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.

Monday, February 8, 2010

February 8, 2010 Amherst School Committee Meeting

We had a pretty quick meeting (two hours), so this will be pretty short.

First, we had an updated budget presentation by the superintendent and Mike Morris -- this presentation just walked us through the latest budget projections. The highlights (I think this is already posted on the ARPS budget site) are that we've been able to ADD (due to the change in state aid projections) a .6 ELL teacher (to WW, based on school needs), 3 intervention teachers (one EXTRA to each school), .20 classroom music (so that all kids can have music on Wednesday/opportunities for dramatic performance/chorus), .3 SE therapeutic ( to create equity in such staffing across the schools), .5 library para (so all schools have a .5 library para PLUS a librarian), 1 therapeutic para (so 2 at CF, 3 at WW and FR), a 1.0 intervention para (so each school has 1), and a .40 psychologist (districtwide). This is in addition to the things already in each of the schools -- which you can see at: http://www.arps.org/files/FYaa%20Amherst%20Building%20Staffing%20Profile.pdf.

Next, we heard what was on the "add list" if an override was passed. This includes a total of $305,000 -- .6 intervention, .7 SE academic, 1 SE clerical, .20 PE (CF preschool), .50 ELL, 1 SE para, .5 psychologist, 2.5 SE para, .40 SE related services, 1 maintenance person, and 2 central office staff going from full-year to school-year. Dr. Rodriguez has also proposed adding a month-long summer program for 100 kids who are struggling (this is largely funded through grants -- a total of $17,000).

We had a relatively brief discussion of these cuts/adds, which basically the SC agreed with and commended the superintendent and principals for doing such a thoughtful budget review.

Steve Rivkin then made a motion, which Irv seconded. The motion was as follows:

As members of the Amherst and Regional School Committees, we believe that asking voters to support an override should be taken very seriously and that it should follow a comprehensive review of programs and costs and in-depth discussion of whether our current programs and level of funding enable us to meet our many objectives as school systems. Unfortunately, we do not feel that we have had the opportunity to engage in either of these exercises and therefore do not believe that today is the appropriate day to come forward with an estimate of our expected funding shortfall.

Over the last 10 months, the Amherst School Committee has voted to close a school, has welcomed a new superintendent, and has voted to implement the first redistricting plan in over 30 years. We have not had time to engage ourselves and the broader community in discussions regarding the successes and drawbacks of current programs and the desirability of changes and expansions including elementary school world language, summer and pre-school programs to serve disadvantaged children, and an expansion of the arts but to name a few. Moreover, our budget oversight process is quite time intensive, and the current budget is by no means a finished product, as many questions remain unresolved.

We believe the best course of action would involve two parallel efforts. The first would be to continue our work on the budget over the next few months, satisfy ourselves that we were using our resources effectively, and then inform the community and select board of the amount of our funding shortfall and the desire to have other funds fill the gap. The second would be to undertake a broader planning process with input from stakeholders throughout the community. We would expect the process to be completed by the end of the calendar year and to provide substantial input on the future course of the districts.

However, if the Select Board is determined to maintain the March 23rd override deadline, as well as a commitment to not seek an additional override in the near future to fund any programmatic changes in our schools, we feel compelled to make sure that this override, if successful, would give our elementary schools the opportunity to maintain current programs that are effective and undertake new programs deemed desirable by the schools and community. We therefore request that if an override is placed on the March 23rd ballot, the elementary schools be allocated $400,000.

We then discussed this motion for a while, and I would encourage people to watch the ACTV broadcast to get a sense of all of the comments from various board members (which are too extensive for me to appropriately detail). Ultimately, this motion passed unanimously.

We then had a brief discussion of policy IL (evaluation of instructional programs) - which passed unanimously at the last regional SC meeting. It also passed at the Amherst meeting.

We had a brief discussion of topics for future meetings, including the evaluation of teaching (Steve), the world language report (Catherine), and the current elementary math curriculum (Andy offered this suggestion from a teacher).

The meeting then adjorned.

146 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just a comment: the restoration budget is heavy on SPED positions.

However, district SPED program(s) is (are) under review right now. I'd be hardpressed to vote for an override asking for restored SPED spending that may not represent how SPED will be configured. Or would that reconfiguring not happen until the 2011-12 budget?

Michael Jacques said...

Catherine,

My wife attended the meeting tonight and brought notes home. From the sheets brought back I would assume that you want to fund everything in the dark and light green areas(lines 1 to 20). Also there seems to be a benefit to including lines 21 to 27 at a minimum. (Sorry to all those who don't have the sheets).

If this is the case don't we need to add approx $800K to the override for the ES. I have lots of faith in Steve so I am sure I am misunderstanding something as he requested $400K. Can you enlighten me?

Michael Jacques said...

I agree with anon 10:14. SPED does seem rather heavy. I was wondering if each ES has a minimum of 1.0 FTE for music, art, and PE. I get the impression from the budget that the method used to determine minimums for specials is more complicated that having one dedicated teacher in each of these areas. While that might be more efficient it does not seem in the best interest of the students. If we are going to have an override and tell the public this is our bare minimum can't we add that back??

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Wow.

I thank you and Steve and Irv sincerely and whole-heartedly for this motion. It acknowledges the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of your process, while acknowledging the inconvenient realities of this situation. None of you made this decision lightly -- I understand and admire that, and I am very grateful that you were willing to do so.

Thank you very much!

-- Stephanie O'Keeffe

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:14 - yep, that is one of the issues I have on this budget. It just isn't clear to me that these the positions that we will need to restore (based on the SE review), and that is a reason why I've asked for more time to submit a request involving shortfalls (and that would still be my position) -- we just felt pressured to come up with a number so the ES didn't totally lose out. But yes, this is a concern in terms of getting people to vote for an override and it is why I think a broader approach to "what should our schools be" is my preference.

Mike - I think these sheets are also available on line under the budget page. So, for readers following at home, lines 1 to 8 are already funded (these are within the estimates of only a 5% cut to local aid). Lines 9 to 20 are things we would add if an override passed (or teachers gave back COLAs, or state aid was 0% and not a 5% cut). The things from 21 on are things we aren't going to add regardless. It is confusing in terms of how it is presented, but these things are either things we don't want (e.g., students are going to walk to bus stops) or are things that are DEFINITELY in the budget already (e.g., PreK and summer enrichment program - these are in red). The things in the light green (lines 9 to 20) are the only things currently on the potential "get back" list -- and these total $305,000.

Mike (at 10:29) - I'm not sure if I totally understand your question. But right now (with or without an override), each of the three schools will have an art teacher, a music teacher, an instrumental music teacher, a librarian, and a PE teacher. Those positions are full-time (1.0) at WW and FR in all cases, and less (.6) at CF (except for the librarian who is 1.0 at all three schools) - because CF has fewer kids/teachers/classrooms.

Stephanie - see, I'm not totally unreasonble and single-handedly killing the override (not your words, I'm quoting others). I believe that we all -- you, me, others on both the pro- and con- and undecided override side -- want the very best for the town, including for the schools. We just have different ways of getting there.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

I NEVER thought you were unreasonable. "All want the very best...different ways of getting there." Totally agree. And I actually think our collective "ways of getting there" aren't all that different. We focus too much on the differences instead of the similarities at our peril. You get that, I know.

Thanks again! :-)

Stephanie

Anonymous said...

However, if the Select Board is determined to maintain the March 23rd override deadline, as well as a commitment to not seek an additional override in the near future to fund any programmatic changes in our schools

We need some explanations about the SB's approach.

What drives the Select Boards timing of the deadline for an override vote?

Why must an override vote now be the only vote about the revenues needed to run the schools?

No one wants to buy a pig in a poke.

Ed said...

Lets face facts, folks. First, if you calculate it on the 49-week schedule that most people work, teachers are paid an average of $85,750 per year. I don't believe that includes the benefits (including the state retirement plan of 80% of salary upon retirement) so one could argue that Amherst teachers are paid, on a FTE basis and including benefits that the Commonwealth pays directly, a six-figure salary.

Teachers were way underpaid for a LONG time - excepting Sputnik to about 1972, teachers have historically been woefully underpaid. And various waves of Ed Reform have sought to address that, except that we haven't gotten the other side, the improved student performance.

Compensation of public employees is a legitimate public policy debate. How much we are willing to pay teachers, how much we are willing to spend per child is a legitimate public policy debate. But it is a debate that we need to have and to call it such.

What we are doing right now is having one side (the NEA/MTA) say what they would like to spend, and everyone else saying that yes we care about children so yes, we will bite the bullet and spend it. This is poor public policy.

Big Pharma would love to tell us to take the most expensive drug for all maladies, real or imagined. And those who complain about the profits the drug companies are making (i.e. teacher salaries) are being evil or insensitive or whatever.

The military would love to have all kinds of new weapon systems that could kill the bad guys in all kinds of funky new ways. Yet we don't give them a blank check.

And while fire safety would be improved if we had a fully staffed fire truck idling next to every hydrant in town, 24/7, the costs would become rather prohibitive....

And thus the question we need to ask is not how much *could* we spend on the schools, but how much *should* we. I don't claim to have an answer here, I am only saying that it is a question that needs to be asked.

Ed said...

There is a real (hidden) cost to the override that is being overlooked, and that as it affects the rental housing market. If the override passes, rents will go up (and more than just by the amount of the increased tax take). And this has three consequences:

First, as rents go up, UM students are forced out of the local "off campus" apartments. While this may sound good at first blush, the units aren't going to stay empty - and they are going to be rented to people bringing Section 8 vouchers from the eastern portion of the state.

Every apartment occupied by UM students is an apartment that doesn't have several low-income children living in it. And while UM students do have a police/fire cost, low income children have a much greater cost both in terms of schooling and in terms of social services.

And as the UM students vacate what was once UM student housing (Boulders, Southpoint, New Hollister for example) it is backfilled with low income families and Amherst (like Greenfield) becomes the regional repository of poverty.

To what extent should one community expect to house and provide for the disadvantaged of the Commonwealth. This is a real issue for Holyoke/Springfield (and during the '90s the welfare folk in Boston were literally sending people out on buses so as to shift Boston's burdens to other places.

Hence as you price students out of the local market you not only loose them spending in the local community but also increase your Section 8 load, which already is in excess of what HUD considers good.

Second, as taxes go up, the middle is squeezed out. They sell their houses (which become Sect 8 rentals) and Amherst increasingly becomes a town of very rich and very poor.

Third, it isn't like these people who used to be in Amherst (UM students and moderate-income families) aren't in Amherst anymore. Hence your daytime population counts go up (like NYC/Boston) and all of these people have transportation needs that make your traffic jams get worse.

And the end result of all of this is a student body that has even greater demographic needs which places a burden on the taxpayer.

And while a new development balances off the increased property tax income against the cost of educating the children living therein, shifting existing (already taxed) development from UM students to single mothers does not.

As socially just as we wish to be, we need to recognize this. We need to recognize it as the public policy issue it is.

And we need to have a very unpleasant conversation about how much the collective public should be asked to pay for the individual good of the education of children.

And when we get beyond the basics - as the schools shift from basic instruction to social service/daycare as they have over the past two generations - the question then arises of whom the children belong to. Are parents still to be entrusted with the sole authority to determine the manner in which their children are raised, or is this now the right of the state?

These are not simple questions. There is a balancing of not only resources but also authority and it is far FAR more complicated than the knee-jerk "teachers good, pay more" mentality.

Maybe we should pay more. But we should decide to do so in a rational and objective manner.

Confused Taxpayer said...

How did you get from $170K to $400K? Are you just padding to get a higher proportion out of the override (if it passes which is looking less and less likely)? Does this mean that the total override goes up to $2.1M? Or that another area of the total override budget will go down to give more money to the elementary schools?

Michael Jacques said...

Catherine,

You answered my question. The PE teacher is .60 FTE at CF based on the number of classes/ students / teachers. If I was the one who had to choose I would want 1.0 FTE for PE for each school. I see the per/pupil imbalance but I could live with that to give our kids consistency.

I also have the same question as confused taxpayer. How did we go from $170K to $400K. I can see $305K from you response but not $400K.

Also if we believe Pre-K and early intervention are great equalizers for many kids (which ultimately reduces cost and increases education quality for everyone), why don't we add that and other supports to our minimum budget before going for the override?

I am guessing this is your argument about not having enough time to research and restructure our schools. Is that correct?

Anonymous said...

I hope that someone will answer Confused Taxpayer's questions in detail, because I think that there will be head-scratching about this higher amount. I get it, but others may not.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

12:21 am "Why must an override vote now be the only vote about the revenues needed to run the schools?"

Where else do we have to turn but ourselves??

Marcy Sala said...

What a thoughtful and thought provoking motion! It looks to me like perfect and good just ceased being enemies and became friends. Kudos to all of you for sticking with a process and timeline that felt imperfect, while at the same time preserving the integrity of your mission as SC members going forward. The conversation ahead has the opportunity to be much richer as a result of the way it was framed and unanimously supported. Thank you all.

Anonymous said...

Even if every school has 1 full-time art, 1 PE, 1 librarian, 1 computer, and 1 music teacher, right now the kids do not have these classes once a week every week. They are on a rotation schedule. I believe it would be wonderful if we could add positions in these areas, so that every class could have at least PE, music, and art every week. That's the kind of addition which would benefit all kids, in all schools.

Anonymous said...

Even if every school has 1 full-time art, 1 PE, 1 librarian, 1 computer, and 1 music teacher, right now the kids do not have these classes once a week every week. They are on a rotation schedule. I believe it would be wonderful if we could add positions in these areas, so that every class could have at least PE, music, and art every week. That's the kind of addition which would benefit all kids, in all schools.

Anonymous said...

Ok,

After the Select Board "debate" last night, I must declare that I have climbed up on the fence about an override. The lump sum decision strikes me as a political stunt.

Don't lecture us about "making the perfect the enemy of the good" and THEN set up a ballot situation that is the epitome of that problem.

I'm from Missouri now.

Rich Morse

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

A stunt?!? What do you mean?

There are pros and cons to a menu or a lump sum. For reasons detailed last night and at BCG, I come down on the side of lump sum. Other people, including on SB, prefer a menu. What makes one preference a stunt??

-- Stephanie O'Keeffe

Anonymous said...

It's a stunt to essentially hold the Town budget, and the flow of much needed revenues to there, dependent on approval of the Schools budget and vice versa, ESPECIALLY given the relative disarray and differing levels of support between the various branches. The Library Trustees can't even get off of the mat to urge voters to vote "yes".

I view the SB and the Town Manager as having their ducks in a row AS TO THE TOWN'S BUDGET. I do not see similar order on the Schools side.

It's time to treat voters as adults.

I call this move a stunt, a fairly bald attempt to ram this thing through, that essentially holds a gun to voters' heads. So I'm out, and watching what happens next.

In the current political climate, everyone must compromise except Stephanie O'Keeffe.

Rich Morse

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

I'm totally open to persuasive arguments, but I don't find any among insults and accusations like ramming this through, holding a gun to voters' heads and not treating voters like adults.

Going back to what Catherine said earlier -- we all want the best for the Town, Schools and Libraries, but we have different ways of getting there.

Let's discuss, not impugn each other's motives.

Jeesh, tough crowd.

--Stephanie O'Keeffe

LarryK4 said...

Yeah Stephanie, and if you had not given up blogging a year ago you would still be in shape for dealing with a "tough crowd."

Anonymous said...

