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 5, 2009

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

I just returned home from the fifth and final presentation regarding the proposal to close Mark's Meadow (and for the record, Steve Rivkin and I were the only two School Committee members to attend each and every presentation -- Marks Meadow, Wildwood, Fort River, Crocker Farm, Middle School Community Forum). I am not going to repeat all the questions/answers, since those will be available on ACTV by demand, but I do encourage you to watch those. I am also posting a very thorough document prepared by the Superintendent's office that includes answers to commonly asked questions from the various forums we've held over the last week (this is also on the ARPS website: http://www.arps.org/node/815#attachments), which I think will be helpful.

PROCESS
When will the school committee vote on the proposal to close Mark's Meadow?
The Amherst School Committee is scheduled to vote on the current motion at their May 19, 2009 meeting.

What influence should the new superintendent, Dr. Rodriguez, have in this decision?
Dr. Rodriguez has been kept apprised of the process thus far, and he is aware of the implications which accompany such a decision. Given the familiarity that school officials and school committee members have with the school district, Dr. Rodriguez is confident that a sound decision will be made, however challenging and difficult.

If Mark’s Meadow closes, how will the district plan for this major change? What types of Committees will be formed to support a one-year transition?
We have not yet finalized the number of committees which will be responsible for facilitating the transition. Closing a school will be complicated and will involve a variety of individuals and groups to support the work. Initially, it has been determined that there will be groups responsible for student support, staff support and assignments, communications, data management, and moving of district property. Key to success of each of these groups will be how they are connected to each other and with the community. The district will need significant assistance from staff, from parents and from the community at large, but committees will be coordinated at the district level.

ENROLLMENT/SPACE
Can our students fit into three schools, or will the schools be overcrowded?

The School Committee has gathered extensive data about projected enrollments in our schools. In 2007, the School Committee hired the New England School Development Council (NESDEC) to compute 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. However, our actual numbers for the 2008-2009 school year were less than those projected by NESDEC, thus to estimate future enrollments, actual enrollments in combination with projections were used to estimate the enrollments for the coming years. Based on this information, the remaining three schools can hold the projected enrollment.

Why do the NESDEC projections differ from projections done by the district?
The NESDEC report was done in spring of 2007 and was based on enrollments at that time. They were not able to consider the impact of the creation of the Chinese Charter School when their report was done. Plus, the district annually conducts a projection exercise based on actual enrollments each October 1. Our in-district projections have proven reliable over time and are somewhat lower than those prepared by NESDEC.

Will the remaining 3 schools have enough classroom space over time? How much time?
Enrollments are currently projected by the district through the 2013-2014 school year, and are based on birth census data annually gathered and shared by the Town of Amherst. Projected enrollments show a decrease in enrollment of 15 students for next year, with a further decrease over the next two-year period of 21 students. After that point, the 2012-13 school year, we are projecting an enrollment of 1359 students. Currently the 4 elementary schools have a total enrollment of 1324 students.

What about Grade 6 moving to the Middle School? What are the chances of this occurring?
If Grade 6 moves to the Middle School, it will free up an additional 8-10 classrooms at the elementary level. We have discussed the desirability of including Grade 6 students at the Middle School for several years. Such a design – a Grades 6-8 Middle School – is pedagogically appropriate and sound. A report is expected from the Regionalization Committee in the fall, which should give us a good indication whether K-12 regionalization with Pelham, Leverett, Shutesbury, and Amherst is likely to occur.

If Marks Meadow is closed, would the quads at Wildwood and Fort River be turned into 4 classrooms each?
Currently, the building quads are comprised of 3 actual classrooms and 1 smaller space reserved for small group instruction. The number of classrooms reported in the "State of Our Schools Report", does not depend on any change in the configuration of current classrooms.

Will there be changes to the present location of special needs programs?
No decision has been made at this time, but it is possible one or more programs will be moved.

What would be the impact of keeping Marks Meadow open and just increase class sizes throughout the district?
The likely result of this would be class sizes above recommended maximums and the transfer of some or all kindergarten students either to or from Mark’s Meadow to the other three elementary schools to better equalize these class sizes and more efficiently distribute staff. This would increase the cost of transporting students, but the costs would be far less than the cost of an increased number of classrooms.

Why not close part or half of Fort River or Wildwood instead of closing Mark’s Meadow, thereby creating 1 more "small" school?
Both Fort River and Wildwood Schools are small learning communities by many measures. Further, it is not practical to keep part of a building vacant. We will still be responsible for insurance, energy, cleaning, and maintenance costs. We would still have administrative and support costs – a principal, secretaries, custodial, etc. Also, since the cafeteria and gymnasium spaces are on opposite ends of each building, space could not be completely shut down. Leaving Mark’s Meadow open with its 12 classrooms and reducing the number of classrooms at either Fort River or Wildwood will not address the needed efficiency of more equally dividing students across classrooms to maintain small class sizes.

Fort River and Wildwood school buildings have proposals in to the state for construction funds to update the buildings. Where will we put the students if/when these projects get underway?
When Crocker Farm was expanded and renovated some years ago, careful consideration was given to the beginning and end dates of the annual district school calendar to accommodate the work of construction/renovation crews and to minimize disruption to students and staff during the school year. We anticipate similar planning for any upcoming renovations, which at this point will not be underway for several years.

REDISTRICTING
Could we redistrict to solve equity and then have four elementary schools?

Although it is possible to redistrict to better apportion equity in our current four elementary schools and a plan for this was presented in draft form to the community in April, there are two problems with this plan. First, it would not be in the best interest of children to redistrict now for equity and then redistrict again in one or two years for fiscal or enrollment reasons. This could be very difficult for children and their families. Second, redistricting and using four elementary schools would require two or three more teachers than our current system, at an estimated cost of $108,000 to $162,000 more per year. Thus, redistricting to four elementary schools solves our equity problem, but increases our financial problem.

We were able to view preliminary redistricting maps. When might a final redistricting plan be in place?
The preliminary plan must be reviewed by a consultant or consultants familiar with the challenges of redistricting and the implications of transportation routes. If it is voted to close Mark’s Meadow, it is hoped we can secure a consultant right after the School Committee vote and have more definitive information to share by the end of June.

STUDENT ASSIGNMENTS/SUPPORT
Will all current Open Enrollments end no matter how many years they've been in place, and will only those applications associated with an IEP or 504 will be considered in the future?
There is presently a school committee policy which permits students from Amherst to attend their non-neighborhood school. Open enrollment is granted only if space is available in the requested school and if parents are willing to provide daily transportation. The School Committee will want to revisit this policy and see whether it can be sustained under a redistricting scenario, and whether such a policy creates school inequities.

How will the district address the special issues of families and students who, while they may be able to walk to their present school, may not be able to do if they are redistricted?
One of the teams that will be created if it is decided to close Mark’s Meadow School, will address student and family support. Our schools have active parent groups in each. It is our hope we can work together with these groups to assist and/or resolve any impediments to school accessibility.

BUDGET/FINANCIAL
What is the budget problem for the Town of Amherst?
In November the Amherst Finance Committee issued preliminary FY2010 budget guidelines. At that time they suggested a 2.0% increase to town department and school budgets, and a 3.5% increase to the assessment to the town of Amherst for the Regional budget. For the Amherst schools that would have required that $658,000 be cut from a level services budget.

The economic downturn has severely impacted state and local government funding across the country. Anticipating a $3 billion revenue shortfall for FY2010, the Governor’s budget recommended a reduction in lottery aid and in additional assistance to municipalities in January. The reduction for Amherst was projected to be $2.77 million from the original FY2009 level. In April the State House Ways and Means Committee released its budget recommendation which cut state funding even further. Revenue projections for the Town of Amherst are following the same trend: current data paint a picture that is worse than earlier projections. Lower than expected lodging tax revenue and lower than usual growth in the tax base.

With the reduced revenue projections, the Town is now facing a funding gap of $3.8 million in funding the Finance Committee’s original guidance for FY2010 budgets.

What solutions are being considered by the Town?
The Budget Coordinating Group of the Town of Amherst, comprised of representatives from the boards and senior staff of each of the four budget entities (town, libraries, Amherst elementary schools, and the Regional School District), has been meeting on a regular basis to monitor and plan for meeting the fiscal challenge facing the town. Each department has identified the level of cuts beyond which major restructuring would be necessary for next year. These further cuts, along with projected increased local revenue for the town next year, reduced the funding gap to $2.48 million.

Last week the House voted to increase the sales tax from 5.0% to 6.25%, and separately voted to allocate $205 million to replace some of the aid to towns that was cut. It is anticipated that $1.68 million from that source would flow to Amherst. However, this sales tax increase must also be passed by the Senate and signed into law by the Governor in order to be enacted.

The Budget Coordinating Group will recommend that the remaining gap be covered from reserves, with the understanding that any additional funding from the state or local option taxes be used first to make the reserve fund whole. The Finance Committee will discuss this concept at their next meeting

If the legislature decides to increase sales tax, when would the revenue be realized? How much revenue increase can be expected if this occurs?
Revenue from increased sales tax would begin to be available in FY2010. Early projections are noted above.

What about other sources of potential revenue - the meals tax, etc.?
The State Legislature will be considering some other sources of potential revenue, including some form of meals tax, a hotel/motel tax, and a measure to close a telecommunications tax loophole. These measures will likely be debated in May. Current outlook for these initiatives is pessimistic, due in part to the recently voted increase to the sales tax.

Aren’t there other ways to decrease our budget problem? Could we accept School Choice students at the elementary level?
School Choice students bring in $5,000 each per year. Consideration is given each year to targeting specific schools and grades where choice slots might be made available – mostly; at Crocker Farm and at Mark’s Meadow, where class sizes tend to be smaller. However, the Amherst School Committee has been and is concerned about the possibility, over time, of overcrowding at the Regional level since there have been successive years of academic and elective cuts at the Region. School Choice regulations provide that if a student is accepted by a K-6 school district, they are entitled to attend the Regional district to which that town belongs.

If we keep four elementary schools open next year, what types of changes will we see in the schools?
To keep the four elementary schools open next year requires a cooperative process among all Town departments, including the willingness to use some funding from reserves if additional funding does not fill the revenue gap. This plan allows a year to properly plan to close a school and redistrict students into three remaining elementary schools. This plan calls for cutting $1.14 million from the level services budget for the Amherst schools for FY2010. These cuts are listed elsewhere.

What will likely be cut if Mark’s Meadow School remains open past June 2010?
In this uncertain fiscal environment it is difficult to project to FY2011 and beyond. If we assume that the recession will not recover quickly and that state funding will be flat, and that the town will only be able to allow a 2.5% growth to the budget, we can anticipate having to cut another $1.3 million from a level services budget in FY2011.

Cuts of this magnitude - $1.3 million - without closing a building might be as follows:
• Centralized librarian to support 4 buildings
• Centralized computer teacher to support 4 buildings
• Elimination of after school buses and programming
• Reconsideration of current instructional materials
• Significantly increased class sizes at all levels

If Mark’s Meadow is closed a savings of $530,000 is anticipated for the first year. This partial solution would then point to the need for an additional $740,000 in cuts.

I understand that a decision to close Mark's Meadow will not eliminate the total budget gap for FY10 or FY11. How will the district address the gap for those years?
Beyond FY10, we will need to understand the implications of any additional tax revenue, identify the remaining gap, and then project anticipated district needs. As stated in the FCCC Report, an override for FY11will likely be necessary to sustain the FY10 level of services to students.

Could we pass an override?
The FCCC report recognized that an override will probably be necessary at some point in the next 5 years to sustain even the most essential school and municipal services. However, all members of that committee agree that an override will not solve Amherst’s long-term budget gap and substantial cutbacks will be necessary regardless.

GRANT FUNDING – TITLE 1
How will closing a school and redistricting impact the Title 1 funds we receive for low income students?
Redistricting will not decrease the Title I funding since it is based on a Town-wide census of our economically disadvantaged students. The change in school boundaries will, however, allow us to reapportion Title I funding to different schools based on the needs of the students in those schools.

REGIONALIZATION
How does this discussion fit in with the broader discussion about regionalizing our elementary schools with Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury, the way our middle school and high school are currently?

We are still unsure of the impact of potential regionalization and what the structure of all the schools might look like. The decision about closing Mark’s Meadow has no apparent, direct impact on regionalization discussions.

RELATIONSHIP WITH THE UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS
Will UMass take the Mark’s Meadow building back if we close the school? Is there any discussion of ways to retain the building in case we need it later, so we don’t end up building a new school if enrollments increase?

The disposition of Mark’s Meadow School needs to be discussed with UMass officials, and they have been invited to enter into dialogue with district officials. It is our hope that the building can be maintained for alternate district programs – South Amherst Campus and East Street Alternative High School – so that post secondary programs can be developed to support these students.

