My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Redistricting plan prompts criticism

Hampshire Gazette
By NICK GRABBE
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

AMHERST - The new plan to redraw the boundaries of elementary school districts faced its first criticism at Tuesday's School Committee meeting.

Parents and concerned citizens will be able to make additional comment on the plan at hearings Oct. 8 at Mark's Meadow School and Oct. 14 at Crocker Farm School, both at 7 p.m. The School Committee plans to vote on Oct. 27.

The redistricting is triggered by next year's closing of Mark's Meadow School. The School Committee also wants to equalize the percentage of students at each school who come from low-income households.

The map puts 100 more students in Crocker Farm by extending the northern border to Amity and Main streets, with the railroad tracks being the eastern border.

Children living north of Amity and Main and west of the tracks would attend Wildwood School, while those east of the tracks would go to Fort River School.

Only in the East Hadley Road area would children go to multiple schools.

The Boulders would be in the Wildwood district, Mill Valley Estates and Hollister Apartments in Fort River, and children in nearby single-family houses would attend Crocker Farm.

Jim Oldham, of East Hadley Road, said the plan should be postponed until a decision is made about whether sixth-graders will attend Amherst Regional Middle School, so that no students have to move twice.

He said some children living in apartments in his area would be separated from their friends and neighbors.

"You're using low-income families as justification for redistricting but burdening them with the biggest impact from it," he said.

Several speakers spoke about the impact of the redistricting on Spanish-speaking children currently attending Crocker Farm.

"I am here to put you on notice that I will do all in my power to prevent from going forward any districting proposal which targets for dispersal to other failing Amherst elementary schools the children of Spanish-speaking Crocker Farm families, their teachers and their educational support staff," said Vladimir Morales, a former School Committee member.

Zulma Rivera, a Mark's Meadow parent, said her group, Amherst Families for Two-Way Immersion, will submit an alternative redistricting proposal.

"The idea of redistricting the community of children we met at Crocker Farm is as harmful as what is planned for Mark's Meadow," she said.

"What you propose to cut is not fatty tissue; it is muscle and nerve that are deeply embedded in our community."

51 comments:

Anonymous said...

When I was in second grade, I lived in Germany for one year and went to the school in our village. It was hard but I learned fast in a total immersion setting. One teacher, the principal, spoke English. He was not my teacher and he and I spoke not one word of English during my year there. I was fairly proficient acquiring the new language. We learned our multiplication tables which was an advantage when I returned to the US. The school I had attended in first grade had closed so third grade was my third school in as many years. My pre-school and kindergarten was at the Little Red School house near the social dorms. So I attended four schools in five years and most of the people I know say I came out ok. Kids are resilient. We should focus on giving them what they need to succeed and not on where they get it.

Vladimir Morales has put the school committee on notice that he doesn't want Spanish-speaking students moved from Crocker Farm. I think he may underestimate these students.

Its good to see such strong identity with one's school. I am confident from my own experience that such a connection can be made again in a new school with new friends and new teachers.

If there is some evidence that either of the other schools are "failed" then it would be best to address that promptly. If it is spurious than I would make sure someone takes the time to address it privately.

Does Crocker Farm have a particularly strong support for Spanish speaking students that Fort River and Wildwood do not or is it simply a matter of preference and familiarity?

Please jeep the news coming and thank you, Irv, Steve and the rest of the gluttons for punishment for all you do.

Anonymous said...

Crocker Farm has failed the MCAS tests for 2008.
The Spanish speaking populace that attend Crocker Farm now is quite high, students and staff alike. I see why this gives a certain comfort to the students and families who go there.
You make an extremely valuable point when you say we need to concentrate on 'what' our kids need to succeed and not where they receive it...So much is being lost for our kids when adults spend endless hours debating these issues that it is becoming a bit ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Is it reported anywhere publically which subgroups at CF have failed the MCAS? If, for example, what if it is shown that the spanish-speaking kids are failing the MCAS as a group? (or any other subgroup for that matter).

Is the school district obligated to keep these failing subgroups together and teach to the MCAS to them until they pass? Conversely, is it a legal move to split up failing subgroups (under the term "reorganization") so there will be a lower number of "failing" kids per subgroup per school and maybe they won't trigger an MCAS warning next year?

It's called democracy said...

Why is it ridiculous for Spanish-speaking parents to want their kids to stay in a school with other Spanish-speaking families? Why is it ridiculous for parents of Mark Meadow students to speak out in favor of keeping their school open -- or parents asking about administrative staffing -- or anything involving their childrens' education? I think we live in a democracy and the purpose of public meetings is to allow people to speak.

Catherine, Steve and Irv all ran for the school board which meets publicly once a week. I think they knew this and did so voluntarily. They are public officials and it should come as no surprise that they hear from members of the public. I don't pity them.

Also, it should come as no surprise that public school teachers and administrators also hear from parents and taxpayers. If they don't want to, they could teach orphans, on-line courses or do something else.

If hearing the views of parents and citizens so bothers people, they should stop reading this blog, reading the paper and avoid public meetings. Take your kids out for ice cream or rake some leaves or watch the Red Sox.

Anonymous said...

"which targets for dispersal to other failing Amherst elementary schools " - quoted from Vladimir Morales.

What other "failing" schools is he speaking of? I tried looking up MCAS results for 2009 and could not figure out where to look for them.

I am a WW parent and we received a notice from the superintendent and the principal that "WW is designated as being in an Improvement Year 1 status for Math, as it did not make the AYP in some subgroups for the second time in a row. This is the first time that WW has not made AYP in the aggregate."

I feel this type of information should be much more publically available on the school websites, and in clearer language so that it is easily understood by all. It is not clear what "in the aggregate" means.

Rick said...

It’s probably useless to say this, but: this is hard.

The goal of redistricting seems to be a good one, but getting from point A to point B is hard – and it’s nobody’s fault that it’s hard – it just is.

I guess the one thing that can help is for every effort to be made to keep an open mind and try to work out a plan that works for as many people as possible. But it won’t work for everyone, so no matter what the plan, you’re going to have unhappy people. Assuming redistricting is a "must do", then all you can do is make that number of unhappy people as small as possible while keeping true to the goal of redistricting.