Is there anyone else out there who thinks an override this year is a less than brilliant move?

Why was the override effort started without consulting with the School Committees since schools are the bulk of the budget?

The perfect may be the enemy of the good but the stupid is the enemy of the good.

And you know, it's financially tough out here in the real world where people are struggling to pay their current bills.

Anonymous said...

All I'm looking for is a statement from a majority of each of the elected Boards in town that "We have examined our budget carefully and we believe that our allocation, if approved by the voters, will be money well-spent."

I don't see that.

And now the Town's budget is going to be penalized by being grafted onto this School-heavy lump.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

"Is there anyone else out there who thinks an override this year is a less than brilliant move?"

You are being way too polite!

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the comments here - that I would be happy to vote for an override for the town because of two reasons. They have their budget in place and I trust them when they say they need X firefighters, and Y town clerks. I'm not going to dispute that, I have no reason to doubt the town system. Whereas the reality is is that I am NOT happy with the schools the way they are now. I don't want to pay more money to keep them the way they are now. I don't see the potential cuts as that disastrous. I'm happy to pay more if they were to improve (not necessarily according to just what I want. I just want to see a nice thought out plan for the schools).

The SC/SB compromise of writing an essay on the ballot that ends up not even justifying a lump sum shows that the schools are NOT ready to ask for a specific override. The overall tone is "Yeah, we can always use the money. We'll figure it out afterwards. And let's make sure we save some for the elementary schools" I get that that's the best the SC can do in a few days. But I don't think that means it should be on the ballot.

I DO trust the current SC to make the right decisions about how to spend that money if the override passes - but I have to agree with Rich M. that the only reason the school override is on the ballot is to help get the town override through.

And yet, I think the town override will pass on its own, and perhaps its chances of passing will be jeopardized by lumping it with a last-minute decision from the SC on how to compromise wording so they can feel comfortable having it on the ballot.

So now I am definitely a NO voter. The politics of the override are so ridiculous that the only way I can protest is with my NO vote.

Also - I thought it was interesting that Kevin admitted that he could only dig up 500 signatures on the petition supporting the override. I think that suggests that the town is NOT ready for an override - and I think everyone would agree with me when I say that a FAILED override would be much more harmful and divisive to the town than a well-crafted override (or two separate overrides, one for town, one for the schools).

Anonymous said...

I will repeat my suggestion - I think we should have a town override this year and, if needed, a school override next year. This will give the schools the time it needs to create the schools, K-12, that they want and time t figure out if the restructured schools actually need additional revenue.

I would vote yes for a town override this year and, if the SC showed they really needed more money and what they would use the money for, I would be open to voting yes for a school override next year.

If the 2010 override vote continues to be town and schools lumped together, I will vote no.

Ed said...

Let's discuss, not impugn each other's motives.

Including those of us who do not believe that raising taxes is a good idea...

Anonymous said...

Stephanie has been nothing but respectful of other's opinions, both those for the override and those against the override. Your comment, Ed, is out of line.

LarryK4 said...

No, actually it's not nearly out of line.

Princess Stephanie, who is getting more and more desperate, was responding to Rich Morse who I always refer to as the "Grumpy Prosecutor".

BUT, he has been nothing if not supportive of every Override that has come down the pike in his short decade of existence in the People's Republic.

As tea leaves go they don't come any bigger. Ms. O'Keeffe can whine all she wants about "insults and accusations like ramming this through, holding a gun to voters' heads and not treating voters like adults," but the fact of the matter is she just alienated her base.

Like a former Czar who--you know, no longer lives in Amherst--trying to have me arrested for use of the term "locked and loaded."

Anonymous said...

I understand that whenever anyone in the so-called center gets challenged or questioned, they get all Emily Posty on us, about our tone, impugning their motives, blah, blah, blah.

So in order to mollify Ms. O'Keeffe, I apologize for any hurt feelings she may have.

What's ironic about this from my standpoint is that my position reflects my conviction that the Town side needs additional revenue....desperately. It is not simply another chip to be gambled with at the roulette wheel by placing it on top of a larger stack of chips (the School allocation), all on one number waiting for the big score. That case about additional revenue has been made repeatedly and compellingly by the Town Manager and the Select Board over the past few months.

So let's be clear what the Select Board would be doing with the Town piece IF they decide to go with a lump sum without the explicit endorsement of a majority of SC members: gambling with it, pure and simple.

And I think, as an anonymous post on here eloquently indicates, this is a very bad bet at the present time with the SC in limbo. The voters of this town need to be treated as conscientious, intelligent adults able to make independent assessments about each portion of the budget.

If a SC majority comes out in favor of an override, I'm back on board with the lump. But we're still waiting for that.

Rich Morse

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Oh brother, my feelings weren't hurt. (Thick skin -- existing or acquired -- is a necessity of this position.) I was just trying to steer the conversation back to a productive exchange of ideas.

Rich, your last post is compelling. I will try to respond later, but I must head to a meeting now.

-- Stephanie O'Keeffe

Anonymous said...

This is not the first time the suggestion has been made that:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result"

Funding the schools with an override without deconstructing the budget and rebuilding the same is an exercise in insanity.

Even the most conservative of us want a good educational system in our town. What we don't want is an average system that costs 30% more than everyone else's.

Amherst Advocate

Rick said...

Confused Taxpayer said: “How did you get from $170K to $400K?”

It was a guess at what extra Steve thought would be needed for the elementary schools. He didn’t like guessing (watch the video) and would have preferred to have more time. I am glad he made that guess though and I thought the motion was great.

Really great meeting last night; shows what a great SC and administration the schools have now.

Rick said...

"Is there anyone else out there who thinks an override this year is a less than brilliant move?"

Maybe less than brilliant but there is and always have been three choices:

1. Do an override.
2. Plug the hole in 2011 by using reserves, and then do an override in 2012.
3. Just to the all cuts.

#2 got taken off the table at some point.
#3 is pretty unacceptable to most of us.
That leaves #1

Rick said...

3. Just do all the cuts.

Anonymous said...

so, Rick, we're supposed to vote for a Guess?

Marcy said...

Here's my view on a menu override... for what it's worth: I worry about the potential that exists for different sectors of town government to be pitted against each other in a popularity contest of sorts; the results of which are more likely to reflect the whimsy of personal bias than the conviction of informed opinion. It is easy, for example, for the average citizen to see the importance of adequately funding our emergency response personnel and less easy to see the importance of adequately staffing the town clerk's office. It is easy for a parent of a struggling special needs student reliant on paraprofessional services for their day to day functioning in class to feel the need for those positions to be funded, while it may be less easy for a parent of a thriving, high achieving student to grasp the importance of delegating dollars in that direction. An individual living on a street strewn with potholes is likely to be more apt to vote their dollars for public works funding than a person living downtown or in an apartment complex who consider library services essential to their quality of life. Are these in-built biases the best way to decide what kinds of programs and services deserve funding, or is there a better way? Personally, I'd rather rely on the professional management corps across the various disciplines in town, along with the citizen boards and committees charged with overseeing them, to propose and make the case for what programs, positions and services are essential to their mission, because they are the people most informed about the tradeoffs inherent in funding or not funding. That is what the BCG process has been about; determining what our shortfall, as a community, is projected to be in relation to the range of services that serve the range of needs in our town. There is integrity in that approach that I would not like to see compromised.

Secondly, there is the question about how detailed a menu should be. Do we put the entire town side of the budget up for a vote or separate it into it's various functions? Can I choose fire over police, planning and conservation over DPW, the animal welfare officer over human resource personnel? Or is it a lump sum? If it IS a lump sum, why is that lump sum OK (when there are clearly diverse functions being served within it) while a more global lump sum is NOT OK? I think we lead ourselves into very shaky and vulnerable territory when we go down that road and I hope we don't.

Ed said...

Stephanie has been nothing but respectful of other's opinions, both those for the override and those against the override. Your comment, Ed, is out of line.

It was no such thing. The thing that so disgusts me with the alleged liberals in Amherst is that they are all for decorum when opinions they support are being expressed, but when the other side is expressed, the rules change.

Otherwise known as "free speech for me but not for thee."

Anonymous said...

I just read Marcy's post and I like Marcy a lot. She has been an important person to have in TM.

But let's distill her argument to its essence: the voters with all their prejudices and misconceptions can't be trusted to make these decisions. And I have no doubt this is the underlying logic for the Select Board majority and the Town Manager in supporting a lump sum.

Hey, I'm a big fan of elitism too, which is why if I had my druthers we wouldn't be having these override votes at all. We'd let our elected leaders be held accountable for increases in taxes
and whether we needed them.

But that's not where we are.
Unlike what Marcy is suggesting, I'm not talking about voter micromanagement or confusing ballot complexity here. I'm talking about separating out the Town from the Schools and perhaps the Libraries from the Schools in two or three lines on the ballot. I think voters can handle this level of decision-making about very broad areas of government. It's not rocket science.

This does not compromise the BCG process (which apparently did not work so well). It doesn't destroy the ability of our very knowledgeable elites to do their jobs.

The Schools at this time are a target. And the Town and the Libraries should not get caught in the cross-fire. It's as simple as that. I know that the traditional thinking (which I suspect is where Larry Shaffer is coming from) is that enthusiasm for the Schools will carry the Town and the Libraries in one big lump sum over the finish line. Not this time, folks.

Do you want to win an argument or do you want to raise some amount of additional revenues?

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Ed said...

Stephanie has been nothing but respectful of other's opinions, both those for the override and those against the override. Your comment, Ed, is out of line.

It was no such thing. The thing that so disgusts me with the alleged liberals in Amherst


Ed. Grow Up Please. Budget Override.

Anonymous said...

The Schools at this time are a target. And the Town and the Libraries should not get caught in the cross-fire. It's as simple as that. I know that the traditional thinking (which I suspect is where Larry Shaffer is coming from) is that enthusiasm for the Schools will carry the Town and the Libraries in one big lump sum over the finish line. Not this time, folks.

I think this is a very strong argument although I would describe he situation with the schools with different language.

The SC has demonstrated that they know exactly what money is needed to reverse planned cuts but they are not making the argument that those cuts should be reversed immediately. Why?

They are focused on the bigger picture, which is the funding they will need to impliment their new education plan when they've done all their work, investigated all of the issues and taken their decisions. THIS IS WHAT SANDERSON AND THE SC IS PLAYING FOR, not an override for the library and town budget. Sanderson has said as much. They must finish their work to have good cost numbers and asking for an override now and another one within a year is arguably self-defeating.

In addition, voters need answers about why our cost per pupil is increased as compared to benchmarks without commensurate increase in educational outcome... as well as what will be done to address this.

1) Voters want answers about our schools' cost structure and
2) They listen to Sanderson when she says the SC needs to do more - 9-12 months of - work to know its full funding requirements.

There is no reason voters cannot be asked to vote on two overrides, the first one immediately that would not include schools, and the second one 9-12 months from now that would be schools only.

lise said...

I agree with Rich and Anon 2:14. The traditional strategy of have the schools carry the override vote is not likely to work this year. The towns have been able to follow the BCG process and cut their budgets to the core, employees have agreed to contract give-backs in order to save jobs, we have used reserves to support critical town services, and increased revenues through a meals tax. An override is the only incremental revenue option, and there is a clear understanding of what will be gained or lost depending on an override. A small override for the town would likely pass.

In contrast, given the new superintendent, principals, closing a school and resdistricting, the schools have not been able to execute the BCG process. The core budget priorities have not been defined. There is not clarity about what will be gained or lost, nor is the appropriate amount clear.

It seems that the SB is asking the schools to participate in an override this year, or have no other opportunity to put an override on the ballot for the next five years. The schools will pick a number, and my guess is that the whole thing will go down in defeat, including the desperately needed funding for town services. At this point even many of the pro-override base are wavering.

I suggest a 2011 override with real numbers from the school. Support the town with reserves for next year, or put a town-only small override on the ballot this year. I think it is the strategy that has the best chance for success in winning the appropriate override amount to truly support our needs.

Concerned Taxpayer said...

I am inclined to agree with Rich, Lise, and anon 2:14. Especially after last night's regional SC meeting where they ended up voting to ask for $950K to support the schools. A number which they seemed to pick out of a hat after they talked down the $1.4M and the $8ooK motion was defeated. Watching that meeting, it was clear to me that the pressure to support an override was driving the process rather than real thoughtful analysis of what our schools really need next year. Andy Churchill, at some point during the $950K discussion, was looking down at his "cut list" and trying to figure out what a $950K amount would save. No one answered him. So what I learned from that meeting last night was that the SC was being pressured by the SB to "fall in line or get no money" so the SC spent the majority of their meeting trying to come up with a number they could give to the SB without feeling too guilty about asking taxpayers for money they know people cannot afford for a system which needs a lot more work before it gets an influx of money.

Posters are right; the town seems to have made cuts, negotiated a COLA giveback, made some progress in revenue-generation and efficiencies. The schools have not done that, nor has the library (with their huge endowment) shown that they are willing to share in the sacrifice. Please split the override into a menu with items for the four individual budget lines. I could not support a huge lump sum but could support a smaller override for the town budget alone.

Marcy said...

I get your point Rich. I just think that it's wrong to let individual pet programs and/or peeves determine how we're funded as a whole community. There's a reason we hire managers and administrators to do the vetting about what is needed and elect citizen boards and committees to oversee them in that process. You say that offering no menu is politicizing the process but can't you say the same about offering a menu? People will line up according to the different political and special interest divides that currently define us. My elementary school was closed, "No soup for you!" The library trustees can't get on the same page, "We must punish them even if we have to do it through the patrons." It's not the picture of community responsiveness and commitment I'd like to see play out. Vince O'Connor's already lining up in favor of a menu, largely it seems, to pit Regional against Elementary in the exact opposite way some on the school committee are advocating. Isn't there a ring there of bitterness related to the Marks Meadow/redistricting controversy? I had, and continue to have, hopes that the conversations related to supporting or not supporting an override could bring us together, as opposed to driving us further apart. A lump sum has more of a chance of doing
that, IMO.

Ken said...

Whatever my own views on an override, and whatever my disgareements with Catherine (and Steve) on some issues, my hats are off to them, and all school committee members, for trying to juggle chairs, knives and feathers to respect the process, while trying to maintain some semblence of a strong education for all students. I would never want to be a SC member even in the best of times--and these are certainly not that! So thank you.

I want to caution everyone that even in a rosier scenario this year, education in Amherst is being reshaped. That means everyone's expectations may need to reshape with them. Whether an override passes or not, whether teachers give some COLA back, whether state aid increases a bit, the reality is that when the dust settles, we will begin to see all the bandaids that are being put on our schools to keep them together in their present form. Things that are maintained are maintained at the expense of other things, either in part or all.

I'm sure some effects people are afraid of (teachers, parents, or everyone together) because of cuts will turn out to not be so bad after all, while other effects that hadn't been anticipated will arise. With at least another bad year looming, it is unlikely that education as we've known it in our schools will be able to be maintained.

So when we end up owning a used Subaru, we shouldn't expect it to perform like a new Mercedes, even though the drivers (the teachers) will be just as talented as they were before.

Anonymous said...

Catherine,

Is there a place to find exactly how many non-union employees the School and Region have. The rumor on the street is that this group is very small and at the top of the pay scale. It is also being said that many of these non-union employees talked directly to the Super and received extra step raises to make up for only getting a 2% COLA last year.
Is there any place to get the salaries for these employees from 2009 and 2010 to verify this rumor.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

First, I want to say that I really continue to appreciate the thoughtful and respectful tone being used by almost all posters on this blog -- even when we disagree, the disagreement seems constructive and thoughtful and I think has helped us (me at least) think through some difficult issues.

