September 10, 2009
By NICK GRABBE
For parents of children in Amherst's elementary schools, the question is fundamental: Which building will the bus take them to next fall?
A group of administrators and School Committee members is redrawing the map that determines which elementary school children attend. Committee member Irv Rhodes, a member of the group, admits the final product is not going to please everyone. "It is not possible for us to devise a plan that will meet everyone's expectations," he said. "What we can do is meet the criteria and then put it out there and have the process be transparent."
The group will meet Monday at 10 a.m. in the Professional Development Center at the Amherst Regional Middle School. Parents can attend the meeting, but it is not a public hearing.
Opportunities for public comment will come in mid-October, after the group makes its recommendation. The School Committee plans to vote on the new map at the end of October.
"It's not going to be a perfect map," said committee member Catherine Sanderson. "The perfect map is, 'My kids are going to the same school.'"
The main reason for the redistricting is that Mark's Meadow School will close after this year. The other reason is a desire to achieve greater parity between the other three schools in terms of the percentage of children from low-income families. Crocker Farm educates more such children than the other schools.
Two maps were proposed last spring, and the group is likely to recommend a third one. These two maps are at www.amherstbulletin.com
Here is Sanderson's analysis of the two maps.
The first map has children living on Pine/Meadow Street and northward, plus those north of Belchertown Road, going to Fort River, while those living in Amherst Woods would attend Crocker Farm. This map does a good job of equalizing the number of children in each building. But it has still has a higher percentage of low-income children in one school (38 percent at Fort River, vs. 32 percent at Wildwood and 30 percent at Crocker Farm). It doesn't follow natural borders, and it fills Crocker Farm to capacity, providing little flexibility.
The second map has all children living north of Main/Amity Street and west of the railroad tracks going to Wildwood. It puts those living on Leverett Road, Henry and North East streets and eastward, and those living north of the Norwottuck Rail Trail, in Fort River. This does a better job of equalizing low-income children. But it leaves Crocker Farm under-enrolled at 329 students while Wildwood is crowded at 515, a problem exacerbated by Wildwood's open quads.
One of the goals of the redistricting is to keep neighborhood children going to the same school. Both maps fall short of that goal in the gerrymandered East Hadley Road area, where children living close to each other would attend all three schools.
School Committee members are getting emails from parents saying they bought their houses because they wanted their children to attend a particular school, Sanderson said. Some real estate ads have listed "Fort River School District" as a selling point. "This speaks to a problem in the district that we have to solve," she said. She called the current maps "distasteful and inappropriate" because of the imbalance of low-income children between the schools. Rhodes said the disparity may be in violation of state law.
There are several other factors the redistricting group will have to consider. Neither of the two maps takes bus travel and walking distance to school into account. Both would require children living on the western part of East Hadley Road to be bused through the center of town to Wildwood.
And buses must have places to turn around.
Then there are the "portable" classrooms at Mark's Meadow, purchased in 2007 for $380,000 and never used for that purpose. The school district could sell them at a loss, or it could move them at an estimated cost of $140,000. But Crocker Farm, the logical place to move them to, doesn't have the infrastructure to accommodate them, Sanderson said. "It wasn't a good use of money," she said.
Parents of Mark's Meadow children would like them to all attend Wildwood next year, but that would cause problems elsewhere on the map, she said.
There's also Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez's proposal to move the sixth grades to the Regional Middle School. That seems unlikely to happen next year, especially with uncertainty in the middle school leadership, but if the move does take place it would be "extremely unfortunate not to do it at the same time" as next fall's redistricting, Sanderson said.
Ultimately, the School Committee will have to make value judgments about which criteria are most important, she said. For example, it will have to decide whether it's willing to live with a 10 percent disparity in low-income children between the three schools, or with long bus rides for some, she said. It will have to decide how important keeping neighborhoods together is.
"This is not a science," Rhodes said. "But this is something that we have to get right. There will be people who will be upset. We want to be as fair as possible."