By NICK GRABBE
Friday, March 12, 2010
AMHERST - As this education-centered town prepares to vote on a tax override March 23, some are questioning why it spends more per pupil on public schools than other nearby communities.
The Amherst elementary schools spent $15,846 per pupil and the regional (secondary) schools spent $16,909 per pupil in fiscal 2009, according to the state's Web site. The Northampton public schools spent $11,699 and the state average was $13,062.
There is much difference of opinion about the reliability and relevance of these numbers. Administrators and School Committee members cite many reasons for the disparity between per-pupil spending in Amherst and Northampton (see accompanying story).
"It's fair to discuss what we're spending and why it's important, but it needs to take into account both the reasons behind the numbers and our aspirations of what kind of school system we're trying to be," said Andy Churchill, chairman of the Amherst School Committee. "If we're saying we're trying to be great and it costs more, that's fair. And if we're not trying to be great and want to be cheap, that's fair. But it's not fair to say we're trying to be great and we should be cheap."
But Catherine Sanderson, another School Committee member, doubts that Amherst children are getting a better education than Northampton children.
"It is not clear that this money is being well spent," she said. "If we are spending so much more than other districts, why do our kids spend more time in study halls and have fewer course offerings than kids in other schools?"
Amherst school administrators are working on comparisons of spending to other towns, at the request of a citizen committee that's been examining the budget.
Northampton Superintendent Isabelina Rodriguez could not be reached for comment Thursday as to whether Northampton uses Amherst as a benchmark comparison for teacher and administrator pay, class sizes, and MCAS scores. Northampton School Committee Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Pick referred those questions to schools business manager Susan Wright, who could not be reached Thursday evening.
Seeking fair comparisons
Comparing a city's school spending to a regional district is an apples-to-kumquats exercise, they said. Many of the Amherst school district's costs, such as for a personnel director, come under the Northampton municipal budget; so, they are looking at how the Amherst regional district stacks up with other regional systems.
"Sometimes comparisons are not helpful," said Maria Geryk, the interim superintendent. "It's not negative to look at other communities and reflect on our costs, but it takes someone very skilled at looking at finance and data reporting. It's complicated."
Two regional school districts in the area that Geryk plans to use for comparisons have lower per-pupil spending than Amherst. The Frontier regional district - serving Deerfield, Conway, Whately and Sunderland - spends $14,936, while the Gateway district - serving Huntington, Worthington and other area towns - is spending $13,611, according to the state Web site.
Amherst is "walking a fine line between being fiscally responsible and our goal of having a great outcome for kids," Geryk said.
Former Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez, who left his job unexpectedly Monday, said that "comparisons are very dangerous." He added that spending comparisons have to consider different graduation rates, MCAS scores and SATs.
"I'm sure we compare very favorably to other districts," he said. "You get what you pay for."
An examination of the results of 17 MCAS tests taken in the spring of 2009 by children in grades 3 through 10 seem to confirm what Rodriguez said. In Amherst, 71 percent had scores in the "advanced" or "proficient" categories, whereas in Northampton 58 percent did.
School Committee member Irv Rhodes said the state's per-pupil spending numbers are often not reliable as a basis for comparisons.
"If you say we take one number and use that and say we're overspending on education and it was the only thing you're basing your case on, that would be an error," he said.
There is more "hard-core poverty" in Amherst and children who enter the system not speaking English than in Northampton, requiring greater expenses, said Churchill. But he said Amherst Regional High School sends 92 percent of its graduates to college, a number that compares favorably to towns like Brookline, which spends more per pupil.
But School Committee member Steve Rivkin doesn't buy that.
"Personally, I found Andy's focus on what fancy private schools our students attend offensive, as we cannot separate school from family effects, and it ignores how well we succeed with students who fall below the top of the academic achievement and wealth distributions," he said.
Stan Gawle, a leader of the group urging a "no" vote on the March 23 override, said Amherst has "a platinum school system." He cites as examples the number of languages available, spending $10,000 to hold high school graduation in the Mullins Center, and keeping small classes for Russian.
"Are comparisons relevant? Absolutely," he said. "People make comparisons when they go to the grocery store to shop, and when you see such disparity, it's incumbent on the schools to explain why."
Gawle said that the Amherst schools have too many staff members, especially highly paid special education administrators.
"How much can a town afford to spend without going bankrupt?" he said. "There are a lot of similarities between the U.S. government and the town of Amherst. Both have spent beyond their means. The difference is the federal government can print money, but the town has to come to taxpayers."
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.