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.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why I'm Going to Vote "YES" on the Motion to Close Marks Meadow

The vote about whether to close Marks Meadow at the end of the 2009-2010 school year is scheduled for tomorrow night (Tuesday, May 19th), and given that this is my motion (made at the March 17th meeting), I feel I owe it to the community to explain why I plan BARRING ANY UPDATED INFORMATION THAT I RECEIVE IN THE NEXT 24 HOURS to vote to close Marks Meadow. I've already expressed how I came to this conclusion many times in this blog -- so I'm not going to repeat all the reasons why I think it is a tough option for some in our community (and clearly closing a school and redistricting kids throughout Amherst is emotional for virtually all parents/kids/teachers/staff -- change is just hard, and few of us relish the thought). But because there were four columns in last week's Bulletin (most written by parents in the MM district, although not all were identified as such) describing reasons NOT to close MM, I'm going to respond to the points addressed in each of these pieces to share my thinking about how/why the issues raised in these Op Eds just didn't change my mind. But I'm still listening ... and I truly welcome any ideas that people want to send to me today or tomorrow in terms of how else we could save $700,000 a year. So, seriously, if you want to save MM, send me your ideas of how we can achieve this cost savings in a way that preserves the Amherst education to the best of our ability for all kids.

Unsustainable Amherst

Sustainability cannot be measured simply in fiscal terms. While budgets must balance, the long-term strength of our institutions depends on our ability to preserve key resources through the toughest times. The proposal to close Mark's Meadow School fails this test and should be voted down or postponed when the School Committee meets on May 19.

Since Mark's Meadow wouldn't close until FY2011, nothing decided on May 19 will affect the budget currently under consideration. There is time, and a need, to carefully consider the long-term implications of the proposal in a way that has not yet happened.

The projected savings are small, about $600,000, less than 3 percent of the budget. Although significant, they won't prevent painful cuts. Much of the anticipated savings can be found without giving up a school: sharing assistant principals, guidance counselors, librarians and various "specials" teachers between schools would allow similar staff reductions yet would be easier to reverse. The greater efficiencies in distributing students among classrooms could also be achieved with four schools if the sixth grade were moved to the middle school as the School Committee is currently considering.

The full cost of closing Mark's Meadow has not been adequately explored. Most striking is the lost opportunity to collaborate with UMass. One frequent comment during the comprehensive planning process was that we need to address town needs by drawing on the university and colleges. Rather than demanding funds from a cash-strapped university, we could be asking how we could recover the mutual benefits once provided by our laboratory school.

No one knows whether the district will be able to keep the building for another use, nor is there any long-term plan for when shifting demographics or aging infrastructure again require an additional school. Meanwhile, as we seek ways to make Amherst walkable, the plan makes families more dependent on cars.

Closing Mark's Meadow has been tied to the need to redistrict for a more equitable mix of income levels in the schools. Unfortunately, the rush to close the school risks poorly planned redistricting. My concern, hinted at in initial redistricting maps, is that families living in apartment complexes will be disproportionally targeted for switching districts because they provide an easily identified and bused population. The children intended to benefit may become those most negatively impacted.

Why are we considering closing Mark's Meadow? Part of the answer lies in the School Committee's belief that it is OK for the Superintendent's salary to jump 17 percent in this year of crisis, and almost 50 percent since 2003, while growth in regular education spending (classroom teachers) rises less than 1 percent annually. The net gain in the superintendent's salary in just seven years would pay for the middle school librarian or a classroom teacher.

This is not about Dr. Rodriguez nor is the issue limited to the schools. The problem is the unsustainable idea that we should pay more than we can afford for outside experts even when that requires running down the very services they are paid to direct. The argument that we have to accept the "realities of the labor market" is based on the failed notion that only an elite management class has the brains and skills to handle our complex institutions. The result is a widening gap in pay levels and a two-tiered system where budget "realities" justify cuts to teachers, aides, librarians and lunch ladies but are ignored when hiring administrators.

What's the sustainable alternative? Michael Greenebaum suggests filling future openings with career-starters to reduce costs while promoting innovation. I'd encourage hiring from within the system and nurturing talent committed to our community. Besides costing more, people attracted by big salaries are easily lured away. We need a less hierarchical management model where no one individual carries such a large burden or high price tag. Such changes would not only save money short term but contribute to a more collaborative, community connected, and truly sustainable approach to education in Amherst.
Jim Oldham is a precinct 5 Town Meeting member and a parent of students at Wildwood and ARHS.

Catherine's comments: First, although the school wouldn't close for a year, a tremendous amount would need to occur to carry this closing out with minimal impact to kids. New district lines would have to be drawn (and this would need of course to be done very carefully -- and for the record, all of the plans move MANY kids -- not just those in apartments by any means). Staff/teachers would have to be moved. Kids/families would have to have time to visit and get to know their new schools. This all takes time, and I think a vote on May 19th would give the administration time to accomplish all of what needs to occur much better than a vote sometime next year (in which surely, according to Mr. Oldham, redistricting plans would be that much more rushed). There is also a proposal right now from the Finance Committee suggesting that the use of reserves will be considered ONLY if there is consensus for a specific plan (not just the discussion and studying of a plan) to achieve greater cost efficiencies (so voting to close a school on May 19th could indeed help this year's budget as well). Second, although Mr. Oldham suggests $600,000 is a "very small amount" (and smaller than the $671,000 that is actually projected), this is a HUGE amount to cut in a budget of about $20 million. And although he is correct that we could cut the same amount in other ways (sharing guidance counselors, specials, librarians, assistant principals), you can't achieve these cost savings without impacting services (so, one librarian would serve twice as many kids, as would one art teacher, one guidance counselor, etc.). And the savings can NOT be achieved (even if you get rid of all assistant principals) unless you also impact class size. That is the reality. Third, I'm in favor of moving 6th grade to the MS ... but if/when we do that, we also have to pay to educate those kids, which would mean covering part of the MS staff salary (e.g., principals, art, music, librarian, guidance, custodians, etc.). That achieves cost savings by reducing the number of classes needed, but also has more administrative costs, so this actually leads to higher costs overall for our elementary school budget. Plus, if we move the 6th grade, thereby reducing the elementary school enrollment to 1100 kids (needing about 54 classrooms), why in the world would we need four schools -- there would be literally over 15 classrooms sitting empty! Fourth, having a year to plan the transition would indeed give us a chance to explore how U Mass wants to be involved -- whether they would let us use the space for our two alternative high schools (the interim superintendent's preference) or whether they would pay us an annual sum to educate the kids in U Mass housing who attend our schools. Either seems like a great win to me compared to keeping open a school we don't need! Fifth, everyone knows I didn't vote for the new superintendent's salary ... but let's say we were paying the new superintendent EXACTLY what we paid Dr. Hochman ... that would have saved us a total of $30,000 ... split between Amherst and Regional (a sum much, much less than what is saved by closing MM), so it seems silly to bring that up as a reason to keep MM open. I'm fine to hire from within, and seek less experienced people -- but those two plans aren't going to save $700,000 a year. On the other hand, a big part of the savings of closing MM is achieved by reducing the administrative staff (e.g., principal, secretaries, librarian, nurse) -- which I think is exactly what Mr. Oldham has repeated pushed for in his prior columns (reducing administrator costs and keeping education focused on classroom teachers -- which the close MM plan does).