Second, my feelings are pretty much summarized by Anonymous 2:14, Lise, and Concerned Tax Payer. I feel it is a TREMENDOUS responsibility to to ask voters to pay more taxes (especially in a very tough economic climate), and for me to put my neck on the line advocating for additional funds, I need to believe that these funds will be used in the best possible way to benefit all kids and to really create the schools we want as a community to have. That means asking tough questions -- why does it seem to cost us more to educate kids here than in other places, why do we have two study halls in HS when others have zero, what is the "ideal class size" in all grades K to 12, how well are are programs/curricula working now, and what do we want our schools to be (e.g., K to 6 world language, preschool for all kids, summer school/afterschool care, more music/art/PE, etc.). To go with Ken's analogy -- I might well be willing to talk the voters into the Mercedes IF I had the data to support what the Mercedes cost -- but without more time, I'm left saying "well, X will probably keep our Toyota running".

Here's the thing -- I'd like us to be the best school system around for all kids. I'd like us to be a model of public education, in which all kids are inspired and challenged and engaged in a rich curriculum every day (PreK to 12). And I expect that costs a fair amount of money -- and likely requires us to pay teachers more than surrounding districts (which I think is money well spent). But we need time to really think/talk through what we want, and how best to get it, and to make sure that we are already using the resources we have in the best possible way. We haven't had that time -- and thus both the Amherst and Regional "short fall" estimates are truly just numbers pulled out of a hat. They might be high. They might be low. But they are guesses that we made with our backs against the wall, which is never an ideal way to make a decision (nor a way to really inspire a community to pay more taxes).

So, I feel like I'm being pressured to say "support this override or the schools get nothing" and that is -- to use Stephanie's analogy of a few days ago -- putting new brakes on a used car so the car will keep going. But that means I'm using my savings to buy these brakes, so that after I finish test-driving other cars and reading Consumer Reports in a few months, I'll know what type of car I want to buy -- but I won't be able to buy it (because this override is being described as the "last override" for several years).

If you are trying to prop up the system for next year and keep basically exactly what we have, it is easy to support this override -- and that might be why the most vocal proponents of this override are parents of high school students (who really are focused on the upcoming year). I feel that my focus as a School Committee needs to be longer-term ... and thus my focus has been on creating a longer-term vision of what our schools should be, and that just takes more time. That is one reason why I'm at least glad that the SCs this week moved the ratio of 1.4 to 170,000 (8 to 1) to $950,000 to $400,000 (closer to 2 to 1) -- because the foundation for a great 7 to 12 system has to be a great PreK to 6 system.

One final thing -- I really agree that the menu is the way to go -- very simple: library, town, regional schools, Amherst schools. People can vote for all, one, or none, but at least they have a choice about how their dollars are allocated. I communicated this loudly last night, and followed up with emails to several SB members. I hope that is ultimately the override plan.

Anonymous said...

I agree with other posters' recommendations to increase class sizes to protect programs. But that will increase teachers' workloads, so it might be unreasonable to ask them to take extra work on AND give up raises.

Anonymous said...

Why do you say that "schools do NOT have a track record of spending well" (last post)? We've heard examples of big-cost mistakes- the MM portables comes to mind- but what are the others? I agree that we need to do more to help children whose needs aren't being meet, but aren't the vast numbers of children who've done well evidence that some money has been well spent (e.g. good teachers, valuable curriculum, etc.)? You suggest that Jere's COLA for teachers might make people uneasy, but don't say that it was necessarily a bad use of funds. What's the other data that the schools haven't spent money well?

Anonymous said...

if you add things, such as pre-k, when would they go into effect? Could world language and pre-k happen as early as next year?

jm said...

an oped from the Boston Globe:

Find great teachers and let them teach
By Karen Shepard
February 8, 2010

AT 7:39 a.m. the first of Trudy Ames’ 85 11th graders calls to her, “Good morning, sunshine!’’ She smiles, and he murmurs, “Something is due today.’’

Trudy has taught at Mount Greylock in Williamstown for 20 years. She’s got chopped bleached hair and wears a psychedelic shirt with a suede skirt and leather boots. If she weren’t a teacher, she’d be a rock star.

Students in grades 7-12 from three Berkshire towns attend what used to be called “the best public prep school’’ in Massachusetts. Teachers were recruited from the state’s best colleges and received paid sabbaticals. The philosophy was: find great teachers and let them teach. Now the ceiling of the locker rooms has fallen and the kids change in what used to be classrooms. For English teachers, a full course load is five rather than four.

Trudy’s classroom is painted cinderblock. The windows overlook a courtyard and a satellite dish. On the walls, poems by Wilbur, Stevens, and Yeats in her own calligraphy. A tiny photo of James Gandolfini.

First period. Regular English. Small groups work on extended book projects. They could choose any book, as long as she had enough copies. One group collages. Another colors. One girl asks herself, “Do you think Merriam Webster is like two people?’’

Trudy checks the essay questions one group is creating. She tells them to provide more guidelines. “What you ask for is what you’ll get.’’

One girl glances into her backpack. “Hey,’’ she says, suddenly pleased. “I have sushi for lunch.’’

Trudy worries they don’t understand what she’s saying.

Sushi Girl says, “I understand what you’re saying. I just don’t understand why you’re saying it.’’

Trudy explains another way. The bell rings.

She has four minutes between classes.

At Greylock, any student can take Honors sections. Trudy took a one-course reduction this year. To deal with the loss, the school’s solution was to allow her Honors class to near its state-mandated maximum: 29 students, so she teaches the same number of students for $15,000 less.

Anonymous said...

People keep talking about the 3.5% COLA increases that the teachers have gotten, but many people might not realize that many of our teachers are also eligible for STEP increases annually. These are about 4% (yes, on top of the COLA) and are awarded for years of service (up to a certain number of years) and/or for completing an advanced degree. The average total pay increase for teachers is more like 5% per year. That, in my mind, is a huge example of poor budget planning. Before I vote for an override, I would like to see what the next negotiated teachers' contract will be.

jm said...

And the rest of the essay:

One girl holds up her shattered copy of “The Scarlet Letter.’’ “My book’s broken.’’

“They’re all broken,’’ Trudy says.

She gives a quiz. At 8:40 a boy in a black hoodie appears, carrying nothing but a pencil. He sits and holds his head. Trudy passes him a quiz. He doesn’t move. When the quiz is over, she passes him a book. The group with the very best answer, she says, will get this frog. She holds up a tiny toy frog. There’s some excitement.

The class spends some time discussing the sin of principle vs. the sin of passion. She asks which character is guilty of the former. “What’s his name,’’ one girl says. “The doctor.’’

“Chillingworth,’’ Trudy says and moves on.

Hoodie Boy picks at his pencil, making a pile of shards. The period ends, his quiz on the desk.

She reminds the second Regular section to formulate specific essay questions. “What essay questions?’’ one boy asks.

She spends most of this period with a pair of boys who are reading short stories instead of a book. She poses questions on William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force.’’ “Can you propose some alternative tactics for the doctor?’’ “Rufis,’’ one boy says. “You know, that date-rape drug.’’

Trudy returns them to the topic.

One boy announces he can move one ear and not the other.

“Cathedral,’’ Trudy says, tapping him lightly and drawing his attention to the Raymond Carver story. They discuss their reactions to the blind man. One boy says to the other, “Write that: Blind, but good personality.’’

Lunch duty. The co-principal sits by himself, eating from a packed lunch. The kids at the other end of the table seem unaware of him.

Trudy asks some girls why they’re not sitting with any boys. “We don’t like boys,’’ they answer. She laughs and asks a boy if he’s scared of girls. He glances around and shakes his head. She laughs and says that her favorite thing is embarrassing them.

Her AP class is still ahead. By 2:35, the students will be gone, but then there’s a department meeting, where she’ll probably hear that there will be no raises. Again. Then there’s paperwork, grading, prep. Dinner for her husband and sons, a giant dog to walk. She’s tired now, and will be tomorrow morning. But life with these teenagers is a pinball game. Most of the time, balls are shooting everywhere, but every now and then, bells ding and lights flash. And, as she puts it, that’s when the whole crazy thing becomes fun.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

I see a lump sum as helping all the budgets carry each other.

Every budget has its detractor constituency, that is clear. Bundling them together seems like the best way to get all of them to pass. Are voters more likely to vote against a lump sum that includes things they want, or vote for it, despite not supporting everything?

My guess – my hope – is the latter. But I don’t know.

It boils down to: is some better than none? Are we better off as a community if we pass some of the menu items or if we lose the whole lump sum?

I think a Town-wide problem requires a Town-wide solution. To me, the notion of a menu offering “choice” is false – it doesn’t really let you decide how to prioritize your tax dollars. It gives a few options for a few dollars that would fund a few things that are typically hard to care about or hard to recognize the true impacts of. That really isn’t the same as having your say in Town budget priorities – you should get elected to Town Meeting to do that. Which many on this blog have done, and I appreciate that.

And because I’m obviously a glutton for punishment… per my car maintenance analogy: yes, money to fix the brakes will affect the savings you have accumulated to buy the new car. Not fixing the brakes could lead to a crash. If your car is totaled and you need to replace it immediately, you don’t have the luxury of thoughtful consideration and decision-making (or more time to save enough money, or the trade-in value you were counting on from the now-wrecked car.) Or you might be hurt, and being out of work or having huge medical bills will affect your ability to afford a new car anyway. Or worse. It would be foolhardy to skimp on brake repair because you are saving up for a new car. That is a big gamble. Keeping the old car going is the best way to preserve your new car options.


-- Stephanie O'Keeffe

Rick said...

This town is run by a lot of different people, many of them volunteers on various boards such as the SB, FC, BCG and SC. Decisions get made by these people along the way.

In their meeting of November 2, the SB approved the final language of the FY11 Budget Policy Guidelines (4 in favor, 1 absent). That document, dated November 3, 2009, contains this language:

“ASKING FOR AN OVERRIDE: The Select Board will prepare a question for the March 23, 2010 Annual Town Election ballot asking voters to consider an override of the Proposition 2 ½ property tax limit….” …and… “RESERVES: The Select Board opposes reserve use except as a last resort.”

There was NO public comment at this November 2 SB meeting. So at that point the override train is rolling and the use of reverses is basically off the table.

Now a whole bunch of people think they know better.

These people on the SB, FC and SBG are not idiots, and while I am not saying one should not criticize decisions they make, it just makes me want to say “where were you?” (and where was I) in this decision making process.

I myself wonder why the use of reserves was ruled out as a way of plugging the hole in 2011, and perhaps do an override in 2012. But I wasn’t there at FC meetings to find out why, learn about the issues and give my input. So I kind of feel like I shouldn’t bitch about whatever decision was made, and with people as capable as Andy Steinberg and John Musante on the FC, I am not about to say they were wrong and I am right, when I wasn’t even there.

So the people who now think they know better have the answer: vote against the override – the only option on the table to keep the town and school cuts down to a dull roar.

It just feels like a community of people that are more interested in getting there way than understanding that no government works perfectly and that they won’t always agree with decisions made.

Maybe it’s due to what Rich has said, that override votes seem like the only place one has power. But it’s not a good thing.

Braced said...

Catherine, does your override proposal divide taxpayers into pro-regional versus pro-elementary groups? I think I'm beginning to see your political strategy more clearly and it seems unnecessarily divisive. What is the reasoning? I am braced for your response.

Anonymous said...

Marcy,

I have supported a lump sum endorsed explicitly by a majority of the three elected bodies in Amherst, Select Board, School Committee, and Library Trustees. I'm using principles of representative democracy in doing so. The elected leaders presumably know the budgets better than I do; they presumably know what the future holds for their institutions.

But then that vision started to fall apart. The Library Trustees took an unconscionable pass, unconscionable especially in light of their politicking in Town Meeting last year: "we want the money but we can't tell voters that they should vote for an override." Now the School Committee seems stuck in a somewhat different way. So the endorsements are not coming.

In light of that, I just want for the voters of Amherst to have the opportunity to vote for enhanced revenue for the ONE branch of government that DOES have the unqualified support of the elected leaders tasked to oversee it: the Town. It's clear that in the absence of Prop 2.5, in the Amherst town government of old, the SB would have voted to raise taxes to pay for Town services of one kind or another. And they would have defended that decision with the voters. The other bodies probably wouldn't.

By the way, have you seen any discernible change in the balance and alignment of political forces both for and against an override since 2007? I haven't. For all we know, the same unusual anti-override coalition that won in 2007is still out there. No defections from the ranks of the "antis" that I've spotted. So just what is different in our politics this time? I say not much that is encouraging for an override.

We need the ballot to look different from last time in order to make some measurable progress in a difficult economic time. It's not a time to make rash winner-takes-all bets with revenue opportunities.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

This will be quick, but three things:

Stephanie - as I've told you privately, I think a lump sum in a dangerous strategy. Voters can choose to support one, two, three, or none. But there is a distinct possibility voters who don't like one category will vote no on all. That is the psychology of it and it makes me nervous.

Rick - I'm on the SC, not the SB nor the FC. On the SC, I have a responsibility to oversee budgets and policy and create a vision for the schools. I don't feel I've had time to do that job well, so I don't feel good asking voters to pay higher taxes because I haven't done my job. This isn't about "getting my way" -- this is about being responsible to the public. If people individually feel they have enough information to support an override, that is their choice--and I'm not telling anyone to vote pro or con override. I'm telling them that I haven't had the time to examine important questions about how our schools use resources or what additional resources could be used for to make a thoughtful and informed decision. I can make a random bad guess about how much we need -- but it is a random bad guess (kind of like the random bad guesses that led the SC to buy two portables for MM that were never used). I feel I owe it to the voters to have done my homework before asking people to pay higher taxes. That's it.

Braced - I have a simple strategy: let voters choose what they pay for. If you want to support the regional and Amherst schools, you'd vote for both of those. If you want to support just the library, you'd vote for that. If you want to support the library and the police/fire and the regional schools, you can do that. If you want to vote for everything you can do that.

Here's the key thing -- if you are mad about one aspect of the budget (e.g., I wish MM hadn't closed so I'm not giving the elementary schools more money), you might well vote NO on all (even if you think the police/fire/regional schools/library need more money). If you are mad that the library trustees aren't using their new gift to pay for Friday afternoons, you might vote NO on a lump sum EVEN if you want to fund the schools/town services. This isn't about dividing people -- it is about letting people choose how to spend their tax dollars. Which seems pretty fair -- and I think more likely to lead more voters to say yes to at least some things.

If you disagree, that's fine -- I know Stephanie does. But a lump sum leads to the distinct possibility that the entire amount fails. That's a big risk in my mind based on what I'm hearing from voters.

Ed said...


Ed. Grow Up Please. Budget Override.


I challenge anyone - anyone - to justify the logical leap that was made here.

The quoted sentence is only logical in a reality where anyone who disagrees with the established perspective is either stupid or crazy. Where it is perfectly acceptable to consider anyone who disagrees with you to be somehow "defective" because of said disagreement.

And there once was a man named Hitler who felt that way. And that alone ought to scare you....

Anonymous said...