I feel bad for the School Committee. This is like another Marks Meadows situation where there is no great answer. On top of budget crunches, hiring a new Superintendent, problems at ARMS, I have to say again: this is hard.

Abbie said...

I see two issues with the redistricting plan that are going to be big and they are related.

(1) The islands of apartments to be bused out of their neighborhood to WW and FR.

(2) The issue of "multiculturalism" and the spanish-speaking population at CF.

I think it should to be avoided if at all possible to bus those kids out of their neighborhood. I appreciate that the redistricting committee has probably thought really hard about how it could be avoided and haven't been come up with an alternative solution and I hope that someone will be able to find a good solution. It just seems really bad to segregate those kids from their local environment.

But the other issue is the Spanish as a first language (SAFL) and "multiculturalism" as Mr. Morales brought up. A woman spoke of her research on english only vs. dual language. I thought she said that when examined SAFL kids performed equally in both learning environments. I found this confusing as she was arguing for CF to be dual language (did I miss something?). If true that kids perform equally then that leaves the push for "multiculturism" as the motivation and in this case it would be for spanish-speaking cultures (which encompasses a lot of cultures). "Multiculturism" means different things to different people and finding a operational definition for schools seems even less clear. It seems to me that usually multiculturism means that one's particular culture is the one emphasized. I think (and I open to discussion) that it is up to parents and their "community" to offer their own culture to their child and I don't think a particular "culture" should be emphasized in a particular public school. Our schools consist of kids with lots of different cultures, while one culture is being emphasized, others are not. Who would decide which culture(s) to focus on? That's not to say that kids shouldn't be taught to respect all cultures (taught both in school and by their parents and guardians).

I suspect that I will get fried on this and like I said I am open to discussion...

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. How about "bussing" the assets to the children. Provide CF with all the personnel and monies needed to improve the learning situation. Let's not be like Florida, reducing funding to those schools scoring low on MCAS. Isn't that backwards? Or like the Boston bussing of long ago? Doesn't make sense, plus it is morally wrong, period!

Troubled Parent said...

Abbie, I agree with you about multiculturalism and the fact that our public schools should not list, among their agendas, the teaching of a particular culture. This is one of my problems with Fort River which is focused on all things Cambodian every single year and, in many ways, every single day! The cultural diversity at that school is so much more than that but you wouldn't know it based on the programming and rhetoric you see. I hope that is changing with the new principal and/or with redistricting.

Anonymous said...

To Troubled Parent:

That is so interesting about Fort River focusing on the cambodian culture? Are there really so many cambodian kids in the school system that if we had to identify the top four groups - they would be "hispanic, chinese, cambodian (and what culture is the one emphasized at MM?)

So there seems to be two reasons for focusing on a specific culture at each school. Firstly, they group kids who speak a first language other than english and presumably offer special services to them (after school extra education? A teacher/translator in the classroom?). So there's the academic reason for grouping kids who speak a specific language.

Secondly - the entire school has to understand/celebrate the culture of these kids allotted to their school? It does seem unfair that everyone at one school has to focus on one culture during their entire elementary tenure. Perhaps it would be more fair to study different cultures every year. Or different groups (independent of language) - such as a focus on immigrants one year, or on children with disabilities a second year or on poverty a third year. Or pick a country to learn about.

Anonymous said...

Overall, I agree with the point that children should attend the school they are closest to (in general). It does not make sense to bus children across town, away from their neighborhood friends.

What's more important - proximity to schools (and shorter bus rides and going to your neighborhood school) or redistribution of financial equity? Redistribution of financial equity makes the adults in town feel good - but does that really raise those kids' MCAS scores?

If at all possible, can the SC perform a study where MCAS scores are tracked before and after the redistricting - so that we can see if "kids who are failing MCAS who live in the apartments and go to CF will actually improve their scores when they move to a new school?" Who actually believes that going to a different school with richer kids will improve their MCAS scores?!

I really believe that good study habits are ingrained into kids by the families, not the schools. Just because you go to the a different school does not mean your study habits or lack thereof will change.

Joel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel said...

I am not an expert on this subject, but all the people I respect on ELL say that clustering is counter-productive. We shouldn't want all the Russian speaking kids with other Russian speaking kids. Other districts in the Commonwealth don't do this. 



Anyone who reads this blog who grew up in an English-speaking household but now speaks another language knows that immersion is the best tool for learning that language.



Moreover, Massachusetts Ballot Question 2 in 2002, which passed by a huge margin, requires that all students in the public schools be taught all subjects in English. The spirit if not the actual letter of this initiative, which is now state law, seems to challenge the efficacy of segregating students by language. This measure was politically motivated, but it is the law. Obviously we want all those students to have trained ESL teachers to help them make the transition to English, but the goal is for them to become bilingual, which is a wonderful thing.



BTW, I believe our new superintendent is just such a bilingual product of the public schools.



There's an interesting post in Education Week, a national publication, on this very issue. Amherst is held out as an outlier and no one can identify another district in the country that segregates kids in this way. That doesn't mean others don't do it, just that it is considered odd and not educationally sound:

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning-the-language/2009/02/clustering_ells_in_schools_by.html

Anonymous said...

Kids are already being bussed out of their neighborhoods to Crocker Farm. Most of them speak English quite well so I don't get the reasoning.

Anonymous said...

Just try spending 30 to 35 minutes on a bus at the age of 5 or 6. What is wrong with adults trusted to make decisions for our children's welfare who make decisions like this?? I lived in an inner-city and I never even saw a bus never mind rode on one until I was 13 years old and I was afraid for my life every time I boarded that humungous yellow machine. The other kids were sooo mean too! EEEk--what are we setting ourselves up for???...

Anonymous said...

It's called democracy...
You've misread my post. In no way is it ridiculous for parents to fight for their children's best interest--either in keeping their children with Spanish speaking peers and staff or keeping Marks Meadow open. What I referred to as becoming a bit ridiculous is all the spouting and hoopla that goes on meeting after meeting after meeting and no true results of the countless hours of debates other than the hiring of administrators at costs that one might find a bit quesionable,
and foolish decisions like the closing of MM...and the ripping apart of neighborhoods...and so on and so on...