Chart a long-term course for schools

On May 19, the School Committee will decide whether to close Mark's Meadow school. As Mark's Meadow parents, we know this school provides an outstanding educational environment. We believe that a decision to close it should only be made based on solid, long-term planning. Although the process around this question may already seem drawn out, there has in fact been little substantive discussion by the School Committee and few answers provided to concerns raised at the various meetings and forums.

One major concern is space. Do the three other schools have enough of it to meet the needs of our school population, including a reasonable contingency for possible future increases? There is cause for great concern. A 2007 report, commissioned by the schools, concluded that all four elementary schools are already overcrowded by modern standards. While the detailed numbers in this report can be argued with, its main observation is sound. The scope of educational services has increased dramatically, outstripping the buildings' capacities. "Programs or services," it states, "have moved into regular classrooms, storage areas, alcoves and wherever else space could be carved out."

The three-school plan calls for 64 classrooms, five more than currently used at these schools. No mention is made of where the educational services now taking place in these five classrooms will happen, even as the programs are expanded to serve 17 percent more students from the closure of Mark's Meadow. Perhaps more closets are available.

A responsible plan should also allow for possible future growth. For example, 27 affordable apartments will soon be built on Longmeadow Drive. Moreover, Amherst's 2008 draft master plan proposes a range of measures to increase affordable and moderately priced housing. More such housing means more kids in school. Planning for the schools should be consistent with our town's deeply held and clearly stated aspirations.

Although owned by UMass, Mark's Meadow represents a major fiscal asset to the town. If it is closed, UMass will reclaim the building. If a new school is subsequently needed, it will cost millions of dollars, assuming a suitable site can be found. The town pays no rent or utilities for Mark's Meadow, a significant in-kind contribution from UMass.

In January, the former superintendents recommended against closing Mark's Meadow, stating that the result would be "large, overcrowded elementary schools." The option is now under serious consideration only because of the anticipated, major budget shortfall. Due to the global recession, both state aid and growth in town tax revenue are down substantially. Closing Mark's Meadow would fill about one quarter of the possible $2.1 million gap in the FY2010 elementary school budget.

We agree with the former superintendents that this budget shortfall should be met through reversible cuts. School administrators have produced a list of careful cuts, now revised many times in response to community input. Many of these cuts are painful. However, they can be undone once the economy recovers.

Hard times call for creative thinking and flexibility. We offer the following additional possibilities: Share some positions between schools. Cutting the number of principals and assistant principals by one each would save about $170,000. Sharing one secretarial and one custodial position would save about $60,000. Having students eat lunch in their classrooms as they do at Mark's Meadow would save about $75,000 on cafeteria aides. Eliminate computer instruction for a few years. It is not a core subject. Reduce energy usage by turning off unnecessary lights. Utilities are one of the fastest growing parts of the budget.

Currently Amherst pays $150,000 for 30 students leaving through school choice, but doesn't allow students to "choice in" to our elementary schools. This policy should be changed to enhance revenue. Such cuts and new revenue can match the projected saving from closing Mark's Meadow.

A sensible, long-term plan is to purchase two more modular classrooms for Mark's Meadow, giving it a total of two classrooms per grade. Its enrollment could then be expanded, reducing enrollment at the other schools.

Eventually the economy will improve. We should get creative about economizing and making reversible cuts, rather than charting a long-term course that leaves our schools overcrowded and poorly equipped for the future.

Alyssa Melnick is a project manager in construction for MMB Associates. David Kastor and Jennie Traschen are married physics professors at UMass. All have children in the fifth grade at Mark's Meadow who would not be affected by a 2010 closing of the school.

Catherine's comments: First, the NESDEC report was done prior to the start of the Chinese Charter School, and hence their enrollment projections were high (thus, we have more space than they anticipated we would). The superintendent and her staff have computed classroom projections, and believe we will have no trouble fitting the kids in three buildings. They also note, wisely, that if projections are higher than anticipated, we could move the 6th grade to the MS (an educationally sound move) -- which would eliminate about 200 kids from the elementary schools (MORE than currently are in Marks Meadow). Second, there are now empty classrooms in ALL of the schools. Crocker Farm is currently using 16 classrooms, but there are 19 classrooms in that schools. Similarly, both WW and FR have empty classrooms right now. That is how we are able to handle all the kids from MM in our existing three schools. Third, if projections are lower than actual enrollment, we can move our roughly 200 6th graders to the MS (again, this is more than the total enrollment in MM). That school was designed for three grades, and could easily handle our 6th graders (a move which also makes sense educationally). We could also move the portables to one of the other schools -- none of the plans now are to even use those two classrooms, which could each house 25 kids (again, adding space for another 50 students if projections turn out to be inaccurate). Fourth, the superintendent has clearly stated her preference is to continue using MM to house the two alternative high schools (and thus get the free utilities). If U Mass prefers to reclaim the building, we could then negotiate a fee from U Mass to cover our expenses in educating the kids living in U Mass housing. Both of these represent real cost savings to our district. Fifth, although the authors describe a few cost saving measures (representing about half of what is saved through closing MM), these measures seem really problematic to me. The authors propose that kids at MM (180 of them) will have ONE principal, as will the kids at the other three schools (with class sizes at WW and FR more than double that in MM) -- surely the principals at the large schools will have great difficulty spending time in classrooms, getting to know kids, mentoring teachers, handling emergencies, etc. without an assistant principal, whereas the kids at MM will experience no difference at all since they don't currently have an assistant principal! Firing all of the lunch ladies -- among the lowest paid workers in our district -- to save MM just seems really wrong to me, as does eliminating computer instruction for ALL kids in ALL schools (which probably is much more of a hit for low income kids than those who are the children of professionals and graduate students at U Mass and presumably are more likely to have computer access at home). And even if you thought these reversible measures DID make sense ... you are only half-way there (so, come up with another $300,000 -- which is going to mean larger class sizes). Sixth, School Choice doesn’t solve it — if we take in 60 kids a year, we make $300,000 (that of course assumes that we could find 60 kids in the exact right grades who want to enter our district). But we have to hire three more teachers, so we make $150,000. This is, once again, a LOT less than $700,000. And finally, we are NOT using the 2 modulars bought (for $380,000) for MM right now, nor do we need them for next year. So I guess I'm really not sure why they suggest the answer to solving our budget problem is to buy two more?!? The issue is NOT classroom space ... we have EMPTY classrooms right now. The issue is that we don't have money to pay teachers to be in those classrooms. Last point -- the authors note that they are the parents of 5th graders, so they won't be impacted if MM closes ... but the more important point to me is that they ALSO won't be impacted by the devastating cuts that all schools will experience IF we keep MM open.