Ken I think that you summed it up-folks do want that Mercedes but are unwilling to pay for it. I also think that the schools right now are like an aging appliance- the changes are very gradual and over an extended period of time. You adaptso mostly you don't evn notice how bad things have gotten until you have a complete breakdown. - That's where we are right now in my opinion.

Ed said...

So when we end up owning a used Subaru, we shouldn't expect it to perform like a new Mercedes, even though the drivers (the teachers) will be just as talented as they were before.

And I make a different point: Anyone can look good driving on dry pavement, it is the skilled driver who can do so in the snow; anyone can drive a brand new Mercedes, it is the skilled driver who does as well with the used Suburu.

ANY teacher will look good if he/she/it has enough resources. It is the quality teacher who can do so without them. And the question comes down to this - do you really need a high-performance BMW that can safely drive at 150MPH if you only are going to drive through town and never go more than 25 MPH? Do you really need a 4WD off-road SUV if you neither go off road nor drive in the snow?

And the point I am trying to make is that we could have good schools if we merely spent ourselves into bankrupcy. The challenge is to have good schools without doing that, the challenge is to be frugal.

The middle will not hold forever and as excellence in education is increasingly defined merely in terms of financing, there will be an increasing contingent of luddities who consider excellence neither attainable nor a worthy goal.

We don't have true teacher bashing YET - but I fear we soon could. And I suggest all to study the root causes of Jackson's victory and the support of his "spoils system."

As Santana once said, those who fail to learn from history get to relive it...

Anonymous said...

Over the years, I've observed, that when the going gets tough for Stephanie, Stephanie slips into attentuated metaphor. But the car metaphor works for me in outlining why Catherine should support an override.

On the other hand, Stephanie's public relations background is showing when she uses phrases like "a Town-wide problem requires a town-wide solution." Yeah, yeah, yeah. Looks great on paper, doesn't it? Ho-hum.

It's clear that our government has been working inside compartments, at least three of them. And despite the BCG process, those compartments have been largely sound-proof. And one compartment is more ready to work with enhanced revenue than two others. That's the reality, not some wishful overlay about the unity of government.

I've watched the BCG meetings. And whenever Stephanie began asking the Group about the communicating going out from BCG over the past few months, she looked like a teacher at a class at a boy's school where no one has done the reading. Silence. But she's forged forward as if they had. It's not her fault, but she has to get real now. One body is more ready than two others.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I also support 3 separate menu items on the override ballot for town, library and schools. My bet is that "town" will pass and the other two won't. Would you really risk the town override on TWO non-popular override items?

When we do the override in 2012, the town always has an option to be on the ballot again.

Perhaps a quick poll is needed to see if it's even close (if you go for lump sum override). If it's close, it's worth a try. If it's not close (2:1 or worse) - then just do the town override, or the menu override. I think if you just do the town override, it will pass. It will make it look like Amherst asks for money when it needs it, for a specific purpose (ie. town). Otherwise, we look like one of those congress or senate bills where every politician tacks on their favorite project for the promise of supporting the overall bill.

Rick said...

Catherine,

I honestly was not referring to you (“This isn't about ‘getting my way’”). I was referring to people who were saying they will not vote for the override and yet were not there to offer alternatives. You have not said you will not vote for it, you just have said that so far you will not support it. And I for one have never pressured you to do so, but have simply made my argument and heard yours.

Rich said: ” It's clear that our government has been working inside compartments, at least three of them. And despite the BCG process, those compartments have been largely sound-proof. “

Really good observation; let’s learn from this and do it better next time.

Anonymous said...

As for Rick's comment:

"people who were saying they will not vote for the override and yet were not there to offer alternatives"

The alternative (for the schools) -is to take the cuts. Thus, alternatives do not need to be offered by people who say "NO" too a school override, as the alternative is the status quo. And honestly, the cuts don't look that bad to me, and the ADDs that are proposed don't look that great to me either.

I would much rather have a revamped school system and pay more for it AT THAT TIME (even if it's the same plan, but have it be studied, thought out & have the SC come to the conclusion that this is indeed, the best that the schools can be, for what we are spending).

For example, we keep hearing about how SPED spending is out of control (look at the escalation over the past 10 years in SPED spending vs regular ed spending). We see that our district spends way more for education than others, seemingly for not much more actual education. Then we read stories by people like Meg on how the SPED system is failing her kid because of lack of resources.

Assume both are true (that we spend a lot more on SPED than other districts and that kids in SPED cannot get the help they need because of lack of resources).

Then there's an obvious inefficiency somewhere. We pay a lot of money but aren't getting enough out. Why throw more money into that (inefficient) system?

I don't think of this as paying for a Toyota and wondering why it's not a Mercedes. I think of it as "we got gypped by the dealer, because we are paying higher payments for our Toyota than everyone else" and it also turns out that our Toyota isn't the standard Toyota. It's got some bells and whistles that no one else has but it also doesn't function as well as a standard Toyota.

We need to root out those types of inefficiencies whether they be in the SPED dept, central admin, maintenance, elementary, MS or HS or wherever. Instead of throwing money at it, allowing the inefficiences to propagate.

Anonymous said...

"Stephanie's public relations background is showing..."

Rich, I also worked in PR (among other fields) before I got into education and got two degrees and a license, spent years working in the trenches, etc.

I find your insinuating remarks about PR both rude and uninformed. I don't personally know either you or Stephanie, BTW. I just react to what I read here.

PR people have the skill to understand, synthesize and explain complex issues in language for laypeople. "PR" does not automatically include putting an EVIL SPIN on a topic or trying to manipulate people.

Do you think you can find a way to get over your PR thing so we don't have to waste time here with your schtick on the subject? It's getting as annoying as Ed's irrational issues. Not quite but almost.



Rise Above.

Abbie said...

anon@1:10:

You are, of course, free to caste your vote as you see fit. You make ALOT of claims that are currently entirely unsubstantiated. Maybe they will turn out to be accurate but maybe not.
"Then there's an obvious inefficiency somewhere. We pay a lot of money but aren't getting enough out. Why throw more money into that (inefficient) system?"

I know Catherine has conducted a superficial comparison with other school districts and "her" conclusion was that we spend way more per pupil. Someone brought up the valid (to me) point that districts budget in often very different ways. I was hoping the Gazette would step in and do a "real" investigative story here but they haven't. Until someone does, I don't know (and I don't think CS or you knows) whether we spend more/pupil or not. The same goes for SPED but at least that is currently under review.

I would like to make a very important clarification in response to your post and those similar. The override does NOT give MORE money to the schools. This is a very important point. The override is to REDUCE the amount of the CUTS.

I hope you understand this central and critical objective.

Anonymous said...

Ouch, that comparison with Ed really hurts.

The line about "Town-wide problems require town-wide solutions" sounds like ad copy to me, with about as much substance to it.

Otherwise, I apologize.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Abbie - just to clarify: I did an analysis based on the DOE numbers, which anyone can do for themselves. It is quite easy:

http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/statistics/.

Now, the issue is that in some districts, towns pick up some costs (e.g., retirement, insurance), so that makes it hard to directly compare the numbers. However, you can also look up those numbers (see the Chapter 70 reports on this same website), so it isn't hard to calculate, actually. Steve Rivkin called Northampton and talk to their business manager, and as it turns out, when you consider what the town picks up for their schools, they spend about $12,500 per student, which is more than the state estimates they spend (by about $1,000). BUT that is still less than Amherst spends (about $3,000 less per student).

Anyway, my point here is not whether we spend more or less than other towns per pupil -- my point is that, as you point out, we don't know! My "superficial analysis" shows we do -- someone else you trust says we don't. Neither of those positions answers the question, but this is a reasonable question that I think many voters would like to have answered BEFORE they vote to pay more taxes. That is why I think more time would be useful in terms of determining both how our resources are used now as well as the amount needed to fund our schools.

Similarly, the SPED review hasn't yet occurred. Maybe it says we need to spend more money. Maybe it says we need to spend less money. But it is hard for me to imagine that the results of that evaluation wouldn't be useful to us at determining how much money we need.

In your posts -- and maybe this is just the hazards of email -- you sound really mad at me and others who are not supporting the override. I think it would be useful for you to hear, even if you don't agree, that some people do have concerns about how money is spent in our schools. We can tell those people to be quiet, but that won't increase the likelihood that they support the override. What might help them support the override is giving information about how much we do spend and how that compared to how much other districts spend so they can form their own conclusions.

Anonymous said...

"this override is being described as the "last override" for several years"

If this is true (and it is) then the SC has to address it now with the SB.

1. The SC can ask for an override that includes the total cost for future reforms, at once a crazy exercise in guess-timating and the only way to secure funding.

2. The SC can recommend no override now but an override vote when the ed plan is done and the costs calculated.

3. The SC can recommend two overrides one now to restore core services and one later when the ed plan is done.

4. The SC can tell the SC why this cannot be the '"last override" for several years'

jm said...

Or the Select Board can realize it's made a serious mistake intrying to put this override on without timely, meaningful consultation with the School Board -- and take it off the calendar for March.

The Select Board is driving what looks like an increasingly incomprehensible, unwinnable quest for an override. Even supporters of the schools like me can't understand the why or what.

I went to the regional school board meeting last night and kept thinking that an override for the school may not even be needed (except for doable cuts) if the teachers gave back only half their STEP and COLA increases -- or if state aid stays steady -- or it the SPED review reccomends overhaul and cuts -- or some combo of the above.

The Select Board should let the School Boards do their jobs and respect their judgements instead of forcing the override issue in March.

Anonymous said...

I have 10-15 elderly neighbors living in my Mount Holyoke Drive neighborhood. Some of these people are living on fixed incomes. Some of these people helped build this community and made it a place that I and my family chose to move to.

How can I look those folks in the eye and ask them to vote for increases in their taxes, when the very Boards and Committees that would oversee the spending of those funds cannot endorse them and cannot say clearly that the additional money would be well-spent?

Rich Morse

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Rich --

I have great faith that Catherine and the rest of the School Committee members will recommend spending that money well, and that Town Meeting will concur. A successful override only provides a spending ceiling; it helps them to have the resources necessary to continue to improve our schools and move them forward.

As someone mentioned earlier -- this money is intended to prevent $950,000 of cuts to the Region and $400,000 of cuts to the Elementary Schools. If you think that the schools are better off making cuts of those amounts, opposing the override is easy. If you think that those cuts, on top of the last several years of significant cuts, is not desirable, then I would think you would support the override.

That money is about investing in our current and future vision of our school system. I don't understand why Catherine and her supporters wouldn't want that. You would be entrusting that money to the judgment of people with whom you agree. It's not about past decisions or decision makers -- it's about those we have elected to carry us forward. I certainly appreciate that Catherine and others want to be so careful with our money -- I appreciate that hugely, and would want nothing less -- but I worry about their unwillingness to accept that they may well want and need to spend these dollars. The override only makes the money available to them if they need it; it does not require that they use it. The decision to spend it and how to do so -- wisely or otherwise -- is theirs. I trust them. Don't you?

-- Stephanie O'Keeffe

Anonymous said...

My impression is that overrides are voted upon when a town is in desperate need of money. Not a scenario where we vote to have an override IN CASE we need the money.

I imagine it's that desperate need that will push people to vote yes. If the need doesn't seem desperate, well, then the override has a higher chance of failure.

I think the SB needs to take a step back and just put the town override on the ballot.

Anonymous said...

Stephanie--

I'm going to urge you to listen to Gerry and Alisa (and Vince O'Connor) on the topic of a menu. If Alisa goes for the lump, I fold and defer to the greater wisdom.

We have NEVER seen you change your mind publicly, Stephanie, and if there's a place where that can be done painlessly and saving face, it's Amherst.

The insistence on a lump is based in a weak-kneed political perspective from Shaffer and Musante that they can't sell the "unsexy" nuts-and-bolts stuff of Town government to the voters. So it has to be glommed onto the Schools.

That's pathetic. Especially after those same two guys have done the lion's share of the work to make the Town a leaner, more efficient operation. This is a good Board that stands confidently behind what has been done. We don't have that elsewhere in the government.

But, if the lump sum override goes down, which I think is a likelihood, it will then be impossible to read the subsequent tea leaves. Was it the "unsexy" Town or was it the turmoil (which I get the feeling we are just hearing the beginning of) in the Schools?

It's hard for me to utter these words: there was great power in Mr. O'Connor's words from the other night. His comments about a menu invigorating the public dialogue, and allowing for new coalitions to develop, was spot-on. His remarks about how we are in politics because we are willing to take risks was also on the mark. It was Mr O'Connor at his best.

There is so much irony in the idea of a lump sum involving the Schools and the Town. It's a strategy based in fear, or at least a lack of confidence in the wisdom of the voters, but it also involves putting all the chips on one number and spinning the wheel. It's a high-risk strategy driven by fearful thinking.

Rich Morse

Rick said...

"this money is intended to prevent $950,000 of cuts to the Region and $400,000 of cuts to the Elementary Schools"

Also keep in mind that the total cut list (at -5% state aid) is:

Region: $2,178,227 (see this)
Elementary: $1,292,782 (see this)

So Elementary is asking for the $1,292,782 to get knocked down to $892,782 and Regional is asking for the $2,178,227 to get knocked down to $1,228,227.

Anonymous said...

A successful override only provides a spending ceiling; it helps them to have the resources necessary to continue to improve our schools and move them forward.

Part of the problem is that spending will predictable meet the ceiling.

Also, the SB is not asking for the money they will need - they do not know how much they will need.

If voters trusted that the kind of judicious spending you describe above would occur, they would vote to approve. Instead they are quite certain that ways would be found to spend revenue replenishing cuts or implementing new initiatives without the judicious approach you imply.

As a case in point, take Shaffer's purchasing on new desktop computers bout two years ago from another account and defending it as per his discretion. Another case in point is our per pupil costs of our schools compared to benchmarks.

Here's the other issue. We continue to hold reserves for some future need and yet the SB and town are asking for more money.

Two groups, SC and Jones have explicitly said, we do not recommend an override. You can hear them.

The town and the SB have explicitly said, we recommend an override.

You should take those groups at their word and structure the question accordingly.

Abbie said...

I also want to point out when it's stated that X, Y, or Z is "added" with an override (or more state aid), this is a RESTORATION, not something new to to be added. I understand CS and many readers understand this but some may not...

Catherine, I am more frustrated with the current derailment than angry. It was not meant as an insult to call your analysis of cost/student as superficial, heck you have a full-time job at Amherst C, nearly a full-time job as SC member and are a mother of 3. I don't criticize your commitment. I think a full cost analysis is complicated, with lots of facets, probably a job for a forensic accountant. I think it's fair to say there is still uncertainty about how much we spend vs other districts. I am claiming ignorance, not a position one way or the other. I think we don't KNOW. So I worry that folks are taking your opinion as faith and using it as their rationale to vote against an override.

What I don't understand is how in about 2 months (when the budget to TM is required) you will have the answers to all those important questions you have. Presumably this is when you would ask TM to take $ out of reserves. What would be the process?

Does anyone know how much money our reserves are over the minimum for good bond status? I thought we were close last year. This would certainly limit how much money could be reasonably expected/hoped for. Of course getting TM to approve the use of such reserves is entirely another battle...

Anonymous said...

The thing no one wants to talk about is the crazy beyond market rate we pay administrators -- who have not volunteered to take furloughs or pay cuts. And, the other problem of our teachers receiving significant raises in the midst of a recession.

Those are facts and they matter. Don't ask the town for more more for raises and beyond market administrator salaries.