If the University agrees to let the district use Marks Meadow for secondary in-district programs, will there be costs related to this change?
There may be minor changes to bathroom fixtures to accommodate adolescents, but we do no foresee any major building costs associated with relocation of in-district programs.

You have identified Marks Meadow as the logical school to close in the detailed proposal. Can the district be more specific about why it would consider closing a school which is provided for free by the University of Massachusetts?
It’s true that Mark’s Meadow is "free" in terms of utilities, but it is not free in terms of what it costs the district to operate this building (teachers, staff, materials, buses, etc.). The reality is that all of our elementary students can fit in the other three buildings at a cost that is roughly $700,000 a year less than keeping this building open. We also believe strongly that if we were to move to three elementary schools, we would either be able to use this building for free for another purpose (the alternative high school programs) or receive an annual payment from UMass for educating children of their graduate students. Thus, either of these options would more effectively allocate our limited resources than continuing to use MM as an elementary school. In addition, the timing of possibly closing Mark’s Meadow may work within the timing of regionalization efforts.

If it really saves this much money, and it really is inevitable, then why not just rip off the Band-Aid and close Marks Meadow for 2009-2010, rather than hoping to convince the Finance Committee to support some use of reserves for FY10—not enough reserves to prevent a number of additional cuts that could affect all kids—and then hoping to convince Town Meeting to agree to such a Finance Committee recommendation?
This would be a daunting task to thoughtfully complete by September 09 and there are many components that must be considered. First and foremost are considerations of the health and safety of students. Next we need to carefully plan the manner in which the remaining 3 buildings will be staffed. We need to be sure that students from all schools can see familiar adults and have an opportunity to get used to a new school setting. Issues such as transportation, materials, furniture, equipment, books, etc., need to be carefully planned over time.

How can we keep everyone informed if it is voted to close Mark's Meadow in June 2010?
One of the teams which would be created would involve communication, so that there will be a central clearing house for information to the families, staff, and the community.

81 comments:

Concerned for teachers said...

Pink slips were handed out to teachers and staff yesterday... how many were given notice? Of these, how many were classroom teachers vs paras, etc...

For example, 2 of the three kindergarten teachers at one school were given slips. Will all the kindergarteners be in one classroom in the fall, or will they be asking other teachers from the other schools or the other grades to step in and teach K at this school?

What were the criteria for the pink slips (I heard it was less than 3 years in the school system?) Was this applied across the board to all union workers, or just specific positions or departments?

Was this addressed at tonight's meeting?

If we find one particular teacher who has gotten a pink slip to be truly amazing, do you have suggestions for who to contact or the best method to convey the parents' support of this teacher?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response to "concerned for teachers" - I know yesterday was very upsetting for many ... and I feel terrible about it (and this was briefly touched on at the meeting). I don't know how many teachers/paras received one, but they went to all who could POTENTIALLY lose their jobs (or lose hours -- in some cases those with considerable experience in the district are being given jobs with only 80% of the hours and 80% of the pay). The intention is that MOST of these teachers would remain with the district ... the wide notice just gives people notice that it is conceivable that they would not be able to stay, and thus they should look into other jobs. Certainly there will not be a case in which we go above class size recommendations (although those will be larger if we are at Tier 4) -- so no, all kindergarteners would not be in one class (teachers from other buildings would move or current teachers in a building would teach a new grade) -- but again, most of those who got a slip should be able ultimately to stay with the district next year. But I know it is scary and sad (I wrote a letter of recommendation today for a teacher who I would personally HATE to have leave the district, but she got a pink slip and feels she must start to look elsewhere). I would recommend conveying thoughts about fabulous teachers to the principal of that school -- they could then be placed in his/her file, which would help increase the likelihood of being able to maintain that person in the district.

Anonymous said...

Has the gudiance counselor position been pink slipped at the middle school?

Alisa V. Brewer said...

I'm the first to complain when elected colleagues don't show up for meetings, but I think this a tad harsh:

just returned home from the fifth and final presentation regarding the proposal to close Mark's Meadow (and for the record, Steve Rivkin and I were the only two School Committee members to attend each and every presentation -- Marks Meadow, Wildwood, Fort River, Crocker Farm, Middle School Community Forum).It's not unreasonable that many of your colleagues had other pre-set plans before those five meetings were scheduled. These aren't, in fact, "School Committee meetings," after all, and your colleagues certainly do attend other "School Committee business" events that you don't -- if you think it's important to list every event each of you participates in as a School Committee member, perhaps that should become part of the School Committee Minutes. I know I wanted that info public when I felt colleagues weren't pulling their weight given all the places we could be if you had unlimited ability to participate, but only a couple of us were doing it.

Isn't it also fair to mention you're on sabbatical right now -- which of course means you're still crazy busy, but your life is a bit more at your own scheduling? And let's not get snarky...were both you and Steve present for the *entire* meeting at each location, or certain portions -- how much time counts? Arriving two hours into a meeting? Let's not get too crazy about this, please.

And given that you alone have been the individual to create the "conventional wisdom" that closing Mark's Meadow must be done, and Steve is the only School Committee member who agreed with that sentiment before the 2009 election, I would be appalled if you both *didn't* show up for each and every one of those five community meetings. Just as I believe that after all the new Regional School Committee members are in place following the 2009 elections, you should be Amherst School Committee Chair, *not* Regional Chair -- because you should take responsibility for the Amherst School Committee meetings in the climate you have created. And no, I obviously am not blaming you for the wretched economic climate, but the divisive angst in the Amherst elementary schools can be laid directly at your door.

And I'm one of your supporters.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this just great for morale? Hiring a person who has never before been a Superintendent for God knows how much money, and pink slipping staff (some of whom hardly make more than stockers at Stop & Shop). I'm of course speaking of the Paraprofessionals.

And how about early retirement for an Assistant Principal in an elementary school which has a "rookie" (to use Larry K's description)at the helm. An Assistant Principal who held the school together through 3 horrendous years of a previous Principal, and who, many felt, should have been offered the Principal job on two different occasions.

Then there is the Central Office Administration, an unusually top heavy fiefdom. I can't help but wonder how many pick slips were issued within this group.

Now I know some readers will take offense at my sarcasm, but we are not talking about rocket science here. We're talking about retaining or in some cases, building, a sense of "team". In a time of budgetary crisis, a feeling that "we are all in this together" would go a long way toward the ultimate goal of providing positive services to our children.

JWolfe said...

Alisa Brewer wrote:

"because you should take responsibility for the Amherst School Committee meetings in the climate you have created. And no, I obviously am not blaming you for the wretched economic climate, but the divisive angst in the Amherst elementary schools can be laid directly at your door."

I have never met Alisa, even though I have attended quite a few SC meetings. I haven't seen her at those meetings. What Catherine has facilitated, but certainly not created, is a climate of honest debate. I'm sorry if that makes some folks uncomfortable, but lots of parents (many of whom are in fact educators) have been lied to, yes openly lied to, by the former superintendent Jere Hochman, the former interim super Al Sprague, multiple high ranking Amherst Public School employees including principals, and multiple members of the school committee. Lots of this is available on video tape via community TV. Literal falsehoods and plenty of unfulfilled promises. Many Fort River parents still parody Jere Hochman's famous response to ACE's issues: "Yes, yes, and absolutely yes!" And then, of course, refusal to do anything he had promised in an open meeting.

So, what we had before Catherine was elected was a School Committee and school system that had no problem lying to parents and often treating them horribly when they raised legitimate and highly informed questions, issues, and problems.

Now we have Catherine and Steve on the SC refusing to take the lies and delays, forcing administrators and other SC members to own their promises, policies, and actions.

That, according to Alisa, is divisive. According to this view the world is better off if we let litterbugs litter, purse snatcher steal, and speeding cars run through cross walks. They're all fine. What's divisive and problematic is the person who challenges the litterbug, the thief, and the reckless driver. Catherine is divisive because she points out the hypocrisy and dishonesty. Amherst, Alisa seems to argue, would be a much better place if we all just kept our mouths shut no matter what harm is being done by our elected officials and public employees. What a unique vision of small town democratic governance from a member of the Select Board.

And, Alisa, I'm one of your supporters from the last election.

Anonymous said...

Which assistant principal (at which school) are you talking about? I hear that the Assistant Principal at WW, Karen Lowe, is leaving... was that a pink slip too? Is that who you are referring to? She is just wonderful, such a stable steady force behind the school. Were there other assistant principals also asked to leave?

Rick said...

Alisa: I agree with you that CS should not have gone into the attendance thing. But I disagree on this “the divisive angst in the Amherst elementary schools can be laid directly at your door.”

At least as far as what CS has written on this blog goes – maybe outside of this blog something has happened I don’t know about.

On this blog I have found CS’s analysis of the closing of MM to be extremely well done in terms of looking at all the alternatives.

For example, this (“Facing the Reality’):
http://myschoolcommitteeblog.blogspot.com/2009_02_01_archive.html

I mean, a choice HAS to be made and there are no good ones. I have found CS’s posts really good at laying out all the bad choices, while at the same time stating which bad choice she would make.

The cause of the any divisiveness is a lack of enough money – period.

If people want to be mad they should be mad at one and only one thing: the fact that the override did not pass in 2007. Sorry but is just a fact that if that had passed we would have no problem at all right now. Recall that was a three year plan.

So this is a friendly reminder of what we didn’t do which got us here.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 7:44 - I was not given a list of who received a notice, so I just don't know the answer to this question.

Alisa - given the heat that Steve and I have both taken regarding the Marks Meadow issue, I think it is important to note that we were both at all the meetings, and as you point out, these were NOT regular meetings so it was not easy for any of the members to do that. Steve is currently Chair of the Econ Dept. and has two young kids. It wasn't easy for him to do it. I am on sabbatical so that I can finish a book (not work for the Amherst schools), and although in a sense then my time is my own, as you can imagine, making an additional five meetings in a bit over a week was pretty hard for my three kids (who do expect to see me from 5 to 7 pm, when three of the meetings were). I left one of the five meetings after 1 1/2 hours -- the rest I attended the entire time, just FYI.

I know you are angry about my motion to close Marks Meadow, but in all honesty, I'm sure you can recall times when you were on the SC when you had to make decisions that some people did not support. The reality is that making a decision to keep MM open would ALSO create huge criticism (e.g., parents who would be upset about larger classes, less time in specials, no instrumental music, etc.). I have to make the decision that I feel is right for the majority of the community (NOT just those at Marks Meadow) -- and I believe that is closing MM (and interestingly, I have also received support for this view by Marks Meadow parents!). It is understandable that people don't want to close a school, and that people don't want their kids to move schools (as will happen with many kids in this town), but again, I believe we should provide an AMHERST elementary school education, and that closing Marks Meadow best allows us to use all of our limited resources wisely. I'm sorry if you disagree -- and if you have suggestions as to how we can keep Marks Meadow open AND maintain the other things we value in our schools, you have two weeks to let me know how.

Anonymous 10:00 - I feel terrible about the pink slips, and I understand the impact on morale. It is, in fact, one of the reasons why I'm supporting closing MM -- so we can start reducing our on-going structural deficit and reach a place in which the pink slips aren't an annual situation. And be assured, there were cuts to central office as well.

JWolfe - thank you for pointing out what I am attempting to do. It is sad to me that analyzing data, reaching a conclusion, and sharing that conclusion (e.g., that closing MM is the best way to maintain the core of the Amherst education for all students) is seen as divisive. It makes me wonder whether simply coming to that conclusion IN AND OF ITSELF, no matter what the facts were, would just be seen as divisive? I also would like to note that the most divisive things I've heard say have ALL been by a small number of Marks Meadow parents and teachers -- about how their school is vastly superior to all of the other schools and about how their children's lives would be ruined if they had to attend one of the other schools. That really has made some parents and teachers at the other schools very upset, and I think has contributed to the feelings of division.

Anonymous 10:23 - Karen Lowe CHOSE voluntarily early retirement. All of the vice principals are going to "school year positions" which means a reduction in salary -- so they would get "pink slips" to reflect that change in employment.

Anonymous said...

To JWolfe,
I've read your posts over the past few months, and I admire your attention to the issues. But you are nasty to people who don't agree with you and you take an extreme position on even the smallest points. (I'm especially curious about your attacks on Jere Hochman. He is a decent and thoughtful person. I didn't always agree with him and I'm not saying he didn't make mistakes. But he's undeserving of your name-calling.) Please, reconsider your approach. It doesn't help the conversation and undermines credibility of some of your legitimate complaints. It wouldn't matter if it affected only your reputation, but as a supporter of Catherine, you hurt her too.

Anonymous said...

I too have heard from many sources that she has been the "glue" behind the WW community and in fact, has done and continues to do, the job of Principal to this day.

And concerning having chosen voluntary retirement, I guess technically you could say that.

Anonymous said...

"All of the vice principals are going to 'school year positions' which means a reduction in salary...."

