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.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What Do Other Colleges/Universities Do?

There has been a lot of debate -- in the newspapers, on my blog, and certainly elsewhere -- on what the role of the colleges/universities should be in contributing to the local schools. As I've noted, Amherst College has always allowed some number (I believe it was 30) high school students to take classes for free -- and this year, this cap has been eliminated so that all high school students who want to (and are qualified to) take classes at Amherst College can. U Mass, in contrast, charges high school students $1200 per class. I also was pleased to learn that Amherst College provided a campus space (Buckley Auditorium) at no cost for the recent (and truly excellent) high school wind ensemble concert. In contrast, the school district pays $13,000 to use the Mullins Center for high school graduation.

This debate is going to intensify next year as the school district stops using the Marks Meadow space owned by U Mass as an elementary school -- and the question then becomes whether U Mass will allow the district to use this space for other purposes (such as consolidating the alternative high schools in this space, or using this space for district offices to allow the 6th grade to move to the middle school), or whether U Mass will compensate the district for the 52 students who attend our public schools and live in tax-free U Mass housing. As I've said repeatedly, I believe it is strongly in U Mass and the colleges' interest for our public schools to be strong -- it is one of the first questions potential faculty and staff ask when considering a job. We've seen examples of how Amherst College is stepping up (reducing the cap on high school students taking free classes, assisting with the Pipeline program, providing auditorium space at no cost). And after the district stops using the Marks Meadow building as an elementary school, I very much hope that U Mass will step up next year and compensate the district in some way (space, money, and/or services) for the cost of educating the 52 children living in tax-exempt housing who we educate in our schools.

Along these same lines of the town-gown relationships, an anonymous poster asked for information on how Williams College contributes to the local schools, so I'm posting an article from the Bulletin last January that addresses this issue.

Should Amherst College match Williams on town aid?
BY Nick Grabbe
Amherst Bulletin, January 18, 2008

Evelyn Sullivan thinks Amherst College, with its $1.66 billion endowment, could do more to ease the town's chronic budget shortfall. And in making her case, she pokes the college in a sensitive spot.

Sullivan moved to Amherst in 2001 after teaching in the Williamstown elementary school for 25 years. Williams College has made major financial commitments to Williamstown that deserve to be emulated, she said.

"Since Amherst and Williams are athletic rivals, why can't their rivalry extend off the playing fields?" she asked in a letter to the Amherst Bulletin. "The challenge for each college would be to rival each other in supporting their schools and town."

Others warn that tapping in to a rivalry is no way to strengthen an institution's connection to its hometown.

To call the two colleges "athletic rivals" is to underplay the intensity when their teams face each other. And as two of the top small liberal arts colleges in the country, Amherst and Williams also compete for students and faculty.

But in the arena of assisting their host communities financially, Williams College seems to be ahead, according to information supplied by officials at the two campuses.

Williams College has committed $1.5 million to the construction of a new elementary school and an endowment for the building, $777,000 toward a $3.5 million renovation of Williamstown's main street, and $4 million to a group that seeks to improve the number and quality of jobs in Berkshire County.

"The health of the college and of the community are entwined," said Williams spokesman James Kolesar. "Current and future Williams students will benefit from the existence of strong local institutions. And, like all citizens, the college has responsibilities to contribute to our community's well-being."

Amherst College already makes contributions to Amherst and negotiations are under way to increase them. President Tony Marx has advocated closer ties between campus and community.

"Amherst College is 100 percent committed to the local community and school system, and we are always looking for meaningful ways to support both," he said this week. "While we already contribute a great deal to the town and schools -- in terms of funding as well as the time and energy of our students, faculty and staff -- we are constantly assessing and discussing how we may do more."

Last September, at a community luncheon, Marx said the town's recurring budget deficits are putting the public school system at risk.

"Every year I hear the public school administrators saying that the school is now cutting into bone, and that's scary as a parent to hear and it's scary as a business leader to hear because I have to attract people to live here," Marx said at the time.

Marx said he plans to meet next week with Town Manager Larry Shaffer to "explore other opportunities for cooperation and support."

Shaffer said he would like to see Amherst College reimburse the town at least for the cost of providing the campus with fire protection, a deal he has negotiated with the University of Massachusetts. Shaffer said he would be "delighted" if the Amherst-Williams rivalry motivated the college to do more.