Ed said...

I suggest that the fact that people need to attack me personally because they lack the ability to advocate their position on its own merits.

I suggest that this, more than anything else, challenges the legitimacy of the override - not because it is me but because of the means employed. So I am whatever - so, whatever.

I am not attacking anyone else personally, am I? And I am arguing that we simply can not continue to blindly increase taxes.

Others of good will can argue otherwise, but my position is that the state needs to live within its means just like everyone else. This is a public policy issue - how much should be spent on public business. And I don't think it should be increased just because you can do some good with the extra money.

Others quite clearly think otherwise - and I am not calling them names....

The teachers want an override so that they can have more money. That is self-interest and in past eras it would be seen as wrong for them to advocate this...

Anonymous said...

“The decision to spend it and how to do so -- wisely or otherwise -- is theirs. I trust them. Don't you?”

Critical Question. It feels like the “Don’t you?” isn’t a true question looking for an honest response, but instead a way to suggest that if someone doesn’t trust the School Committee there is something wrong with that person.

I would be very interested in hearing why we should trust the School Committee. Is trust in our elected officials just given or should it be earned? Maybe it is a fault of mine, but I think trust in this particular case should be earned not just given. I would like to give it, but I need to know if they have done anything to help earn the trust or maybe just the opposite.

I think I could trust many of the individuals on the School Committee, but each meeting I watch or read about, I trust the process less.

The most significant decision that the School Committee makes regarding allocating money is the teacher’s contract. It isn’t about do the teachers work hard or do they deserve it, it is only about can we afford it and what are the tradeoffs. It seems clear that we aren’t able to afford the current contract (obviously the decline in state funding is also a major issue).

It is fair to say that a number of the current School Members weren’t around when the last contract was approved. However, it is interesting to note that a couple of the existing School Committee members who most favor an override (even at much higher levels) were part of the group that approved the last contract.

So, do I have “trust issues”? Yes. Why don’t you?

Ken said...

To Ed--No, I think we all agree that you are the only person on this blog who knows anything, in fact knows everything, and we very much appreciate your allowing us to exercise our free speech rights to say stupid and childish things.

To others--my car metaphor was misinterpreted a bit by some. To flesh out what I mean: we want to keep music, art, PE and computers on regular schedules, keep instrumental music, keep functioning school libraries, keep lower class sizes, be sure to meet the needs of struggling learners (that MCAS will force us to do well or will come breathing down our neck), and OF COURSE, be sure our own children's needs are met in classrooms, even as support services to struggling learners are cut and so are in classrooms more, and support for more disruptive students that took them out of classrooms in safe and productive ways is chopped so those kids are in classrooms more, draining the teacher's energy and time. It's ALL so important and we don't want to lose any of it, but somehow we don't think we--the consumers in this--should have to pay for keeping all that afloat; or we'll pay for less now, but will anyone not continue to demand that the quality of their children's education not be the same as it used to be, or better if possible? This is what I meant by spending for a used Subaru and feeling like we deserve to drive a new Mercedes home.

I'll support an override, and if it passes, I'll eat out even less and make some other lifestyle adjustments to account for that $300+/- next year, even though my kids are no longer in our schools, I have a steep college tuition bill to pay, and I don't teach in the Amherst schools.

Finally, I understand the struggle people on fixed incomes have, especially in these hard times. My mom is 86, not a wealthy widow by any means, and moved to the area recently. Though it will involve some strain, she will likely support an override because she thinks education is so important for a town. That doesn't mean I don't understand why some people won't or literally can't support it for financial reasons.

Kate said...

As a parent of a child receiving significant special education services, I am extremely frustrated with Mr. RIvkin's and Ms. Sanderson's positions. At last night's meeting Steve made a big point of how he can't take on trust the numbers that he's given by administrators. But a reality check by Maria Garyck on the actual number of students requiring SPED services reveals that although the school population on the whole is declining, the number of students on IEP's is actually increasing significantly. Thus there is no argument that SPED costs should rise and fall at the same rate as the overall school enrollment.

At this point, Steve drops his SPED argument, but doesn't adjust his numbers to reflect that. Thankfully the motion is voted down, but it's clear that it's his numbers we shouldn't be trusting.

I'm also frustrated at the argument that Northampton spends less per pupil on SPED.

First, I'm not willing to trust Steve's interpretation of the data he received from Northampton, especially given his misinterpretations of Amherst numbers last night.

Second, without understanding the individual needs of the kids in each district (remember, these are Individual Education Plans), you can't compare. What are the numbers of kids on emotional disabilities, what number on learning disabilities, etc.? How severe are these deficits? There may be significant differences across the districts.

Third, what are the outcomes for the kids in both towns? Northampton can have low numbers if they have a high dropout rate for kids on IEP's, for instance. That way they don't fund the last couple of years of education. Do the kids that graduate have comparable skill sets to those in Amherst? I have no idea if this is the case, but this and other questions have to be asked before we can debate the issue.

Throwing this Northampton vs. Amherst argument out now is premature, and prejudices against spending on special education in Amherst. Cutting SPED spending without understanding the consequences is damaging to our most vulnerable kids.

Finally, if you can't personally support the SPED spending that you see in the budget, understand that the services these children receive are mandated by federal law. As a result, in the end, whether you put the line items in or not, the schools have to provide the services. A parent of a special education student who can make a case that services are not being provided by the school district can sue for private placement at public expense. In the end, this is the most expensive solution of all. My advice: do your own research if you can't trust what the administration is saying, and support what is truly justified. But don't just look at the number and say it's too big, or that it should be cut at the same rate as other programs.

Anonymous said...

Ken, it looks like you didn't read the previous post about being kinder.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Anon 7:30: I should have known, after last night's SC meeting, to steer clear of the word "trust." It seems to require lots of clarification. :-)

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

A few assorted responses:

Stephanie - I don't know if people trust me, or the SC, to spend additional tax dollars. But I think there are several important things here. First, I don't know how much money it takes to have the school system I'd like to have because I still don't know enough about how we are spending money. I see the numbers showing we spend more per pupil as compelling - and I'd like to understand that better before I come to the determination that we need X more money. Second, I don't find the current approach to the cut list -- let's just keep the same things we have now -- very inspiring. I'd prefer an approach that really created a vision about the schools we want, and then what that would cost -- and that might well be more than the amount we've identified as a shortfall. That strikes me as a better way to create broad community support for an override than simply telling people "vote to pay more taxes to avoid these cuts."

Your approach is to ask people for more revenue, and then have them trust us that we'll use it well. I prefer the approach in which we talk to people about what they want, and then we figure out what that will cost, and THEN ask them to support an override. But let's say we decided to use the entire override amount to pay for universal preschool -- some people would like that, but others wouldn't. How about is we used the entire override amount to pay for smaller HS classes -- some people would like that, but others wouldn't. Again, I'd far, far prefer a process in which voters (parents, teachers, community members) could be involved in setting the vision BEFORE asking them to pay for a vision-to-be-determined. It's kind of like telling an architect here's a million dollars -- I'll trust you to build a good house. Some might have that level of trust ... but others might want to see some sketches of the house or plans before signing that contract!

Rick - Just FYI, when you throw out numbers like that (which Andy does all the time), it creates the feeling that we aren't really being honest with the voters. The number we are cutting 1,292,782 from the elementary school budget is really false -- because if you look at those cuts, they really aren't all "cuts"! That cut lists includes some things that we just aren't having to pay (e.g., 30,000 since no one is taking a sabbatical, 17,000 since principals aren't taking COLAs, 81,000 in a reduced health insurance rate, 30,000 by paying the science coordinator from a grant, and so on). It also includes things that are smart, fiscally responsible things that won't really change the experience of life in the schools at all (e.g., students walking 1/4 mile to bus stops, a utilities initiative, etc.). And it includes nearly a milion worth of cuts associated with closing MM that we don't all "need" back (e.g., we don't need an extra principal or an extra nurse or 4 classroom teachers). And it includes other things that are ADDS (e.g., a summer enrichment program, a new preschool class, a curriculum director). Again, I am not saying that there are zero cuts, but there is NO WAY that even if money fell from the school we would need to spend 1.3 million EXTRA at the elementary level. But when people act like the level of cuts is really 1.3 million, it then gives the appearance that it is the "boy who cried wolf" again. That is why I think we should talk about what these cuts (if an override passes/doesn't) are and are not in as objective a way as we possibly can.

Anonymous said...

Kate
And as has been pointed out a number of times- NPS were just cited by the state for failure to fully comply with SPED regulations. This makes any comparison of cost even less valid.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Abbie - in an ideal world, I would have the override in 2011 -- which would give the superintendent a full year to build trust and credibility with the voters, time for the special ed review to influence planning, and time for the move to three elementary schools from four to occur. That would have been my preference, and yes, I would have been comfortable with some combination of (a) increasing class sizes for a year at the regional level (this would save about $500,000), (b) hoping state aid comes in higher (a 0% cut -- as the governor suggests, and it is an election year -- would give about $400,000 each to ES and regional), (c) using SCHOOL reserves if needed, and/or (d) passing an override in May/early June (as Northampton did last year) -- when at least we would know where we were in terms of state aid (or have a better sense).

However, if the SB had agreed to give us until April 13th (as I asked on February 2nd), I would have immediately asked to schedule forums at all the schools in March to really think through what the schools could be, and I would have asked the superintendent to prioritize giving some rough cost estimates for a few key programs (e.g., K to 6 world language, moving to ZERO study halls in the HS, preschool). I then would have been able to go to the SB with a decent (not perfect) estimate of the costs of some of these things. We also are expecting the special ed review in May, so perhaps we could have pushed for some preliminary findings (if they had ideas with budget implications) a month early.

So, my preference would have been next spring and then do the vote in a very thoughtful way with time for planning (as we saw with the MM and redistricting plan, which did take close to a year). But I could have pushed for a more realistic plan if I had two more months -- and we also would have had better estimates on state aid then, which could increase voter motivation (if estimates were bad) to vote "yes" on a May override.

Kate - I want to just make one very quick point: I talk to parents of kids with severe special needs all the time. I was on the phone tonight with an Amherst parent with such a child for an hour, I've met with others personally, and I've had emails/phone calls with others. And I'm hearing not great satisfaction with some aspect of the services their children are getting right now -- that don't have anything to do with adequate funding. I think there is often an assumption that more money is the solution -- and that with more money, special ed services would surely be better (and other services). That isn't always true -- there are various models of service delivery, and sometimes cost effective models can be higher in quality/efficacy than more expensive models. I don't have the answers here -- nor does Steve. But I don't think anyone is saying "just cut special ed" -- we just want to make sure that these dollars, like all dollars, are being spent wisely, in ways that actually benefit kids with special needs in the best possible way. That's why I pushed for the SPED review, and that's why I wish we could wait until the SPED review comes back BEFORE telling the SB how much we'll need.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

One more thing:

Stephanie - in terms of trust ... I think the thing that may be hard for you to understand is that there really, really isn't a lot of trust from some parents/community members with the schools -- the SC, the superintendent, the administration, etc. That may or may not be fair, but I think it is pretty common among those I talk to. That may be why there is more concern about supporting a particular amount "to be determined how it will be spent later" for the schools, in a way that it wouldn't be if we were to ask people to support giving X amount to the police or fire. The trust really isn't there for the schools in the same way that it is for other town departments -- and I think the SC and the superintendent need time to demonstrate to at least some in our community that resources given to the schools will indeed be used responsibly (another reason why a menu override is a good idea!).

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Abbie, per Town reserves:

According to John Musante at today's BCG meeting, we're at $3.9M, which is about 5.3% of our operating revenue -- just above that 5% point we try to not go below anymore. He said we are above it "by about a quarter million."

That 5% threshold, as Abbie notes, is important for our bond rating. The Town just saved over $100K in borrowing costs thanks to that. Anyone interested in the bond rating report the town received in November can read that document here. And if that interests you, then the PowerPoint presentation that was made by the Town to Standard & Poor's in seeking the new bond rating may be interesting to you also, and it is here.

-- Stephanie O'Keeffe

Anonymous said...

Kate 8:14pm: those weren't the only numbers that were wrong last night. I thought I heard that the math for how many students are expected in middle school next year was off by almost 100 students - a whole team's worth! Though Steve Rivkin admitted his numbers could be wrong, sadly, the Regional School Committee went along with the effort to decrease how much money should be earmarked for the middle school, and approved an amount of money based on wrong enrollment numbers. Help! I don't understand.

Rick said...

”when you throw out numbers like that”

They are not my numbers; they are yours (the school committees). If they are not accurate make a motion to change them and vote on it. Saying the number is inaccurate is not helpful unless you can provide the accurate one.

Anonymous said...

Trust

And the great self-inflicted wound to the voter's trust in the schools was the Superintendent's salary. It got a lot of play. A lot of people saw it. So it had symbolic importance that far outweighed its importance in the school budget. And it came long after friends of the schools claimed that they were hurting. We still don't know how long he'll be staying. We still don't know whether he actually likes it here or whether this is simply a bullet point on his resume.

That hiring and the salary that went with it could be the only thing that some Amherst voters actually noted about the schools from then until March 23.

And I believe one or two SC members pointed that out at the time.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 9:37 - I don't know if you watched the meeting, but there wasn't money ear-marked for the MS versus HS. The amount approved was $150,000 below the amount requested -- and the MS team teachers which Steve asked questions about (and I would say reasonable questions -- we now will have smaller class sizes in 7th and 8th grade than in 3rd through 6th) were on the "not to be cut list" already.

Rick - they are accurate numbers. They aren't accurately described as "cuts" -- no one sees "we saved $81,000 in health insurance due to cheaper costs than expected" as a cut! Thoise were your words -- I'm not correcting the number -- I'm correcting the words you use to describe them. The superintendent has said that at the elementary school level, even if money fell from the sky, we only need a total of $305,000 to balance the budget to provide level services. And that $305,000 includes things that are real ADDS -- like an extra preschool and a summer enrichment program and a curriculum director. Now, I'm in favor of all three of those adds, but if we are talking "level services" then technically all three of these things should be cut. And they definitely are not describing "cuts".

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

>> Your approach is to ask people for more revenue, and then have them trust us that we'll use it well.

Yep, I never should have stepped into the “trust” thing.

I’ll just disagree that that is my “approach” and not torture a point that I think was fairly clear.

Ed said...

I think there is often an assumption that more money is the solution -- and that with more money, special ed services would surely be better (and other services).

My point exactly. And I will take it one step further, lets define how much we are willing to spend on municipal governance (I think 2.5% is a nice fair benchmark) and then lets say that is the benchmark with that much and no more.

In other words, lets say that the schools get $X and no more. No more this year, no more next year, no more when we are all frail elderly sometime in the future.

And then lets say that the schools (library, police, etc) are expected to do their jobs with what they have. And not just tell us what they could do with more.

And if the people running the schools can't do this, then we need to replace them. Pity, isn't it, that we hired a Superintendent who had never been a Superintendent before instead of the white guy, who had......

This much and no more. No Mas!

ARHS Parent said...

Abbie, Stan Gawle spoke to your question about "how much do we have in reserves" at the Select Board meeting this past Monday. You can watch it on demand. There are apparently many "pots" of reserves in town as well as school reserves and the infamous library endowment. So yes, there is money there to plug the gap above what is required for a good bond rating.

