We then turned to the superintendent's update, which consisted of two items.
First, Dr. Marta Guavara discussed plans for the redistricting, which seem to be moving along very well. Meetings are being held at each of the elementary schools with families who are moving to new schools, and there are plans for interactions for kids between schools and new Open Houses (in February, likely). They also hope to announce staffing decisions early in 2010 (January/February) so that kids/families will know about staff/teachers in each of the buildings. I've heard from parents who have attended these meetings, and my understanding is that this process has worked very well. Andy noted that a new committed led by Representative Ellen Story has been meeting to discuss "equity and participation in our schools" and that we were all invited to participate in such meetings.
Second, Dr. Rodriguez discussed his data showing that in the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 school year, about 90 kids on average withdrew from the district (to attend another school). However, as of the 2007-2008 year, about 200 kids on average withdrew from the district. He is concerned about this rather large increase, and is now planning on having staff members call all families who left to try to learn the factors that led to these departures. He is also implementing an exit survey to ask families who leave to give information about why (e.g., are they moving to a new state, or just choosing a new school -- and if so, why?). I really, really commend Dr. Rodriguez for taking on this issue -- it seems clear that we as a district need to understand not only how many people are leaving ... but why. This will be useful information going forward, and I believe will only serve to strengthen our schools (by understanding the factors that are leading some families to opt out).
We then turned to the big topic of the evening -- the budget update. The information was presented by Mike Morris (principal of Crocker Farm), and briefly, the cuts are as follows
- 2.6 cuts to administration (largely due to closing of Marks Meadow and needing one less principal)
- 1.5 clerical cuts (again, due to closing MM)
- Small cuts in art/music/PE (.55 or .6 to each of these areas)
- 1 instructional technology (computer) teacher
- 3.5 cuts in support - nurse, guidance counselor, custodian (due to closing MM)
- .9 cut in a psychologist
- 4 cuts in classroom teachers (meaning average class sizes go from 19 to 20)
- 2 cuts in ELL (change in service delivery)
- 4.6 cuts in intervention (change in service delivery)
- 11.5 cuts in special education (8 paraprofessionals -- though service will still be in line with state-mandates in terms of IEPs, plus some clerical and therapeutic and academic SE support).
There are also cost savings in terms of supplies/materials at Marks Meadow ($35,352) plus health insurance premiums ($81,000), and health insurance enrollments ($43,300).
Finally, there are additions of a curriculum director ($28,000 from the elementary budget) plus costs of closing MM ($90,000 to move furniture/supplies), and adding one more preschool classroom ($90,000).
Now, another way of looking at the cuts is what will the schools look like next year in light of these cuts (which, for the record, represent the WORST budget case scenario). Here are these projections:
- each school will have a principal, assistant principal, 3 secretaries, and 4 custodians
- each school will have a full-time librarian, at least one guidance counselor, a school nurse, and assistance from a psychologist (part-time)
- each school will have proportionate to their enrollment levels of art, music and PE (so that each child will have these classes at least once a week, which is the current level; FR and WW have full-time people in these positions and CF has a .6 person in each of these)
- each school will have intervention support (2 to 3.3 positions per school), ELL support (3 to 3.9 positions per school), special education support (e.g., speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, etc. , at 6 to 7 positions per school)
- there are no cuts to instrumental music (orchestra starts in 4th, band in 5th)
- the K to 6 science coordinator position is maintained
These cuts (which again, represent the "worst budget case scenario") frankly seem really, really good to me - they total 1.7 million, yet class sizes remain quite reasonable (average of 20, range of 16 to 24, which is in line with our current mean of 19 and range of 14 to 25), art/music/PE is maintained at current levels, and each building has a full-time librarian. The big cuts are clearly to intervention -- and we had a long discussion about this, which I will try to briefly summarize.
Steve - thought changing the model of intervention makes sense (e.g., to more afterschool programs and summer school, partially paid for by grants), praised the idea of adding a preschool class, and noted that retirement costs the district pays will also be lower (with fewer staff). He also wondered about how effectively intervention support could be provided with this model.
Dr. Rodriguez noted that a group from CORE did a "literacy audit" to evaluate how well our literacy program is working, and he will report back on their findings.
Ray Sharick (principal of FR) noted that decreasing intervention support could lead to more SPED placements, which then is expensive.
I praised the leadership staff for their hard work, and noted that the recommendations seem very reasonable in terms of what they've maintained while making such severe cuts. I also noted that the principals were in the best position to make recommendations, and that in January, I'd like to see some numbers in terms of trade-offs: for example, if we go to larger class sizes, could we add more intervention teachers, or could we cut instrumental music or the preschool program to add more intervention?
