I posted a brief summary of the "highlights" of the meeting late last night -- here is my more thorough review of the meeting. Also, I am VERY behind on posting these meetings summaries (apologies for this) -- I haven't posted summaries for the November meetings yet (but will do so soon). So, keep checking back if you want to read my summaries of the prior meetings (which will include posting the executive summaries from the parent surveys for all three types of schools).
The meeting started with a presentation by MS arts teacher Tara Farley, who brought in three students to share their art (Cubist drawings) -- very impressive presentation (and I hear fabulous things from parents and kids about Miss Farley's teaching - though sadness that art is offered only in 8th grade).
We then had three comments by the public. Sean Smith (chair of world language at the HS) read a letter for HS department heads noting that the schools have a responsibility to educate all kids and that adults who lose jobs will experience a major loss and should be supported during this transition. Lenore Brick (parent) read a letter asking the SC/superintendent to look out for the arts during times of major cuts, since these classes are really important for some kids. Joe Cullen (parent) asked the SC to remember our policy CC in which the superintendent gives an annual report of the administrative structure of our schools, which should be helpful in conveying to the community what the different jobs in our district in fact are.
Next, we had the superintendent's update. First, Dr. Rodriguez described Dr. Beer's on-going work on evaluating the middle school, which has included focus groups, and that he will report on all aspects of the middle school (including different approaches to differentiated instruction, such as extensions) by the end of January. He also announced that he intends to open the search for the MS principal in January or February. Second, he announced that only a single proposal was received to do the special ed review, but that that proposal was judged to be good and hence that bid has been accepted (this work is paid for out of the stimulus funds and costs $50,000). The review will be conducted by the Public Consulting Group, a division of the Center for Resource Management, in Portsmouth, NH. The work will begin early next year, and the review is to be completed by May.
We then turned to the budget updates for both the MS and HS. Both schools have different tiers of cuts, depending on where we end up as a final budget number (I'm going to do my best to present each tier). Here are the proposed cuts:
At the first layer, we lose a .8 student adjustment counselor position but gain a 1.0 guidance counselor (so that each grade has its own guidance counselor, which represents an increase from the current staffing), 1 math plus teacher (but math plus -- which is math intervention - would still continue for kids who need it, just in slightly larger sizes -- such as 6 to 8 kids in a group versus 2 to 6 as it is now), between 2 and 4 special ed teachers (the model of service delivery would change in some way to be determined), a 1 position world language cut (meaning the 11 7th graders who now take Russian or German would choose a new language in 8th), 2 positions in PE (meaning PE would not be taught every other day as it is now but would be combined with health and taught during one semester of ONE year), and a .2 INCREASE in music (meaning music would increase from every other day to every day, as it has been taught prior to this year and I think is a great addition). As I said in my blog post last night, these strikes me as really reasonable cuts (and additions), and I think the QUALITY of the education in the MS would really not be impacted by these at all (and would improve in terms of more music). I know the Russian and German classes have been loved by these kids, but in tight budgets, I just don't see how we make decisions to save something that is benefiting 11 kids at a cost of a position.
At the second level of cuts, we would cut the Quiet Learning Center staff member and replace that person with a paraprofessional (this is a place kids can go to study when they are not able to be in class), and we would cut a clerical position in the front office (we'd go from 4 clerical positions to 3).
At the third level of cuts, we would cut another special education teacher (again, considering the re-doing of the model of service delivery), .4 in world language (meaning class sizes in language would go from 22/23 to 25 and possibly we would go from 4 languages to 3), a .4 position in music (meaning we would have one giant section of chorus in each grade instead of 2), a custodian (we would have 5.5 instead of 6.5).
At the fourth, deepest, level of cuts, we would cut a reading/writing workshop teacher (English intervention support), and we would cut 2 more team teachers from 7th grade, meaning class sizes in 7th grade would go from 20 to 25 (with all team teachers then teaching 125 students). Mike noted that class sizes this large would make it hard to teach heterogeneous math.
