February 12, 2010
By Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson
Particularly in times of economic stress, school budget forums resonate with impassioned pleas for beloved programs, and the Regional School Committee meeting of Feb. 2 was certainly no exception, as many students, parents, and community members argued for an override to avoid difficult choices about how to allocate limited resources.
Between the two of us, we have five children in the schools and thus have much to gain personally from additional school funding. Yet as School Committee members, we have a fiduciary responsibility to “watch the money” and ensure that resources are used wisely. Moreover, we share the belief that scrutiny of spending and programmatic decisions enhances the quality of our schools.
At this point, we have not had enough time to fulfill our fiduciary responsibility and therefore are not comfortable projecting a budget shortfall for next year. More specifically, we believe several key issues remain unresolved in addition to the ongoing concerns regarding spending on administrators and the rapid growth of resources devoted to special education.
First, the proposed average academic class sizes indicate we will have larger class sizes in 3rd to 6th grade (23 to 24) than we do in 7th to 12th grade (20 to 22). Having lower class sizes in middle and high school than in elementary grades is unusual, costly and at odds with research on the benefits of smaller classes.
Second, our high school trimester schedule costs more than $300,000 per year more than a standard seven-period semester schedule for virtually the same instruction time and same average class size. This suggests the potential desirability of raising academic class sizes and either reallocating money to other programs or reducing the number of study halls, given the roughly 20 minutes of additional teacher preparation time per day under our trimester schedule.
Third, the override proposal discussed last week would allocate $1.1 million dollars to the regional schools but only $176,000 to the Amherst schools. This large imbalance suggests that the vigilant cost cutting at the elementary level -- including the closure of Mark's Meadow and excellent work by the elementary schools principals in developing new research-based models of service provision – will largely be used to maintain existing programs and structures in the middle and high schools. We find this especially concerning given the considerable research highlighting the early grades as the key period for addressing academic and social difficulties, as well as the significantly higher percentage of low income students at the elementary, as compared to the regional, level.
Fourth, the override-driven budget process has focused on restoring cuts rather than taking a broader and more critical view of how we should allocate our always-limited resources. We feel strongly that it would be a missed opportunity to ask the community to pay higher taxes simply to restore current services rather than consider a more comprehensive vision of the future of our schools. What would it take in terms of program reorganization and additional resources to eliminate mandatory study halls? To maintain or even expand our current programs in the arts? To provide elementary school world language instruction? To provide universal preschool and summer programs for all those with economic disadvantages and educational needs?
Finally, we have decided not to continue writing this column. Our decision was prompted by concerns of family members who have become increasingly disturbed by the personal nature of many responses to our writings, particularly given the fact that our families have a combined five children in the schools.
We intend to double our efforts on the School Committee, and we want to thank the many parents, teachers, and community members who have offered their support and appreciation in private and offer particular thanks to the few who have stood beside us in print. We believe strongly that the health of our schools and community depends on the willingness of many to speak and write freely in spite of the discomfort that may bring.
Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin are Amherst College professors and School Committee members.