"In a time of budgetary crisis, a feeling that 'we are all in this together' would go a long way toward the ultimate goal of providing positive services to our children." Anon 10:00

Are Principals and Central Administrators going to "school year positions"? Or at least the Principals? Sorta like Anon 10:00 suggested.

Steven Brewer said...

Those who point out that the lack of funds is what generates the divisiveness are only half-right. Prop 2 1/2, which guaranteed insufficient funds for towns, was crafted by people who wanted to divide communities and force people to treat the budget as a zero-sum game. We don't have to do that. That is, however, what Catherine Sanderson has chosen to do: to identify a particular segment of the community that needs to lose in order for her and her supporters to win. She indicated very early in her postings that she had already decided that Mark's Meadow would have to close and she persists in stating that it's someone else's -- anyone else's -- problem to stop it. I don't know how someone could foster divisiveness more effectively.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

The reality is that making a decision to keep MM open would ALSO create huge criticism (e.g., parents who would be upset about larger classes, less time in specials, no instrumental music, etc.)Whenever one of us says "the reality is," please remind us we are full of &$^!. That said...

Yes, "The reality" is that we are in a horrible economic situation that is not going to get substantially better in the next 3-5 years.

And "The reality is" that from 2000-2007, no one believed closing MM -- or any Amherst elementary school -- was even in the realm of possibility, for the purpose of solving either equity issues or financial issues. No one. It never came up. It was not a discussion point during the reorg-for-equity series of meetings last year, either. Closing MM for any reason was simply not on the table or anywhere close to the table, from 2000-2007.

Time passed. Catherine had an idea. An idea that by it's very nature *is* divisive, because the closure itself impacts some more than others. Until Catherine brought it up, it was never about close MM or have bigger class sizes, or close MM or stop instrumental music -- that pairing simply did not exist.That doesn't mean she shouldn't have brought the idea to light. Bringing up an idea, no matter how unpopular in some quarters, is not divisive -- although there are plenty of people in Amherst politics who would disagree with me on that (I unseated an incumbent, remember?)

I absolutely believe Catherine did not expect such a shitstorm to result from her idea of closing MM to knock off a large portion of the budget deficit -- and I, as a MM parent since 1999, readily admit her idea is one of those much revered "out of the box" ideas we always say we want people to have. My point is, it was her idea, and she is the one responsible for facilitating the discussion that ensued.

Of course that doesn't make it OK for anyone to say their school is better than the other school, their teachers are dedicated and other teachers aren't, etc., or for anyone to attack her personally. I agree with Catherine that people are not behaving well...yet it's not exactly surprising that her idea brought out the worst in people.

Don't ask me to think of Catherine as a martyr for the amount of work involved in defending her idea and in stitching the community back together after the idea was not too adeptly presented to the community (and it's not like the unfortunate previous interim supts gave her any assistance on that front, either). I don't think she thinks of herself as a martyr, either, simply as a dedicated champion to making the schools work the best that they can for every child, every day. I'd just like to see her spend more of her (limited) time encouraging people to knit together as they recognize that closing MM or not is far from the only budget solution we need to be ready to embrace real soon.

Even if Town Meeting agreed to use some reserves, we have a very long way to go to closing the rest of the FY10 and beyond structural deficit. For those of you certain closing MM is the way to go -- if Catherine's motion to close MM passes, what else, in addition to closing MM, are you willing to sacrifice to close the FY10 gap?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:57 - I too have heard wonderful things about Karen Lowe, and I'm sure the WW community will experience her absence as a huge loss.

Anonymous 11:15 - principals actually work very hard in the summer. They are offering hiring new teachers, organizing schedules, writing materials, and so on. They have not been asked to go to school year time, nor do I believe they should. However, we could save money on principals by closing a school, and thus reducing our administrative budget.

Steven - I find your post really, really offensive. How in the world can you claim that I have identified a group that should lose, so that others can win? If Marks Meadow stays open, ALL the kids lose! All the kids, INCLUDING THOSE AT MARKS MEADOW, will have larger classes, and other reductions (instrumental music, specials, fewer intervention teachers). Turn your statement to reflect the reality -- keeping Marks Meadow open so a few kids can "win" (that would be 13% of our district) means larger cuts to ALL kids at ALL schools (again, including those at Marks Meadow). Do you really think I have some personal gain in closing Marks Meadow, and that I just decided to do this for kicks? You may believe that it is better for ALL kids to have large classes and no instrumental music and less specials time SO THAT we can keep a small school open -- if so, just say that. Reasonable people can disagree on that. But accusing me of choosing a group to suffer is ludicrous -- all kids are going to suffer if we don't close a school. That is the reality.

JWolfe said...

To Anon 10:56

Thanks for your comment. Jere Hochman is a very smart and articulate man and I have heard that he inherited a very difficult situation. I understand that district staff that existed when he was hired were gone by the time he arrived. He did some things very well and I understand was so sensitive to financial issues that he did not take a pay raise while he was working here. That's all good and deserves to be on the record.

Having said that and giving him the appropriate praise, I cannot ignore the fact that he was often less than honest with parents when they came to him with concerns. He said he would do things and then simply didn't. I don't know exactly what your relationship to the schools is, but many Fort River parents were livid when the previous principal told some kids to slow down and read less over the summer because it didn't make the non-readers feel good about themselves. Worse, he openly said that he didn't see his job as providing a full education for every child, every day. He would focus on the kids from certain socio-economic and racial groups who he thought were more deserving of the public schools' time and efffort, which is highly classist and racist in the assumption that there aren't plenty of really smart kids from poor families, etc.

That now former principal (who retired on his own and who paid no price for those comments) publicly disparaged parents who had built the new playground, raised money so that all kids could go on field trips, and so forth as "entitled." He stood up before the entire elementary school in a tee shirt that said "Got Privilege?" and lectured 5-12 year olds on white privilege. I'm a FR parent. The school has white working-class kids and wealthy children of color as well as kids on free and reduced lunch of all ethnicities. In addition to being insulting, that principal's comments were just plain ignorant. There are all sorts of privilege in the world, including white privilege, but a lecture to elementary school kids on one narrow portion of how power and privilege work was more confusing and destructive than educational.

Jere Hochman did nothing about those comments and actions. He told FR parents that the then principal was someone who held deep beliefs, etc., etc. Jere told us he didn't want to get in the way of that principal's passion. Frankly, he should have publicly condemned the comments and even suspended the principal. The comments, in addition to being frankly stupid, were a direct repudiation of district policy. Jere publicly said "every child, every day," while one of his principals said and acted on "only the kids I think need an education on the days I choose."

A lot of us became active on school issues in response to that principal's comments and actions and when we saw neither Jere nor the SC acting in the interests of every child, every day.

That's just one example. There are many. The fact is that in my communications with him, he did often lie to me. So, rather than just say, "I think he's great and you shouldn't say bad things about him," wouldn't it be more fruitful to ask his critics why they hold him in low regard. Lots of folks have lots of different experiences. You should be more curious as to why some of us were so put off by Jere and by some of the members of the SC. Maybe we're wrong, but it's important to for others to know why so many parents think what they do about the schools.

Again, I found your comment expressed in a supportive and good way, but it is part of the Amherst idea that criticism of anyone we know in town or who is involved in town governance is wrong and divisive. If someone lies to my face, especially when that person is a highly paid public servant, I have the right and even the obligation to point out that I've been lied to. If I don't, I just empower that person to do even worse things in our town.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Alisa - thank you for your remarks. Let me just correct a couple of things, however.

First, closing MM was NOT my idea -- it was others' ideas who shared them with me. In fact, a Bulletin column by Phil Jackson last fall questioned whether we needed four elementary schools, and parents came to SC meetings and asked whether this was being considered, given our massive budget crisis (as it is often considered in other towns during such crises). I said I thought we should indeed run the numbers - which strikes me as the ONLY responsible thing a person on SC could do! And guess what -- the numbers said this would really help our budget crisis. It would be irresponsible to not acknowledge that reality.

Second, I KNEW it was going to create a mess (I'm not an idiot), and that is precisely because of how I made my motion (which would inherently redistrict ALL kids) meaning that all kids in all schools will be impacted -- as they move, or their friends move, and their teachers/staff move. I've talked to a number of SC members in other MA towns who have done a school closing (last Saturday I called the Chair of the Wayland SC, where a school was closed last year). And all of these people tell me that in their towns, a school closed and the kids were just DIVIDED into the other schools. So, if I wanted to play it safe, that is 100% what I would have done -- take 180 kids in MM, and send 60 to each of the other schools. Then the MM families are uspet, but I hear NOTHING from the other families (and I'm hearing A LOT from other families in other schools who do NOT want their kid moved from their current school, and their kid will be if MM closes and we redistrict). But I didn't choose this path which would have been a hell of a lot easier than insisting that if we close MM, we also redistrict EVERYONE, because this would be, in my opinion, morally wrong. Would this approach have been better for my own kids, and the kids of my "supporters"? Yes. But I didn't choose this approach, because I think it would be wrong to do something that makes ONLY the MM kids move, and not other kids. So no one should pretend that my idea of closing MM is some massively brilliant political move to really please the whole town by making ALL kids experience disruption.

Abbie said...

Alisa and Steve:

I have got to wonder whether you consider that anyone who thinks it makes ECONOMIC sense to close MM is divisive?

I personally had decided in my own mind that it probably made sense to close MM when Nancy Gordon spoke at TM last year when the issue of funding the portables came up (which I voted against funding).

To me it is insulting of you both to paint as "divisive" anyone whose LOGIC indicates that closing MM for FINANCIAL reason. CS was NOT the person who first provided to me data suggesting that numbers of students did not require maintaining 4 schools. I have no personal reason (i.e I have nothing against MM or favor the other schools more) for thinking its a good FINANCIAL idea to close MM, to me it is a LOGICAL conclusion. If my school was the smallest and needed to close, I would accept that logic. Period.

Just because CS has been a messenger of the logic and data, to me doesn't make her divisive. If it does, then please call me divisive as well. Anyone else?

CS has gone out of her way many many times to count to provide the LOGICAL reasons why closing MM makes sense with more patience than I could muster.

I COULD counter that some folks are being WILLFULLY ignorant of facts and logic. My favorite quote is: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" Thoreau (I think, and the quote might not be exact).

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Sigh. Can we move on now? In true Amherst fashion, we are once again focusing on "stuff" -- whether or not someone is being divisive, a liar, ignorant, etc. -- what happened to focusing on the actions we need to undertake to solve our current and future structural deficit?

What else, in addition to closing MM, are you willing to sacrifice to close the FY10 gap?

JWolfe said...

To Steve Brewer,

Yes, we Fort River parents will enjoy the caviar, fine wines, satellite TV and other luxuries we're going to buy with the money we've stolen from the orphans at MM. It's all about taking from those that ain't got none. It's reverse Robin Hood here. Fort River is living soo large on the Benjamins we're lifting from MM that the entire school will be Spring Breaking it on Mars!

I can't wait until we've salted the ground beneath MM. (That is our ultimate secret plan as articulated by our supreme leaders CS and SR.) Our next target, don't tell anyone, but I think we're going after Crocker. We'll knock down the building and build indoor tennis courts, a pool, and maybe a spa, but just for the Fort River kids, and maybe some of their friends from Wildwood.

I would end with "Let them eat cake," but I'm sure Catherine and Steve have taken every last bit of food from MM families for our end of year, all you can eat gourmet feast at Fort River.

That's how we roll at the Fort.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

I stand corrected -- JWolfe *does* have a sense of humor:-)

Anonymous said...

"principals actually work very hard in the summer"

Not really, but let the image continue.

Anonymous said...

"Karen Lowe CHOSE voluntarily early retirement"

Another not really, but let's carry on.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Abbie - thanks for the posting. I heard from many parents and community members that the SC needed to consider closing MM, and when I asked for those numbers, I had no idea whether they would indicate that this was a good way to go or not. As I think many of us believe, this would indeed be an important step towards moving in a fiscally responsible direction, and would preserve much of what we love about the Amherst schools. I appreciate your pointing out the "shoot the messenger" problem that I think I am experiencing.

Alisa - I think how I prioritize different cuts is well noted on this blog, and the reality is, we are going to be making big cuts next year, and somewhat fewer cuts the following year IF we close Marks Meadow. This fall we should have a sense of (a) whether MM is closing, depending on how that vote goes, and what sorts of support we might get from U Mass/other uses of that space, and (b) how state aid and other sources of revenue are coming in to help the budget. We then need to do a thorough review again to assess what is the "core." For me, that isn't four schools, which is why I don't prioritize keeping MM open over small classes, instrumental music, specials, etc.

JWolfe - I thought I told you to keep all those plans quiet!

Alisa - Yes, he really does. You might even like him if you talked to him sometime.

Anonymous 12:30 - feel free to come to the next SC meeting and ask principals what they do in the summer, and how the school would function if they arrived at two days before the kids started.

