By NICK GRABBE
Monday, November 9, 2009
AMHERST - Two years after Town Meeting approved spending $275,000 for two movable classrooms near Mark's Meadow School, they have not been used for that purpose and will be sold after the school closes next spring.
Two School Committee members said the purchase showed poor planning and that the modular classrooms probably will be sold at a loss. But another committee member and Mark's Meadow Principal Nick Yaffe defended the decision to buy the classrooms, saying the school had a different vision in 2007.
This year, the only activity in the modular classrooms during school hours is instrument lessons one day a week, Yaffe said. They are also used for an after-school program. Last year, they were used for Title 1, a federally funded intervention program, but never as regular classrooms. They would have been used more this year, but Mark's Meadow lost staff because of budget cuts, Yaffe said.
The two 28-by-28-foot classrooms actually cost only $215,000, largely because the University of Massachusetts donated the labor for their installation, said Kathryn Mazur, the schools' human resources director. The money came out of Amherst's capital budget, not its school budget.
Town Meeting was told in 2007 that the 10 classrooms at Mark's Meadow faced a space crunch because of the need for space for special education, computer classes and physical and occupational therapy. Arguing against the purchase, Town Meeting member Nancy Gordon said all elementary students should be placed in the three other, larger schools, which is what will happen next fall.
School Committee member Catherine Sanderson, who was elected in 2008, criticized "very poor planning" and apologized to the town for "a big mistake that was entirely avoidable." She said she doesn't know whether there's any market for the classrooms.
"If there isn't, I think we should start by asking Superintendent Jere Hochman if Bedford, N.Y., could use them, since Jere was the district leader who convinced Town Meeting we needed them," she said. Six months later, Hochman announced he was leaving Amherst to become superintendent in Bedford.
Elementary enrollment declined from 1,732 students in 1996-97 to 1,460 in 2006-07, and in 2007 there were indications the slippage would continue, Sanderson said. It would have been wiser to bus any overflow Mark's Meadow children to the Crocker Farm School, which has been under-enrolled, she said.
"I fear this type of poor decision-making makes people feel less confident that the schools are using their always-limited resources in a prudent way," she said. The current committee and superintendent are acting more responsibly about spending, as shown by the decision to close Mark's Meadow, she said.
School Committee member Irv Rhodes, who was elected this year, recalled that the modular-classroom proposal was presented to Town Meeting as if there was an emergency at Mark's Meadow.
"Now the damn things are sitting there and not used," he said. "We're going to take a financial hit. It baffles me about how the decision was made."
Andy Churchill, who was on the committee in 2007 and was a Mark's Meadow parent, said that because there were just 10 classrooms for seven grades, every year Yaffe had to decide which grades would have two classes and which only one. This resulted in big swings in the number of students in classes, he said.
"It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback," he said. "It is a different time now and we have different needs and levels of revenue from the state. Would we do it again today? Obviously not, but at the time it was a solution to a problem. It wasn't a stupid idea."
Yaffe said the plan was to hire another teacher and conduct classes in the modulars, but the budget crunch didn't allow that. Mark's Meadow had faced chronic overcrowding for 10 years, since it stopped mixing grades in classrooms, and in 2007 there was no decline in enrollment or discussion about closing the school, he said.
"Our vision was to have Mark's Meadow expand and redistrict," he said. "That plan changed because of economic circumstances and declining enrollment."
The new classrooms provided flexibility in allocating space in the building, Yaffe said. "They served a purpose," he said.
Because they have gotten little use, the classrooms are in excellent shape and Amherst may get a good price for them, he said.
"It was a bargain," he said.
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.