Don't kill Mark's Meadow Elementary School

Much has been said about the attempt to close Mark's Meadow Elementary School in Amherst as being for the greater benefit of the whole community. I just can't see it that way. Our school system is a family, and killing off a family member should not be the typical human response to hard times that threaten survival. Here's a straightforward analogy.

Imagine a hardscrabble farm family during the dust bowl/depression years deciding to kill one of their four children to enable them to weather the tough times they are facing. This child they decided to kill was healthy and thriving. It might have been their smallest child, but it wasn't sickly. Each of the family's children had special skills and characteristics, and this child was no exception. (Had the child been sickly or frail, it would still have been an unthinkable crime, a murder, for the family to kill this child.) Yes, tough times require tough choices, but our human morals and ethics create some boundaries which, when we cross, we give up some of our humanity.)

What would have really happened is that everyone in the family sacrificed so that all might survive. They would divide the food into smaller portions, give up things they could do without, maybe even send the family dogs and cats off to fend for themselves, but they would stop short of sacrificing a member of the family. They would band together. Why aren't we doing the same?

Here in Amherst, people are trying to drive people apart, with a specious "sacrifice for the greater good" argument. Let's not buy into this Spartan, Lord-of-the-Flies mentality. Let's face this financial crisis with our family, our elementary school system, intact.

Things look pretty bleak, budget-wise. At this point, even the closing of Mark's Meadow would not prevent other drastic cuts from happening. Some argue that even if it doesn't really keep things at status quo, why not save every penny we can by closing the school. This is a callous and cavalier attitude, and one that has no place in a family. It's like the farm family saying, "Well, we can't really be sure that killing one child will truly insure the survival of all the others, but let's just kill them off anyway so we can each have a little bit more to eat than we would have with all of us alive."

I have been a musician all my life. I would hate to see any of the great things that characterize Amherst schools, like music, disappear. Yet I do know that such programs can be put on hiatus and later restored. (They could possibly be sustained with alternate funding sources, as well.) You can't bring the dead back to life. Kill Mark's Meadow, and you lose it forever. Don't side with those who would murder a family member to survive. Join hands with your whole Amherst family and together we will all survive this crisis.

A great sage once said, "In a place where no one (else) is acting like a human being, strive to act like a human being." Let's all strive to act like human beings, not merciless Spartans.
Adrian A. Durlester lives in Amherst.

Catherine's response: I have only two reactions to this. First, I think it is really a shame to talk about this in terms of "killing a member of your family." ALL the schools are excellent -- great teachers, caring staff, involved parents. That is why I do not care where my own children go -- because I know they will be OK in any of the buildings. If we close the school, the families, the kids, the teachers, and the staff would work in other buildings (a better analogy -- during times of really tight budgets, do you consider selling your "vacation house" that you don't really need because the whole family can live in your "regular house" but you do still like to have the vacation house for weekends and summers? Ummm, yes, I think you should consider selling the summer house). I don't believe for a second that what makes your school so good is the physical space -- it is the PEOPLE. And those PEOPLE could and would be equally excellent in another building because they care about building a community and educating kids. We are going to continue to educate the kids who now go to Marks Meadow -- they will just be educated in ANOTHER building. Second, although you say we could find "alternative funding" for music, art, etc., there are three major problems with this: first, you can't just find grants to pay for all in school activities (e.g., music, art, etc.); second, if these programs "go away for awhile," the kids who go through elementary school during this time would not have them -- we can't make it up to them in a few years when they are able to return; and third, even if you get rid of ALL the art and music -- you still don't save $700,000 a year ... meaning other cuts still need to occur (e.g., fewer intervention teachers, larger class sizes). At what price do you think it is worth it to keep MM open? All kids in all schools having larger classes, no art/music/PE, and no intervention teachers? Is that really a trade you think is good for all kids?

What is best for the children? Small schools

The considerations presented here are based on scholarly research, and attempt to address the basic question: What is best for the children? All other considerations, like what is best for the Amherst taxpayers or what are the desires of some groups of citizens, are less quantifiable in terms of scientific research, and will not be discussed in this commentary.

Research shows that small schools perform better than large schools, as quantified by a number of metrics (see below). How small is small? Although numbers vary from research to research, a reference number is less than 300 to 400 students. Small schools should not be confused with small classes, which are sometimes correlated. Most statistics quoted here refer to small schools, not necessarily small classes.

If Mark's Meadow were to be closed, only Crocker Farm would remain below 400 students, while Wildwood and Fort River would receive more than 400 (and, in one re-districting scenario, more than 500 for Wildwood) students.

Is this matter of concern? There is a well documented gap in performance between students coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and students who are not. This has been shown by a variety of research across the U.S., by comparing standardized test results between free and reduced lunch students and other students. Typical differences in (math and reading) test results are around 20 percent, with free and reduced lunch students performing less well than the other students.

However, these differences are smaller in small schools relative to large schools, and by eighth grade economic differences all but disappear as a factor in student performance for students from small schools, studies show.

Other rigorous studies also show that small schools are positively correlated with: greater teacher commitment, better student attendance, greater sense of community and belonging among students. In a study of 264 elementary schools sized 150 to 1950, researchers found that in schools with less than 400 students: 1) teachers take more responsibility for the students' academic and social development, and 2) this translates into higher student achievement. Student tardiness and absenteeism are lower by at least 10 to 30 percent in schools with less than 300 students relative to students in larger schools. The greater sense of belonging that students feel in small schools, in addition, leads to: lower rate of behavioral problems, and higher participation in extracurricular activities.

Extracurricular participation not only translates into a better educational experience, other studies show, but also leads to future greater involvement through high school, and greater volunteerism and participation in society as adults.

Mark's Meadow is a success story of how well small schools work and serve their communities. It is a small school (slightly less than 200 students), although it does not have small classes; most classes are similar in size to or larger than those of the other three elementary schools in Amherst. Mark's Meadow has 38 percent free and reduced lunch students, significantly larger than both Wildwood and Fort River schools.

Yet, the MCAS scores of Mark's Meadow school for at least the past three years (2006-2008) have been typically higher than those of the other elementary schools in the district. The largest difference is at the highest schools grades (fifth and sixth), which support the findings of the scholarly research quoted so far. In 2008, Mark's Meadow was number one in the state in sixth-grade English MCAS, and number two for mathematics; this is a testament to the efficacy of small schools.

Bottom line: cost efficiency does not equal cost effectiveness in education. Closing Mark's Meadow hardly seems the correct direction to take, if we want to be serious about stronger curricula.