Irv noted that he is concerned about cuts to SE and intervention in light of the failure on MCAS of our schools this year. He also wondered whether these cuts reflect our values as a school system. Finally, he wondered about the impact of these cuts on staff of color (who are more likely to be recent hires and thus at risk of being let go as positions are cut). Kathy Mazur noted that of the cuts, 23 are to teachers, and of these, 8 are to classroom teachers -- and that there are 5 minority staff of these 8. Thus, reducing teachers will impact staff of color more.
Kathleen observed that she didn't think we valued kids who need intervention support. She also wondered how we can maintain staff of color, given seniority laws, and pointed out that the instrumental music program is a way of gaining access to fewer study halls in high school and that families should be told about this benefit.
Steve noted that he was sorry world language didn't appear in this budget for K to 6, and wondered if things become less dire than we imagine if this might be brought back for consideration. He also noted that although we are spending a lot of money on intervention, it isn't always clear that these programs are effective, particularly in light of our recent MCAS problems. He felt that we need to figure out if our programs are working, and not just spend money because it "feels like the right thing to do."
Irv wondered if we are cutting too close to our needs on IEPs.
Andy expressed that a prioritized list would be helpful, so that we would know what to bring back first if things improve in terms of funding.
Ray Sharick spoke at some length about how drastic these budget cuts are. He noted that we are reducing technology support in half, and that it will be very hard to do without more intervention support and psychological services. He believes that a 1.7 budget cut will have a big impact.
Irv expressed his desire to have information for a 2012 budget, not just this year's budget.
Steve noted that he doesn't see the budget as disastrous, and that some things like having a more aligned curriculum and a better math curriculum might help improve outcomes and require less intervention support. He believes we need a cost-effective model of intervention, and observed that we certainly seem to spend a lot more on intervention than other districts.
Andy then presented a sheet in which he had gathered information on the per pupil costs based on our comparison districts: Newton, Brookline, and Framingham. He noted that although the sheet Steve had distributed at the last meeting (and which I have posted on my blog) compared to local districts (Northampton, Longmeadow, South Hadley, Hadley, East Longmeadow) and showed our per pupil costs are higher than others, our comparison districts actually have quite similar per pupil costs. Specifically, the Amherst district has a per pupil cost of $15,223.77, which is in line with Brookline (15,431.47), Framingham (14,620.62), and Newton (15,498.08).
I then noted that the reason I had chosen local districts as a comparison in terms of per pupil costs is that 80% of a school's budget is staffing costs, and those costs are often influenced heavily by how much it costs to live in a given community (e.g., housing prices).
SIDE NOTE: I have now confirmed this: whereas Amherst has a median housing price of $328,500 and a cost of living that is 112% above the national average, Brookline has a median housing price of $758,214, and a cost of living that is 147% of the national average; Framingham has a median housing price of $301,716, and a cost of living that is 119% above the national average; Newton has a median housing price of $763,281 and a cost of living that is 161% of the national average). Thus, I still find it strange that it apparently costs a lot more to educate a student in the Amherst schools than it does in our local districts (which have more similar housing costs) -- we seem to spend the same as schools in the most expensive part of the state, yet the cost of living is much cheaper in Western Mass (and it is clear that the programs and classes offered in some of these schools are also much more extensive than those in our schools).
I also noted that we have some things under our control -- such as how we make budget decisions -- but that other things are not in our control -- state aid, whether the SB puts an override on the ballot, and whether that override passes. Thus, regardless of the current funding situation, our responsibility is to make sure that we are making wise fiscal decisions with whatever funds we have. Finally, I noted that the principals and senior central administration have decided not to take raises this year, and that we should be appreciative of this decision.
Dr. Rodriguez then noted that he wished we could add world language (even in 5th and 6th), but that budgets times just don't permit. He also noted that the SC has been concerned about special ed costs so these have been reduced. He expressed his view that we need to be careful in how we are carrying out intervention support -- our current model of Reading Recovery requires 1 teacher to work individually with a student, and that that teacher (cost of $55,000) works with a total of 8 children over the course of the school year, which is just cost-prohibitive. He also noted that we have not been spending Title 1 money wisely (e.g., we could have been using it for afterschool support, which he has now implemented), and that our ELL model could be better than it has been.
Dr. Rodriguez then said, in response to a question by Andy, that if additional funds were available, he would bring back intervention support (but in a better, more strategic way), and that he would like to add world language.
Steve echoed the belief that we need to get more bang for our buck, and said that we should concentrate intervention support on kids K to 2 (whereas Title 1 money requires spending it on kids in 3 to 6, which are the MCAS years).
We tabled our discussion on afterschool programs and preschool -- stay tuned for January for these topics.
There was then a brief discussion about hiring a curriculum director (K to 12), which will be a new hire (but at a lower level than an assistant superintendent, so for less money), and that these funds are in the current budget.