Those cuts, at the deepest level, total $698,314.40. I have a 6th grader and in all honesty, I think his middle school experience will be just fine next year with these cuts -- although I would hate to have class sizes as high as 25 in 7th grade, he has a class now with 23 kids and last year had a class with 26 or 27 (and he loves music so would really like daily music). I think these budget cuts are a great example of how we can maintain a rich educational experience (3 or 4 world languages offered, music every day, reasonable class sizes) even with some thoughtful cutting -- and again, I want to commend Mike Hayes for his leadership on presenting such a thoughtful budget.
The high school administrators (Miki Lee Gromacki, Assistant HS Principal) started by discussing the numbers and cost savings associated with the trimester/semester issue. She noted that there are no cost savings between a trimester with two study halls and a semester with one study hall -- those are the same costs because they both involve kids being in class the same number of class periods (e.g., 13 class periods in the current system). She also noted that there are a few one-time transition costs in moving to a semester (e.g., buying new books, changing the database structure for entering grades, etc.). She also said she was not advocating for either system, just trying to be clear.
The high school then presented its budget, which was called "Scenario A" and has all kids in three mandatory study halls per year (which, for the record, is kids spending 20% of their time in study halls). At the most basic level of cuts, we lose 3.2 elective teachers (eliminating the family/consumer science department, plus classes in consumer auto, computer repair, and wood technology), 2 special education teachers (change in model delivery), 2.7 core department teachers (likely by reducing the number of junior and senior electives in English and social studies and thus increasing those class sizes), reducing PE by 1.3 positions (combining health and PE into a single class to meet the state requirement in sophomore year), reducing course relief for department heads, cutting some administrators (1 guidance counselor, 1 clerical position, .4 administrators/deans), and reducing the GCC program (in which our kids can go to GCC and get college credits).
At the second level of cuts, we would also lose an additional 1.5 electives teachers (resulting in increases in class sizes), 1.1 core department teachers (resulting in increases in class size), and 1 more guidance position.
At the third level of cuts, we would lose 1.8 more elective teachers (again, more increases in class size), plus .2 in core departments (class size increases), a reduction in a department head (I think this is folding ELL into English), more administrative cuts (.1 of a dean position plus reducing the preschool overhead administration expenses), eliminating the GCC program, and a reduction of $40,000 in the athletics (increasing athletic fees, increasing booster club fund-raising, reducing one sport).
At the fourth, deepest, level of cuts, we would lose an additional .6 of a special ed teacher (change in service delivery model), .4 in core departments (class size increases), .2 in PE (reducing course offerings), .5 of a dean, $6,000 in professional development, another $10,000 in athletics (see above for consequences), eliminating the use of the Mullins Center for graduation ($10,000), and reducing a custodian and some copy service personnel.
These cuts total, at the worst level, $1,324,218.
OK, I'm back now.
The high school administrators said that they had originally presented just the three study hall option because they felt this was important in terms of maintaining class sizes at a reasonable level (e.g., below 30), and that is particularly true since you just can't have electives at a size of 30 (e.g., there are only 20 or 22 computers in a computer lab, so how do you run a computer class above that number). However, they agreed to also present a budget with just two study halls, but did note that this approach would lead to bigger increases in class size AND that some classes (e.g., art, computers) might not even be possible to teach at such levels.
All of the changes to all aspects I noted above are still cut at the same levels - with the exception of the TYPE of teachers who are cut. In the two study hall scenario, they propose cutting 3 elective FTE and 2.7 core teacher FTE at the first level (versus 3.2 and 2.7 in the 3 study hall scenario), .9 elective and 2.1 core FTE at the second level (versus 1.5 and 1.1 in the 3 study hall scenario), 1 elective and .5 core FTE at the third level (versus 1.8 and .2 in the 3 study hall scenario), and an additional .7 core FTE at the fourth, and deepest, level (versus .4 at the 3 study hall level). In sum, if we go with 3 study halls, we cut 6.5 elective teachers and 4.4 core teachers, whereas if we go with 2 study halls, we cut 4.9 elective teachers and 6.0 core teachers.
After those presentations, we turned to questions from the committee. I am going to list the questions and answers (in parentheses) in a brief format.
Kathleen - how will we support kids who need help in English at the MS w/ a reduction in the Reading Writing Workshop (we need math help more since kids are worse at that in general, but kids who need help in English will have to get that through their regular English teacher).