And if you check, there ARE some adds to the elementary school budget next year. They are adding additional preschool classrooms and now apparently a summer program for "struggling" students. So apparently the School Committee is moving ahead with some of the "vision for the future" without a thorough analysis of what is needed system-wise first. That makes me nervous, even though I see the need for more preschool (but to add it under these budget scenarios? And in a year where our elementary schools are already having to deal with consolidation from four to three?). I am going to have to vote no for an override which is too bad because I would have supported it in a future year when the schools had a clear vision.

Abbie said...

Ok, so I'm trying to follow this ever more complicated situation. CS suggests (correct me if I'm wrong) that instead of asking the tax payer (override) or TM (town reserves) for $ to cover the projected shortfall, she suggests that the schools take money from their own reserves to cover (some) of the shortfall. The community would have NO say in this. This seems contradictory to some of the past CS sentiments like about how the community should be involved. This seems kinda sneaky to me. If I remember isn't there less than a million and this is in the "regional" account and its for intended for emergencies (like a major roof repair). Is this the reserves you are talking about? How much money is in this reserve? Aren't there also bond rating issues tied to that balance?
I'm not trying to be persnickity, I am just trying to pin down where the money will come from if not from an override. Three other sources of $ was suggested

(1) increase in state aid. I doubt this will happen, just because the governor wants it doesn't mean the legislature will and I think every indication is that the state revenues will be low.

(2) Increasing class size in MS/HS. You give lots of averages of class size, which I think can distort reality. I have heard of math classes of near 30 students with over a third being SPED and no aids. That sounds like a really challenging environment for both students and teachers. This is already THIS year, and your suggestion seems like it would make it worse. I get that you WANT the school admin to make better choices (your choices) like dropping a couple of world languages, etc., but there is the very real risk that the outcome of more cuts, which you don't think are very bad, WILL be bad- the cuts from past years have ALREADY made it bad.

(3) passing an override in May/June is NOT going to happen. Someone or somebodies seems to have dropped the BCG->SC ball or maybe someone or somebodies had their fingers in their ears but the override train is out the door and either its menu (and schools get voted down, my prediction) or its lump and it all goes down. There ain't gonna be a replay a couple of months later.

Why would anyone (but the diehards, me included) vote for an school and library override when their boards are "saying" (in essence) they don't want it.

I know none of this will change your mind (or SR or IR?) but I still want to say now what I think will be serious consequences (and then later I can say I told you so).

Anonymous said...

So Abbie, what are you wishing would happen right now? (given what has already happened can't be taken back).

Are you saying that you would like the SC and Library to put forth strong pro-override statements on the ballot for March 23?

I don't think that is enough to get it passed, do you?

I don't think it's fair to say that the override is lacking supporters or is "killed" because SR, CS have not supported it publically as SC members. I think there is a lot of distrust out there for the schools that is there regardless of where CS/SR stand publically as SC members (and maybe even because of them & the rest of the SC, for MM closing).

I think this vote might be similar to Brown's election - which is not that people are voting against health care when they vote FOR Brown, but that people are fed up with the (democratic party's) lackadaisical attitude, putting forth a candidate who didn't put much effort into her campaign.

So it's not that people are against the schools (because every single person on this blog is concerned and is a supporter of the schools or else we wouldn't be here). It's just that we want a change, and see throwing our money in now as being pro- status quo. And I am really supportive of the change that CS and SR and IR bring to the SC - and by that I mean, they want to study the schools carefully, craft a vision & carry it out. I don't care what the specific vision is - I just like that they are thinking long-range and that adding this and that, and removing the other is all part of a master plan vs a scramble every year to fit into the budget.

Obama is willing to listen (to the election results) - do we have to go that far (to see a defeated school override in March) before the SB listens? Unless of course, it turns out that it's just a few nay-sayers on this blog who are anti-school override. But somehow I think it's more than just a few...

Alisa V. Brewer said...

BCG's February 10, 2010 recommendation to the Select Board:

Shall the Town of Amherst be allowed to assess an additional $1,765,441 in real estate and personal property taxes for the purposes of funding the following expenses: Town Operating Budget ($537,252), Elementary Schools Operating Budget ($400,000), Regional School District Assessment ($739,195), and Libraries Operating Budget ($88,994) for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2010?

So for those of you who didn't notice me mentioning this at the Monday Feb 8, 2010 Select Board meeting: If you have an opinion on the March 23 ballot question itself, speak now via email to selectboard@amherstma.gov -- we're signing off on the language tomorrow morning Friday Feb 12, 2010 at an 8:30 am meeting at which there will be no time set aside for public comment.

Abbie said...

to anon@1105:

I do think that the override as a lump proposal is too damaged now to succeed. That is just my opinion. I think there are a relatively small number of folks who follow the debate on blogs and there are a lot of folks who read the free weekly Bulletin. I think if the override goes forward as a lump, it is an EASY target for anti-override folks to simply point in Bulletin letters that the the SC and library have been reluctant (to put it mildly) to support the need for more money as supplied through an override. I think while attempts to "educate" those Bulletin readers could be made, I think its easier for folks to just vote no. I think some override supporters (and SC members like CS) are minimizing the impact/influence of a sizable number of SC members who, in essence, have said they don't want to ask tax-payers for more $$ (on March 23rd).

There are a lot of folks out there who are entirely uneducated, and by choice, about town politics and town funding. I am amazed how many of my colleagues are totally clueless, don't vote, sometimes just ask me how they should vote (if they even bother!). They just want the trains to run on time...

This question for you anon@1105: what do you think ought to happen to cover next year's gap? Or do you think those cuts (on top of previous cuts) are painless? That, to me, is where it comes down. Now the responsibility falls HEAVILY on the SC to come up with a plan to deal with next year's shortfall or they will potentially lose some of their supporters (like me).

Anonymous said...

And where will the SC essay go on the ballot? RIght beneath it? Is there a similar statement for town services and library services? What will those statements be?

Kate said...

Catherine,

I am not arguing for more money for Special Education. I’m not saying we have the perfect or near-perfect model. I’m advocating having a plan before removing funding. I’m arguing against using specious arguments based on incorrect data and bogus comparisons.

As a member of the School Committee, you have the bully pulpit. I’m asking you, and Steve, to be careful how you use it. What happened at Tuesday’s meetings will be remembered and interpreted differently depending on one’s starting point. I’m going to remember Maria’s reality check on the conversation; from reading this forum it’s obvious that others will remember Steve’s assertion that, based on declining regular education enrollment, Special Education funding is too high.

This would be fine if what Steve was saying was accurate, or if he admitted that his assumptions were invalid, or if he explained why they aren’t invalid, or if you reconsidered your vote or spoke up to address the discrepancy.

Anonymous said...

To answer Abbie (from Anon 11:05)

"what do you think ought to happen to cover next year's gap? Or do you think those cuts (on top of previous cuts) are painless?"

No, I don't think the town reserves should be used (for reasons like bond rating that you mentioned).

The truth is that I think the previous cuts were relatively painless (only thing I noticed are no stringed instruments for 3rd graders and perhaps fewer field trips than before). No aethestics on wednesdays. Maybe the loss of a reading/writing/math specialist, but the quality of my kids' education (or lack thereof) hasn't changed from last year to this year based on the presence/absence of a specialist. Fewer but bigger teams in the middle school. Have you noticed anything else?

The truth is that my kids' educational experience depends A LOT on who their teacher is from year to year. And that's not something that adding more, restoring some, or cutting some money to/from the current budget will change. Changing THAT (their choice of teacher) would involve changing union rules about who gets to teach our kids and that's not related to budget. A vision or masterplan that involves coordinating and aligning curriculum will improve the consistency of the education.


And we heard about level 3-4 cuts but I haven't seen the carnage.

On April 17, 2009- CS had a blog entry that mentioned that Tier 3 cuts for the elementary schools totalled $1.2 million.

There was something about the town giving the schools money from reserves IF they closed MM...
Did the reserves really restore us from Level 3-4 to Level 1 or no cuts? I don't know if any of that financial information was summarized anywhere.

This year's cuts don't sound as drastic as last years' level 4 cuts. So that is why I am not worried. (It could be the case of the boy who cried wolf about the budget and now I am that townsperson in the story who doesn't believe him anymore.)

You might be right, Abbie, that the wolf is really out there this year, but it's hard to motivate people to vote YES on an override based on previous experience with the dire budget woes we heard about.

Anonymous said...

"Pity, isn't it, that we hired a Superintendent who had never been a Superintendent before instead of the white guy, who had......"

Ed,

Why did you think it necessary to mention the skin color of the guy who was not hired?

You post sounds racist. Now, I'm guessing you're not going to admit to being racist, so why not remove the racist tone and implications?

Anonymous said...

Pay no attention to Ed's race-baiting. He's just wants to hijack this thread on override to his favorite topic, the left right partisan divide.

It's not the first time he's gone there on this thread:

The thing that so disgusts me with the alleged liberals in Amherst is that they are all for decorum when opinions they support are being expressed, but when the other side is expressed, the rules change.

Anonymous said...

...in which he defends his indecorous comment citing an alleged syndrome he finds more egregious and characteristic of liberal tendencies.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone really seriously pay attention to anything Ed writes? I read them for amusement but in general none of his comments contribute anything to the conversation, which I realize neither does this post...but I could not resist. Sorry for the non-contribution interlude.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

A few responses:

Abbie - I think people disagree on what the cuts mean ... some people see crisis in a class size of 24 and others don't, some people see crisis in eliminating Russian/German and others don't some people see crisis in eliminating cooking and auto repair classes and others don't. That doesn't make people bad/good -- just they see the world in different ways, and I think that is OK. I'm preparing a blog post RIGHT NOW in which I go through every single cut and just list what it will mean -- I'll get that up soon, and all readers can decide for themselves what that means.

You wrote that you hear about math classes of near 30 kids -- but according to the current HS class list, 49% of math classes are taught to between 20 and 24 kids, 23% are taught to between 11 and 19, 2% are taught to below 11 (intro to calculus!), and 26% are taught to between 25 and 30. Now, I'm not suggesting we move class sizes from 30 to 35 ... I'm suggesting we consider reducing the number of classes taught to below 20 (which currently represents 24 of the 96 math sections offered). In addition, although you note that there are math classes near 30 kids, I don't think this mathematically can be accurate -- class sizes are posted on the Budget Website of ARPS, and there are only two classes listed that even have means above 24 -- geometry and algebra II honors. This is a case in which we really do have the data -- and we aren't approaching anything like 30, but we do have classes with a mean size of 14 (algebra honors), 8.5 (intro to calculus), 17.5 (algebra honors), math modeling (17.7). Pushing up some of the classes that are below 20 students to reach 22/23/24 doesn't seem to me like a horrible idea - you may disagree.

Alisa - thanks for posting this link. And I really hope you are hearing from the community about how to structure this override?

Kate - Steve suggested (and I agree) that we need to carefully review the budgets and make cuts where we can, given that we are in a tough economic climate. He did NOT say "let's cut special ed" -- he said, "I think we need to be more careful about the cuts." The MS/HS staff will, as you note, prioritize as needed depending on student caseloads, and it is pretty clear that a lot is still to be determined on that front. If they believe that there are additional special ed cuts that are potentially needed, they have the freedom to re-prioritize the cuts as needed at any time (this year or next). Steve was simply noting that it seemed as if this was a POTENTIAL area in which cuts could be made (along with other areas, as he noted, including class size, etc.).

Anonymous said...

"This would be fine if what Steve was saying was accurate, or if he admitted that his assumptions were invalid, or if he explained why they aren’t invalid, or..." Kate 12:29

I think this may be the same point that anonymous 9:37 was making.

Clarification please. Are ARMS enrollments going down next year or staying the same?

Anonymous said...

2:34- I think that your response really crystalizes the issue. I have pointed out before that folks like you and CS and SR who only have children in the elementary schools do not feel the real impact of these cuts, this year, or likely next year. You will see the impact when your kids get to the the HS and MS and then, I am sure/, you will be complaining very loudly.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 4:21 - can you clarify the impact on your child of the cuts? I talk to lots of parents with MS and HS kids, just as I talk with lots of parents with kids at WW, MM, and CF (which my kids don't attend), and I'm still not hearing about awful/horrendous cuts that you seem to be describing. The change at the MS this year was a move to larger classes in 8th grade and less music instruction -- both of those changes are returning to how they were last year regardless of whether an override passes. The big change at the HS this year was a move to 2 study halls from one which I do think is a BIG deal -- that is one of the reasons why I've pushed so hard for a move back to semesters so that we could have one study hall for the same dollars. What other changes have you noticed?

remember me! said...

From a prior post: "Clarification please. Are ARMS enrollments going down next year or staying the same?"

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

To: Remember me! - I don't know if MS enrollments are going down or up or staying the same next year. That is why I didn't respond (and remember, I didn't ask a question about MS enrollments at the meeting, nor was this information presented at the meeting). What is very clear, however, is that enrollment in the regional schools had dropped dramatically -- in 2005-2006, there were 1,924 kids grades 7 to 12, and this year, there are 1,691. That is a pretty big drop, and it is going to have some consequences -- as I said at the meeting the other night, when you suffer a drop in enrollment of nearly 40 kids a grade, you would expect some logical decreases in staffing. That might mean moving from 3 teams to 2 teams at the MS. That could also mean reducing a section of various classes -- or no longer being able to offer low enrollment classes (e.g., if Russian and German used to attract 15 kids a year, a drop of 40 kids in 7th could mean that number drops to 10 kids, and that becomes unsustainable).

Anonymous said...

Re: SPED cuts.

Before we can discuss the SPED budget we need specific information on how funds are spent. For example, how much of this budget is spent on administration ? How much on legal support ? How much on direct services ?

It seems unreasonable to pass judgement on this or any budgetary issue before we know what the current budget looks like.

CS: Has anyone exploded this number to its detail so that we know how money is spent ?

Anonymous said...

To Anon 4:21 - My point is that we don't feel the cuts THIS year from last year's Level 3-4 "woe is me" budget talks. Maybe the money was magically restored without anyone mentioning it loud and clear, but last year's $1.2 million plus elementary school deficit didn't result in anything too horrible this year in the elementary schools.

So while I am not a HS or MS parent, I also cannot get excited about a proposed $1.4 million cut (Amherst's share is $1.1 million) for the regional school system. It just sounds like the same "sky is falling" story I heard last year for the elementary schools.

And CS herself has said that she worked really really hard to push for the 2007 override, it failed, and ultimately, she realized that perhaps the money wasn't needed in retrospect (I'm paraphrasing, I don't have time to look up her exact wording. Apologies if I got it wrong).

And I realize that I don't have all the information - like how much of town reserves was used to plug up the elementary and regional budgets, and what specific positions were restored with those monies.

But if you're just looking to see whether an override is likely to pass, you have to assume that there are other people, right or wrong, who have similar general impressions of the state of the school budget.

Perhaps the strategy to get the override passed is to present logical arguments that would convince people like me.

kevin said...

Here is what Dr. Rodriguez had to say to my question, are the reserves there to delay the override?

Kevin: in the proposed budget which we have not presented yet since we are dealing only with the expense side of the ledger, we are already using $280,000 in reserves-$80,000 from E&D and $200,000 from Choice. Last year we used for this year's budget another $280,000 from reserves. Just like in your own savings account for rainy days, you cannot keep drawing it down without replenishing it. Using more than that would be fiscally irresponsible since it would put us in a financial situation that would affect our bond rating, and that has other implications, such as having to borrow money at a higher interest rate. Just my two cents and for you to keep in your back pocket. To push for an override next year is tantamount to calling the fire dept. after the house burned down. We're trying NOT to have the house burn down under our watch.
Alberto Rodriguez


Catherine, you said, in August when we welcomed Dr. Rodriguez, that you trust him to give us the best options. It is time to live up to that.