Rob Spence said...

Under our current district lines (which we have had for years) kids who live off East Hadley road get bussed out of their neighborhood to Wildwood. It's just that, under our current lines the kids who get bussed further away from their nearest school are the ones who live in the single-family houses, and under the proposed new map, the kids that would be bussed further away from their nearest school live in the apartments. It seems to me that there has not been a groundswell of complaint in the past from or about the kids who live in houses off East Hadley road being bussed to Wildwood.

In regards to "neighborhood schools". I think that if one looks at a map of long, skinny, Amherst; the majority of neighborhoods do not have an obvious "neighborhood school," certainly not one that can be walked to. What is the obvious "neighborhood school" for Flat Hills Road? Stagecoach Road? Moody Field? Amherst Hills? I mean, I know which schools are the closest to these neighborhoods, but when a school is a couple of miles or more away and out of walking distance, I don't think that families consider it "part" of their neighborhood. The kids who are lucky enough to live in the actual neighborhood within which their school is located are, for the most part, not changing districts under the proposed new map.

Anonymous said...

You're neglecting to consider Mark's Meadow, which was probably the closest we had to a neighborhood school. There will now be a South Amherst school, an East Amherst school, a Central Amherst school, but no North Amherst School.

Joel said...

To Anon 7:49

I have never heard of "East Amherst," but I do applaud your sleight of hand in describing the absence of a "North Amherst" school. Look, Crocker is in South Amherst, Fort River is in the middle of town -- there is no "East" or "West" Amherst, and Wildwood is in North Amherst. If Marks Meadow is north, so is Wildwood. According to Google Maps, the schools are half a mile apart by car and closer as the bird flies. Oh, and Marks Meadow is due west of Wildwood, not to its north.

Anonymous said...

Joel,
It was this sentence in particular in Rob's post that I was responding to: "The kids who are lucky enough to live in the actual neighborhood within which their school is located are, for the most part, not changing districts under the proposed new map." That statement may be true for constituents of the other three schools, but certainly not for constituents of Mark's Meadow.

And....I don't know how google maps interprets our town geography, but I do know how townspeople do. Mark's Meadow serves the NORTH Amherst community and is close to a stone's throw from the NORTH Amherst village center. Fort River is located on South EAST St., across from what is known as the EAST Street School, and close to a stone's throw from what is know as the EAST Amherst village center. Wildwood is a similar distance from town CENTER...hence in CENTRAL Amherst. I am not one who believed that Mark's Meadow should have been kept open at any cost. But it is wrong to deny the fact that it was the closest we came as a town to a true neighborhood school (where a large number of it's constituents could walk to school); which is what I was commenting on. And it is wrong to deny that there has been a loss to the NORTH Amherst community with it's closing. While you may applaud what you refer to as my "sleight of hand" in stating these beliefs, I don't applaud your sad attempts to google your way towards some kind of proof to counter them. Why is it so hard for people who were in favor of closing Mark's Meadow to acknowledge that, regardless of it's necessity, it is an unfortunate loss to the community (and to a certain sector of the community, in particular)? Just like the closing of War Memorial Pool, and reduced library hours, and understaffed emergency services, and reduced funding for Leisure Services and Social Service Agencies are losses to the community, resulting in certain sectors being more affected than others. A little more empathy could go a long way.

Anonymous said...

All of these considerations, so many arguments...and yet we ignore the answers for what works best! What does work best? What's been working so far?!

Let's ask ourselves honestly just how interested we are in real solutions here? Do we honestly believe something else will be better than what we already have? Do we really believe all these efforts to redistrict our town will solve our temporary challenges?

I'm personally offended by the socio-economic issue being made as a case to close a successful school such as Mark's Meadow. As a single parent and grad student, working and raising a child at well below poverty level income...we are doing just fine! I don't remember asking anyone to close our school in order to benefit us better.

So please don't do us any favors, Steve & Catherine! We're doing better now than we likely will be when you take away the community we so now share and nourish and am nourished through.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 1:48 - I agree that kids are resilient ... and that there are far more major transitions during childhood than moving from one elementary school to another one a mile or two away (along with a bunch of other familiar kids/teachers). I believe that all of the larger schools (WW, FR, and CF) have had issues with MCAS scores among some subgroups. That is a real and serious issue, and I believe it is one that the SC and the superintendent are taking very seriously (and I think this topic will be addressed at the October meeting). CF has been the school in which Spanish-speaking kids/staff have been clustered ... and this type of support, as needed, will certainly be provided to any/all of the schools for any/all ELL students once this clustering by language stops next year.

Anonymous 5:30 - three of the four elementary schools have had difficulty on MCAS ... and I think this needs to be addressed at all schools for all kids. I agree that giving appropriate support is essential ... regardless of which kids go where.

Anonymous 7:56 - I think the spring 2009 MCAS scores will get announced soon -- they are, I believe, on the agenda for the next meeting. My understanding is that the district is absolutely not required to keep students together -- in fact, one of the "penalties" for failing schools is allowing students to move to other in-district schools.

It's called democracy - I think it is great for all parents to advocate for their kids. I've done the same for my kids at times. But there is also a time at which choices have to be made, and those choices mean making some people unhappy -- keeping MM open would have meant larger class sizes and the elimination of instrumental music. That was a choice, and the five members of the SC agreed that the choice for the overall good was closing MM. We are now facing a similarly difficult choice -- some kids will move, and some parents wish that weren't true, and will encourage us to make another choice (which is really just saying "move someone else's kids"). I think it is pretty obvious that I'm interested in hearing feedback -- I believe I'm still the only member of the SC with a blog.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Anonymous 7:48 PM,

1)I was in favor of closing Mark's Meadow.
2)It is an unfortunate loss to the community, as a place that people put their heart and soul into to make a great school.
3)The closing of the War Memorial Pool, the reducing of library hours, the understaffing of emergency services, and reduced funding for LSSE and social service agencies are all unfortunate losses to this community.
4) I voted for the last override. I will vote for the next override. I will vote on a menu ballot to fund all of the above items (along with a desperately needed new fire station), if they are listed.
5) I am willing to reach into my pocket to pay more for what makes Amherst a great place to live. I believe that a dollar spent here is better spent than one that is run through either our state or federal governments. I do not agree with the convenient fantasy that our town government is wasting large sums of money.