Anonymous 12:33 - that is precisely what her letter to the WW community, which I've read, stated.

Andy said...

Thank you, Catherine, for your blog! I don't always agree with your ideas, but definitely appreciate the fact that, at long last, someone is asking questions and not settling for Amherst-speak answers. Along with J. Wolfe, I am grateful that we finally have someone with the fortitude and courage to expose the dishonesty and hypocrisy that is standard fare from school officials. We will never have the school system we deserve (or that many think we actually have) until there is a change in how things are done in Central Office. Our new superintendant will be worth every last penny - and still more - if he can come in and perform an intervention. Right now the budget crisis has our attention, but there is a bigger problem that has greater impact. If someone examined the process by which we
1. choose and evaluate principals, assistant principals, program administrators, all central office staff 2.preserve and protect ineffective, even outright bad ones 3. reward, recycle, and retread the game players, 4 pass over the best and brightest, maintain mediocrity. Although she would not choose to serve as such, Karen Lowe is but one example of the best being passed over. It sounds as if J. Wolfe has his/her own candidates. Maybe I am off-point, but when we are accusing people of being divisive when they say things that cause discomfort, it just made me try to get a handle on why there is such frustration and anger out there. I believe that comes from the fact that the public never gets to share their concerns. And please, everyone, stop looking down your nose at anonymous bloggers. If everything did happen above board and our leadership (at all levels)was as committed to every child as they profess to be, then budget cuts would be difficult to bear, but much easier to accept.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Andy - thanks for your thoughts. I agree with much of what you said about the importance of asking questions and expecting real answers and open communication. A number of people who have pushed for data and transparency and communication feel frustrated -- I'm in that boat, as is JWolfe, as perhaps are you. And yes, if Alberto Rodriguez can really move us forward on these issues, he is worth EVERY PENNY!

Anonymous said...

Juat a few reflections here from a fresh voice. MM has educated children of mine since 1995 and I am deeply saddened and upset at its closing. I have not heard any SC member other than CS speak so strongly to close a school ever. I feel the seed was planted by a very few to close MM, sacrifice this community of children and save the rest of the town. Simply put, I think this is just dumb!
J. Wolfe--you are quite hostile.
There has got to be a better way to save services other than closing a school. If I knew that way I would not be sitting here at my computer, but I would be out there and finding it. Sad--because as parents in this community we trust our children's lives to the 'powers that be' and look what it has gotten us.
Alisa and Steve raise many excellent points. I agree with the majority of what they say.
If I had the means I would move from this town. The classism that exists is sickening. The average poor person is the one who will suffer the greatest by this shift in the new districting of the elementary schools and this person does not even have a computer to speak his/her concerns and outrage. Like I said, as parents we trust our children's well being to a system that can create this kind of choas in our lives. Sad.

Anonymous said...

Well anon 3:18, if you feel that closing MM is such a bad idea then you come up with a way to save $600-700k per year. Furthermore, it is not helpful to throw out accusations like classism without any evidence or support. The intention of redistricting is to help all children. Lets give this a chance to work.

We must unite as a community to deal with the budget issues first and foremost. If we fail to do this, and fail to come up with meaningful long term solutions, then our schools will fail and we will fail our children. It is really clear that the only way to begin to address the budget gap is to close MM. Lots of other painful cuts will surely follow but these are the economic realities.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 3:18 - two quick points. First, I suggested closing Marks Meadow in January as a way of solving the budget crisis, and I've listened to other solutions for over four months now. Many, many smart and thoughtful people have considered budget options, and I have yet to hear any solution that wouldn't seriously diminish the quality of education for all kids (e.g., increase class size, cut intervention teachers, cut instrumental music and specials, etc.). If anyone has any good suggestions that save $600 to $700,000 a year, this would be a good time to share them.

Second, if the quality of the public schools goes down, as it will if we continue to operate four elementary schools we don't need, kids from wealthy families will opt out for private school (and pay for private music lessons, art, etc.). Poor kids will be the MOST impacted by the massive cuts we will have to make (including larger class size and fewer intervention services). This move helps maintain the quality of education for ALL kids, including those who now attend Marks Meadow. In addition, the poorest kids in our district do NOT attend Marks Meadow -- they attend Crocker Farm. And in this plan, we will redistrict all the schools to create equity. That is about the furthest thing from classist or elitist I can imagine.

Anonymous 3:38 - thank you. I agree with all you said.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Brewer increasingly strikes me as a person who can dish it out, but can't take it, who criticizes others for being "divisive" but wants free reign to diss others.

And I voted for her last time.

Thank God she is not chairing the Select Board.

Anonymous said...

I have a distinct recollection that that Cassandra figure in town, TM member Nancy Gordon, has brought up the idea of closing Mark's Meadow repeatedly in the years 2000 to date, and with the same rationale as Catherine, to save money. So I disagree with Ms. Brewer that it all started with Catherine.

I know that we aren't supposed to challenge the Herculean institutional memory of Ms. Brewer, but I recall sitting in Town Meeting when Nancy Gordon talked about it publicly. And, admittedly, fairly or unfairly, many of us reacted the way we react to much that comes from Ms. Gordon: it never got any traction.

But the idea didn't just come out of nowhere.

When I read "let's not get snarky" coming from Ms. Brewer, I have to laugh.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rich - Nancy Gordon did indeed mention closing Marks Meadow at Town Meeting last year. Phil Jackson mentioned we should seriously consider whether we needed four elementary schools in a column last fall. Several parents asked me (sometimes privately, sometimes at open meetings) about the budget implications of closing Marks Meadow, and I requested that we look into this as a possibility (as is minuted in the November 18th Amherst School Committee minutes posted on line). So, I don't get credit for the idea. I think in fairness, I deserve credit/blame for taking the idea and making a motion to act on the idea, which I know goes against the tendency of many in Amherst to discuss ideas for 3 or 4 years before acting. But I was elected to make decisions that would benefit the educational experience of all kids in Amherst -- and I don't think this is a case in which studying it for several years (given what we already know about enrollment projections), while we massively cut into the core of the educational system in Amherst, is the way to go. However, I'm one vote -- and it won't close unless a majority of members on the SC agree with me (so, again, if I have a stupid/bad idea to close MM, it won't get a majority, and MM will stay open).

Anonymous said...

"feel free to come to the next SC meeting and ask principals what they do in the summer,..."

I really do not have to. I rely on personal experience. And if you really believe that they would be honest about their summer responsibilities, in a public forum, well, enough said.

Anonymous said...

"that is precisely what her letter to the WW community, which I've read, stated."

I know, a real professional to the very end. Wish the same could be said about the system.

Anonymous said...

Pa-leeze...give me a break....How many dinner tables have you sat down to at SouthPoint or The Boulders?
Why do you think poor kids need to be 'mixed' with rich kids in order to benefit? How many Amherst Woods residents hang out at New Hollister Apartments or even know where they are? There is such a gap in the classes that is so obvious one has to be blind not to see it or in deep denial.
Of course this places a BIG ROLE in what gets done and doesn't get done on the SC. Please can you tell me how many apartment dwellers sit on this committee...hmmmm....

CB said...

I thought I had been following the budget deliberations closely and was caught by surprise with last week's news that we are reducing music, art, and physical education in the elementary schools. That makes absolutely no sense - either educationally or fiscally.

Those programs reach every child, every day, irrespective of needs or abilities; and those programs afford them an equity and opportunity not provided anywhere else in the schools. Where is our conscience?

Is it possible to figure out if the percentage of reduction to those programs could be shifted to a reduction in positions that do not directly impact all children?

How can this be a wise decision? These are the programs that distinguish our system. Most important of all, what children learn in music, art, and physical education informs them, enhances their lives, and endures far beyond their years of "formal education."

Is this decision final? Is there any way to have discussions about this latest cut? Every parent I have talked with is upset by this. I am frankly shocked. It is hard to believe that Amherst is taking steps to dismantle these programs that are so essential to all children. What is it or who is it that our administrators are giving precedence to or deferring to making such decisions? Surely not the students.

I know the argument. We can't have everything! Understood and palatable - but WHY take away the best?

Anonymous said...

"The divisive angst in the Amherst elementary schools can be laid directly at your door"

Wow. This from Ms. Brewer and similar stuff from her husband. Do they sound a tad agitated?

Whenever you hear someone in elected office in Amherst using words with the root "divisive", that's shorthand for an admonition to "just shut up".

One person's sober assessment of budget choices is another person's "divisive" playing of constituencies off against each other.

How about a show of hands among the adults on this blog on this question: How many of you are alums of schools that are now closed?

Both elementary schools in Northampton that I attended, Vernon Street School (former incubator for Smith College faculty brats) and Florence Grammar School, are now buildings used for other purposes.

Schools close. It's the natural progression of things.

I don't think that Ms. Sanderson gets to claim MM closing as an original idea, and I don't think that anything "should be laid at her door", angst or otherwise. This has been floating around as an option to save money for years.

I really loved Ms. Brewer when she was an insurgent, picked on by the anti-Charter folks as not sufficiently anti-Charter. Now that people like me were so enthusiastic about her serving on Select Board (I once thought she'd be a terrific Mayor of Amherst), the humility is gone; she's the smartest person in any room she's in, and a bit of a scold.

And, as demonstrated by her string of comments on this blog, she really wants to regulate the debate. She hates it when you turn her tone back on her.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

"I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."

--Thomas Jefferson

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

What about elementary level children who hate violin, detest trumpets, can't wield a paintbrush, trip over their feet in gym class and are endlessly tortured by striving, excellence and endeavour? Maybe a public school education could be about the basics - learning to read, write and do a little arithmetic while hanging with friends from the hood. Do 'specials' at LSSE. Keep schools local.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 12:37 a.m.
You make such an excellent and obvious point. I agree with all you have said. What has happened to the core education that the whole public school system was set up to deliver? Why have all these frills been put before the basics? What has happened to reading, writing and 'rithmetic?? I could support, with an ease of conscience, a push for excellence in these subjects, but I believe that the majority of kids fall into the category Anon. 12:37 a.m. describes and these are the kids with no voice!

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:15 - What are you trying to say? I didn't actually understand what your main point was. I think you were saying that the SC SHOULD have some apartment dwellers on the committee? And you are implying that if these apt dwellers (aka poor people) were there, something different would be done by the SC? What is it that you wish the SC does that it is not doing or not trying to do? Are you saying that they would or would not close MM? Or that they would or would not vote for redistricting? Or something else?

Anonymous said...

I have been "lurking" on the various Amherst Blogs and find myself needing to share an observation, albeit somewhat off subject. That being the preponderance of criticism toward past Superintendents and Principals, all of whom are male.

At the same time, bloggers are praising the job that the Acting Super is doing as well as the job the WW Assistant Principal has done. (Wasn't she acting Principal at one time?) And of course, both are female.

Now we know that the teaching pool, those with actual teaching experience, is predominantly female. Yet, for some reason, we continue to assign positions of leadership to males. I really thought that this mind set had vanished.

I guess that I'm calling on people with the ability to change this situation to not just "talk the talk, but to walk the walk".

Alisa V. Brewer said...

It's convenient to paint people who disagree as enemies, and to argue about their word choice, and about what they/those words really mean, rather than giving any benefit of the doubt. I haven't done any of that.

As to history and memory, yes, I well-remembered Nancy Gordon said it at Town Meeting. Since you so enjoy being admonished, Rich, I'll say it here -- I didn't include that bit of history because I forgot, or because I'm stupid, or because it was convenient for my nefarious purposes, but because it is in fact completely irrelevant to my point. One person saying something at Town Meeting does not a School Committee action make (sorry, new Town Meeting members:-)

As Catherine says herself:

I think in fairness, I deserve credit/blame for taking the idea and making a motion to act on the idea,exactly. And I also said it was an out of the box idea, the kind we so profess to appreciate.

The divisiveness I lay at Catherine's door is based solely on the fact that closing MM was never presented by Catherine to the public as simply as a great way to save money; it was presented as the only way to save most of the other things we cherish. She is probably right, given the state of the state, And of course nothing happens in isolation.

But closing MM was never presented by Catherine as wow, it would stink to do this, but it seems fiscally responsible. Period. Room to breathe... Instead, from the beginning, it was presented by Catherine -- and heard loud and clear by the community -- that closing MM would be the only fiscally responsible thing to do if we are going to save most of the other things we cherish. And that's when all hell broke loose.

To me this is not a potato, potato issue -- it's a manner of how we go about engaging the community in making tough choices. Yes, schools close, thanks for the admonishment, whatever. My point was to recognize that the way the idea of closing MM was brought forward by Catherine directly resulted in the divisiveness. No one had any time to adjust to the idea of what it would mean to close MM, and the good things that might come of that for all the kids.

