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."
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.