We've had at least one member (and sometimes two) of our household on Town Meeting for the past four years and other years before that. We've been on there, with good attendance records, because we could see that hard choices were coming, and, sure enough, they've arrived.

Is that enough empathy for you? I sure hope so, because, God Almighty, we need to quit crying about Mark's Meadow, etc. and move on and fix this son of a bitch.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 9:27 - the MCAS results are going to be made public very soon. I think it is fair to say, since this was said at the last meeting of the SC, that FR, WW, and CF are all having some trouble with math in particular (at some grades). This information will be made public as soon as the state releases it -- I think the district gets an "early heads up" but don't worry -- full info will come soon. I think this is on the agenda for the October SC meeting.

Rick - well said. This is hard. Redistricting is hard and closing a school is hard, and we are doing both. And yes, not everyone is going to be happy -- but we really are going to do our best to create the best plan we possibly can -- knowing that, unfortuntely, not everyone is going to be happy.

Abbie - you are right about the two points. In terms of the first one, there is just NOT a way to keep all kids in the apartments off of East Hadley Road in the same school ... and maintain equity. If you keep those kids all in CF, you have the situation we have now, with one school that is highly low income. So, the choice is between keeping all the kids in apartments going to their local school, OR having three schools with equitable portions of low income kids. You can't have both.

I agree with your point about having a school that emphasizes the Spanish culture. That is, in a sense, creating a magnet school that focuses on one particular culture, and that inherently means that kids at different schools would have different experiences. I think that is problematic for a lot of reasons, and I think it is very likely to be more expensive to operate (for many reasons).

Anonymous 12:23 - you can send extra resources to CF, but that doesn't change the issue of equity of experience. And research suggests that having a school that is more than 40% low income is associated with disadvantages in terms of achievement ... which can't be made up by giving extra resources. Again, I think the SC believes strongly that having three equitable schools (in terms of experiences, populations, resources) is an important goal here.

Anonymous said...

Rich,
There's a difference between having empathy for a situation and "crying about it". If we're going to come together on the redistricting plans, then we need to move past some of the hard feelings about the arguments for and against closing Mark's Meadow which have put some of us in pretty entrenched and dismissive positions. This is true on both sides, I think. And Joel's attempts to google his way towards some kind of validation of his position over mine was an example of this. Maybe you feel that my response to Rob's comments were as well. They weren't intended to be. And by the way, your list of identifying points about yourself are all true of me as well, including participation in making the tough decisions that have needed to be made in town meeting.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Troubled Parent - I agree with your comment. Having schools that emphasize a particular culture (Fort River example, WW teaching Chinese, etc.) seems problematic to me. I also don't think this occurs in other districts at all. I do think redistricting (and ending the language clusters) will end this.

Anonymous 12:50 - to answer your question, MM has the cluster of Korean kids. And yes, I think the reasons are two fold: one is to provide particular services in a cost-effective way, and the other is to more broadly celebrate a particular culture. I don't think this practice is a wise one, and I agree that this should be changed.

Anonymous 12:58 - if you look at the map, kids are in almost all cases going to the school closest to where they live -- in fact, more so than in our current map! So, let's not pretend that the new map just moves kids all around at random to create equity. Kids on the whole will be on the bus for the SAME AMOUNT OF TIME as they are now. So, the new plan has the same bus times AND greater equity -- it isn't a choice between the two, as you present it.

The SC doesn't need to do a study -- the study has already been done in other districts. Schools in which more than 40% of the kids are low income show lower achievement for kids than schools in which there are fewer low income kids. So, yes, I think it is very likely that MCAS scores will improve with the redistricting. But even if they don't move at all, I think it is the right thing to do.

Think of it this way -- if we were starting these schools from scratch, and the SC said, "let's create a plan in which one school has 60% of kids on free/reduced lunch and the other two schools are 25 to 35% or so" -- what would the town say? I think people would be angry and outraged, and insist on equity, right?!?

Anonymous said...

"...you can send extra resources to CF, but that doesn't change the issue of equity of experience...."

I guess that is where we disagree. The loss of a comfort zone, so important during the developmental stage, far outweighs whatever "experience" may be offered by a foreign environment.

And of course I assume that, at the expense of those being bussed, the aim is not to provide an educational experience for those remaining in their home schools.

Joel said...

As to where MM is located versus WW, let's admit two things:

1) There is an objective reality. They are in fact very close to each other. It is a change of one half mile to the east. I can't make water run up hill for you; and

2) There is a cultural/emotional reality. MM is closer for some families, so WW feels far away. I get that no matter how close they are in reality, the change sucks for a lot of parents -- we don't know how the kids will react.

But, being further away doesn't make something far away. The burden isn't some sort of new, great distance kids will have to travel. The burden is leaving a school a lot of people love. We all get that. This is an economic crisis and the town is trying to deal with it.

Let's stop fighting the MM battle. It's going to close, which will give the elementary school budget an extra $700,000 per year going forward. That isn't a one-time savings, it's annual -- and it's growing because those administrative costs would rise.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Joel - well said. And thanks for the link to the Education Week blog ... seems like, once again, Amherst is doing something that NO OTHER DISTRICTS ARE DOING!

Anonymous 4:11 - I think the reasoning is to celebrate a culture -- it has stopped being about language acquisition. It also meant that kids didn't have to change elementary schools (after there was no longer a need for ELL services).

Anonymous 4:59 - I have a five year-old who gets on the bus at 8:05, which arrives at 8:35. That's 30 minutes. She describes it as "the best part of kindergarten." I don't think we should imagine that the bus ride is somem horrible thing -- she sits with a friend and talks the entire time!

