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.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

School spending scrutinized

Amherst Bulletin
By Nick Grabbe Staff Writer
Published on January 08, 2010

A group of citizens is meeting twice a week this month to learn about how the school system spends money and then provide the School Committee with feedback as it ponders up to $4 million in cuts.

Last week, each of the 10 members of the group came up with 10 questions, which have been sorted and presented to school administrators. School Committee member Irv Rhodes said the questions seem representative of the concerns the public has as it confronts both cuts to existing programs and a tax override vote on March 23.

The Regional School Committee is due to consider a more detailed list of possible cuts at its meeting Tuesday, and the Amherst School Committee will have a similar discussion about elementary spending on Jan. 19. A public forum on the budgets has been scheduled Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. in the high school library.

The citizens group is scheduled to meet Friday, Jan. 8, at 5 p.m. in the Regional Middle School's Professional Development Room. It is chaired by Alison Donta-Venman and its other members are Rick Hood, James Chumbley, Joe Cullen, Ernie Dalkas, Becky Demling, Jennifer Holme, Joe Gensheimer and Amy Brodigan.

Some of the 100 questions address fundamental issues: Why does Amherst spend more on public education per pupil than Northampton? Could the high school save money by switching from a trimester to a semester system? Has school staffing decreased proportionately with a decline in enrollment over the past 10 years?

The group wants to know what percentage of time teachers at various levels spend in classrooms. It wants to know why there are so many secretaries and whether two dean positions at the high school could be consolidated. It wants to know the cost of "step" increases in employee salaries.

The citizens have many questions about special education, which has represented an increasing percentage of the school budget. They want to know if there has been a legal review of its practices and whether two alternative high school programs in separate buildings could be consolidated.

"Will services to the neediest students be cut or is the plan to address their needs in different, more cost-effective ways?" asked one citizen.

Several suggested ways for the schools to raise money, such as charging fees for busing and charging high school students for parking and for participation in after-school clubs. One suggested allowing residents of other towns to send their children to Amherst elementary schools.

Most of the questions were inquiries about spending policies, but some challenged basic assumptions.

Member Stan Gawle asked, "Why do Amherst parents expect their children to receive a private school education funded with public dollars?" and "Why does the School Committee approve benefit contracts that are fiscally unsustainable and which automatically either force layoffs or tax increases?"

At a meeting Monday, Gawle said a lack of information on school spending makes citizens more likely to vote against tax increases. He decried "elitism" and "arrogance" in urging greater transparency on budget details.

The citizens' questions boiled down to "what are we spending money on and why are we spending it that way," said Amherst School Committee Chairman Andy Churchill. Rick Hood, a member of the citizen group, responded, "You can't find out why until you find out what."


take a look around said...

When was the last time Stan Gawle visited a private school? I've had my kids in private schools and Amherst public schools are not providing a private school quality education -- although Amherst has many, many excellent teachers working hard to educate their students. Maybe it's time for Mr. Gawle to visit the many local private schools and take a look around.

Anonymous said...

I too have had my children in both private and the Amherst public schools and although I am not familiar with Mr. Gawle or his beliefs I would echo them. Children of affluent families here in town do indeed receive 'private' educations--not a disputable fact--just a fact.
Where can we find the answers to the questions about the special education spending? And did anyone in this group ask about the Building Blocks Program in particular? Thanks...

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Ideally, both the questions our committee poses and the answers to them will appear on the web site on a central budget page (and/or on the FY11 budget page). We have already requested this.

Regarding whether or not there has already been a specific question about Building Blocks submitted, the answer is "no, not yet." If you have a specific question that you would like answered, please share it. Just keep in mind that our questions must be directly related to the budget.

In addition to the questions we have already gathered ourselves, we have also been soliciting questions from the public through venues such as the parent/teacher organizations of the various schools. So I imagine there will be many more additional questions to come in the next few weeks. We hope answers will also be available to the public in the same time frame.

Anonymous said...

The high school charges $75 per student to park in the lot. I think much thought needs to be given to the transportation issues. Continued safety should be the number one priority when discussing cutting the transportation budget. I would not mind paying a fee for my child to be picked up in front of my home rather than have him/her walk to a busy street to be picked up. In an effort to tighten the budget in Oak Ridge, TN those who lived near the school no longer received services; In November of 2007 a 7th grader was run over by a school bus after school while riding her bike home and killed. The bus was full of children and this was a tragic accident that did not need to happen. The so-called "Cadillac" service that we currently receive is worth every penny!

Caren Rotello said...

Anon 11:41:

The tragedy you described in TN was terrible, of course. But, sadly, school buses hit children even in the absence of budget cuts. I don't have to remind anyone that it happened here in Amherst very recently.

What I have heard people propose is to have fewer stops on each bus route, not to eliminate bus coverage in certain areas. Whether there would be significant savings from providing fewer stops is unclear to me (you still need a bus, insurance, the driver, and fuel for every route). But I'm hopeful that this citizen committee will look at and question all aspects of the budget.

LarryK4 said...

I think Stan Gawle's point, Anon 7:41 AM, is that Amherst taxpayers are paying private school RATES for public school education.

Anonymous said...

hmmmm....I understood Mr. Gawle's comment in a different way. I see and have experienced that not every child, and certainly not every day receives the same education--this depends greatly, if not solely, on the income level of the home (thus private vs. public came to mind) the child comes from--sad, but a very true fact. Thank you Larry for clearing my misunderstanding--but the fact remains--NOT ALL children are educated the same in the Amherst schools...regardless of what amount is being claimed to educate them!

Anonymous said...

Alison, Why do the aides in Building Blocks get paid almost $3 more an hour than other aides who do as much, if not more work?
Also, how can they justify locking children in closets???

Anonymous said...

What is this about locking children in closets? Second time this has been mentioned on this blog. Please come forward with your complaints in a direct fashion (with documentation) rather than anonymously casting aspersions at school staff.

I'm starting to wonder if you are a disgruntled staff member with a personal grudge against persons involved with Building Blocks (eg SM). School personnel wages are a matter of public record and you can bring them up at a school committee meeting if you are so concerned. This blog is not the place to air your your complaint.

BB does not lock kids in closets. They have a "safe room" for children who are out of control and need a place to calm down without bolting out of the building, etc. Would you prefer that the kids be physically restrained?

Anonymous said...

How were people selected to be on this scrutinzing committee? Anyone know?

The results of the committee should be looked at in terms of who was on the committee making decisions.

Are there people from many backgruonds and political views or is it lopsided?

When was the opportunity for all Amherst citizens announced to be on this committee?

Or was this an insider arrangement?

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Jan 8, 8:06PM, thank you for your question; I will add the first (budget-related) part to our next list of questions. We are currently working on our round 1 list and getting ready to submit it for answers.

January 11, 3:02PM, it is my understanding that everyone who volunteered for the committee was invited to join. The School Committee would have the answer to that. We definitely have members from all different backgrounds and viewpoints. If you are curious about us, I invite you to attend our meeting today at 5PM in the Professional Development Room at ARMS.