This meeting was another really long one -- 6:30 pm to 11:45 pm, I believe -- so this is going to be briefer than the meeting (and I do encourage people to watch the whole meeting -- perhaps in spurts) to get a sense of all of the business that transpired.
Basically three things happened.
First, the SC reviewed a policy on "exit surveys" which would just mean the district would ask families who are leaving the district to complete a brief survey saying where their child will now be attending school and why they made this move. I think this is a really good idea so that we have a sense of the number of kids who are leaving, where they will now be attending school, and what factors influenced their decision.
Second, there was a budget hearing in which many ARHS students (and some parents/community members) discussed budget priorities. This session largely consisted of students asking us to save programs -- music ensembles and wood technology, largely. Some people spoke specifically in favor of the override, and asked us/others to support it. Others focused on changes in priority, such as increasing class sizes would be better than reducing electives/music ensembles (obviously this view validates my own belief about priorities as well as what other members of the SC have been saying over the last few meetings).
Third, there was a discussion about a recommendation from the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG) which followed a presentation by Stephanie O'Keeffe (Select Board Chair, and BCG Co-Chair) and John Musante (Assistant Town Manager) about the current budget. The BCG has asked each of the town committees (library, schools, town - fire/police/DPW/LSSE) to provide a number representing the amount of budget short-fall they anticipate having for next year, and for each of these committees to formally vote on and request an override to cover those expenses.
After this presentation, and some discussion by the SC, I made a motion to delay giving the BCG/SB a recommendation about an override until April 13th (I chose this date because it would allow us to put an override on the ballot in late May or early June). I've thought about this override issue a lot over the past few months (and have had NUMEROUS conversations with pro-override supporters, anti-override supporters, and undecideds), and ultimately, I've come to the decision that I will support an override when the schools have a demonstrated financial need that can't be met through projected revenue (that could be this year, or next year, etc.). (Note: this motion was seconded by Steve Rivkin, but no vote was taken -- I believe it will be discussed again next week).
For me, I feel that the override vote on March 23rd is too early -- we just won't know enough about either projected revenues (e.g., what is the state aid going to be -- we were estimating a 10% cut in Chapter 70 aid, and now the governor says there will be NO cut in aid, but we are conservatively estimating a 5% cut in aid; will there be some unions give-backs; etc.) or projected expenses (e.g., we are still working through a number of issues on both the Amherst and Regional levels, including the list of prioritized cuts but also contemplation of other programs/services). I know that the SB intends to have an override on the March 23rd ballot, but for me, I don't feel comfortable endorsing an override at this point because I don't have any sense of either what level cuts the schools could comfortably maintain (e.g., it is OK to cut Russian and German from our MS and HS; is it OK to have class sizes of X in the HS; is it OK to cut the .2 PE teacher for preschool kids at CF; is it OK to have the projected intervention/SE support in both budgets) or what additional revenue might become available. When we initially ran through budget projections, we were estimating a 10% cut in Chapter 70 aid, but in the last two weeks, we've added about $400,000 at the regional level and $300,000 at the Amherst level -- meaning the cuts are already less bad than we anticipated. But lots could change over the next few weeks/months -- maybe state aid DOES drop to a 10% cut, in which case we need more funds. Or maybe state aid, as the governor has promised (and it is an election year!), won't have any cut, in which case we gain about $400,000 at regional and $300,000 at elementary.
