad, if it didn't match your particular way of thinking.

Ah, but let's not let that come between us. We're all together in this after all.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 5:16 - this is a creative idea ... and one you should forward officially to the superintendent and SC. We are going to be facing massive budget cuts for the foreseeable future, so if there was a way to get one-year interns to work in our schools in some way, this could be very desirable (not for next year, obviously, but longer term).

Anonymous 8:47 - I think the idea was meant in a helpful and constructive way. Perhaps this program would include training (e.g., like a Teach for America type thing). It could at least be something to look into.

Anonymous 9:18 - I think, as I said before, that it is an idea worth pondering. Do you know if other schools districts have used such a program?

Anonymous said...

Anon. 9:18 p.m.
I have strongly spoken for just such a program. I can speak to the responsiblities of paras first hand. The training I received before starting my first position as a para was training, no orientation, no meetings with the student beforehand, before the first day of school, nothing. Although I did come into the postion with preschool teaching experience, the public classroom is a far cry from the preschool learning environment. At any rate--using the many students from the many colleges in our area to serve in our public shcools is one obvious and easy way out of this budget shortfall that perhaps this may be the very reason why no one will touch it. I don't know....I can say that as an educator there would be nothing more desirable and needed to help in one's daily work than to have a para/student/helper, there by my side to correct homework, make schedules, copy work, stay with the calss wile I used the bathroom, work with a child who may be crying and help them to put into words their feelings,(you don't have to have a degree in psychology to do these things)the list goes on and on and on...
But closing a school is not the answer. And how anybody can expect the layperson to come up with the answer to this shortfall in the school budget is a ridiculous notion. We don't hold the books...we only suffer the consquences of those who do!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 9:18 - I think your idea is creative, and worth investigating, particularly in these tight budget times. But I don't think that such a program could fully replace all paras in our schools, for many reasons. In addition, we spend far, far less than $700,000 a year on paras ... so such a program would NOT create the savings that closing MM would. I've listed several options for what WOULD achieve this savings -- such an increasing class size, cutting all art/music/PE/intervention teachers, and/or creating a small lottery based school instead of MM as one of four elementary schools based on where you live. Do you like any of these options better?