Anonymous 5:08 - I think it is great for parents to fight for what they think is right for their kids. And ultimately, the SC has to listen to all the views, and make a decision. So, we could have listened to the views, like yours I imagine, that said "keep MM open at all costs, and just increase class sizes at the other schools and cut elementary music" and so on. Or we could listen to other voices that said "we really like small class sizes and we want to keep art and music". Ultimately, the SC has to vote, and if you think you could do a better job of making these decisions, you should definitely run for SC -- two seats open this spring.

Rob - well said. I've heard no concerns expressed about kids getting bussed from apartments to Wildwood, and most kids don't have anything resembling neighborhood schools.

Anonymous 7:49 - I'm not sure why MM is more of a neighborhood school then say, WW? Lots of kids bike/walk to WW from the surrounding area, yes?

Joel - I agree -- I would describe both WW and MM as being in the center of town. Mill River is north Amherst.

Anonymous 7:48 - closing MM is a loss to the kids/families who went there. Having to move schools will also be a loss to those families/kids that do that with the new districts. And not closing MM would have meant other losses -- to music, art, small class sizes, etc. It is lucky that many MM families were able to walk there for as long as they did. Many families in Amherst don't have that luxury.

Anonymous 9:08 - I'm trying to understand your point here ... I think the research clearly shows that small class sizes matter, so yes, closing MM helps us maintain this. The research clearly shows that schools with more than 40% of kids on free/reduced lunch have bad academic outcomes for kids, so yes, redistricting helps achieve a more equitable portion of low income kids at all schools. You may believe MM has "been working so far" -- and yes, it has been. But that is 13% of the kids in this town, and the other 87% now attend schools that are experiencing some challenges -- so surely you understand that we have to figure out NOT just what works for the MM families, but ALL families, right? Do you have a better solution?

Rich - I agree with much of what you said ... though I'm still not convinced that I'll be able to support an override this year! I certainly agree that we need to "fix this son of a bitch"!

Anonymous 7:41 - the decision to close MM is done ... and I think it would be helpful for the community to now focus on the issue of redistricting, which is also a big issue. I hope that can now happen.

Anonymous said...

Catherine,

It's not that big a deal, but if you come out against an override in the next 12 months, my ardor for you will cool to the temperature of day-old dishwater. (And I get how the Super's outsized compensation served to encourage taxpayer illusions about the existing situation.)

We must come to grips with the grossly distorted fiscal reality that is created by Prop 2.5 and this ridiculous override process, which serves to do nothing less than undermine representative democracy (and puts elected leaders in the ludicrous position of having to do political strategizing about override votes instead of governing).

The demand for empathy made earlier on this blog should be directed straight at the folks who created the need for the tough choices and resultant losses to the community that we have suffered, including the closing of Mark's Meadow and the reduction in library hours: that would be all the people who worked against and voted against the last override.

This is a mistake we absolutely cannot repeat in '10.

Rich Morse

Fed Up Parent said...

Rich, I respectively disagree. Many who voted against the last override did so because they did not see the need to give additional money to those who weren't managing well the money they already had! Our tax rate is already among the highest in the area (behind Pelham, I believe). We need to think beyond the resident taxpayers pockets to balance our budget.

If your ardor for Catherine will cool should she come out against an override in '10, I will venture to say that there are many more who voted for her whose ardor would freeze solid if she came out in SUPPORT of an override! I count myself among them.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 8:49 - I'm not really sure I understand your point. Some kids are going to move schools, and thus will be in a "foreign environment" (that is true only if you consider the physical space of that environment, because other kids and teachers will be moving with them). All the MM kids are leaving their comfort zone. So, to make room for those kids, we need to move other kids ... are you suggesting we not do that, or that in doing that we shouldn't pay attention to the balance of free/reduced lunch kids in all the schools? The aim is of course to provide an excellent education at all three schools -- do you think that can't happen?

Joel - well said. We are talking about kids going to other schools that are all within a few miles of each other. That may be psychologically a big thing, but it does happen all the time in many districts -- schools close, redistricting occurs, etc. Many kids move to new towns during childhood - these kids move to new schools in new towns where they do NOT go with any familiar faces of students or teachers. The reality is we don't need four elementary schools to educate all the kids in Amherst, and that operating three schools is much cheaper than operating four. This will be hard for kids and families across town, but I am confident that teachers and staff and parents will help ease the transition in a way that makes it work for kids.

Rich - I think I pretty clearly demonstrated last year in my lonely (initially) promotion of closing MM that I'm not going for the prize of most popular SC member. I feel I was elected to the SC to make sure that the schools are providing the best education we can for all kids, and that includes making sure we are using resources wisely (hence my push to close MM, even when there were calls last year by some to call for an override to save MM). I haven't made up my mind about whether I'm going to support one or not, but one factor that won't be influencing my decision is what I think of people's opinion about me. I imagine that whatever I decide, there will be those who are angry about my decision -- maybe that will be you, maybe that will be others.

I supported the override in 2007 loudly (financially, time-wise, letter to the paper, etc.) ... and I think, in retrospect, that that was a wrong decision. Thus, I'm certainly not going to support an override this year, or in any other year, unless I believe that having additional revenue would benefit the educational experience of kids in Amherst AND that there aren't other ways to benefit the educational experience FIRST (such as finding cost-savings).

Fed Up Parent - thank you for pointing out the other side. I hear from many who share your views.

Anonymous said...

"Those who weren't managing the money well that they already had": where's the proof of this?

I need to see the itemized brief on what apparently has become an assumption about profligate spending for many people. I don't see it, although perhaps I should be included in that wasteful group, as a Town Meeting member over the majority of the past decade. I see isolated instances of waste (as in the whole Cherry Hill adventure and the gross overpaying of certain school officials), but nothing that indicates gross inefficiency or consistent bad judgement, nothing that indicates that there are substantial savings still to be wrung from government, and I've tried to watch for it. (My voting record in TM doesn't vary that much from self-professed fiscal conservatives in town.)

Let's try to remember: this town government amassed a reserve of 10 million dollars at the beginning of this decade, a reserve which served us well in the ensuing years in comparison to the plight of neighboring communities. How did our leaders do that? Well, it wasn't by being spendthrifts.