Real change in public schools is leviathan in nature, and lurching -- rather than springing -- into action may be the only option. And at the same time, note the posts here and throughout the blog that people in the wider community, beyond our little echo chamber, really don't get "it" -- we are in a huge hole. One thing won't solve that. Lots of things will be needed to solve that. We all need to engage with the multitude. I see a lot of foot dragging and heads in the sand, but I'm ready to talk about all the things. Catherine's ready to do that. Can we all do that now?

Once again: I didn't come on Catherine's blog to castigate her for how this played out (I do that sort of thing offline:-). I came on Catherine's blog in an attempt to set the record straight/describe "the reality" because people tuning in late to the program seem to have TIVOd over some of the boring parts. Pretend I'm someone you have any respect for, and go back and re-read my posts.

I'm really sorry, I am, that it isn't clear that I'm not saying Catherine is divisive (and c'mon, I have nothing to do with what Steve posted; I wish I had that kind of influence:-). You don't have to defend the way Catherine brought up the idea in order to agree with the idea. And agreeing with the idea doesn't mean you have to say MM parents are whiners. Catherine is not the enemy here. The idea she brought forward is not the enemy. The enemy is how we are treating each other.

I'm trying to communicate that one can hold competing ideas at the same time:

-I love MM, and

-it's crazy to close a free facility, and

-MM kids are doing great, and

-MM families have different opinions about whether they like MM, and

-we have a huge structural deficit, and

-some people will always get mad about the way something is presented, and

-telling people the only rational thing to do it generally going to piss a lot of people off, and

-sometimes you just gotta do it anyway

Sorry to not be simple.

Anonymous said...

These blog comments are starting to make me think neighborhood schools are a terrible thing. They seem to turn people into extreme turf-defenders who don't like to mix with anyone else. Let's build one big elementary school, and see if we can create the feeling of community.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 10:29:

Totally true! I know that the idea of a K-2 school, 3-4 school and a 5-6 school (or something along those lines) was brought up but discarded as an idea because it actually cost MORE money. But that was in the scenario of 4 schools.

If we recalculated this scenario with 3 schools, would it make fiscal sense? (Although there is not one school that is big enough to hold K-2). And presumably Crocker is too small to hold two grades). I only say that because FR and WW are the same size physically and CF is smaller.

That would solve the "turf" issues, and the equity issues. And then all the school families would experience some disruption at least. There would not be options to do Parent-Pick-Up anymore though if you had more than one child. And bus transportation would be a lot more expensive.

JWolfe said...

Alisa wrote:

"I'm trying to communicate that one can hold competing ideas at the same time:

-I love MM, and

-it's crazy to close a free facility, and

-MM kids are doing great, and"

One of these is true, one is false, and one is misleading.

First, it's obviously true that Alisa loves MM. Good for her and the community. Our schools thrive when we have that sort of engagement.

The misleading one is that MM kids are doing great. Sure, but who's to say that they won't also do great at one of the other 3 schools or even better? Also, throughout these debates both the pro and anti closing sides have made caricatures out of all the elementary school kids in town. FR is a great school and any MM kids who end up there will love it too. There are no metal detectors at FR. The discourse about the other schools has a very worrisome tone to it.

Finally, the falsehood: MM is far from free. As everyone on this blog knows, the building is the least of what makes a school great. It's the people. Having an entire elementary school staff for such a small number of students (13% of the town's total) and having all the other associated costs of running a very small school (beyond the admittedly free utilities) is a far cry from being "free."

If closing MM saves $700,000 annually, how can it be free? To be incredibly didactic about it, if it were free there would be no savings garnered by closing it, right?

So, wherever you stand on these issues, please don't throw around the idea that MM is free and the other schools cost so much more.

And, let's be open and honest about the facts:

The only big school in Amherst is UMass. Everything else, including the HS, is fairly small relative to schools throughout the country.

The teachers and staffs at all the schools are caring and committed professionals who will look after all the kids.

We are all most comfortable with what we have and fear change.

But, change is coming because of the massive structural deficits.

Oh one more fact: We're out of money, so please state clearly in posts opposing cost cutting options (e.g., the closing of a school) how you would meet our budget shortfalls year after year going forward.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 5:27 - if you believe principals should only be paid for the school year, please send me (or post on this blog) a list of 5 other Massachusetts districts in which elementary school principals are only paid for the school year. I just can't see principals arriving to start the year 2 days before school and that being good for the kids. I also wonder, if we are the only district who moved to this model, what type of principals we would attract!

Anonymous 5:37 - Karen Lowe is an adult, and gets to make her own choices. I'm sorry, as is the Wildwood community, that she chose to leave, and I'm particularly sorry if our budget crisis contributed to that decision.

Anonymous 6:15 - I don't really understand your point. Considerable research suggests that when a school gets above 40% kids on free/reduced lunch, learning suffers for all kids. So, I see that as a problem even though (a) I don't live in an apartment, and (b) my kids don't go to Crocker Farm. Are you suggesting we maintain the inequities in our schools?

CB - I share your concern about this, and I only voted to approve the budget with the understanding that this decision, and its impact on kids in all four schools, would be carefully reviewed and perhaps revised. You should come to the SC meeting on May 19th to learn about the update on these cuts, and should communicate your concerns to the SC and superintendent (and encourage others to do so as well).

Rich - I agree with your comments. The reality is, the numbers, in my opinion, speak for themselves -- we are NOT refusing to educate children who go to MM ... we are "forcing" them to go to another excellent school that MANY kids in our district already attend. And I think it is typical in Amherst that anyone who challenges the status quo is called divisive. It is another way of stopping the debate.

And I love the quote -- thanks.

Anonymous 12:37 (and 6:33) - sure, there are these kids ... but there are also kids who LOVE these things, and who bear with the math/reading/science BECAUSE they get the art/music/PE. I hear from specials teachers that their classes can be where special needs kids thrive, as can those who are struggling with the academics. I guess I think a school should work for kids with talents/skills/interests in different areas. I also think cutting these programs really creates a class divide, as some kids can pay for private art/music/sports, and some can't. Do we want a music program in the MS and HS for only wealthy kids? That isn't to say that we shouldn't consider some cuts to these areas, and some are on the table now. But I think eliminating these would be a big mistake. Remember, MOST of the school day is in fact spent on the "basics."

Anonymous 9:59 - interesting point! All the SC does is hire the superintendent, but I definitely think you raise a valuable observation. I do think Maria has been great -- I also think it is a question of who applies for the leadership jobs -- and I think the pool tends to be much more male dominated (that was certainly true for the superintendent search).

Catherine Stryker said...

How about using LSSE for ALL specials? It is a town wide service that everyone benefits from. Children from low income families are already supported by a generous discount program. If schools concentrate on core curriculum activities, LSSE can perhaps be beefed up. Kids can chose to take part in something they are truely interested in, whether that be playing a xylophone, making coil pots or learning hip hop dance. They can mix with kids from all the school regions and even mix with different age groups over their common interests. Parent groups from the pared down neighborhood schools can support all Amherst kids by fundraising for LSSE activities, providing scholarships for individual kids, helping with transportation, promoting a variety of classes, arranging town wide concerts etc. This could even become intergenerational ... There might be possibilities here for involving the whole Amherst community through centralizing leisure for all. Involve volunteers, pool expertise, save money at schools, redirect parental energies towards LSSE.
Parents would also have the ultimate leverage up their sleeves - "Stanley, you have to tolerate school today and finish your homework or you won't be able to go to Tibetan Basket Weaving this afternoon." Joking aside, how about some serious number crunching around this?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Alisa - it seems to me that the debate about Marks Meadow has changed considerably over time. First, MM parents said "just give us the numbers" -- because they were concerned that the numbers being presented were false and just numbers I created (there was even a column by MM parents in the Bulletin that said "at what savings do you close a school?" and they listed three amounts: $300,000? $200,000? $100,000?). Well, now that it turns out the actual number is $700,000 (and that doesn't include any possible payment from U Mass or use of that space by the district in any other way), the new complaint is that it is not about the numbers, it is about the process. Maybe I'm cynical, but I seriously, seriously doubt that if I had sobbed with remorse at closing MM and the loss of this community as I suggested that as sad as it was, we needed to really contemplate this, people would have been like "oh, yes, she is making a great point." The reality is, people who love MM don't want the school to close for all of the reasons we've heard for several months. And I just don't buy the "she went about suggesting it the wrong way" as the issue here. It is the suggestion, and the person who suggested it, that are what is seen as problematic, and hence divisive.

Anonymous 10:29 - I think you make a great point, frankly! But in fairness, there are parents at all of the schools who feel that all of the schools are good. There was a lovely letter read by a Fort River parent at the meeting on Tuesday night that was signed by parents from Fort River and Wildwood and specifically said that they supported the closing of a school EVEN THOUGH it would change their kids' schools. I have also received calls and emails from Marks Meadow parents who agree that closing their school is the right thing to do. So, just because a few vocal parents have insisted that closing the school would be very detrimental to their child doesn't mean that ALL parents feel this way. I certainly agree that we should all see ourselves as attending AMHERST elementary schools, and be much less focused on whether we attend a particular school (one of the reasons why I am fine with wherever my kids are sent if/when we redistrict).

Anonymous 10:52 - this is a creative idea ... and I don't think one that anyone has ran the numbers on. However, when the "pairing" model was examined earlier this year (which is a similar concept), it was very expensive, because transportation costs really add up. It also meant that kids would have a number of transitions to different schools, which is associated with some negative outcomes. Finally, the teachers really liked the type of learning that occurs from younger-to-older (e.g., reading buddies, etc.). Maybe instead we should just create three great elementary schools with roughly equally services (e.g., not one school having CHINESE?) and populations (e.g., not one school having over half kids on free/reduced lunch?).

JWolfe - I agree with EVERYTHING you said. Thanks.

Catherine Stryker - I think this is a creative idea, so thanks for sharing it! I do think there are a few problems, however. One is that the type of instrumental music program we have isn't offered at all through LSSE, and that is the private lessons/orchestra/band. We'd lose that. Another is that we have caring and dedicated specials teachers who are specifically trained to teach kids ... that isn't true in all the LSSE classes. Third, I do think that different kids need different "hooks" to stay focused on school ... and for some of those kids, it is PE, music, art. I don't think it is in kids' best interest to spend from 8:40 to 3:05 only doing academics ... and I'm a strong believer in strong academics!

Catherine Stryker said...

I would guess that with all the pink slips flying around Amherst schools that there will soon be a large pool of desperate talent out there. My other guess is that this pool will include a lot of the younger, energetic teachers. Amongst them might be a few musically gifted former teachers who could take on the challenge of putting together a town wide orchestra/band program. I guess some pink slips are going out to other specials teachers too. Maybe they'd like to go self-employed and start up classes through LSSE? The colleges could be involved through a community service program, I'm thinking of Hampshire College music students as just one example. If a town wide, community supported LSSE picks up steam, organizes and gets an infusion of energy, how about shortening other school days as well as Wednesdays? More savings for the schools ....

Catherine Stryker said...

BTW I'm also Anon 12:37am. I just couldn't remember my own name at that time in the morning! :-)

Catherine Stryker said...

Another interesting point is today's European Congress on Obesity -

"Scheduling more physical education time in schools does not mean children will increase their activity levels, suggests new research that discovered those who got lots of timetabled exercise at school compensated by doing less at home while those who got little at school made up for it by being more active at home."

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090507055502.htm

Could this also be true of other activities such as music and art? Could this support the idea of providing lots of out of school activities that kids can cherry pick from? Knuckle down during the days, then choose what you want to do in the afternoons. I'd suggest this has the added benefit of being pretty good grounding for life in the real world later on .... With the added benefit of getting the whole community involved.

Anxious Parent said...

Please, NO MORE short days!! If anything, please make them all full days. It is very difficult for single parents to find someone to care for their kids after school on Wednesdays, especially since the high school students are still IN SCHOOL! The short Wednesdays are expensive and inconvenient.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 7:13 What I am saying is there is a very wide gap in the classes right here in Amherst and as much as people like CS try and deny it it exists! I am just curious what representation families from the apartment complexes have on the SC or in the school administration. Yes--I believe if the voice of the disenfranchised were heard and acted upon there would not be the need to close down a high performing elementary school or shift children around town many whose parents do not drive BMW's or a 2009 model of any car. I am trying very hard to see the thought behind this 'equity' attempt. Do poor kids need to be around rich kids to achieve higher academically? Are poor kids missing out on something because they are not mingled with rich kids? This is not meant to be offensive, but a real question that should be addressed and not attacked. This has been going on for 28 years now in Amherst that I know of, and most likely 28 years before that. Crocker kids live in the apartments, WW kids live in the houses. It's no secret that if you live in an apartment you are most likely not of the same income as someone living in Amherst Woods. Would you not agree with this? I am not saying anything here that is not quite obvious to anyone with a pair of eyes and ears. Money has power. Money speaks. Money rules. This is a reality. Yes--Amherst makes some attempt at treating its students with an equal approach, but I can tell you from experience both as a parent and educator that this is as far as it goes. A feeble attempt. Have you ever sat in on a sped class in any school building? The child in this class almost always fits under one of these descriptions; a child of color, low income, single (female) parented household... It's just not right, but it is happening and it continues to happen every day.