What I like about Dr. R is he believes in us and knows we are capable of great things. And he is letting us make mistakes, like children who must skin their knees a few times before they can ride their new bike.

Dr. Rodriguez has given us all the best options to choose from and we chose. Our elected representatives (not leaders, they are representatives), who we elected to find the best options and choose one based on our values, voted. After months of the most public anguish, they voted. They chose the option that best fulfills our values. Not the easiest one. Or the least expensive one. Not the quickest, fastest one. But the one that represents our shared values. Everything else is just noise.

I trust that Dr. R will come up with a real plan, not how to survive, but how we will get where we are going. With a Pre-K. Something that is completely unlike what we have known, yet somehow different from what we have now.

Please, let him do his job.

Everyone.

Kevin
---

LarryK4 said...

Well gee there Kevin, if Dr. A uses that whopping $80,000 from E+D, that leaves only a piddly balance of $955,000

Nina Koch said...

I don't actually hear anybody in the school system saying that the sky is falling. I think the description is more about a slow and steady erosion in what we can offer our students.

We have gone from offering 15 blocks to 14 blocks to 13 blocks and if we went to semesters it would probably go down to 12 blocks. That is a big loss in opportunities for kids.

We have gone from 64 clubs to 30 clubs to no clubs in the budget. This year clubs were restored only by parent fundraising.

We have gone from PE every year to a single term of combined PE and health in 9th grade.

We used to have courses in English like Shakespeare and Poetry and next year we won't.

Is it a disaster not to have Shakespeare? No. Not all schools have that. But I think it was really great that we did have it. I think it is the kind of richness worth paying for. Heck, we could save even more money if we just went back to having English I, II, III and IV with no variety at all. Some schools have that. But I don't want to be a bare bones school.

What is great about variety is that it increases the chance that each individual student will find some place to thrive, whether it's by designing costumes for a play or by analyzing poetry or by raising money for earthquake victims. People can look at a particular class or program and say, oh well it's only affecting a handful of kids, but it's the sum of all those handfuls that make up the rich environment. It's the presence of options that makes it meaningful to kids and helps them find their way. That's what I would hope to protect.

LarryK4 said...

Oops sorry, meant "Dr. R" (I actually kind of liked "A-Rod" however.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nina, that helps point out the erosion the HS has undergone. I agree that going from 15 to 13 blocks is a huge deal.

When times are tough, we need to cut back to the basics, which is the education. So yes, definitely I would like to increase the number of blocks available to kids. And richness in the curriculum. I could vote for an override to protect or add those items.

PE, I can see the importance of that in promoting a healthy lifestyle.

Clubs are extra, not a requirement of the school budget, not a luxury that I would ask tax payers to support in an ailing economy. Parents can fundraise or pay for the clubs (in their totality, not per kid/per club) with non-school funds.

Amherst Parent said...

If going from 15 blocks to 14 and then to 13 in the high school was such a big deal, why don't we see a move back to 15 blocks (aka NO mandatory study halls) in the list of things we would restore if we voted for an override? Personally, I agree that it is a big deal and don't like that our kids have to sit in two study halls, but I don't see that the majority of the School Committee (or Dr. R who dismisses the discussion as "irrelevant") sees that this IS a big deal. If they did, they would push for the restoration of the 15 blocks for the high school. I just don't see that happening and it concerns me.

school choice said...

since we have declining enrollments at the regional level, are you looking at increasing school choice both as a way to fill the seats and make some money?

although I'm pretty certain that at the last school committee meeting there was some specific discussion (and disagreement I thought) about the numbers of students expected for the middle school.

Anonymous said...

Nina- thank you for responding. I agree- I don't think that the sky is falling but anyone who has had a child or children in the schools for longer than 6 years knows the the slow but steady erosion that has been going on as a result of 7 successive years of cuts. I just feel that both CS and SR suffer from a lack of historical perspective. My oldest had a much fuller, better elementary experience than my youngest. And now that she is in HS- well yr 1- one directed study, Yr 3 -2 directed studies and YR4 - 3 directed studies proposed. I was at a meeting yesterday with parents of juniors and there was palpable concern about how our kids were going to get recommendations from teachers who either had already been cut or whose positions are on the chopping block.

My youngest is one of those kids who has been impacted by this year's cuts to the language program at the MS. He spends less than half the amount of time learning german this year than he did last because the class is combined with 7th graders. Is the sky falling in on him ? No but it is a real impact none the less. He lost 3 great young teachers to budget cuts- which I think is actually a huge loss not only for him but the district as well. He has 4 fewer elective courses at ARMS now than my daughter did 4 years ago. I'm now paying $1000 so my kids can participate on various HS sports teams. That's a pretty big impact for me.

Anonymous said...

Well, I have an even broader historical perspective than that. In 1980, we elected an American President who through the power of his personality changed the political culture of this country, ultimately right down to the municipal level. What was the most profound change? Ronald Reagan convinced us that we could get something for nothing, including community, and everything that consists of.

And that mentality has trickled down through the states and into our cities and towns. It leads to these subterranean forms of taxation such as lotteries, sales taxes, and user fees. Now that mentality is croaking us, because Americans think that they don't have to pay straight-up for the common good. And whining about taxes goes unrebutted: no one has the fortitude to challenge it.

So, laying this off on SR and CS is really a cheap shot. This is much bigger than two SC members. I agree with Nina: the deterioration is more like the frog in the pot with the heat coming up slowly. But, at its core, the SC is dealing with the continuation of the Age of Reagan and the eroded civic culture that comes with it.

I still say that Irv, Steve, and Catherine are grappling with a fundamental question that the Select Board happens to be well ahead of them on in its particular realm (thanks greatly to Stephanie and Alisa): who's running things, the elected volunteer officials or the full-time career six-figure salaried administrators? And I applaud them for envisioning the School Committee as something other than the political arm of the Superintendent's Office.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Catherine, I have posted about the effect of cuts on my middle school child. There was no response from you - just a pretty hyperbolic, insensitive post from one of the regulars on this blog.

Bottom line: the cuts ARE creating problems in the regional schools. Just because we all adapt to each new normal pretty quickly doesn't mean the quality of the system isn't eroding. It is. Those good teachers who were cut from the MS last year aren't coming back, whether there's an override now, next year, or next. And,the negative impact on the middle school music program will not be recovered by restoring music to every day in the middle school next year. Every cut does damage, and the damage cannot be repaired by changing a budget line item in a subsequent year.

The predicted shortfalls for this town are going to be there for years. Other strategies will be needed. But, the way to minimize the damage - that's right: damage - to the kids in the regional schools NOW is to pass an override.

BTW - at the 1.9 level, the average increase in property taxes if an override passed is about 5 bucks a week. Even if I didn't have kids in the schools, my neighbor's kids would be worth 5 bucks a week.

Lots of uncertainty out there, but here's a sure thing: every time our schools cut programs for kids, THERE IS DAMAGE.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 6:28 - the SPED review has just started, and no one (to the best of my knowledge) is examining specific costs associated with special ed. But you raise a very good point--it isn't clear where cuts would come from, or where they should come from. Another reason why we could use more time to examine the budget.

Anonymous 6:33 - you are quoting me accurately -- I felt like after the 2007 override failed (which I spent a lot of time and money on), nothing changed. And that did make me much more cautious about supporting other overrides. I don't see any major changes in elementary school (other than a 1 year delay in the start of instrumental music), and that was after we were told last year was going to lead to major changes in our schools. I do think the addition of another study hall to the HS was awful -- but this seems to be a choice of the teachers, since they voted to not have a semester system, which would have led to a 13 block with 1 study hall schedule (and 92.8% of time in class) for the same dollars as our current 13 blocks with 2 study halls (and only 86.6% of time in class). I share your view that this is the impression of many voters (even parents), which is why I think having more time to really think through our schools BEFORE asking for an override would have been a better strategy.

Kevin - OK, I have to respectfully disagree here ... Dr. Rodriguez did the job he was asked to do, which was to "cut X amount of dollars from our budget." He did that job. But that's not the job I want him doing -- I want him helping us create a vision of our schools, and then telling us what that costs, so we can go to the voters and see what people will support! I am certain Dr. Rodriguez does not think two study halls in the HS is good, or that having no K to 6 world language is good, or that one preschool class for low income kids is adequate. He just needs more time to do the second part (visioning) of his job.

Nina - I really like your post, and I think this type of honest reporting about what is and is not happening is a great way of helping people understand where we are -- and increasing credibility about decision-making in our schools. I read your post as saying "things aren't horrible, but they are better than they have been," and I think that is accurate and fair. I will say I am very disappointed that we didn't get to see a budget that would have eliminated study halls or gone to one study hall -- and I think that type of a proposal would have gone a long way towards making people feel that supporting an override would really buy something NEW.

One thing -- it was clear from Mark Jackson's presentation that the teachers tend to prefer smaller classes and more study halls compared to larger classes and fewer study halls -- which I think was why he started in the fall by presenting a budget with THREE study halls to preserve small class sizes (then the SC said that was unacceptable). But I think this is the type of trade-off that really should have been openly discussed with the community -- how much would parents/kids value moving to one (or no) study halls, and would they accept an increase in class size to pay for that?

Anonymous 8:48 - I think two study halls is awful. I'm less concerned about the number of blocks than I am about the % of time kids spend in class -- and it is clear that for the two study halls kids now have (spending 13.4% of their time in study hall), we could move for the same dollars to semesters and have 1 study hall (spending 7.2% of the time in study hall). I would have liked to have seen a proposal that moved to just one study hall -- on the trimester or the semester.

I believe that the current proposal does include PE electives -- those aren't eliminated.

And I agree with you on clubs -- it would be great if they are free, but it seems a bit hard to ask tax payers for those.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Amherst Parent - I agree that 2 study halls is awful -- I've said that repeatedly. That is one reason why Steve has harped on the semester issue -- it would reduce the number of study halls from 2 to 1 for the same dollars! I also specifically said at the last meeting that I would have felt better if we had seen a plan that included only 1 study hall, and I was VERY surprised that Mark Jackson never presented such a plan (his first plan presented three study halls). I also said that I'd be more comfortable supporting an override if it really added something like class time (e.g., a move to end study halls).

School Choice - you definitely could take more choice kids 7th through 12th. The challenge is that once you take them in 7th, you have to keep them through 12th -- and sometimes they can be more costly. For example, if you have 2 MS teams of 100 kids each (for example), and you take 20 choice kids, maybe then you feel like you need a new team and that costs more than the choice kids are bringing in (that's why we didn't save Marks Meadow with choice kids). I know some of our principals also feel it is not a good idea -- and can even be seen as "morally bad" in that it deprives other districts of their own funds.

Anonymous 10:26 - thanks for the details about the changes you see. I'd be interested in knowing more about the elementary experience -- all kids at all schools have art/music/PE/computer every week, so is that worse than before? In terms of MS -- I think German and Russian are just very, very hard to maintain in these tight budgets. They are very expensive given low enrollments and the compromise this year was to offer these classes grouped (7th and 8th together). I just think that is very hard to justify continuing, given our declines in enrollment. In terms of the HS -- the entire SC refused to go to three study halls (which the principals proposed), and I agree that 2 (even 1) study halls is bad. As I've noted above, moving to the semester system is an easy way to reduce these study halls in a cost effective way, and I'm really sorry the HS teachers didn't vote to do that last year (which would have meant your child was in 1, not 2, this year). And although I do think electives are great to have, we still do have MANY compared to most schools -- currently 15 options in social studies (used to be 22) and 14 options in English (used to be 18). That still seems like a lot of options to me, and again, the loss of electives (and reduction in staff -- which always involves younger teachers) is largely due to the declines in enrollment. We've lost 40 kids each grade over the last 5 years, and that is going to have an impact on staffing.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Rich - I agree with your analogy re. who is running things ... and the SB (under the very good leadership of both Alisa and Stephanie) is indeed farther along in making real and important changes -- and I commend them both for it. The SC is taking a bit longer, in part because we've had a one year delay in getting moving on making changes in the balance between SC and administration (e.g., less of SC as PR department for the schools, more as SC focusing on oversight/accountability) and in part because we've had 5 superintendents in less than 2 years.

Anonymous 11:34 - I'm sorry that last year's cuts were damaging to your child ... and I think I've been clear about how things are going to change next year in the MS for the better REGARDLESS of the override (class sizes will be 20 in both 7th and 8th and music will be every day). I don't know of teachers who were cut from the MS last year -- which teachers didn't come back this year? I know there was concern about some losing jobs, but which ones didn't return?

One more thing: I do not believe that all cuts cause damage. I just don't, and I am going to be honest about that. We are cutting 4 teachers at the elementary school level, and that means classes will go from 19 to 20 (averages). That is a cut (and we will almost definitely lose some great teachers), but I don't think it is damage. I don't believe it is damage to tell an 11th grader that he/she will have to choose from 14 electives in English instead of 18. I don't see it as damage to tell a 7th grader they have to choose from 4 versus 6 world languages -- that still seems like a lot of good options! There are cuts that I see as causing damage, but I don't see all cuts as causing damage. You may see that differently -- just as some parents believe that closing Marks Meadow will cause damage, and I just didn't see it that way. I understand (obviously) that passing an override reduces the number of cuts we need to make -- and that may mean that many people vote for it and it passes. And that is absolutely the choice of parents/community members in our town.

Anonymous said...

Catherine-

To answer your question, cutting from six teams overall to the current four and a half teams at the MS meant that 6 team teachers who were there last years are no longer there. Because of seniority the ones that were cut were newer teachers (cheaper, too!) and were excellent.

There are three SS teachers (only two positions were lost, but one teacher was bumped by a returning faculty with seniority), one english teacher, one math teacher and two science teachers that are no longer in their classrooms from last year. Some were officially cut and others made choices to go elsewhere, because they were on the potential list to be cut.

Sam I Am

Nina Koch said...

Catherine,

I am not sure you understood my post. I consider slow and steady erosion to be a serious problem. So, while we don't have chunks of the roof caving in (just leaks occasionally), we are gradually losing important components of our identity as a school. That is a big deal.

I continue to hear you say that things are not so bad and I continue to disagree with that assessment. From the point of view of the experience that kids will have, things are significantly changed. The school should be a place where every student finds a place to thrive. To make it that kind of place, we do in fact need the things that you think are not so critical, such as a wide variety of English courses.

Marcy said...

"I am certain Dr. Rodriguez does not think two study halls in the HS is good, or that having no K to 6 world language is good, or that one preschool class for low income kids is adequate. He just needs more time to do the second part (visioning) of his job."

But it's not worth supporting the budget that he best sees fit from which to proceed with that visioning? That's the piece I continually don't get. The maintaining the car analogy doesn't work for me because you're going to just ditch the old jalopy anyway. Who cares if it's full of rust and the transmission is a little knocky when you do so? I prefer the analogy of renovating an old house. There may be an old wing that's in bad repair or doesn't make sense with the new flow you're trying to create (perhaps the German and Russian programs) that you just want to rip off to make room for something better to replace it. But, in general, there's these great bones in the house that you really want to preserve and honor. Sure, there's a lot of updating and efficiencies that you want to accomplish, but you need to proceed carefully so as not to compromise those things that are worth preserving and attracted you to the house in the first place... the architectural detail, the sunny kitchen, the beautiful, hand painted wallpaper in the back room that you covet even though it's out of view from most visitors. It's worth patching the leaky roof now, to prevent decay in those things, even while considering redrawing the rooflines.