But the spending down of that reserve after that created unrealistic expectations about what town government and the schools could deliver, and resulted in a comparatively soft landing into the quagmire that we're in now.

So the bizarre reality about expenses and revenues created by Prop 2.5, accompanied by exploding health insurance costs nationwide, have caught up with our prior careful economic planning in this town .

Now I understand that this view of our fiscal history in Amherst is more favorable to prior elected leaders in town, and therefore does not square with the convenient, armchair, cynical, popular, fashionable perception of a town that spends and spends and spends. And I am very disappointed that Ms. Sanderson appears to be signing on to that view. It's a very bad rap.

In short, our Finance Committee has done a very good job over the past ten years in guiding this ship, thanks in part to the prudent appointments made to it by our Moderator.

So quite frankly, as a witness to our fiscal situation in TM over the years, I don't know what Fed-Up Parent and Catherine are talking about.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Rich - I can't speak for the town and how the town is spending its money. I don't know enough about that state yet to be informed.

And I'm not one who believes that the SC and the "too many adminstrators" sit around with their huge pile of money eating caviar (soon to do that inside the MM space I've been coveting for years).

But I believe it would be irresponsible of me, as an elected official, to simply assume that "of course we need more money, so of course I'm going to support it." I'm going to do exactly what I did with the MM situation -- learn as much as I can about the way we are spending now, our budget for next year, and our anticipated revenue, and then make a decision about whether I believe having an override is the right way to go. I'm sorry if you've been able to do that analysis much faster than I have ... I'm just not there yet.

But you ask for an "itemized brief" on spending that concerns me, and I do have one (one of the reasons why I can't just immediately proclaim support for an override). I am concerned about some spending that I've seen historically in the schools, and yes, that makes me concerned about how resources have been used in the past, and thus I believe it is wise to expect a demonstration that past practices have indeed changed PRIOR to asking the residents of Amherst to give more money.

I am concerned that 2 years ago, the School Committee and the superintendent asked the town for $380,000 to pay for two portable classrooms that would be used at Marks Meadow. Those modulars have never been used as classrooms, and are now likely going to be returned to the town to be sold. That was NOT a good use of resources.

I am concerned that even the idea to close Marks Meadow was not seriously discussed by the SC and the superintendent prior to last December, when I became the lone voice initially suggesting that. It is quite clear that we can fit the kids in three buildings and do so at a cost savings. I do not know why this idea was not even under discussion a year ago, when we still had the enrollment projections AND the massive budget concerns (a year after the prior override failed).

I am concerned that the high school teachers voted down a recommendation by the high school principal to return to a semester system, which would have meant that kids were in one study hall a year instead of two. A trimester high school system, regardless of what one thinks about the educational pros/cons, is more expensive than a semester one to pay for the same amount of classroom education. I am concerned that the School Committee gave away the right to decide on the high school schedule at the last negotiation.

I could go on, but I won't ... but I would appreciate it if those who immediately will support an override would be respectful of those who need to learn more before deciding whether to join this support ... just as I believe those who have already decided to NOT support an override should be respectful of those who are learning more before deciding whether they will oppose one. There are likely to already be two camps in town -- those who will support one no matter what (you seem to be in this camp), and those who will never support one (we probably know who is in this camp). But many are in the middle -- I am, and I am have three kids right now in the elementary schools. And those of us who are in the middle will be more convinced by rational claims of why an override makes sense than criticism and disappointment for even expressing some doubts. Perhaps this would be a time for the ardent override supporters to hear the concerns that some have about supporting an override, and to learn from those concerns, instead of dismissing them as irrational and a "bad rap"? I do hear from many parents who feel exactly as "Fed Up Parent" does.

Joel said...

On a possible override:

I have two elementary school age kids and I'm committed to having them in public school, so I supported the last override attempt that failed. Now that I know more about the schools, I'm not convinced their problems are due to a shortage of money as much as they are due to some very odd policies, some of which Catherine enumerated above. If I pay more in property taxes -- which went up last year BTW --what assurance do I have that more money won't be squandered on portables, busing ELL kids against State guidelines, etc.

Here's the political problem for the override: In a town filled with UMass, Amherst College, Hampshire College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and other state employees and folks who work for non-profits who saw their real incomes *decline* over the last year -- there was inflation, health benefits cost more, etc. and almost all of us got 0% raises, some state employees faced mandatory furloughs that further decreased their incomes -- do you really expect us to give more of our shrinking money to the schools?

Wait, before you write a word about protecting the education system recall that a series of first-year principals were granted raises last year and the new superintendent makes more than his predecessor. What exactly had the principals done to merit raises in the midst of a severe recession? My household's income dropped, their households' incomes went up. Why? They had just been hired, why did they accept the jobs if the pay wasn't appropriate? What had they accomplished in one year to merit increases? If we're so strapped, why did we increase their pay?

That's the landscape I see. If we give them more money, will that encourage them to continue to grant such raises? Will it empower them to buy unneeded equipment like the MM portables? What new wastefulness will be embraced if we continue to give them more money.

Anonymous said...

Well, I can't say that I'm not getting the answers I asked for.

As I've felt all along, the new Super's salary was far more costly than simply its numerical increase in dollars over his predecessor.

My sense is if 2-3 of the 10 SC and SB members were to come out early against an override, it's effectively dead at the outset.

I understand that this blog is generally restricted to educational issues, but I call to your attention staffing levels in the public safety area.

Rich Morse

Joel said...

Rich, fair enough. The town may have legitimate needs that might have to be addressed with an override. No one is happy to pay more in taxes, particularly in this economy, but I will pay to keep my town operating.

It will be duty of the Select Board and TM and even the SC to make sure any override proposal targets the money to demonstrated emergency need. That may force the SC to write a budget that addresses a lot of people's concerns about how our schools have been imprudently spending the town's money.

Anonymous said...

I would acknowledge that this blog and its participants is not the only source for the assertion that the schools waste money. And it's not just coming from outside of town government, either.

But this contention needs to move off of the Internet and into a place where someone can do something about it (with the accompanying questioning of people's motives and accusations of bigotry, of course, that comes with any difficult discussion in Amherst).