"But it isn't only about leveraging as much money as possible," Shaffer said. "It's about establishing a relationship that asks Amherst College to think about the town in its future plans. 'Give us money' isn't the responsible way to approach Amherst College. Better is 'This is the impact on the town, and we believe it's appropriate as a matter of equity for you to assist us.'"

Tricky calculations
Calculating the value of a college's contributions to its community is not easy. Comparing it to another's is especially tricky.

Williams College is a much bigger part of Williamstown than Amherst College is of Amherst. There is no state university in Williamstown, a town of 8,000 residents (a quarter of them Williams students) compared to Amherst's 35,000 population (including students). And Williams' $1.9 billion endowment is higher than Amherst College's.

Although tax exempt on land and buildings used for educational purposes, Williams and Amherst colleges are the largest taxpayers in their respective towns for other properties they own, just as Smith College pays the most taxes in Northampton ($476,274 in the last fiscal year). Colleges are steady employers, stabilizing their regions' economies and are major sources of spending for local businesses. Smith estimates that it spends $12 million a year in the community and students and visitors spend $3.5 million more.

In addition, there are cultural advantages to having a campus in town. Residents can attend lectures, concerts and plays, they can use athletic facilities if accompanied by a college employee and can even audit courses. Colleges also make donations to hospitals and United Way campaigns.

Williamstown has a higher average property value than Amherst ($385,515 vs. $330,926), but it has a lower average tax bill ($4,426 vs. $5,189).

'Unmet responsibilities'
Amherst College has unmet responsibilities to its host community and should make a substantial payment to the town, said Mary Wentworth, a Town Meeting member who has maintained that the college should use its wealth to do more. It owns 1,000 acres in town, and the land and the buildings on them are tax-exempt, she said.

"One of the things Amherst has done for Amherst College over the years is to maintain a bucolic atmosphere," Wentworth said. "It's a small town, it's safe and very pleasant, and parents coming here to visit can see what a nice place it is. They see their kids wouldn't be in danger and would get an excellent education."

Elaine Brighty has seen both sides as a longtime School Committee member, former Amherst College employee and faculty spouse. She said talking publicly about the Williams-Amherst rivalry isn't the way to go about conversations with the college.

"Everyone says we'd like more money, and we have to wait and see how it works out," she said. "Amherst College isn't going to save the schools or the town. Amherst as a town has to save itself, working with the colleges."

The rivalry is not relevant or constructive to town-gown cooperation, said Peter Fohlin, town manager in Williamstown.

"There is no limit to what the college can do for the town, and no limit to what the town can do for the college to make this a better place to live for everyone," he said.

State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, has for many years sought higher state payments to the town to reimburse the costs of hosting the University of Massachusetts.

"These institutions have a series of impacts in the community, providing jobs and economic activity and supporting small business, but all those benefits accrue to individuals and businesses," he said.

"On other side of the ledger, there are impacts that must be addressed by government. The challenge is to find the proper balance so you recognize and celebrate and don't compromise the contributions by institutions, and at the same time find ways for the institutions to be good neighbors and help mitigate the impact they have on the public budgets."

Amherst needs to engage in a symbiotic relationship with Amherst College that benefits both, Shaffer said.

"Amherst College is a very strong institution, and that allows it a degree of independence other entities don't have," he said. "We need to appeal to them based on how our mutual best interests will be served.

A large endowment means you don't need many friends, Shaffer said. "In this world, if you have needs and don't have resources, you need to develop relationships," he said.

"We can make this town a much better place if we work together creatively."


Anonymous said...

I applaud Williams College for their generous support to their town. It's quite remarkable and will help the children for years.

Anonymous said...