Daniela Calzetti is a professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Catherine's response: First, the vast majority of research cited in this piece is messy -- small schools are often rural and surburban schools, and large schools are often urban schools -- so it is important not to mistake correlational for causation. Second, the majority of research cited in this article focused on schools below 400 kids. If we move the 6th grade to the MS, all three of our schools would be below 400 (we'd have 1100 kids to educate in three buildings). I'd be glad to push for this as a goal, which I assume Dr. Calzetti would eagerly support -- then we'd have three schools, but all would be within what the research shows is a good size. Third, there is also well-documented research showing that small class sizes matter, especially for lower income kids and especially in the early grades. We've heard from the superintendent that keeping MM open will result in larger class sizes, which seems especially problematic for more disadvantaged kids, so one would have to careful consider whether having ONE small school with regular class sizes for some kids (13%) is more important than smaller classes in all the schools for all kids (100%). Most of the disadvantaged kids in our district are not, in fact, at MM -- in terms of overall number of kids on free/reduced lunch, both FR and CF (and maybe even WW -- I'm not sure about their overall number of low income kids) have many more kids on free/reduced lunch than MM (so again, is it fair that only the low income kids at MM get to experience the small school environment)? Fourth, the parents of MM children are often affiliated with U Mass, so it is not surprising that these children (sons/daughters of U Mass professors, administrators, graduate students) are achieving well on the MCAS - they are very likely to be in families in which education is very prized, and would do very well if in another building in Amherst. Again, let's not mistake correlation for causation. One final thing -- let's say for the sake of debate, that I agreed that smaller schools were better for kids, based on scholarly research. Then it seems like the only fair thing for all kids in Amherst is to have a lottery in which a lucky 13% of the population gets to benefit from this superior learning environment, right? I mean, it really doesn't seem fair that kids of U Mass faculty and graduate students get to have a great school that leads to great MCAS scores when the other kids in Amherst go to schools that produce less good outcomes. So, I would hope that Dr. Calzetti and other current MM parents would come forward and ask the SC to make sure that if we keep MM open, MM turns into a lottery system so that all kids in Amherst can have at least a chance to experience this opportunity. Such a proposal, to redistrict Amherst into three districts, but allow a lucky 13% of each district to attend MM, would get some serious attention by all members of the SC and the administration, and I think would hep convince the community that desires to keep MM open, even given the costs it would entail to all schools, is really for the benefit of ALL kids in our community and NOT just those who happen to currently attend MM. I would welcome such a proposal by a group of MM parents on Tuesday night.


Anonymous said...


I fully support your YES vote to close MM.

If the SC vote results in MM staying open, then I urge you to immediately and formally propose that enrollment in MM be by lottery *only*. If MM is such a great school, and the others are such terribly second- or third-rate alternatives, then an annual lottery-based enrollment in MM is the only fair and reasonable strategy to insure that all of our town's children have a chance to benefit.

Thank you, once again, for all that you are doing to make Amherst schools better.

Anonymous said...

"move the 6th grade to the MS
(an educationally sound move)"

That idea requires MUCH more thorough analysis before any change is made. There are many reasons to think it is NOT a sound move.

CE said...

Whenever a change is made, there will always be some positive and some negative consequences that are unforeseeable -- no matter how much "thorough analysis" is done.

In regard to the MS, virtually all MSs are gr6-8 and many are gr5-8. I think we can look to these examples as assurance that this is an educationally sound move.

We can analyze from now to eternity and still not be able to foresee all of the potential +/- consequences. But we have no better options right now.

What we need to do is face the financial realities that have been ignored over the last few years and make "grown-up" decisions based on what is best for all of the students in the district.

Let's move forward and stop the petty attacks and bickering -- for the sake of the students and teachers who will have to deal with the consequences of these decisions.

I too support the decision to close MM. Thank you Catherine for holding firm to this position in the face of intense criticism.

nom de blog said...

As I commented earlier, focusing MM on open-enrollment and school-choice students is an interesting option. Details need to be worked out
more carefully, of course, and there could be some
weighting based on distance from where students live (or their parents work) to encourage walkability, and current MM students would have to have preference as well (I believe it has always been the practice that, once a student enrolls in a school, either by choice, by open enrollment or by living in-district , that student may remain remain at the same school).

But the School Committee is missing the "elephant in the room" by focusing on MM rather than the bigger elementary budget gap - even if a savings of $600,000 (or more) could be realized by closing (or "altering") MM, there's still another $1-2M to go.

This needs to come from somewhere, and suggestions have been made previously, but to hear now that there might be a "deal" with the FC (close MM in exchange for getting reserve funds):
that will raise the hackles of many in Town Meeting who expect renegotiation of contracts - something CS understandably cannot discuss freely here.....

Anonymous said...


To quote CS, "I do hear considerably more concerns from parents about the MS than either the elementary schools or the high school." Following the exchanges between her and some staff at the school on this blog leaves open the question, is it just perception or reality?
Why not find the answer to the question(and any solutions)before moving several hundred more students into the situation? Where is the evidence that 6th graders are not performing well in their present situation?

CE said...

Students aren't, at this time, being moved anywhere. It's only a possible suggestion that is being discussed.

We may find that one of the challenges facing the MS is that the non-uniform curricula of the 14 (or so) separate classrooms that feed into the MS may be creating some of the issues that lead parents to judge the MS as sub-par. But we don't even know if this is how a majority of parents feel since we haven't done a survey yet.

Let's be flexible and entertain all suggestions and move forward with a reasonable amount of caution.

Continually throwing out reasons to not change anything keeps us stuck in a reactionary way of responding when crises arise.

These financial issues that we are facing are slightly magnified b/c of the economy but they have been looming over the district for years now. We could have been dealing with this in a more proactive way 3 years ago.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

I'd like to focus on this point Catherine made for a moment:

Second, there are now empty classrooms in ALL of the schools. Crocker Farm is currently using 16 classrooms, but there are 19 classrooms in that schools. Similarly, both WW and FR have empty classrooms right now. That is how we are able to handle all the kids from MM in our existing three schools. That statement will probably surprise a number of people, since they may have heard that all our elementary school classes are not only not the same across our four schools, but also not all at what we'd consider the "right" size for a particular grade level (remember we are talking Amherst standards here, please no anecdotes about how somebody had 35 kids in their class in 1972 and they learned more than kids today learn:-).

Consider the truly awful Senate Ways and Means budget (you know, that Senate budget that's usually *better*, not *worse*?!?), the likelihood of us emerging from the period of low local aid in less than five years (if ever), and the relatively consistent elementary enrollment projections from a variety of sources (some growth but not exponential).

If we have elementary classrooms sitting empty somewhere in our elementary schools other than at MM -- where the long-sought portables finally got installed at a time when we could no longer afford to staff them! -- then as much as I adore MM for all the important reasons I and others have stated, and despite how ludicrous it is that we have to close budget gaps by closing a well-performing, well-functioning, levelly enrolled school

(as opposed to a school that's performing poorly [not around here], or falling down [not around here], or losing enrollment [like Pelham and Shutesbury])

due to our fellow Commonwealth taxpayers unwillingness to pay for the services they demand (never mind our nations' broken health insurance system), I fail to see how we can sell Town Meeting and/or it's advisory arm, the Finance Committee, on the idea that we have to keep MM open, no matter when we decide to pass an override of Prop 2 1/2.