Does anyone know the History of the Modulars? I believe that I voted for that expenditure way back when, because I believed that the case was made for them in Town Meeting. To that, I plead guilty.

Rich Morse

Joel said...

Rich,

You may have supported something like the modulars because you were given misleading or incorrect information. When I first started attending SC meetings I witnessed flat out lying by SC members, primarily from Elaine Brighty. She said things that she had to know were completely false. During the debate on the new 9th grade science curriculum, for example, she flatly stated that AP classes and tests have little or no impact on elite college admissions. She assured the town of this as someone who had done admissions at Amherst College.

She was a reader in the admissions office. I had served as a faculty member on the admissions committee at Rice and knew what she said was just wrong. (There is a big difference between being a reader and being someone who makes decisions as part of the committee, btw.) I asked a current admissions officer (not just a reader) at Amherst and a former one from Williams and both smiled and said that no one in their right mind would ever say that. They agreed that APs are problematic, but the reality is that they do matter in admissions -- probably more than they should.

It's just one example of how some previous SCs misled the town either out of their own incompetence or deliberately to get something that no one would otherwise support.

Some people will flame me for calling a lie a lie, but if we don't call bullshit on people they'll continue to drive us off the cliff educationally.

We're moving in the right direction. Most of the SC members seem smart and sane, so maybe we'll make some progress going forward.

Rick said...

I agree with Rich, Catherine and Joel on the override question, even though they say different things, because what they are all saying is [mostly] not mutually exclusive.

I agree with what Rich says about there more or less being “nothing that indicates gross inefficiency or consistent bad judgment” – at least not enough data to conclude that – and also about the Finance Committee doing a good job.

On the other hand, during these times in particular, the management of spending doesn’t just have to pass the “gross inefficiency” test, but rather has to pass the “do we really, really, really need to spend this money” test. It’s not clear to me that kind of really hardball analysis goes on with spending decisions – both school and town. It rarely does. I know when I was running our family business, I really only did that during the horrific year when we didn’t know if we would make payroll many weeks. It usually takes some real pressure to do without what you don’t really need.

I also agree with Catherine that “criticism and disappointment for even expressing some doubts” is not a good thing. Doubts need to be brought up and at least mostly addressed.

But I would say this: I can’t really form an opinion on whether or not ARPS spends money well based on a short laundry list of questionable past expenses. I would like to see much more information on this. Specially this:

1. A list of at least 20 items that look to be bad expenditures. In a budget of $47 million, I need at least that large a sample to form any kind of an opinion.

2. I’d also like to see a list of items where expenses were saved – in other words good moves on reducing expenses. We never hear about those – other than closing MM, which was huge. There must be some? How many bad choices I may be willing to cut slack on (maybe none in these times) depends on how many good choices I hear about as well.

Also, if I recall correctly 80% of the school budget is payroll. Therefore, I can’t imagine anything more important than good management of payroll and payroll related expenses (benefits). I’d like to hear a lot more about how that has been handled.

I know that Catherine has formed the opinion that ARPS does not spend money well, and because of the large amount of digging and work she does, I respect that opinion. But the rest of us should not just form an opinion because Catherine, or any one else, has a certain opinion. We should all form opinions based on facts presented to us.

Finally, I agree with Joel’s last comment “We're moving in the right direction. Most of the SC members seem smart and sane, so maybe we'll make some progress going forward.” I think that gives us all a lot of hope.

Anonymous said...

While everyone is debating a potential override, allow me to tell my tale. I have worked in the Town Hall, School Department and the Unviversity for approximately 40 years. Around the first part of May in just about every one of those years, including the present, word would come down (verbally of course) that department heads should "get their wish lists together" because monies have been found and must be spent or next year's allocation will be reduced. Then during the summer months, when skeleton crews hold forth, supplies and equipment come pouring in unnoticed.

Sorta makes you want to pay your State taxes, property taxes and vote for an override.

I have to agree with Rich when he says "My sense is if 2-3 of the 10 SC and SB members were to come out early against an override, it's effectively dead at the outset."

Let's hope it happens.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Joel (at 9:09) - two things. First, I think the key thing you identified is TRUST ... do we TRUST that if we vote an override to give the schools more money, will that money be well used? The schools (elementary and regional) take up about 2/3rds of the town budget ... so if you think 2/3rds of override money even MIGHT not be well spent, you probably are going to be vote no (even if you think the police/fire/library/LSSE/town needs more money). And in my opinion, the schools have not, IN THE PAST, necessarily used money well. I think having four elementary schools was not money used well (that says about $700,000 a year) and I think buying two portables (remember, the SC wanted to buy FOUR portables!!!) was not money used well. Those are two vivid examples to me about how resources have been used in not a great way. And I think that support for an override would be MUCH higher if the schools (and that includes the superintendent, SC, central office) could demonstrate ways in which money is going to be used in a more thoughtful way. I hope that can occur, and I'm working on pushing for such a change in approach -- but that is the kind of thing I'd like to see, and I think other parents would like to see, BEFORE supporting an override.

Second, this is a town in which many people did not get a raise last year. I got no raise at all from Amherst College, and my husband (works for the state of MA) was REQUIRED to take 5 unpaid furlough days. So, our net income decreased. I certainly know of other people, including people with less income than we have, who are also experiencing financial pressure, and thus I think it is essential that the schools (and town, for that matter) FIRST demonstrate that they have tried to find OTHER approaches to cost-savings BEFORE turning to an override. I hope some of those can be found this fall by the superintendent and school administration.

Rich - I am NOT dead-set against an override ... I'm still exploring/pondering what I think about this as an option. I can't speak for my other SC members, but I haven't heard anyone describe themselves as being deadset against it. At the same time, I think it is respectful of the difficult economic times that we are in that the district focuses FIRST on finding other cost savings BEFORE stating that an override is needed. Again, I can't speak for the issue of town money, and police/fire/library/LSSE may be doing all they can already in terms of cost savings.