Anonymous said...

"I also wonder, if we are the only district who moved to this model, what type of principals we would attract!"

Careful, Amherst has not had stellar results in recent years.

Anonymous said...

Catherine Stryker-

I find your idea genuinely frightening.

Third rate schools here we come....and say goodbye to our property values.

If we dump all specials and only do academics I would be forced to pull my kids out and opt for private school - and that would break my heart.

Anonymous said...

Art, music and physical education classes are just as vital to an elementary student's education as social studies. They're not just "hooks" to get kids connected, although they can do that. They also teach valuable skills and content, and provide an increasingly rare opportunity for kids to be kids, and for kids to explore their own imagination. My children learned more, retained more, and used more from their art classes in Fort River over the seven years they spent in that school, than they did from social studies and science. We need to stop looking at music, art and PE as "extra". For the elementary student, they are integral.

Anonymous said...

Catherine Stryker, I'm sorry, but what are you on? I could use some.

Anonymous said...

Catherine Stryker, I don't know who you are but I think your words have a lot of merit. I think that art, music and pe are wonderful extras, but in dire economic times they are not vital. Math, Science, Reading, Writing and Social Studies those are vital and will prepare our children for the future.

There is a lot of talk in this town about supporting families of low income which is great. The greatest support they can have is an education which will prepare their children and all children for strong solid careers.

Catherine Stryker said...

Anonymous 11:31pm. Hey, call me anytime! I'd be glad to help you out.

Anonymous said...

I think Catherine Stryker's ideas are ridiculous at best. Take away art, music and pe and watch the numbers of children at all levels of education in Amherst drop like a stone. Those who can afford it will take their kids out and send them to private schools. Once the kids are older they will drop out of school altogether so watch our drop-out rates soar.

Who will suffer? The low and middle income families - those who cannot afford to send their children to private school.

Does anyone honestly think that LSSE can take the place of the specials offerings in our public schools? How will families pay for the offerings? How will the kids get there? Where will these specials be taught? When? Again, the losers will be the low and middle income families - they will not be able to afford the cost and, because the parents are most likely working full time, will not be able to get their child to the class, even if they could afford it.

I am a firm believer in looking for the silver lining in every cloud. And in this cloud of a suggestion the silver lining is that it is so ridiculous that I cannot imagine the SC giving it even a moment of discussion. If they do, and if they vote to do away with specials then my kids will go to school elsewhere.

an even more modest proposal said...

I think we should have LSSE conduct the town-wide music and art programs at the schools. Art, music, languages, lessons, all can be conducted at the schools after 3 pm. This way the kids whose parents can afford these extras won't have to be driven all around town needlessly adding carbon-dioxide to the atmosphere. And the kids whose parents can't afford them will be home and won't see their affluent classmates having all the fun and enrichment. Also, afterschool there will be plenty of parking spaces for the laid off teachers.

Catherine Stryker said...

The last time I looked, the entire town of Amherst is facing a massive budget deficit that will radically alter education as we have known it for K-12.

Larry Schaffer said in Tuesday's open meeting at the Middle School that he expects this to last for a long, long, long, long, long, long, long time.

This has not escaped the attention of ARPS: The State of Our Schools -
"The FCCC report notes that the budget gap for the next five years is of such magnitude that substantial cutbacks and restructuring will be required."

The last time I looked, the School Committee were turning on the spit trying to work out ways to ensure a decent public education for the majority. Catherine and others have repeatedly called for creative ideas and community engagement.

The Doomsday Scenario is Level 4 budget cuts of $2,098,452. Even the Super doesn't know what this might look like but you can be guaranteed that all After School programs and anything remotely frilly and fun will be gone. We are already at Level 3 folks.

Think about a townwide "LSSE on Steroids" style of program for just a minute instead of contracting like an oyster under lemon juice.

First, involve UMass Isenberg School of Management in figuring out the logistics. Involve all colleges with obligatory community service. (We'll set that against your property taxes .... ) Amherst is rich in youth, talent and people.

Schools focus on excellence in core curriculum. Teachers teach. Kids learn. It's tough. Increase breaks for light relief. Put whatever resources there are left towards SPED, paras, support for the struggling.

When school is out, kids choose how to spend the afternoon in fabulous great blocks of time doing what they love doing. Right now, my kid gets a miserly 40 minutes of Specials each day. How about 3:30 to 5:30 in a drama group? Or 3:30 to 5:30 every single afternoon in orchestra? Or 3:30 to 5:30 circulating through a variety program where you paint one day, dance the next, learn Italian, go birdwatching, all with kids from across the town who share your interest in _______ (fill in the blank).

The rub is this - community involvement. Ouch. Also a major discussion about what exactly is an "Amherst Education?" Ouch.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Catherine Stryker - I appreciate your willingness to think outside the box! Thank you! I do think, however, that there are real problems with just getting rid of the specials in the school day ... this is where a lot of kids are exposed to these subjects (and PE is a requirement by the state), and the issues involved in having LSSE provide such services to 1300 kids are immense (e.g., time, space, money, transportation to these classes, etc.), EVEN if we thought that was a good idea (and I don't think it is a good idea, nor do others who see the immense value in these classes). I also think the teachers who lose jobs aren't going to be able to pay bills on teaching some afterschool classes (without health insurance, etc.)! And we can't shorten the school day -- kids need a certain number of hours of school (state mandate).

Anxious Parent - the school day is part of the teacher contract -- as is the Weds. short day. This could be negotiated in the future, but adding time on Weds. would shorten other days.

Anonymous 5:14 - I remain really confused about your point. I get that there is massive inequity between classes in Amherst ... have I ever pretended there isn't? I think one of the best ways to ensure an equitable education is to have kids from different classes go to school TOGETHER. The research supports this view -- that when poor kids make up more than 40% of the school, their learning does in fact suffer. This is why I am pushing redistricting, which will move MANY kids (not just those in apartments, but also likely those in Amherst Woods, etc.). You suggest that people who live in apartments oppose closing MM? That seems like a HUGE stretch to me. If we don't close MM, the class divide gets GREATER ... the cuts will go to music (rich kids can afford private lessons) and intervention teachers (and poor kids are more likely to need intervention services) and class size (and rich kids can opt out for private school). Closing MM is a great way to continue to provide all of the things our schools currently do ... for ALL kids.

Anonymous 5:30 - I hear great things about all of our current elementary school principals. If you hear otherwise, email me privately (casanderson@amherst.edu) - I really don't think it is appropriate to anonymously criticize a school district employee on a blog.

Anonymous 7:50 and Anonymous 11:31 - Catherine Stryker used her name ... if you are going to be rude in your criticism, use your own name. I share your concern that the arts/music/PE classes are vital, but I think it is unfair to hide behind the anonymous label to criticize someone who hasn't chosen to do so herself.

Anonymous 8:17 - I agree fully.

Anonymous 9:37 - I agree with your points ... and I am not going to take this suggestion to the SC. But again, try to watch the tone towards someone who was, I believe, trying to make a serious suggestion, and did so using her name (when you have not).

An even more modest proposal - I am going to assume you are joking ... yes?

Catherine Stryker - thank you for thinking outside of the box! I do agree we should ponder what options might exist ... but the cost savings of this approach are, in the scheme of things, relatively minimal, and I think would have some serious consequences. Personally, I'd support larger class sizes before I'd turn to the elimination of such programs ... but you are right that if the budget continues to be seriously problematic, we are going to have to think more creatively about how we manage an Amherst education.

Anonymous said...

Point taken, Catherine. I apologize to Catherine Stryker, you and all the blog's readers for the tone.

Anon 9:37.

Anonymous said...

I have read Ms. Brewer's comments since my last ones.

What I continue to see in her is a person who wants to regulate the debate, to control not just what is said, but how it's said. She will bring the heat to the debate. The rest of us may not.

So the beef seems to be that Catherine didn't demonstrate enough remorse in her conclusion that closing MM would generate some of the savings necessary to salvage certain educational programs. And (I guess?)Catherine was not thorough enough in outlining all the other interlocking parts of the school budget that could get traded off to reach similar savings as a MM closing(?). In other words, the budget is more like a Rubik's Cube than an A versus B exercise?

To her credit, Ms. Brewer has warned us for years about difficult budget decisions coming down the pike. She brought that kind of cool logic to her position last fall against the CPA surcharge increase. Well, here we are again, and Ms. Sanderson has been talking about a different tough choice, and not in the abstract, and it's apparently not abstract at all in the Brewer household.

I think that there's more going on here than just a theoretical argument about budget choices and the public discourse about them.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I do think closing Marks Meadow is a difficult choice but I wonder where our elementary schools would be today if that decision had been made years ago. $700k is a lot of money. In 2 years, it would have saved $1.4 million, almost $ 3million in 4 years and so on. What past cuts would not have been made and what cuts would we be talking about now?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Anonymous 9:37/11:48 - thanks for the apology! A few people have suggested I eliminate the "anonymous" posting option to avoid some of the negative tone, but I do feel people may have concerns/suggestions/thoughts they just feel more comfortable sharing anonymously ... so I am just trying to make sure the tone stays constructive if possible!

Rich - a thoughtful post, as always. In terms of remorse -- I continue to be confused about how sending kids to Wildwood or Fort River (the schools all MM would be re-districted to attend) is a fate worse than death. Those are great schools ... my kids attend one of them, and I know people who are very happy with the other. So, part of my lack of remorse is a genuine confusion about how/why it is SUCH a big deal to attend another excellent school (it often sounds as if we are going to save the money by refusing to educate MM kids). I also know that I'm very, very attached to the school where my kids go, and it is about a 50/50 whether they have to move schools. And I'm honestly OK with that. I'd rather (all things being equal) that they didn't have to move, but if you gave me any choice (e.g., cut instrumental music instead? have larger classes instead? cut art/music/PE instead?), it would be a no brainer for me to PUSH to move then and retain those other things. And although there are many other things we COULD do to save MM, I see virtually all of those other things as cutting into the core mission of our schools in a way that I just don't see closing a school as doing. This discussion isn't abstract for me at all -- I have three kids who will be in the elementary schools next year, and given that I recognize how the schools will change IF we keep MM open, it is hard for me to see another solution. I suppose that is where Alisa and I disagree -- although I'd be very interested in hearing her thoughts about how to save $700,000 another way.

Anonymous said...

"And although there are many other things we COULD do to save MM I see virtually all of those other things as cutting into the core mission of our schools..."

I appreciate the honesty in this statement. I only wish you had the heart to do some of those 'many other things' to save MM. I strongly believe that no one, especially children, should suffer any backlash, any backlash of any sort, because a group of adults, whoever they are, couldn't keep the money straight to continue operating an elementary school.

Where can one find this 'research' that proves your point about poor kids learning better when they mingle with rich kids? And why do you state that 'intervention' teachers are more needed for poor kids? I find this a curious statement and I wonder, if true, how this happens?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Anonymous 2:42 - in fairness, our enrollments have been declining, so I don't think that closing MM would have been a feasible choice 5 years ago ... it is only relatively recently that we've been at such low enrollments, which are now projected to continue. But you do raise an important point about why closing it THIS YEAR probably would have been better than delaying a year, in terms of cost savings (although the change in leadership THREE times over the last year made that pretty difficult to accomplish).

Anonymous 8:13 - two points. First, the reality is that we have a massive budget crisis, so in a sense, kids are going to suffer. The job of the school administration and SC is to try to figure out how to best to manage these cuts to minimize suffering. I'm totally willing to keep MM open -- 100%. But to do that, the community has to come together and say that they support keeping MM open, and instead eliminating instrumental music, reducing art/music/PE, reducing intervention support for kids who suffer on the MCAS, and having larger class sizes. We can do all of those things, and those things will impact 100% of the kids in Amherst (and devastate the instrumental music program in the MS and HS). Is that your choice to avoid having MM kids move schools? If so, please send an email to the SC and superintendent, and encourage all of your friends to do so as well. That would be very helpful to know, if that is indeed the community's preference.

Second, lots of research suggests that poor kids experience major advantages from being in a school that is not predominantly poor. The Century Foundation produced a good report on this (www.tcf.org). Dr. Richard Kahlenberg is probably best known for publicizing this work -- which led to major changes in how districts were organized (Wake Forest, NC, now has a rule that no school will have more than 40% of kids on free/reduced lunch as a result). This work includes data showning that for every 1% increase in middle-class students, low income students improved .64% in reading and .72% in math. There are many reasons for the benefits, but most work points to the role of peers (having peers who value achievement and encourage it is helpful), parents (middle class parents are much more likely to be actively involved in the school), and faculty (expectations are higher in predominantly middle class schools, meaning the curriculum is better). One more thing -- if you look at our MCAS scores, kids on free/reduced lunch are MUCH more likely to be in warning/needs improvement categories than other kids -- meaning these are the kids who need intervention support.