AND I still don't see how people are going to stomach the painful cuts necessary to get our schools, Town library, and other Town services FY10 budgets to the terribly low levels suggested by the Senate Ways and Means proposed budget and an upcoming *third* round of FY09 cuts.

Rick said...

Responding to one thing CE said: "We could have been dealing with this in a more proactive way 3 years ago."

We should have passed the override in 2007. That would have fixed everything we are talking about here.

I am going to keep reminding people of this because it’s important to understand the history of where this problem came from.

One more time: state aid to towns has been cut since 2002. That is the ENTIRE source of the problem – end of story. Had state aid kept up with inflation since 2002, we would be over $14 million better off as of 2006 (source Finance Committee) – today I don’t know what the number would be – but it’s VERY large – way more than we actually need to close the gap.

Those of you (not me) that think there is a lot of fat that the school system could cut, then maybe for you this is a good thing – its forcing fat cutting. But I think most of us feel we are well into the bone at this point.

People love to say we have a “structural deficit”. Yes we do, but WE CREATED that structure, which includes thinking that 2.5% per year increase in revenue is going to cut it, and it doesn’t.

Rick said...

Here is a scenario to think about:

The SC will vote to close MM for the 2010/2011 school year. But then in the fall of 2009, there will be huge developing support for an override to be passed. As a result of that, SC will decide to put MM on hold and wait and see how that develops. An override will pass in the spring of 2010 and when it does pass, MM may well stay open. That of course depends on the size of the override and how much state aid continues to shrink. Maybe it won’t be enough, maybe it will.

sza said...

Well, there is certainly a lot to chew on here. I am only going to comment on one thing, the idea of moving the 6th grade to the middle school.

I work at the MS and many of us have thought that it would be good to have grades 6-8 here. Right now as a two year school there is less investment all around from kids and families...every year half the kids are new and the other half are leaving. Not much continuity there.

I actually do think one of the PR problems we have with parents is that they just had a lovely 6 or 7 year relationship with an elementary school and then they join our all-too-short little two year community. Another factor, I think, is that at the elementary ages kids like to see their parents come into the school, and at the MS ages many kids are mortified at the very thought. I know that is a big generalization, but those of you with 13 year olds could probably corroborate. :)

Anyway I do want to question where CS says the MS "could easily handle our 6th graders" and that it "was designed for three grades". Such a transition would be far from "easy" and could create some very significant changes in how we operate. When it last held three grades, instruction was in a traditional junior high model. Kids and teachers moved all around the building, most teachers had to share classrooms. There was more independence but less "belonging".

We now operate with a teams model, which most people feel serves middle school age children well.
Part of that model has students feeling like they belong to something, a smaller learning community, the team, and an even smaller community, their advisory group. If we have to go back to everyone sharing classroom some of that feeling of "belonging" will be lessened.

A big question would be what model to use for the incoming sixth graders. Would they still be taught in the traditional way by one teacher covering various disciplines, or would they also follow the team model, which would ask for increased specialization from their teachers? I'm not sure our building can really accomodate 800 plus students in three grades if they were all following the team model.

Anyway I do think the idea of a 6-8school has much merit, and how convenient if creating that becomes a solution to some other problem facing the elementary schools. I would caution, though, against saying it would be an "easy" thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Why is it always shot down that Mark's Meadow is a great school? That school produces TOP first and second place MCAS scores IN THE STATE!!!! That is with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch kids and kids speaking multiple languages coming throughout the year. YES this is something ONLY Mark's Meadow does!!! You can not deny this, or say it is just the people who work there. There are MANY factors that make this able to happen, but YOU CAN NOT DENY THE FACT THAT MARK'S MEADOW IS A TOP PERFORMING SCHOOL IN THE STATE!!!!!

Saying this is not saying anything negative about the other schools. This is a fact strictly about Mark's Meadow.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

And through the looking glass...Only in Amherst*, a Town that has repeatedly proclaimed our distaste for MCAS, would we latch onto high MCAS scores as the reason to keep a school open.

(*may be a registered trademark, apologies)

As a Mark's Meadow parent and major fan since September 1999, I would absolutely feel exactly the same way about Mark's Meadow if it was *not* producing such high MCAS scores.

Yes, Mark's Meadow is a terrific, special school; "heartbroken" is not an exaggeration.

Yes, the economic situation is not Amherst's fault.

And yes, we have to find a way to deal.

I assume all elementary families, not just MM families, will be pulling together to pass an override of Prop 2 1/2 this Fall or early in 2010.

Michael Greenebaum said...

Ms Sanderson suggests that MM students are the children of university administrators, faculty and graduate students. I would be surprised if this were the case; it certainly wasn't the case in the 70s and 80s, when most faculty and administrators lived in other school catchment areas and when a great many graduate student parents at MM were from other countries, enriching the school but also providing challenges to the creation of community.

I think one must look elsewhere to find the reasons for MM's success, and I am disappointed that Ms Sanderson has not been more curious about how the culture of a school influences the learning that occurs there. I am disappointed that while she now wants to conduct a survey of Middle School parents, she didn't want to do that with MM parents before moving to close the school.

On the other hand, I agree with her about moving the sixth grade to the Middle School, based upon the interests and capabilities of early adolescents.

As for other ways of cutting $700,000, I would suggest making very deep cuts in the administrative budget- so deep that imaginative reconceptions of the whole enterprise would be required. What would happen if there were two principals for the elementary district and no assistant principals? What if the principal's secretary were reclassified Building Administrator and given responsibility for all non-educational and non-personnel decisions? What if all teachers had access to paraprofessionals, so that mentoring, parent meetings, and peer supervision were conducted on the classroom level, not the building level?

Having said all this, I know that districts often face closing a school, even a beloved school. But I hope the School Committee will defer this decision until they have more information and have asked more important questions.

AJ said...

I have to disagree that if the override had passed in '07, we wouldn't be in this mess now. The override didn't pass, and the next year the administration negotiated a 3 year contract with annual pay raises of 2.5 and then 3.5% (or 6% ) and then 3%. In round numbers, I think that's over a million bucks a year in raises alone. There's no real reason for the schools to bargain hard with the union-- not their money, after all. The Bulletin mentioned in passing that the budget reflected these numbers before a contract was even negotiated! an override, the proposed budgets simply would have been bigger. Exactly the same fiscal disconnect happened when the SC granted a large raise to our new superintendent in the middle of a financial nightmare.

It's been years since I've had a raise, and it's now increasingly difficult just to pay my property taxes (just about the highest in the region, from what I can tell). I've got kids in the schools here, too. There is no way I will I vote for an override, and next time, I will even work to oppose one. Doesn't mean I am anti-school. It means I'm tired of thoughtless spending.

Closing Marks Meadow is a (painful) first step to start getting us out of the hole we've dug.

Anonymous said...


Which of the interests and capabilities of 6th graders are not being presently met by their
6th grade teachers in their elementary schools?

Long time Amherst resident said...