You keep talking about moving the
6th grade to the MS as if it is
logical and inevitable. Yet, you also talk, repeatedly, about research and the experience of other school districts guiding our decisions.
A research study entitled "Should Sixth Grade Be in Eleementary School or Middle School? An Analysis of Grade Configuration and Student Behavior" might interest you.
It is, I believe, the largest and most comprehensive study on the topic ever done. It involved nearly 45,000 students in 243 schools in 99 different urban, surburban, and rural communities. Controlled variables included socioeconomic status, race, gender, and parental level of education, among others. It was conducted by researchers at Duke University and UCal/Berkeley and is, apparently, highly regarded in this field of research.
A few quotes from the authors:
"These findings cast serious doubt on the wisdom of the historic shift to the Grade 6-8 Middle School."
"This points to a general pattern whereby it is better for kids to make transitions later rather than earlier. Sixth grade is an especially vulnerable time, in terms that sixth graders display a strong susceptibilty to peer influence, and the decision to expose them to slightly older or slightly younger students seems to have a lasting impact."
"As it turns out, moving 6th grade out of the elementary school appears to have substantial costs."
Among the costs:
- 6th graders attending middle school were more than twice as likely to be disciplined
- drug-related disciplinary incidents were nearly four times
greater among the middle school group
- 6th graders in elementary schools improved their scores on end-of-grade exams in math and reading relative to peers in the middle school, and those gains persisted through ninth grade
- truancy and sexual activity, though only reflected in the behavior of a small percentage of the middle school group, remained
notable compared to the elementary school group
This research study apppears to
suggest that a move of the 6th grade to the MS would not be a "sound educational decision" or a "no brainer" as as been suggested in the past on this blog.
Will careful and comprehensive research guide our decision in this case? If not, what will?

Anonymous said...

My kids went to middle school in 5th grade. It was fine.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:28

Exactly! An anecdotal entry.
Will a few, or several, of those guide our decisions. Or will
"the research"?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 8:01 - agreed!

Anonymous 8:20 - as you know if you regularly read my blog, I think research should inform all of our decisions. That includes information on what other districts are doing (and most in MA and elsewhere have 6 to 8 middle schools), and what scientific research says. The study you are describing studied schools in North Carolina ( I do believe this is important for school administrators and school committee members should read, but I also think it is important to consider the MS structure that we have and how the 6th grade would be implemented. The schools examined in this study used a traditional junior high model, in which kids moved from class to class (and teacher to teacher) like in a high school. That is very different than the model used in our MS of "teams" so that kids do form relationships with teachers and groups of kids. In addition, my understanding of discussions is that a model would be considered in which 6th graders would largely have their current educational system (e.g., one teacher throughout the day, like we have in the elementary schools), and they would be largely separated from the 7th/8th graders (e.g., they wouldn't be on these teams). So, it seems like some of the negative impacts found in the study you describe wouldn't necessarily be true -- and certainly we would need to make sure that moving the 6th grade would only be done if it made educational sense. This is something, however, that I think should be, and likely will be, under serious consideration in the upcoming year.

Anonymous 8:28 - in most districts, MS does start in 5th or 6th.

Anonymous 9:03 - I hope there is research ... and I will push for a review of that research, as well as discussion by ES and MS teachers/staff/parents.

Anonymous said...

Let's add to the Amherst College balance sheet these items:

1) The use of the College's pool when none was available for the High School Swim Team for several weeks this winter;

2) The use of the College's pool this summer by the Amherst Tritons, which provides a terrific recreation opportunity for many young people;

3) The donation of College land for four Habitat homes on Stanley Street, which will provide affordable housing AND property tax dollars for the Town in perpetuity.

The College's donation of Buckley Recital Hall for the ARHS Wind Ensemble on June 1 provided the perfect acoustic venue for an absolutely beautiful event celebrating the talent of our High School musicians and the poetry of Emily Dickinson that will not be forgotten by those who were there.

Amherst College stepped into the breach in all of the above situations. Obviously, the College has to decide for itself whether it is doing enough for the Town, but just as clearly, we also as residents have to ask ourselves just what is reasonable for us to expect. I'm not sure what to think; it's complicated.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Rich- The Tritons actually pay for the use of the pool at Amherst College They also pay for the pool at UMASS and at ARMS when they used that pool.

Anonymous said...

But the College does not have to make its pool available to the Tritons.

So, OK, adjust the balance sheet.

I go back and forth on this. I thought that the recent donation to the Town's coffers by the College, which was expressly NOT to be considered as payment for emergency services, was paltry.

I honestly don't know who comes out ahead, the College or the Town.

Rich Morse '78

Anonymous said...

... and Amherst College actually did not let the high school wind ensemble use Buckley Hall last year. This year it did. But it's not a given.

Anonymous said...

To anon 9:03: How many of our educational decisions rely on research?! Class sizes of 30? Mind-numbing study halls? Reductions in music, in art, in science, in clubs, in sports? This is what drives things now: Money, and the lack of it.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:44,

This is either mis- or disinformation on your part.