Anonymous said...

I have a complaint about the numbers that the superintendent's office and the School Committee is using to support Catherine’s motion. They do not include the value of buildings and the value of particular classrooms. If you asked me whether I would consider a classroom in Wildwood to be the same as a classroom in Mark's Meadow, then I would say NO - MM classrooms are bathed in light and have doors to them, with a bathroom for each of the lower levels. In WW half the classrooms have borrowed light from interior courtyards and a good number of them have to walk through another classroom in order to get to the bathroom.

If the closing of MM is strictly for financial reasons, then why aren't we seeing financial accounting of all of the decisions required? Why don't we have an analysis of the value of all of our elementary buildings and what it will actually cost us to return MM to University ownership? MM has a replacement value of $12 Million. We currently have the use of a school; once we return it, there is no going back. And we don’t have any options for a town property where we might build a new school if the student population increases in the next few decades.

In addition to quoting the NESDEC report on population (which is in all of the FAQ statements from the superintendent's office), the Superintendent’s office and SC members should also quote the report on building conditions. For example, WW and FR were originally build in the 1970’s with the same design that is remarkable for utilizing an open classroom design, referred to as “quads.” The “quads” were later divided into four separate classrooms using partitions that extend from the floor to one foot below the ceiling. These partitions create poor ventilation and classroom disruption due to noise levels and traffic patterns. The existing buildings pose health issues that current staff works hard to manage, including mold growth, lack of hot water in parts of the building, and unit ventilators located at ground level that increase the intake of mold, pollen, dirt, leaves, insects and vehicle fumes from the outdoors. The floor plan of the schools is such that visitors pass through unsupervised hallways and classrooms before reaching the main office to sign in. This poses a security issue that should be addressed.

If we are to make a sound financial decision, then we should ask Catherine to amend her motion in such a way that we define what the financial savings are and give the incoming Superintendent the charge of presenting alternatives for achieving those savings. This whole discussion of closing MM is driven by numbers that suggest that we are currently not utilizing all of our elementary buildings and classroom space efficiently. But space in one building is not equivalent to space in another. So what are the alternatives? The quads were never meant to function as 3 classrooms with one small discussion area. They were meant to be open spaces. What is the most effective use of the classroom SPACES we have? The answers the Superintendent’s office gives to these questions are anecdotal – there are no numbers backing up the assumptions. There is no analysis, only “trust us”, we can renovate in the future, and there is no current risk.

When I read quotes from the Statements of Interest that are submitted to the Massachusetts Schools Building Authority at the community meeting last week, there was a scuffle at the podium and an attempt to silence me. All I did was point out information that is publicly available. If we are going to hire a professional to help us with re-districting, then why are we not hiring a professional to analyze how to get higher space utilization and reduce our current classroom count from 69 to 64? What are the facility implications of the closure of a school, and which school is better to close so that we can make a good decision for the next 50 years, not just for the next 2 years?

The Mark’s Meadow community is 50 years old. It is not a tangible town asset because the University owns it. Yet it was built by the MA taxpayers, who own the University, as a model elementary school and has been occupied by the town of Amherst ever since (and the University pays for utilieis). Maybe it should be closed in order for us to be fiscally responsible, but we should have the appropriate accounting for its full value – and that is what is consistently missing from any of the “rational” discussion that has gone on to date. I believe that is because the district doesn’t know exactly what are the ramifications. There is no deferred maintenance plan and there is no facilities plan (and we could use one if we are to be successful in getting funds from the state for school renovation). If we are to take fiscally responsible action, then we should ask the school system to show us what it accomplishes not just for the next 2 years, but for the next 10 or even 50 years, and how they plan to meet the many capital challenges in addition to achieving operational savings. The alternative is deteriorating schools, packed at their maximum, with known health issues, and the majority of young children taught in space that is configured differently from its original purpose.

The Finance Committee (which is concerned with both capital and operational costs) required the town to do the following, as directly quoted from their report Amherst FCCC 2008 Objectives (p.6):

5. The year-to-year increase of actual revenue from the property tax levy shall
generally not exceed 2.5% pursuant to the limitations of Proposition 2 1/2. STATE
LAW.
a. Excluding the value gained through new construction (new growth);
b. Excluding expenditure increases funded outside the tax limit cap.
The Town’s costs to educate children and to deliver Town services are
likely to increase at an annual rate that exceeds core inflation rates. Each
year these escalating costs are likely to exceed the Town’s ability to raise
tax revenue within the limits of Proposition 21/2. The Town also needs to
undertake major capital projects, such as the replacement or renovation
of three elementary schools, replacement or renovation of one or more fire
stations, and construction of a new DPW facility.

I urge you all to think beyond the immediate crisis and to consider what is coming next. Wouldn’t it make some sense to look at the options and how they might help us in the long run? Re-districting has now become a given so that issues of equity can be addressed. But how to solve the building issues? What if we put 6th graders in the Middle school, achieve maximum classroom utilization and close either WW or FR? Could this be used as a lever to get state funding for fully renovating the closed school and reconfiguring it in such a way that we can improve the classroom configuration? Then we will actually have a chance at doing something for the schools on a long-term basis. There are many other “what-ifs” that could solve the short term AND the long-term problem. Closing MM will only solve a short-term problem and will definitely exacerbate a long-term problem. We should demand that the school committee vote on a motion that is amended. One possible way to phrase it is:

The SC charges the Superintendent’s office to study and present alternatives, within the next 3 – 6 months, that achieve $680K in operational savings through a greater space utilization of currently available classrooms and redistricting in such a way as to support the district’s long-term goals for meeting the educational, equity, health and safety needs of our children.

Then we will have a fiscally responsible response to the current crisis.

Ludmilla Pavlova-Gillham

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response to Ludmilla - thank you for your detailed posting. I am not going to respond to each and every point you raise, but I just want to hit a few key points that make me feel comfortable in sticking with original motion.

1. I believe that different people value different classrooms in different ways ... but the reality is, most of the kids in our distridt (60%) attend WW or FR, with the quad structure. Those are considered GOOD schools! And in both of those schools, only 3 of the 4 classrooms in a quad are in use as classrooms -- and that includes the two with natural light (making more classrooms with natural light in either of those buildings than in MM).

2. I agree that we need more financial information, which I'm pushing for. One of the key pieces of financial information is how much U Mass would pay us annually if we weren't using MM. That could be a HUGE addition to our budget -- and that hasn't been included in any of the analyses. But returning MM to U Mass doesn't cost the district anything ... whereas operating it annually does (about $700,000, to be precise).

3. I agree that there is no going back once we return it -- but I also don't think we'd ever build such a school. We also do have options -- we have renovations that can be done at both FR and WW. We have lots of space at FR to build an annex. We have two other buildings now used for the alternative high school -- one of those was used as a Fort River annex within the last few years, and could be used again, if needed during renovations. We have two new portable classrooms that could be moved to WW or FR to have extra space if needed during a renovation. We could move the 6th grade to the MS, which means moving 200 kids (more than the total projected population of MM at any time in the future).

3. As was noted at the meeting, the reports on conditions were written to provide a compelling case for the renovation of those buildings. Many students and teachers work in those buildings every day, and experience no problems.

4. Figuring out how to get our current classroom count from 69 to 64 is pretty straight-forward ... it does not require an outside consultant ... you have to better allocate kids at a given grade. The reality is you can do that by keeping MM open ... but then you pay more administrative costs, so the cost savings are reduced (by about half). As is clearly noted by the superintendent, you can't close another school and fit the kids, so there is no decision about "which school" -- there is only one option.

5. A lot of people have spent a lot of time looking at options ... these are people with a good sense of our district, our projections, our students, and so on. They've been working on this for close to 6 months now -- as have many MM families (and staff, and the principal). IF anyone comes up with a great option next year sometime, the SC could easily reverse the vote (if a vote were to pass to close MM) -- but I think it is very, very unlikely that such a great option has been overlooked, and we are at the point at which some planning needs to take place (meaning to close the school OR make other cuts because the school will stay open). I think it is very clear that closing MM helps us in the short- and long-run.

6. If you move the 6th grade to the MS, you save 8 or 9 classrooms. You STILL can't close WW or FR and fit the kids in the other schools (each of those schools takes 400+ kids -- moving 200 to the MS leaves 200 kids to be spread over the other buildings, which is impossible.

7. We've spent nearly 6 months studying this ... and I've personally attended 9 meetings at which I've heard all the reasons we should keep MM open (not to mention the emails, calls, letters/columns in the paper). I don't feel like I need any more information to make this decision -- we've studied alternatives (pairing the schools, creating a 5-6 school), and we already know how we can achieve $680K in operational savings through a greater space utilization of currently available classrooms and redistricting (cut instrumental music, cut specials, have larger classes, have fewer intervention teachers -- because having four schools REQUIRES more administrative costs and a worse use of resources).

I know some MM families are unhappy with the idea of closing their school ... but I also know families at all of the schools who LOVE their school, and I truly believe that the MM kids will be very happy and successful at one of the other schools, as will the kids who are currently in one of the other schools and must move schools. We are trying to provide an Amherst education for all kids ... to me, we can do that best by closing MM and redistricting. However, I'm just one vote on the committee -- if others feel differently, my motion will fail, and we can then decide as a community which other things we are going to cut to maintain four elementary schools.

Anonymous said...

'You have identified Marks Meadow as the logical school to close in the detailed proposal. Can the district be more specific about why it would consider closing a school which is provided for free by the University of Massachusetts?

"It’s true that Mark’s Meadow is "free" in terms of utilities, but it is not free in terms of what it costs the district to operate this building (teachers, staff, materials, buses, etc.). The reality is that all of our elementary students can fit in the other three buildings at a cost that is roughly $700,000 a year less than keeping this building open. We also believe strongly that if we were to move to three elementary schools, we would either be able to use this building for free for another purpose (the alternative high school programs) or receive an annual payment from UMass for educating children of their graduate students. Thus, either of these options would more effectively allocate our limited resources than continuing to use MM as an elementary school. In addition, the timing of possibly closing Mark’s Meadow may work within the timing of regionalization efforts."

Can CS document the prospects of receiving cash
from UMass in lieu of the use of Marks Meadow? If
this imagined payment-in-lieu-of-MM figures into
CS's accounting, then she is deceiving herself as well as the public; it's fantasy, plan and simple: the UMass budget situation is even more dire than
that in the Amherst elementary schools.

There is a two-step process to get beyond this fantasy close the "budget gap" at the elementary schools, a gap that even CS acknowledges is much larger than any (putative) savings from closing MM:

1) Put an elementary-school-funding-only override on the ballot for special referendum, and
get every school committee member (and every select board member) to public campaign for that;

and if that fails:

2) Invoke the principle of fiscal emergency and
ask (demand) that all cost-of-living and "step" increases be reviewed and reduced for the next two fiscal years.

The region's largest employer - UMass - is not giving cost-of-living increases to it's employees
this year or next, so it wouldn't be surprising if
we get to step 2 pretty quickly. But implementing
step 2 would be much less destructive of the educational community for our kids in Amherst than closing a school or laying off teachers and paras (and the latter will have to be done even if MM is closed).

CS claims courage in proposing to close MM - the
really courageous proposal is the one just made
above. Will at least 3 school committee members show this kind of courage before May 19?

Anonymous said...

Not enough people are going to vote for an override even if they wanted to! People can barely afford to stay in Amherst without one! The assessor keeps over valuing our homes, our taxes our outrageous, and most of us haven't gotten a raise. The cost it would take to hold a special election and the valuable time of our committee members it would waste trying to get it to pass is not worth it. We need to find another solution.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 1:01 - I haven't made any calculations (nor has the superintendent) assuming U Mass pays anything if we leave MM. However, there are already on-going conversations with both the superintendent and town manager about either using MM for another purpose (such as the alternative high schools) or receiving such payment. I believe that one of those two scenarios is very likely -- but my vote would be the same even if neither of those occurs -- it costs us $700,000 a year to operate MM, which we don't need. Any extra money/space utilization would be GREAT, but I didn't make my motion based on that assumption, and I'm not counting on either.

I am going to assume by your comment that you are likely an elementary school parent -- and likely a MM parent. The reality is the regional budget is in FAR worse shape than the elementary school budget. There is no way anyone would consider doing an override to keep open an elementary school we don't need -- it would be literally a ridiculous campaign that would have no chance of passing. The regional budget for the MS/HS is in worse shape, but I don't think there is any movement for an override on this front either. But if you'd like to organize either effort, go for it -- you can see my efforts in 2007 by googling "Catherine Sanderson The Amherst Plan" -- and this failed. But individual citizens can certainly take on organizing an override, so if this is how you think we should go to resolve the structural deficit, go for it! I could not, however, in good conscience agree to support such an effort. I know too many people who are really struggling financially in this town, and I think it would be irresponsible of the SC to support such an effort when we have a very good solution to reducing the structural deficit already (closing MM). The teachers will give up (or reduce) raises if that is their preference -- they understand the
choices, and I think they are in the best position to make them.