6th graders MUST be moved to the Middle School. It is crazy that this wasn't done when the 9th graders moved out. I really do not understand why anyone says that 6th graders are better off in elementary schools. They are not at that level anymore. They are developmentally too old, physically WAY too old and really need to be around peers in a higher age group. This will help the MS in more ways than we can count!! There is not one other district which has 6th grade in a regular elementary school (not counting K-8th grade schools) Most Middle Schools start in either 5th or 6th. The Middle School building is being completely underutilized at the moment and really is a waste of money from all of us because of this. That building very comfortably held 3 grades when I was there, AND they were much larger classes!!!

I would love to hear any reasons people could possibly come up with that realistically makes more sense for the 6th graders to be in elementary schools still.

Meg Rosa said...

I am wondering which room the School Committee meeting will be in tomorrow night. I know they are usually in the library, but wanted to check and see if it has been moved to the cafeteria, or somewhere else.

Thanks a bunch,

Anonymous said...

You know I have read and heard over and over that we are not using all the available classrooms we have now. If this is the case, why are classes/ lessons being taught in closets, hallways, any other space people can find?

I do not understand how these two facts work together. SO MANY people and documents have said over and over that the schools are currently over crowded. This is right now, as we speak. How would putting about 80-100 more children in each school make this work?

These numbers and facts do not add up. There are children being taught lessons in closets right now, today, tomorrow. How does that give us enough room???????

Nina Koch said...


The agenda for the meeting says that it is in the hslibrary:

agendaIf they change the location, it will probably be announced on the front page of the arps site.

Meg Rosa said...

Thanks Nina!!


Anonymous said...

Perhaps some of Catherine's statements need a closer look:

1) The students of MM come from parents associated with the university and therefore THAT'S why the MCAS scores are so high? Please. Come see the students. Find out where they come from. See what their backgrounds are. You might be surprised that your ASSUMPTIONS are not accurate. Mike Greenbaum is right because he actually worked there. Please take a closer look at our population before making these blanket statements.

2) WW, FR have more kids on free/reduced lunch than MM? If you look at the PERCENTAGE of children on free or reduced lunch, which is what Title I funding is based on, which correlates to funding for schools - CF and MM are the ONLY schools in our district that qualify.

3) EMPTY CLASSROOMS RIGHT NOW? If you visit our elementary schools, I challenge you to find empty classrooms. They are being used. Where will these programs take place if we have to house MORE classrooms? I don't understand why this wouldn't be explored before deciding that we definitely have enough space. Go to the schools, find out what programs are taking place in each room, then decide where they will go when we fill them with the MM students. (And if we're talking about the modulars at MM - it's kind of hard to fill those two spaces with classrooms in JANUARY (which is when the modulars were completed), after the year is half through and planning for large classes rather than smaller classes already had to be made.)

There are so many questions that the only responsible thing is to VISIT schools, investigate in more than a few months the ramifications of closing a school, and make an informed decision, not a mistake.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 8:29 - thank you for your support (in the midst of the criticism, it is always good to know there are some who agree!). And yes, I will definitely make the motion to change MM to a lottery if the motion fails.

Anonymous 8:43 - there are certainly reasons for and against such a move. But IF it turns out that the enrollment projections are higher than anticipated, this would be an OPTION to consider to alleviate crowding. There are also many (in our district and elsewhere) who believe this would make educational sense, even in the absence of a need to do so, given over-crowding. I know the placement of the 6th grade is an issue under consideration now by the regionalization committee, and I believe it is something that Dr. Rodriguez should carefully consider (perhaps set up a group of parents/teachers to examine the pros/cons).

CE - thanks for your post and again, for the support. I agree that the 6 to 8 model is used in MANY districts, and I think could be good for our kids. At least it is something that should be on the table for consideration. And unfortunately, there will be much need to make other tough (grown up) decisions in the months ahead -- regardless of how the MM vote goes.

nom de blog - I believe the superintendent has ran numbers of school choice, and believes this is NOT a wise way to go -- if we make a decision to keep MM open by counting on a certain number of spaces, we could get into real trouble if those bodies don't emerge (at precisely the right grades). It is also really difficult to have MM be a choice school since the enrollment year to year is much more fluid than in the other schools (e.g., you don't have a good sense of how many spaces to open up at a given grade since the school has pretty high turn-over). But I do believe the SC will have to do some serious consideration of other things to cut -- although I think needing to cut another 2 million seems unlikely! The FC has stated, and I think appropriately, that they are not inclined to just use reserves to meet budget gaps -- but would be willing to use reserves to help in the transition to a more cost-effective model (such as closing a school). It is NOT saying "close MM and we'll give you money" -- but it is saying find a new sustainable model that is cheaper, and we'll consider giving you money. The other plans that were considered (e.g., pairing the schools, moving to a K to 4, 5-6 school) were MORE expensive! And the FC has made that "deal" in open meetings to all town entities (e.g., libraries, police, etc.).

Anonymous 11:23 - this is one of the reasons I stated in my motion in terms of why I put the MS first -- we need to figure out how well this school is working. But I also think the MS might work better if parents/kids had more investment in the school, which they would if they were going to spend another year there. So, it might be a bit of a chicken/egg problem? I don't think there is evidence the 6th graders aren't performing well now -- but I think there is evidence (from other districts) that parents/kids can have more buy in for a three-year than a two-year school, and that could improve the MS experience for all.

CE - excellent points ... I am not saying let's move the 6th grade ... I'm saying let's think about the 6th grade, and whether that makes sense. I know Jere Hochman felt that getting the 6th grade to that building was a good idea in part so that students enter the building BEFORE most have hit puberty, so they aren't dealing with changing schools in the midst of major changing bodies ... and I also agree that the 7th grade teachers have a really, really difficult time getting to know and working with kids from 7 different schools, and many different classrooms ... having these kids at least all in the same school for a year could potentially help the 7th/8th grade experience (this is NOT a slam on MS teachers ... it is a recognition that it has got to be really hard to handle so many kids who come together from so many different backgrounds/experiences).

Alisa - thanks for your very thoughtful post. I agree with all you said ... and yes, the reality is that next year, we are projecting using 21 classrooms in FR (there are 24 to use), and 16 in CF (there are 19 to use), and 22 in WW (there are 23 to use). So, those 7 classrooms won't be used next year ... and we are projecting having only 9 classrooms in use at MM, meaning 1 MM classroom PLUS the 2 portables are not needed. This is indeed a lot of empty classrooms -- 8 plus 2 portables. And thus, I agree with your analysis that closing MM seems like really the only choice, in the face of the combined stable/declining enrollments AND the massive budget problems. I too worry about how we are going to stomach not only these cuts (closing MM and other cuts to the schools) as well as cuts to libraries, pools, police, LSSE, fire, etc. It is a hard time for all.