Will more kids go to vocational school if we eliminate consumer science, which costs us money (Marks believes that kids can get training in things like auto repair/cooking/computer technology outside of the high school, but can't take biology or social studies).
What will happen with kids who can't do PE (Mark believes LSSE gives some options with good reductions for low income kids).
Debbie - one trimester of PE in 4 years of high school is absurd. Is that legal (apparently it seems to be).
How about kids who take athletics outside of school? Could we prioritize giving kids more PE who don't get it in other ways (yes).
Andy - how do study halls save money (teachers teach 10 classes a year and have two "duty" periods -- so the study halls count as "duty" periods).
What do class sizes look like in 3 study halls versus 2 study halls (about 26 to 27 in 3 study halls, and 30+ in 2 study halls).
What classes would be cut in core academics (likely electives in English and social studies -- fewer options, particularly for less popular classes since we have to fill the seats).
Catherine (that would be me) - I commented on how the middle school looks great, and expressed appreciation to Mike for this budget plan.
I then noted that I think 3 study halls is really bad. I also noted that I called several other districts today, and that there are NO study halls required ever in the high schools in Northampton, Longmeadow, or Hadley (and there is a requirement of a study hall one semester a year in East Longmeadow for juniors and seniors only). Thus, I don't understand why we have our kids in more study halls (2 now, 3 proposed for next year) than other districts.
I also noted that my calculations show that we could have more instructional time with the same number of academic classes in a semester than in a trimester (86% of the time versus 80% of the time). Miki agreed that this was true.
Tracy - could we have kids in study halls go to the gym to run around (possibly).
Could we get more interns from local colleges to help (possibly).
How long is a study hall (about an hour).
Are we eliminating 9th grade science and adding AP chemistry due to budget cuts (Farshid noted that these issues had not been presented as part of the budget proposal, and Dr. Rodriguez noted that he would discuss his recommendations on high school math and science in January).
Kristen - what are the budget implications if kids go to vocational schools instead of stay in our high school (will be looking into this).
What are the consequences of a shift from teachers to more paras in SE (there is no set model and both can be effective).
Why is there a shift in the staffing of the Quiet Learning Center (again, both ways can be effective).
Is it a problem to reduce Math Plus (no, given that class sizes will still be quite small -- like 6 to 8 kids in a group - and it will be easier to offer Math Plus with having music every day in terms of the potential pull outs).
Debbie - she sees cuts to regular education as unfortunate, and noted that regular education is a decreasing proportion of our budget. She also noted that chorus with 80 kids in a room would be bad (at the MS) -- though Mike noted that this is only a cut at the worst budget level (and David Ranen, chorus teacher at the MS, stood up and said he was OK with this and had done it before).
Irv - he said he was unhappy that the SC received the budget numbers with very little guidance as to the meaning of these cuts (until the meeting tonight), and that he still doesn't understand why we don't have more specifics (e.g., which teachers are getting cut in what subjects and what is the impact on learning of those cuts) and he thinks we also need to look at projections a year ahead (e.g., 2012 budget). Mark Jackson noted that he thinks the HS needs to find a big revenue saver, as the elementary schools did with closing MM - -he doesn't know what that can be.
Irv also noted that as you cut the newest staff, you are disproportionately cutting staff/teachers of color, which he finds unfortunate.
Steve - he said three study halls should be off the table. He also noted that providing student support may be easier in the semester system (with more weeks spent in a given class with the same teacher). He also noted it was a real shame the district hasn't done exit surveys, so we don't know why people are leaving for other schools (vocational, charter, private, choice into other districts).
He then passed out a sheet of comparisons that I had prepared earlier that day - and I'm going to past it into the blog right here (it is very small but if you click on it you can easily see the numbers) -- and noted that he finds it very concerning that we spend so much more per student than other local districts. What this data shows (and it is taken right from the Department of Education for MA website) is that Amherst Regional Schools have a per pupil cost of $16,131 ... which is above the state average ($12,448.78) and above the per pupil cost of every other Western MA district I checked (Northampton, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Hadley, South Hadley).