In 2008, the College did not let the Wind Ensemble use Buckley Recital Hall for its concert at its heretofore usual time, the March Spring Break. After some concerted lobbying by Wind Ensemble parents and others, the College came up with the early June date in 2008, and a wonderful concert involving two High School orchestra groups took place (I know, I was there).

This year's concert took place without a hitch. I understand the urge to knock the College at every turn, I succumb to it myself some times, but let's get our facts straight.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I assume Williams College gave money to the town because it saw the need and wanted to help the town out financially. The town and college are deeply intertwined and the benefits of the donations flow back to the college, its staff, faculty and students. Williams College is a weatlhy institutuion and its students and town benefit from that weatlh. The same factors are true here and I hope Amherst College will see the needs of our town schools and offer financial help.

Anonymous said...

I said the college did not let the wind ensemble use the hall last year - and it did not, after 25 years of previously allowing it too, by the way. And, as you say, it allowed the orchestras in Buckley only after the music department and families expressed disappointment with the college's decision on the wind ensemble.
I don't wish to knock the college(as you say)and I think I did get the facts right.
Buckley is overscheduled and overused even by the college's own groups, and it is a hardship to open it up to the public schools.

Anonymous said...

From Anon 8:20

A few quick reactions to your response:

- Yes, our model is different - teams vs. JH model. It's still a matter of kids traveling among 7-8 different teachers with lots of cross-team contact included. I really wonder if our 7th/8th graders have any less contact with the student body at large than their peers in a JH model.
- I don't imagine the negative influences the study reflects happens as much in math class, or science class, etc. as it does in the hallways, on the bus, in the luchroom, during after-school hours (picture our 6th graders joining the swarms of MS students who flood the streets of downtown right after school during warm weather months). Our most vulnerable students would have much easier access to negative influences offered by older peers no matter how much you try to restrict them to a particular hallway or corner of the school.
- It seems we are trying to fix something that isn't broken. You've reported many times on your blog that you hear much dissatisfaction from MS parents for a variety of reasons. There does not appear to be comparable dissatisfaction among parents of
6th graders in our elementary schools and there doesn't appear to be any evidence (MCAS results, for instance) that suggests our
6th graders are not living in an "educatioanlly sound"
setting. Until the real or imagined problems at the MS are fully under control, why even begin to think of adding several hundred more students to the situation and increasing the likelihood that you will be hearing from even more dissatisified parents?
- As far as I can tell, from conversations with the half dozen
6th grade teachers I know,
there is absolutely no enthusiasm for this proposal (and, in a few cases, that's putting it mildly).
I'm happy to hear you support conversations that include their perspectives.

Ed said...

First, EVERYONE pays for the Mullins Center - it is privately managed and really isn't part of UMass. Even though the building is sitting empty, to use the main building for anything costs full commercial rates. It is like the bookstore and asking Follett (who "owns" it) to give free school supplies to the town - to waive fees, UMass would have to pay full retail and not just cost.

Second, Stan Rosenberg is right - do we count the UMass students as living in Amherst (on April 1st) or with their parents (on July 1st) - if you do the latter, the Amherst school budget is GONE because of what will happen to state aid...

Third, will someone please explain to the town manager that he isn't in New Hampshire anymore - that Massachusetts is a COMMONWEALTH and thus UMass legally is its own town. In fact, there even is a state law that explicitly states that UMass is a municipality.

Commonwealths have funky non-landed municipalities - most of which are called "authorities." The PVTA comes to mind. And the flip side is that all municipalities exist at the pleasure of the legislature - case in point Etna, Dana, Prescott & Greenwich....

Ed said...

Don't forget Olympia Drive -- the Amherst Housing Authority has four rental apartments on land donated by UMass -- and this is a total of 16 bedrooms which likely means a dozen children in the school system.

And then there are the two group homes on North Pleasant Street, I think 909 & 913 North Pleasant -- those are both built on UM land.

And where, exactly, does Amherst have its July 4 festivities -- on UMass land that is located in Hadley (the football stadium is in Hadley and everything behind it is even further into Hadley...).

Anonymous said...

Thank you ED...You beat me too it. You are right about everything...

Anonymous said...

Ed, if the Mullins Center and the bookstore at UMass are privately-owned, does Amherst collect property taxes on those ventures since they are clearly commercial and not educational?

Anonymous said...

as far as taxes to amherst from the mullins center....the mullins center is actually loctaed in hadley!!!!
and the bookstore does not own property, but leases or rents space from the university.