Rick - I too wish (of course) that the override has passed. But I think the SC and the school leadership now has to demonstrate to the community at large that we are going to make fiscally wise decisions, and that we are going to really be careful about what we do and do not fund (e.g., do we need classes as small as 18 to 20? do we need to stream-line some of our adminstrative staff?). I believe that many in the community have concerns about how the schools have handled their resources (which are, of course, the bulk of the town spending), and whether this perception is accurate or not (like the MS perception!), we need to tackle it directly, head on, in an open and transparent way. For me, closing MM is a clear way to demonstrate that we are indeed going to use resources wisely -- and if that trust is restored in terms of how the schools spend money, there may indeed (eventually) be support for an override.

Rick - your scenario scares me! But the reality is, even if we close MM, we are STILL going to have to do other major cuts to just maintain some of what we have (e.g., music, art, world language, small classes, etc.). An override wouldn't make closing MM not the right decision -- it still just doesn't make sense to keep open a school that we do NOT need to educate all the kids in our district at the cost of $700,000 a year.

SZA - thanks for your post ... and I totally agree that the MS could be helped by having parents/kids have more investment in a three-year school. I'm glad you think there might be such support for that among teachers/staff at the MS. Obviously we are a LONG way off from pondering a "model" but what I've heard discussed IF this were to happen would be for the 7th/8th to stay the same as now (teams), and for the 6th grade to have a separate "wing" or space in which they really operate like they do now (e.g., with just ONE teacher, like occurs now in all the elementary schools). So, the 6th graders would NOT be on a team, would not switch teachers, etc. (although maybe they would to get language or something)? But that is certainly something that could be worked out -- I didn't mean to imply that it would be "easy" but just that it would be feasible to do IF we had space issues in three elementary schools (and, as you note, there are also reasons to make the move even if there are not space issues). I definitely think this is something our new superintendent should consider.

Anonymous 2:39 - I totally admit that MM is a great school -- sorry if I wasn't clear on that. I just think it is NOT a great school BECAUSE of the physical space. I think the MM kids and MM teachers would do very well even in another building.

Alisa -- thanks for pointing out the opposite MCAS issue ... I kept thinking that was pretty ironic, when the MCAS are typically a bad word in Amherst!

Michael Greenebaum - thank you for your post. Virtually all of the parents of MM kids who have contacted me are either current faculty, administrators, or graduate students at U Mass (including all Op Eds by MM families in last week's Bulletin). I can't imagine it isn't a pretty high proportion, given that U Mass graduate student housing is all zoned to MM, right? The issue about how to look for MM's success, however, is tricky -- either you believe it is the teachers/parents/kids, in which case they really should do equally well elsewhere, or it is the building, in which case in fairness MM should be a lottery school so that all kids could have a chance for experiencing this environment, right? I believe MM has done a great job at creating a very warm culture - and I remain hopeful that the people who have worked so hard to create this could also do so in another building.

My interest in a survey of the MS was to see how it is and is not working for all kids, because this is a school that ALL the regional kids go to, and that information thus is very helpful in thinking about improving this school. And we could (and in fact ARE) do a survey of MM ... I just think this is a pretty different point (since I believe all elementary school parents are pretty happy with their own school). What would you expect that I would LEARN from such a survey, and, perhaps more importantly, what would I do with this information (e.g., if I found that MM parents loved the school tremendously, would I think say we must keep the school open, even at the cost of kids in all the other schools AND MM experiencing major cuts?).

I agree with your intuition about
the benefits of moving the sixth grade to the Middle School -- again, I hope this is something the SC and superintendent will seriously consider next year.

You propose some pretty major ideas in terms of cutting $700,000 ... but even what you propose doesn't get us there! Cutting two principals and three assistant principals saves around $300,000ish -- and I'd frankly worry about how well principals could get to know kids (as Nick does so well in MM) and evaluate/mentor/hire teachers and manage discipline, etc. That would be way more than double the work of our current principals -- who in two of the buildings are already handling over 400 kids AND have an assistant principal to help. Again, we would also STILL have to cut another $300 to $400. I am not really understanding your other idea -- "What if all teachers had access to paraprofessionals, so that mentoring, parent meetings, and peer supervision were conducted on the classroom level, not the building level?" What does that mean, and how would it save money?

For me, I feel I have enough information and I feel I've heard enough from the community to vote. I certainly don't know how my colleagues feel. What other information do YOU feel we need?

AJ - thanks much for your post. I frankly agree with much of what you said.

Anonymous 8:10 - I agree with much of what you said -- and definitely think this should be on the table for the upcoming year.

Meg - hey, good question ... I THINK it is still in the library, but it might move to the cafeteria (that decision was being debated today). It will be at the HS, so come there and see where the lights are on -- and I'll post something tomorrow if I get a definite answer.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 8:44 - I believe some of those reports were frankly written to build a case to the state to give us money to renovate WW and FR ... but I believe there are other cases in which teachers prefer to work individually or in small groups with kids in more or a private area (e.g., not a classroom, but a small office). There are NOT grade-level classes being taught in hallways or closets. There may be intervention services offered in such a way, but again, that has to do with privacy, quiet, etc. Again, the problem is NOT with having enough classrooms -- the problem is with paying teachers to teach in those classrooms!

Anonymous 9:31 - I will respond to each of your points as noted.

1) OK, so why do you think MCAS scores are so high at MM? Is it the teachers/kids/parents? If so, they will do equally well elsewhere. Is it the building? If so, you should be actively pushing to have MM become a lottery only school so that all Amherst kids have a chance to experience this great learning environment. Which is it?

2) YES -- of course MM and CF have a higher % of kids on free/reduced lunch ... but my point was that MM has FEWER kids on free/reduced lunch than ANY of the other schools, so is it really fair that we only educate THESE lucky 69 kids at MM, when ALL the other free/reduced lunch kids (350ish) have to go to one of the other schools? The OpEd I responded to suggested that MM was the best school for kids on free/reduced lunch -- so at least we should have a lottery for low income kids to get into this school, right?

3) There are currently empty classrooms in our schools -- some of those classrooms have been taken over for extra space (lounge, community room, etc.), but those are rooms which COULD be used as classrooms and HAVE been used as classrooms quite recnetly. Currently at FR, there are 23 classrooms in use. Next year, due to budget cuts, there will be 21 classrooms in use. That is just one example at one school -- there are certainly others. And the superintendent have done EXACTLY what you propose -- have gone to each building, seen the classrooms and programs, and then made the decision about which rooms could indeed be turned into classrooms for use IF MM closed while making sure we could still handle the other programs (which is of course the only responsible thing to do -- and she did it!). The modulars are not considered in ANY of these plans ... but MM has 10 classrooms, and it is projected that only 9 classrooms are needed at MM for next year ... again, the two modulars will NOT be used as classrooms next year at all.

What information do you need to know before you can decide whether this is a mistake? Because I can't think of any questions I have -- and the superintendent has already done ALL of the things you suggest must be done before making such a decision.

Anonymous said...