So, these numbers are really shocking to me. For example, let's take Northampton -- a district that has about the same number of kids in the same number of schools that we have -- and with MORE kids on free/reduced lunch AND more kids in special education. Those kids have ZERO study halls throughout high school, and they have classes in both AP statistics and AP chemistry (so they spend MORE time in class and have more class options). Yet we spend close to $4,000 above the state average per pupil (again, this number is $16, 131.11) and they spend close to $1,000 below ($11,614.02). I think this is a really a crucial thing for the school administration to investigate -- I just don't understand how it takes us so much more money per student to provide what seems clearly to be a lower quality education.
Farshid - he would like the cuts to be as far removed from kids as possible (and noted he was a math/science geek in high school and yet loved wood shop and metal shop and typing classes, and wouldn't like to see those cut). He also noted that if you look at the last four years, we have had a 1.5% decrease in what we spend on regular education, yet an increase of 2.6% on what we spend on English language learning and a 9.5% increase on what we spend on special education. He sees this as concerning.
Finally, Dr. Rodriguez outlined the cuts to central administration. These include reducing some staff from full-year to school-year, reducing a administrator and one clerical person (not noted in what area), combining the two alternative high schools (saving $178,000 by closing the East Street building), and reducing transportation expenses (per the earlier SC vote). There are also some other cuts (e.g., utilities, computer leases, IT expenses), but that is it in terms of personnel.
He also noted that although we are trying to keep cuts far away from kids, when you cut 2.6 million, education has to be impacted in some way--you are just choosing how/where.
So, that took a really long time ... as you can imagine. We then stayed around to discuss a new policy on the Evaluation of Instructional Programs. The current policy can be read at: http://www.arps.org/policy/ILAA. The new proposed policy (which was based on policies in other MA districts, such as Longmeadow and Brookline) can be read at: http://www.arps.org/node/1073. As you can tell from reading those, the new policy is considerably longer and more detailed, and I believe will provide a much more regular and consistent review policy by which we evaluate curricula. This policy was unanimously recommended by the members of the Policy Subcommittee: Farshid, Andy, me, and Kathy Weilerstein (a member from Pelham).
There was some discussion about this policy, mostly from Kristin and Kathleen. Kristin had some concerns re. language/wording, and is sending some suggested changes. Kathleen had concerns about the districts to be chosen as comparison districts and whether they were largely white districts (they are not -- they are the districts chosen by the SC as comparisons at a meeting earlier this year and include districts with a range of populations). The superintendent suggested we modify the goal to focus on 1 to 3 curricula/programs a year, NOT 2 to 3, in light of the immense work of conducting such reviews.
We then needed to go to executive session so the meeting ended. However, we did decide to have an extra one hour meeting (6 to 7 pm next Tuesday) to hear an update from the legal services subcommittee.
Let me note a few things.
First, I see the cuts at the MS as very reasonable, and although it would be too bad to have to go to the highest level of cuts, we still would have in my opinion a very comprehensive MS (exposure to 3 or 4 world languages, class sizes of 25).
Second, I see the cuts at the HS as much worse, though I'm still not sure what the impact would be on student learning since the specific cuts weren't addressed. I know I've taken a lot of heat for being "anti-elective" but when I say "elective" I don't just mean "elective departments" - and I think we could reduce electives in core departments in some ways that preserve the core of a comprehensive high school. For example, I think reducing the number of electives (both in core departments and elective departments) in junior/senior year English and social studies classes would be unfortunate, but OK. One of those electives is psychology -- my field! But I still think it is fine to not have psychology in high school (and most students don't arrive at college having any exposure to psychology). I also think it is FINE to cut Russian (I know it is a highly successful program with great students and teachers) -- I don't think we are no longer a comprehensive high school if we don't offer Russian (can't imagine many high schools do). Similarly, I imagine there are under-enrolled classes in elective departments that could be cut (I don't know if wood technology is one of them -- although that was one of the areas proposed to be cut last night), and I think we would need to hear more about those cuts and what they would be before determining how they would impact education. I also think, as I've said on this blog and elsewhere repeatedly, that by moving to a semester system, we could have 6 periods a day and one study hall each semester ... for the same cost as having 3 study halls a year on the trimester with 4 periods a day and one study hall -- and the difference for instructional time for kids is 86% versus 80%. That seems like a clear win for our kids.
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.