Another factor that leads me to want more time is that I don't believe either SC has really thought through in detail what we want our schools to look like -- and those discussions NEED to occur so that we can plan for the budget. For example, the Hamer report last summer emphasized the need for preschool for all kids, and I really agree with this priority (as does the superintendent). Yet there is only a single preschool class added in the proposed elementary budget, which would serve only 15 kids. Maybe we should seriously consider adding 3 or 4 preschool classrooms to really make sure that all kids in Amherst have the opportunity to begin kindergarten with more equal skills. Here's another issue -- every year the SC threatens to cut Russian and German, and then backs down. I think we need to bite the bullet and have this discussion. Either we believe it is important to offer six world languages in 7th grade, and are willing to commit to these programs long-term, or we need to decide to cut one/both of these and thus eliminate this budget line (EVEN if revenue permits). After all, it makes no sense to keep these (or other) programs for one year if we won't be able to maintain them after that, given budget priorities. I don't have an answer about either of these issues -- but I think they are important questions that should be addressed by the SC, and the administration, and the community, and we need time to have such discussions.
Here's another issue -- the current projections are that the elementary schools are short in their budget needs by less than $200,000 (largely because of closing MM) whereas the regional schools are short in their budget needs by about 1.4 million (and about 1.1 million of this is Amhert's share - with about $100,000 coming from each of the other towns). But given what we know about the importance of early education, I'm not sure if this split makes sense -- we seem to be spending a huge amount on the MS and HS, and maybe a more equitable distribution of these funds would make sense (e.g., should we offer free afterschool care at the ES level? or free summer school for struggling students? or world language K to 6? or return instrumental music to one grade earlier -- 3rd for strings, 4th for band, as it was prior to this year?). Again, these are big discussions, but they certainly could well impact what type of funding needed at both levels. And I'd like to have the time to discuss these, and other, programs BEFORE asking the voters to support a particular budget number on an override ballot.
Now, obviously the SCs have had time to discuss these issues already, but let's remember what we've been through this year (which I believe led to less than ideal circumstances for having these big discussions): a new superintendent (who understandably needed some time to get to learn our districts' programs and people), a major focus on redistricting/closing a school (which occupied a huge amount of superintendent/staff/SC time in September and October), and a sudden departure of a MS principal on the third day of school (which again led to a major change in job responsibilities in central office/administration at the MS and HS). We've all been busy, and although I wish we had had time to fully engage in all of these discussions, we just haven't. And thus I don't feel comfortable asking voters at this time to support an override until we have a better sense of both what our expenses are (e.g., what amount of budget support do we need next year to have the schools we want) and what the revenues will be (e.g., how much revenue do the schools/town have -- which will get clearer later this spring).
So, my hope is that the SB will choose to give the SC a bit more time to learn both about our revenue projections and our projected expenses -- especially since it costs only $12,000 to put an override on the ballot (this seems like money well spent to me, if it would allow us to give voters a better sense of how much money the schools need and why). We could easily vote to support an override in April, and still have an override in May or June (as Northampton did last year, successfully).
One final thing - I asked Stephanie O'Keeffe at the meeting last night three questions:
1. Whether it would be possible from the BCG/SB's perspective for the SC to vote simply to put an override on the ballot to let the voters decide (without the SC taking a specific stand supporting the override). She said no -- that the SB would not include the schools on an override ballot if the SC didn't take a position supporting an override.
2. Whether it would be possible for the SC to give the BCG/SB a number that represented the amout of money we believed we needed to provide the type of education our kids deserve (without the SC specifically stating that we believed an override would be necessary to provide this, and instead leaving it up to the SB to choose whether these funds could be raised through more local/state aid or union give-backs or reserves, etc.). She again said no -- that if the SB were to stick their necks out to support an override, they wanted to know that other town entities also supported an override.
I would have been comfortable with either of these options. However, what Stephanie indicated was that the only way the SB would put an override on the ballot that included the schools would be if the SC voted (a majority) to specifically endorse an override BY FEBRUARY 9th (since the SB has to put an override question on the ballot by February 12th to get it on the March 23rd ballot). As I've noted previously, and as I said last night, I'm not there yet -- and I don't think I can be there in less than a week. I therefore believe that we need to reconsider this question of an override (whether, and how much) in April when we have much more information about local/state aid and when the SCs have really had a chance to engage in important questions (with the community) about what we want our schools to be.
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.