The only way to get an override passed is to carry the burden of proof for one with senior citizens in town. They are not only the ones that man the polls on election day, they serve in very disproportionate numbers in Town Meeting and they vote in similarly disproportionate numbers at the polls. They've heard words before, the crisis talk doesn't register any more; it's actions that matter to them.

I believe that seniors in town no longer are convinced that their tax dollars are spent wisely in the schools. I believe that that is a fairly recent development. It's all a matter of perception, but there's a growing image problem for the current generation of parents that they will never be satisfied with the schools. And the notion that the schools are top-heavy with administrators has been and still is THE conventional wisdom, despite the sincere fervor of School Committee members in talking back to it.

I believe that Catherine is right that very visible demonstrations have to be made that the School Committee is looking for savings in school budgets. The compensation for the new Superintendent was a setback in that regard, but we've been over that. Closing a school that has been so important for so many parents and children is extremely painful. But it's the will to create that kind of pain that voters, especially our senior voters, seem to be demanding from elected leaders before even thinking about going along with another override. So here we are.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

You state that "I believe that seniors in town no longer are convinced that their tax dollars are spent wisely in the schools." I would not limit the view to "seniors". Nor would I to "schools". The top heavy school bureaucracy, as well as that found in Town Hall and the DPW, is criminal. Add to that the budgeting expense accounts and numerous vehicles paid for by our tax dollars and you will not find any support for an override. Not even among non-seniors.

I believe that Mr. Greenebaum raised interesting concepts. Always one who thinks outside the box, I wish he would contribute more to these discussions.

Rick said...

I agree with Rich and Anon 11:29 in terms of what the perception is. But I don’t agree that the answer is cutting administration without actually seeing exactly why there is too much administration and exactly who you say should be cut.

Every entity has administration, part of which is management. The school system has, I believe, 600 total employees (full and part time). That is a large entity and one would expect that it needs some amount of administration to manage and provide support to both its employees and its students.

I am most familiar with ARHS where last I looked (2 years ago) they had 185 FTE (full time equivalents) employees. That is not a small operation either. Administrative people were:

Asst Principal Student Support
Asst Principal Special Education
Asst Principal Teacher Support
Athletic Director
10 clerical
7 guidance

I’m not sure I would call guidance “administrative” as they are really more like teachers of sorts, but whatever.

So, the total of the above is 22 people out of 185 total, which is 12%. If you take out guidance its 8%.

Is 12% too much? Is 8%? That is not immediately obvious to me.

It drives me nuts that the School Committee does not show what the numbers are and how they compare to other schools. One would think they would want to show some facts to counter the perception, but no that’s asking too much.

This perception has been out there forever and I just don’t see the SC doing anything decent to counter it, which both frustrating and amazingly dumb.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Rich - thanks for your thoughts. I agree that closing MM is the first step but NOT the only step in demonstrating a fiscally responsible SC and school administration. We need to earn back the trust of parents and the community. This is a good place to start -- and I do think the "pain" is still relatively minimal -- I continue to believe that ALL of our elementary schools are GOOD, and will be even better if we can save $700,000 by closing MM.

Anonymous 11:29 - I can't speak to the town, DPW, etc., but I know there is that perception about the schools. And perception matters (that is, in fact, what my research is on). We need to figure out whether our schools ARE top-heavy (I don't know the answer to this yet, for myself), and then either (a) reduce the top-heaviness, or (b) communicate clearly and transparently to the community why we need the administrators we have. That is the job of the SC, and we should be doing this better than we are doing it now. I will work on this.

Rick - I agree with much of what you said - but one key correction -- as of next year, the HS is down to TWO assistant principals (less top-heavy), so re-run your %! I agree that we do need SOME administrative structure -- to have horizontal and vertical alignment in our curriculum, we need people who are overseeing that -- and evaluating how well what we are doing is working at a broader level. I also think the SC needs to do a MUCH better job of showing how our school looks in terms of adminstration to other school districts ... I share your frustration -- and as a SC, it also drives me nuts. And I promise to look into this issue ummm, any chance you want to volunteer to do some looking into this?!?

Abbie said...

aren't there also 2 Deans in the HS? Shouldn't those be considered admin? Or do they teach?

Rick said...

Abbie: Yes you’re right there are 2x Deans. I don’t know if back 2 years ago they were lumped into the 7 guidance or not. This was all given to me by Bill Wherli back then (used to be a Vice Principal). Anyways don’t go by my numbers, it’s just for illustration. We need the real numbers and it’s unbelievable that that you can just go find them on an org chart somewhere.

Catherine: Yes I would be happy to volunteer, but only if people in the school system will give me answers. I can show you tons of emails trying to get this info from Jere Hochman two years ago and I got nowhere – the guy who liked to say “yes” when he really meant “go away and don’t bother me”. Finally I went directly to ARHS and ARMS people – not enough time to do elementary - and I was never totally sure if I was given the right numbers. It was also made difficult because they have these weird categories for school employees all to do with what kind of contract they have that means nothing to the general public. It took me a while to sort that out.

But this is about the most basic thing one can imagine and why ARPS can just do this is beyond me. You don’t want something like this coming from me, it should be official.

This is an example of one specific thing that SC could tell the new super to do – and I mean do it or else. If we pay $158k and can’t even get that then I will vote against the next override too.

Nina Koch said...

The deans don't teach but they do work directly with students. They do not have the same supervisory responsibilities that building administrators do and they are school year rather than full year employees.

The administrative team at the high school consists of the principal, the assistant principals, and the athletic director. There is also an administrator for each of the alternative programs, South Amherst and ESAH.

Given what the administrators are expected to do, I don't think there are too many of them. When we lose an assistant principal next year, it will indeed be a loss. There are some things that won't get done. For me personally, I like to be able to go to an administrator with an idea or a concern, run it by him or her, and get some feedback and advice. I find it helpful.

In my experience, administrators work very hard. You can find them in the building at all kinds of odd hours trying to catch up on correspondence because during the school day they have lots of meetings and other tasks to attend to.

Sometimes the people who think we have too many administrators are the same people who will complain when something doesn't get done as quickly or as thoroughly as they want it. I've seen emails that say things like "I don't understand why this can't be done immediately." Well, the person you sent that to probably gets at least a hundred emails a day. Did you expect yours to be the highest priority?

So, if people really do feel that we have too many administrators, then they should be prepared to lower their expectations when they interact with the school.

Anonymous said...

It's not the demographics of the student/parent population at MM OR the building that makes MM so successful. MM is a community. It's like a small village representing countries from all over the world. We live around each other, many of us are members of the same community supported agriculture farm, and we're cozy enough to know each other and each others' children on a first-name basis. Children feel comfortable and at home there. Ask the students of MM how they feel about their school and they will tell you that they love it. The quality of learning taking place at MM is not a result of "educated parents" solely, because Amherst is full of that already. It is the very close sense of community fostered at MM that makes it such an ideal, and safe learning environment.

I'm not sure where the # of free/reduced lunch children should trump the percentage, but? I also fail to understand why we would put the most successful school first on the chopping block if we so very much believe in Amherst in the value of education and diverse community.