Anonymous said...

Well Catherine- I guess we'll just have to disagree on just how damaging years, and years of budget cuts have been to the quality of education in Amherst.

And negative impacts at the elementary level? Here is just one- loss of teachers who remediate kids coming into the district who are not at grade level. These kids consume lots of teacher time in the classroom and not in a good way.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Sam I Am - the MS leadership last year made a decision to respond to budget cuts by cutting those teams. That may or may not have been the right decision -- but if we look to NEXT year, there are the same number of teams regardless of whether there is an override or not, and there will be more music regardless of whether there is an override or not. I think that is important to remember.

Nina - I think that a decrease in programs, including the number of English electives, simply must happen when enrollment declines and there are fewer kids in the building. And although I think having some electives is important, I don't share your belief that asking kids to choose between only 12 social studies electives (of which they are only required to take 2, and only have the option to take 4) is a huge deal. At Amherst College, we offer choices of 6 or 7 senior seminars each year -- that still gives students a lot of choice, and even if they don't get their first choice, they get a good and interesting class. So, next year, even with no override, kids can choose from expository writing, creative writing, journalism, American lit and nature, Renaissance and Modern lit, British and Irish lit, African-American lit, and Women in Lit. Then the next year, there will be different choices, such as gay and lesbian lit, American lit and society, Ancient and Medieval lit, and Contemp. Lit and Multicultural Identity. That really does seem like a great range of choices -- it does not seem like a "bare bones" high school. Now, this may not be the range that used to be available -- but there are 80 fewer juniors/seniors to take these classes now with enrollment declines, so again, some changes are necessary given a smaller population. And I think reasonable people can disagree about whether those changes are damaging or not.

Marcy - I think asking people to pay more taxes in a tough economic time is a very big responsibility -- it is one that I take very, very seriously. For me to make that request, I would need to feel that I really believed we were using the resources we currently have in the best possible way, that new resources would be used in the best possible way, and that we had a decent guess as to what the new resources we needed would be. In all honesty, I don't have confidence on any of those points right now. This isn't about Dr. Rodriguez, who hasn't been here long enough to really show how he is going to make fiscal and educational decisions. But when I look at past spending by the schools, I'm concerned (and I think voters are as well), and so I don't want to stick my neck out and say "spend more resources and trust us to use them well" unless I feel confident that that is going to happen. Again, as an elected official who is supposed to make sure fiscal resources are being managed well, I have a higher bar to clear on asking voters for support than do parents who say "well, we'd like smaller classes so vote for the override." And the evidence for me hasn't yet cleared the bar for me to endorse an override.

Anonymous 8:08 - as I've said many times, I think reasonable people can disagree about the impact of the changes and whether they cause damage or not (or how much). Regardless of whether an override passes next year, each elementary school will have 6 or 7 intervention teachers that help kids who are struggling (this doesn't include SPED teachers). An override adds a .60 intervention teacher to one school. Again, people can disagree about whether this is appropriate staffing or not, but this is what the principals have recommended - and again, they only see the need for a .6 additional intervention teacher.

Anonymous said...

But I don't think anyone is saying "just cut special ed" -- "

Catherine - You are in fact saying "just cut special ed" and we'll figure out a new model later. The cuts are in both the Amherst and regional budgets now and by the time the review is complete it will be too late to restore any of that funding. You agreed with Anonymous that the budget restoration list was "heavy on special ed" before you have any data from the review so you have clearly already decided that we spend too much on special ed even though enrollment in special ed is increasing. The superintendent stated upfront that the goal of the review was to reduce spending, not to improve the quality of special education. Based on his and school committee members public statements, any parent of a child with an IEP now has a fairly good case to make for out of district placement if they feel that they are not receiving adequate services.

Most of the comments and suggestions that I have heard from both you and Steve are to redirect the remaining special ed cuts to non special ed programs (i.e. pre-k, summer school, language, etc.) and to replace certified teachers/therapists with para professionals. Are you aware that the basic qualification for a "para" is a high school diploma and that no training in special ed is required? Some para's are great and do a wonderful job but there is a wide degree of variability in their skills. Our kids need trained professionals to make adequate progress, not just babysitters.

I'm sure that some parents are unhappy with "aspects" of current special ed services but I assure you that they will be even more unhappy with fewer resources and less qualified staff. Our experience has been that the special ed staff is already overloaded and that resources are not always available when needed which causes more disruption for the teacher and impacts all of the students. The reality is that the IEP process is already driven by the limited resources available even though it is illegal to do so. I can see that people not involved with special education would have questions but not that they can be so certain about something that they do not understand.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 9:40 - I'm willing to take the rap for anything I've done/said ... but not something I haven't. The elementary school principals asked for $176,000 to fully fund what they wanted to fund (which consisted almost entirely of adds to SPED and intervention). Steve made a motion to add $400,000 so that ALL of those cuts could be restored PLUS other things (e.g., world language, preschool). That just can't be described as cutting special ed, when we've proposed giving the elementary schools MORE money than they asked for! On the regional level, what have Steve and I both asked for repeatedly -- increases in class sizes. That alone would save $500,000. Neither of us has said "cut special ed" and the principals are in charge of the order of the cuts list -- meaning they are clearly ordering the items how they see fit. In these lists, restoring special ed occurs LOWER than many other things (e.g., the principals are prioritizing adding a copy service personnel person and custodian and a librarian and a PE teacher ABOVE any adds to special ed). That is THEIR recommendations, not mine or Steve's, so if you opposed that ordering of priorities, email the school committee and/or the superintendent and/or the principals and tell them that special ed needs to be higher on the priority list. But remember, even with no override, next year the MS will have between 5 and 8 academic special ed teachers, 4 teachers in a specialized program, and 14 to 19 SPED paraprofessionals. The HS will have, even with no override, 12.5 special ed teachers PLUS over 30 special ed paraprofessionals. If you think that is inadequate, the best thing you can do is email the principals, superintendent, and SC to recommend changing the priority list.

Anonymous said...

Since data is an important tool for decision-making, here is some data that might shed some light on life on the ground in the middle school post 2008-2009 cuts:

• Loss of core team teachers affected at least 100 kids who moved from 7th grade last year to 8th grade this year. This meant that the “loop”model (i.e., core teachers loop with a team of kids for both 7th and 8th grades) was not available to at least one team last year.

• Loss of an experienced science teacher mid year to fill an administrative position resulted in the hiring of a much less experienced teacher for half the year last year, and a new, less experienced science teacher this year: affected about 200 students.

• Reduction in the frequency of music instruction has affected over 400 students this year, and the ripple effect will continue into the high school for the next couple of years.

• Loss of any budget support for after school clubs has jeopardized that program, which serves over 150 kids/year. Parents have had to step in to restore these.

• Cuts in the guidance department have resulted in a school of 500+ 12-14 year olds with only 1 guidance counselor this year.

It should also be noted that, because students are in the middle school for a shorter time than any other school in the district, cuts have a bigger impact there. The cuts that affected kids in 7th grade last year that might be reinstated next year will not benefit the students who are now in 8th grade.

It’s difficult to calculate the impact of loss of morale among teachers from loss of colleagues (including the principal), threats to their own jobs, a 50% increase in student load for 8th grade teachers over last year, etc., etc.

The Turning Point model, which was put into place in the middle school several years ago, was designed to address the needs of students who are bridging from elementary school to high school. Budget cuts last year (and proposed cuts next year) undermine that model. Just because that model was not designed by the current crop of SC members shouldn’t mean that they so readily allow cuts that undermine it. As they continue to review programs, come up with strategic plans, etc., programs that already exist and have merit are eroding.

It seems to me that the job of the SC members is to be closer to the ground than they seem to be, and to have done more homework about the programs that currently exist in the schools before they claim to need “more time to study the plans” and “more data.” There is plenty of data in the real world day-to-day lives of students and teachers, and there has been enough time for them to read school websites and visit the schools to gain an understanding of what is currently in place.

kevin said...

Rather than looking at it as 80 fewer students, Catherine, why not refer to it as 80 seats to fill and open enroll them. Thus preserving the number of options available, keeping teacher's jobs interesting, preserving opportunities for creativity and direct interaction, and giving the students something to call uniquely their own.

If Amherst College only has six or seven Senior seminars and A-PRHS has twelve, WOW! That sounds like a good thing.

Call it Amherst Academy and fill those seats. As Larry Shaffer has said, repeatedly, the only way out is to grow. If people want to send their kids to a private school, give them one.

Fight to get them back, don't just look around at all the empty seats, feeling sorry for yourself -- throw a party, invite them back. I worked in restaurants for years -- when things get slow, you do not cut hours. You hire a musician and put a sign in the window. Ask Nick, I did the Black Sheep for a year, filled it, every Sunday. That was a haul.

Here's the thing. Even though you all voted, it still has to go through Town Meeting. The SC, TMgr, TLib and SB only recommend. TM has final say and could go higher and it could go lower. With them, it is a coin toss.

So, I wouldn't count on TM. I would look inside and figure out how you would capitalize on the investment you already made in people and programs.

Cutting is not the answer; go with what you got.

Amherst College: 6-7
Amherst Academy: 12

We win. We WIN! WE... WIN!!!!!

Kevin
---

Anonymous said...

Catherine said:
all kids at all schools have art/music/PE/computer every week, so is that worse than before?

It might be the case that all kids have these classes every week in other schools, but I can tell you from experience that my kid at Crocker Farm does not have these classes every year this year. These classes are on a rotating schedule. These classes are more or less every other week. Having these classes every week would be an addition I would consider very important, since it benefits all kids at one school.

Mary May said...

In response to the question about art/music/pe being once a week, it is important to note (no music pun intended) that each school has the equivalent of one time per week for each subject. However, some schools do a rotating schedule where students might have 3 PE classes on week one, 3 art classes on week two and 3 music classes on week three. This comes out to once a week but the schedule organizes the blocks on a 3 week rotation. For many years, students were able to have 4 classes of the subjects over 3 weeks, specifically in CF...ie, one and 1/3 periods a week. Depending on the number of classes in each school and the percentages of staff, this has varied from year to year. So in summary, all students have the equivalent of one music/art/pe per week (divided various ways in various buildings) and YES, this is less than previous years. Both FR and WW used to have 1.2 FTE's (now they have 1) CF had 1 (now they have .6) MM used to have .75 (now they have .55) These are the music FTE's.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 9:55 - thank you for your details regarding the changes in the schools. I can't control last year's changes -- and what I hear you saying is that the SC screwed up last year by allowing certain changes (e.g., we shouldn't have allowed the loss of core team teachers and we shouldn't have allowed the cut to music). I believe I spoke against both of those cuts, and suggested instead cutting a dean/special ed staff members in Bridges ... but again, this is a tough issue because the principal at the time RECOMMENDED these cuts! Are you suggesting the SC should have opposed them, against her will?

In terms of the cuts you list, here is the status for next year:

-team teachers will be restored in 8th so there will be the same staffing 7th/8th and looping can occur (this is true regardless of an override)

-the science teacher loss was due to a maternity leave - and I don't think legally we can deny maternity leaves! This had NOTHING to do with the budget.

-the music cut last year is being fully restored next year REGARDLESS of the override vote.

-the afterschool club support is an issue at both the MS and the HS. But I think it is difficult to justify larger classes or other cuts to pay for afterschool clubs. This has not been prioritized by the principals or the superintendent or the SC, and is not going to be added regardless of an override. This seems like a place in which AEF or other private funding is appropriate.

-the guidance counselor position has already been restored, and won't be effected by the passage of an override.

So, let me be clear -- there is not a single one of the cuts you mentioned that will be effected by whether an override passes. Not one. The MS leadership (Mike Hayes) has done a fabulous job of creating a great schedule next year with limited dollars in ways that I believe benefit all kids -- in precisely the way that you believe should occur (and I've noted that repeatedly on this blog).

I'm very sorry about the difficulties the MS had this year -- I certainly had nothing to do with the loss of the principal (as I think is clear) nor did I propose the change in 8th grade teaching load (that was this principal). And you note that proposed cuts for next year will undermine the Turning Points model, but I'm not sure how that is true? What cuts are you describing that you believe will impact Turning Points (since there will be equally staffing at 7th and 8th grade and class sizes of 20 and two guidance counselors, etc.)? You say that we are allowing cuts, but again, I'm not sure what you mean here -- no one proposed an override last year, and the principal of the MS at the time proposed this as the best budget. Do you propose that we should have overturned her decision? I'm just not clear on how you think I've failed here.

Finally, you say that it is 'the job of the SC members is to be closer to the ground than they seem to be, and to have done more homework about the programs that currently exist in the schools before they claim to need “more time to study the plans” and “more data.”' I hope you remember that this is a volunteer position, and one that I'm spending about 20 hours a week on. This includes talking to MANY teachers and staff members and parents every week, including MS teachers, and it has included doing a "learning walk" in the MS last year, reading through the program of studies for both schools, analyzing performance data for all schools, and also examining similar types of data at other schools. I'm really doing the best I can -- including by having this blog so people like you can post anonymous comments/questions that I personally respond to.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:


Kevin - well, the School Choice thing is complicated ... and I know some principals oppose it (for various reasons). I'm also not sure we could get 40 kids per grade -- but I guess that is something we could investigate. It is harder for me to imagine we could operate an "Amherst Academy" - for various reasons!

Anonymous 12:26 - so, I'm very surprised to learn that kids at CF aren't having music/art/PE every week now. That is definitely what occurs at FR ... and I think at WW? I do know that every kid NEXT year K to 6 will have art/music/PE next year REGARDLESS of an override, which I think is great.

Mary May - thanks for this clarification! Am I right that with the redistricting and closing of MM each school will now have each of these (PE/art/music) once a week, or not necessarily?

Mary May said...

Catherine,
Yes, next year, every building will have staffing to provide art/mus/pe once a week. However, FR and WW, since they have one full time person in each area might choose to do a rotating schedule for certain grades. At CF, this would be difficult because you have mostly part time people in these subjects. As for this year, I can say that it's the first time in 25 years where MM had to go to a once a week schedule rather than a rotating one because of the cuts in staffing. (Rotating schedules tend to be preferable for the older grades to accomplish more in-depth projects/units in art and music.)

Anonymous said...

Catherine, you've missed the point re: the iteration of the effect of cuts last year in the ms. The point in describing these in detail is to underscore the effect of cuts. Your earlier post suggested that you weren't really hearing from parents about the negative effects of the cuts last year. So, that post was provided to help round out the feedback.

There was no mention in that post that you were personally responsible for last year's cuts. The point I was trying to make is that cuts impact large numbers of students, and often not for the better.

I appreciate the opportunity to inform you and others via this medium. And I appreciate your responsiveness. I don't envy your job right now. While I appreciate you, your time and devotion, I also believe that you are taking a misguided approach to the budget process for next year.

Bottom line: I think the SC should be doing all it can - including supporting an override - to prevent cuts in the regional schools next year. Period.

Anonymous said...

Catherine is taking the job of steward of our tax dollars seriously, and I appreciate it. Thank you Catherine.
Ali

Anonymous said...

the HS dean's position now are ALREADY BOTH school year. The proposal is for one to become part time next year.