Anonymous 6:41 - I agree completely. This is NOT a viable solution.

Catherine Stryker said...

Dear Anon 9:37,

I'll forgive you if you and Al-Anon 11:31 each buy me a Pear Martini at Judie's this Friday.

Anonymous said...

Catherine,

I am going to put out a challenge to anyone of the parents on this blog who have children in WW and FR. Go into the quads and take a look at the first of the large classrooms on the interior. Take a look at the windows to the courtyards. Do they have large unit ventilators? (These serve to bring in conditioned air throughout the year, usually by heating outside air during the winter, but also as cool air in spring and fall.) What about the classrooms with exterior windows? Do they have large unit ventilators? Imagine air circulating from the outside to the inside and see if you believe there is a lot of air circulation at the teaching walls of the interior classrooms, which focus inward. Let me know how the air feels there. Can you open a window to the interior courtyard? What about in winter? You don’t have to be an expert to see that the dividers seriously limit circulation flow. Then consider how that is impacted by the presence of mold, which is partly mitigated in the summer by heating the building (yes, heating it) so that there is no differential between the outside and inside temperatures in the wall and the mold is not encouraged to grow. Which does a lot for our utilities expenditures that are, in fact, part of our operational budget.

I know that you, Catherine and many others have been going over the current fiscal problems for over 6 months and are naturally committed to a solution that you feel resolves them in a good way. However, you bring no new information to our dialogue, and choose to rest on the belief that solving the operational deficit for the next two years is enough. And my questions are not easy to answer, because facilities professionals have not been part of the team that analyzed your solution. Ron Bohonowicz is a good facilities operator, but he is not a planner or an architect or an engineer. And he is constantly struggling to get the town to fund needed maintenance and improvements (another hit on the operating budget).

You are satisfied with the districts answers with respect to our facility condition, yet I am not. The only facilities review that has been offered by professionals is that included in the NESDEC report, which you quote for population projections, yet choose to ignore for its facility advice. NESDEC did not quantify the cost of deferred maintenance – they simply provided a list of all of the outstanding issues. And even though parents asked for the full copy of the report to be available, the district has yet to post it. But the Joint Capital Board and the Finance Committee all agreed that addressing the facility problem is necessary to do together with the structural problem. This is what your solution still ignores completely.

What is the amount of deferred maintenance? How long can our facility problems be kept at bay without seriously impacting the occupants? Should our children serve as guinea pigs for the guess of “long enough”? Why don’t we have a plan? The MA School Building Authority specifically asks if schools have one that is done by a reputable planning firm in its SOI form. Having a facilities plan will make our request to them for capital funds to do improvements even more likely to succeed – it would give an indication of how serious we are about addressing our need.

In your point 6 you write: if you move the 6th grade to the MS, you save 8 or 9 classrooms. You STILL can't close WW or FR and fit the kids in the other schools (each of those schools takes 400+ kids -- moving 200 to the MS leaves 200 kids to be spread over the other buildings, which is impossible. 

Catherine, are you sure? Has there been a thorough space analysis of what is/was classroom space and has been converted to other uses? Has anyone done SPACE needs assessment (from the point of view of function) and how maximizing the current space, including the portables at MM, can be achieved, together with a move to the MS? I know MM is partly underutilized. What about CF? Are you REALLY sure that you understand the SPACE issue, or have you just relied on the district’s class and student numbers? If that was the case there would be reports to quantify the problem and there aren’t. The only reports look at students in existing classrooms as configured. That is it.

And I’m not advocating at all for building another MM – that is a 50-year-old building. I’m advocating for planning for the future – asking the town and the district to think seriously about the facility condition of our schools and to make strategic, actionable plans for meeting those needs in the near future, before they become acute. Planning firms that have looked at our properties, including those of the existing schools, do not agree with your belief that we can easily build large additions. Perhaps that would work if we could take some of the existing buildings off line for a year or so and do a complete reconfiguring of the existing plans. And THAT is what I am advocating that we do – now that we have come to the brink of this fiscal crisis and are willing to look at hard realities, let’s look at the FULL picture, not only half of it. Let’s study the problem in its entirety so that we know what we are walking into. When you do that, the kind of things that you are talking about – the two other alternative high school buildings, site potential, etc. – will be based on real assessment, not on the kind of “possibilities” that exist in the minds of people who have never done a facilities assessment or tried to meet the requirements of the new building codes.

For the sake of fairness, I would like to see the district acknowledge the VALUE MM has brought to the town for the past 50 years as well as the opportunity it could give us to build better schools for the future. If the analysis is done, then I will feel that my comments have not been dismissed just because I am among the minority of those thought of as “MM supporters”. Yes, we are a minority - MM is the smallest of the schools - but that should not make us irrelevant to the discussion of our children’s future.

Ludmilla Pavlova-Gillham

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Ludmilla: We have been a Fort River family for nine years, during which my children have been in both internal (courtyard facing) and external classrooms. I will definitely agree with you that the original quad structure of that building has resulted in less-than-ideal conditions with respect to air flow, heating, and light. I also think the classrooms are louder than classrooms with complete walls.

That said, I have also seen our teachers do their best to maximize the best space available for their classrooms (i.e. putting student desks near the windows and their "library area" toward the center of the quads) which has helped mitigate the situation. I think the teachers and our facility personnel are doing their best with the structure of the schools we have. In an ideal world, there would be enough money to fully renovate both Fort River and Wildwood--I would love my kids (and all kids) to sit in classrooms that all open to the outside with full walls.

The reality, however, is that Amherst does not have enough money to undertake these renovations right now. It is not so much an issue of space as it is of money. The renovations at Crocker Farm have already shown us that the town is capable of managing renovations in a way that is minimally disruptive to the school year. I hope we reach a point before too long where we have enough money to renovate both quad-based schools and bring them in line with current educational approaches.

I am not sure, however, how the quad structure at FR and WW relates to the proposed closing of Marks Meadow. Are you suggesting that we leave Marks Meadow open to serve as "swing space" while we renovate FR and WW in turn? Are you suggesting that we close FR or WW instead of MM in conjunction with moving the 6th grade to ARMS? Or am I missing your point entirely?

I don't think anyone doubts the value of Marks Meadow, both historically and currently. But at the same time, Amherst has a serious budget problem combined with shrinking enrollment and closing Marks Meadow is the most fiscally and educationally responsible solution for Amherst right now.

Anonymous said...

Alison,

Thank you so much for answering my post. Yes, you are exactly right that I am advocating for keeping Mark's Meadow as swing space for renovating WW and FR. I wrote an editorial in the Amherst Bulleting over a month ago stating exactly that. And the reason I think it is necessary is precisely because the design structure and organization of FR and WW are very different from the design of CF and MM.

WW and FR will not lend themselves as easily to renovation or expansion as CF has. And building codes have changed at least twice in the time since CF was designed and built, particularly in energy and structural requirements. A full building renovation that reconfigures the classrooms so that they offer modern environmental control will be must more extensive. The CF classrooms did not change, other than to have system upgrades and a new addition. MM will not change significantly after the asbestos is abated by UMass this summer (working starting as soon as the academic year is over). But WW and FR will need significant re-design if they are to continue functioning with the class sizes currently in place. Unless the district goes back to wanting large open floor plan classrooms for elementary education, a renovated school will need to provide full height walls and new ventilation and HVAC in each of the classrooms. That requires major redesign.

This is the piece that is missing from all of the plans. How does the lack of swing space in 5 years affect our ability to renovate WW and FR? Where do the students go if construction goes beyond the summer? My experience (alas, over 20 years of it) tells me that it is unrealistic to expect construction to be complete in 2 summers.

I know we need to reduce our operating expenses. I am not saying we shouldn't do that. I am, however, saying that if we do that by closing the only swing space (at no cost) we currently have, then we will be seriously limiting our options in 5 years. And that is not so long from now! My son will be on his way to the MS by now, so why do I worry? Because I see the "can't think beyond cutting my budget today" attitude all over UMass, where the state cut and cut and cut so that we are conducting national-level research in buildings that were built as poultry farms. And we can't afford to demolish them because we have no swing space.

But UMass did a facilities audit in 1998, which totaled the DM at the time to over $400M. That number stuck in people's heads, and in the 10 years I have been here, we have been able to advocate for and build many new buildings - you can see the construction crews all over the campus, and we are planning more, because the need is real and documented. You do not see what you cannot measure. Until the town understands what the DM is for the schools, it will not move an inch to find capital funds to re-build them. It is remarkable that the most important financial documents - the FCCC report and the Joint Capital Plan both acknowledge the need to address the condition of the school buildings. I am absolutely dumbfounded that the school committee and the superintendent's office are willing to sacrifice the only leverage they have in terms of swing space now, when it is most likely to be useful to address the system-wide problems.

Thank you again for understanding me, even if you may not entirely agree with me.

Ludmilla

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Ludmilla and Allison: So, let's say that we agree that closing MM means we don't have as much flexibility if the renovations (again, at least five years away) take longer than anticipated. I am totally willing to grant that one can't know about renovations and timing. Nonetheless, here we are, with a budget crisis and shrinking enrollment. So, we have two options:

1. We keep MM open, just as we are now, and make the other painful cuts (and these would include larger class sizes, reduced specials and intervention teachers, etc.). OK -- now, what happens IF the renovations take two summers, no problem at all, and meanwhile, we've cut and cut in our elementary schools, and we've really impaired the quality of education (which we can't give back to kids five years later)? I don't like this scenario, because it is really spending a lot of money we do NOT need to spend UNLESS something goes wrong with the renovations (again, which may be 5 years away OR longer).

2. We close MM and we hope (and I'd be hoping as much as anyone) that the renovations can indeed occur during the time period projected. However, let's say we couldn't use Fort River for a year in five years -- how could we manage the 23 classrooms? First, we could move 6th grade to the MS (saving 8 to 10 classrooms across the district). Second, we could use the two portables now sitting outside MM. Third, we could move the alternative high school BACK to the high school (or a wing of the HS) for a year ... that gets us, I think, another four classrooms. We could also, FOR THAT YEAR, use all the available classrooms in WW (another 5 or so if we moved it up to 28 classrooms). That would basically let us handle ALL the kids for a whole year -- it would be tight, and less than ideal, but is it feasible? It is ... and remember, we'd save $700,000 a year in the meantime.

3. IF we are going to keep MM open, it would therefore have to be at a really reduced cost. Here's one option that I've now thrown out to several MM parents -- and it is a TOTALLY serious offer because it actually saves about the same amount as closing MM: MM stays open, with one class per grade, and that class is set first come/first served to kids throughout Amherst (we still redistrict to three districts) until the maximum district class size at that level is reached. There is NO bus service to MM, and there is no art, music, PE, or librarian. If we did this, we'd keep MM and the "swing space," but we'd still save the costs (however, we would, naturally, lose any possibility of getting some money from U Mass for the kids who are now educated in U Mass housing, which is a potential gain of just closing it). But this is a serious offer -- would you prefer this option to closing MM? It is the ONLY way I've been able to come up with that saves the money I think we need to save -- and let's us keep MM open. But it has NOT been popular with families who I've proposed it to, and frankly, if we couldn't get 140ish kids to opt IN to this model, it doesn't work financially!

Anonymous said...

Catherine,

You miss the point completely when you start to lay out scenarios based on lack of information on the timing of the needed renovations.

The School Committee should not be solving the problem for the new superintendent, unless there is a specific political reason for doing so, in which case it should be stated openly land transparently.

The School Coommittee should be framing the problem precisely and requiring the new superintendent to develop a full analysis of the available options as they relate to saving operational costs, planning for capital expenditures to address deferred maintenance and accounding for higher utilization of existing space. That is the superintendent's job, and that is why we ought to be paying him top dollar to do professionally.

In the presence of a power vacuum, with only an acting superintendent, who does not have the full spectrum of skills necessary for leadership, the SC has chosen to try to do the superintendent's job. And I am saying that this is the wrong approach, because it leads to short-term solutions that will cause significant long term problems.

Please put your policy thinker's hat on and give the superintendent the charge he needs to do his job. He needs to make serious cuts. He needs to present alternative for making those cuts. And these alternatives have to accound for the full picture - students and physical space. Health and safety should not be pitted against music, library and physical education. There should be a measured approach that looks at all of the parameters and establishes a transparent basis for setting priorities. Then the SC can vote on a preferred option that solves the most number of problems - both short and long term - while laying the foundation for future advocacy for higher standards of education.

Good planning is not a band-aid. It is insurance against desease and future financial disaster.

Ludmilla