Joel (at 8:04) - I believe the FCCC suggested a menu override option, which would allow people to vote for certain things (e.g., police/fire) and not for others. That might be an appealing option for the SB to consider (I certainly hear more distrust about school spending, which again is 2/3rds of the town budget, then about town spending, though maybe that is just due to my position on the SC and what I hear!). I also like the idea of having the SC craft a budget that shows how our budget addresses concerns that have been raised about spending ... and I do think that voting to close MM (and end language clustering) was a key step towards demonstrating a more efficient use of the school's (limited) resources.

Anonymous said...

I expect elected officials like Catherine to answer two questions prior to an override vote:

1) Do we need it?

2) And, as importantly, what are the consequences if we reject it, given that another vote probably won't be until 2013? What are the consequences, in light of the expectations that Amherst parents have about their school system?

There may be obstacles to School Committee members getting information, but this is no time for them to act like outsiders. We expect them to know more than we do.

My preference would have been to give SC members free rein to appropriate money as they see fit, and then hold them accountable at election time. Instead we expect them to strategize about an up or down referendum on additional revenues, and give us advice on the fiscal realities.

This is the new ridiculous environment of government by referendum, in which the most disaffected voter has as much say as the most informed elected official. It's a repudiation of representative democracy, and it doesn't work.

By the way, let's not act as if other sectors of government are models of efficiency, or the private sector, for that matter. I believe that Catherine lives with a government employee. All you have to ask is "tell me about the waste", and any government employee can give you an earful.

Rich Morse

Wondering about the reasons said...

Getting back to the original post, I want to challenge Vladimer Gonsalez to explain the benefits (real not just perceived) of having kids from Spanish-speaking families together in one school.

There is also a wave of people from Asian countries coming into Amherst and Massachusets. Should they be clustered in one elementary school -- or classes in the middle school and high school? What if people from Nothern European countries wanted this for their children?

One Hispanic parent wanted this type of grouping so his children wouldn't lose their culture, making if there are other ways to achieve this -- and knowing that part of the story of America is this loss, adaption, mixing, enhancement and opportunity.

If the school system was to follow this idea, would future enrollments, bus schedules, districting keep readjusting to new waves of immigration? When would the school system stop doing this for a group?

I've seen the immediate benefits to new non-English-speaking students having a kid in their class speak their language in my kids' classes. It was a comfort to the new kid, who stuck to that other student like lint. But I'm not sure if that helped them or made any difference in the long run over years.

Also, the Cambodian situation may be unique since these people were refugees from a war zone, with few poeple around with any thing close to their backgrounds and a need for some special help because of their experiences.

Joel said...

I agree with "wondering about the reasons."

First, as I mentioned in a previous post, the idea that there is some sort of unified "Hispanic" culture is a bit far-fetched. Under the law, people with Spanish heritage are Hispanic, making Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, a "Hispanic." What does he share culturally with the children of immigrants from Latin America?

Do Argentine military men share their identity with peasants from Chiapas? Does an insurance executive in Santiago have the same culture as a farmer in the Bolivian lowlands?

Obviously, I could go on and on and I'm sure I wouldn't convince some people in Amherst.

I don't believe clustering is good for the kids, I think it impedes their acquisition of English, and I believe it's been foisted on them by some adults with some odd views of culture, Latin America, Spain, and the immigrant experience in the U.S.

Bonus question: What's the most commonly spoken language in South Americans? If you know the answer, you know how silly the idea is that there's even a loosely unified Latino or "Hispanic" culture.

Anonymous said...

The most spoken language in South America is Portuguese, since Brazil is the largest country in South America. And no, no one speaks Spanish in Brazil.

Joel said...

Anonymous is sooo right about that. It's Portuguese and that complicates that whole Latin America as unified Hispanic culture business.

Moreover, the Commonwealth's Brazilian immigrant population is among its fastest growing. I mention all this because 1) I'm a historian of Brazil; and 2) I get a headache when I hear some people in town prattle on about Hispanic culture and the benefits of segregating our Spanish-speaking kids (or kids from primarily Spanish-speaking families) in one school.

vannnnoch said...

I'm trying my best to keep up with the comments...

However, I take offense to the Troubled Parent’s comment that Fort River focuses too much on Cambodia and the Cambodian culture and that their child(ren) is OVER educated in Cambodian culture. In addition to learning about where he comes from, my son has learned about other cultures as well. Most recently, he’s come home enthusiastic about Japanese language and culture, Mexico, etc.

I can admit that when my son first entered kindergarten I was very skeptical of language clustering and then found out that this is a voluntary option for these families. Over the past 4 years, I’ve come to be very appreciative of this opportunity. My son has a chance to attend the one school in Amherst that has a positive Cambodian male role model for him to look up to. He won’t have the feeling of isolation I had growing up knowing that his group of peers includes children who eat the same food as him and speak the same language.

I was one of the first Cambodian students at Fort River, and not ever part of the ESL groupings, but immersed into American culture and forced to assimilate (sink or swim) and what I can tell you is that the school has come a long way in creating an accepting environment for all ethnicities. Just because you have diversity doesn’t mean you have acceptance and diverse thinking; meaning that breaking up language clusters will not create an environment where all the other children will become more accepting of other cultures.

Based on my own experiences, I believe that not providing language grouping has a greater negative affect on the minority children then it could have a positive affect for the other children. Years ago I read (without ability to provide exact citation here) that when children who come from the same background are grouped together, it allows them to have a greater sense of self worth, and pride in who they are. Doesn’t self esteem play a role in how well a child may learn?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Vannnoch for your comment. I think a lot of Fort River families feel their kids education and understanding has been enriched by all the Cambodian activities, staff and kid there.

I wonder if the schools can do some planning to welcome new families to new schools -- having new families visit the school a day early to meet their teachers and the staff, visit the art room, library, play at the playground, go to the cafeteria, etc. Also, maybe each class could hold family potlucks early in September.

Marks Meadow is going to close and kids will change schools. This can be argued over and over but to what end? Each of the three schools will become a new community. How can we help make them strong, productive and fun for the kids?

TC said...

Wasn't the new proposed redistricting map supposed to be posted on the district webpage last Friday? Well, I couldn't find it. Does anyone have any news about it?
Thanks

Rick said...

Its up today:
http://www.arps.org/files/Redistrict10_02_2009.pdf