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.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Understanding the Complexities of the Amherst-Pelham Relationship

One of the main goals of my blog has been to provide information to the public about issues impacting education in Amherst, and I think it is clear that the association between Amherst and Pelham is quite complex. In particular, the Pelham school is entirely dependent on school choice in order to continue to exist, and 30% of the school choice kids in Pelham come from Amherst.

Here are some key numbers:

As of May 1, 2010, the Pelham school enrolled 126 kids, including 79 Pelham residents and 47 school choice kids. Of those 47 school choice kids, 17 are from Belchertown and 14 are from Amherst. The district with the next highest enrollment by choice into Pelham is Sunderland (4). So, the vast majority of kids choicing into Pelham are from Belchertown (which has just amount the same number of students K to 12 as does Amherst, but of course Belchertown has its own superintendent) and Amherst (which shares a superintendent with Pelham at the elementary level).

As of May 1, 2010, the Amherst elementary schools lost 29 kids to school choice, and of those 29, 14 went to Pelham (virtually half), making Pelham the district that by far takes more Amherst kids. The second most common districts for Amherst kids to school choice into are Hadley and Sunderland, which each take 4 kids from Amherst.

Pelham began taking school choice kids in 2004, and since that time, Amherst has lost an increasing amount of money to school choice. In 2004-2005 and 2005-2006, Amherst lost 15 kids a year to school choice. In 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, that number climbed to 23. This year, it is 29.

Now, that is a serious amount of money, since we lose $5,000 per kid when they go to another district ($5,000 X 29 = $145,000). However, we also have to cover any additional special education costs for students who choice into another district, so the number is actually higher than $145,000. Last year, we paid $248,000 in total to other districts; and of that $248,000, $161,665 went to Pelham (65% of our school choice tuition is paid to Pelham).

So, the Amherst elementary schools actually pay 12.3% of the Pelham elementary school's budget (their total budget is 1.31 million, and Amherst pays $161,665 of that). And in turn, Amherst loses the equivalent of three teachers -- meaning as of next year, an extra teacher (intervention, or music, or Spanish) in each building.

This extreme reliance on school choice to maintain the Pelham school, and in turn its drain on the resources for the Amherst schools, may be why Rob Detweiler, the business manager for the Amherst, Pelham, and Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, recommended that Pelham take fewer choice students. Here are the Pelham Select Board Meeting Minutes of May 11, 2009 (which you can google and find in full on line):

School Committee: Huber reported that the committee will be presenting a budget at Town Meeting of approximately $1.64 million, of which Pelham will be responsible for $1.31 million. He further reported that Rob Dettweiler, Director of Finance and Operations for the Amherst Pelham Regional Schools, has advised the committee that Pelham needs to make a decision regarding school choice students. Dettweiler recommends “weaning off” of the number of School Choice students accepted by Pelham Elementary. The Committee, however, voted to raise the number of school choice students so that now forty percent of students educated in the Elementary school will be from out of town. Dettweiler projects that by 2012, Pelham will have 76 students from Pelham and 80 School Choice students. Huber suggested that the Selectmen should consider meeting with the Finance Committee to determine “where we’re going” in the next five years in regards to funding for the Pelham Elementary School. Fred Vanderbeck, of the Finance Committee, told the Board that the FinCom is scheduled to meet on May 21st at 6 p.m. at the Rhodes building and that the School Committee has been invited to attend.

As you can see in these minutes, the Pelham SC rejected the advice of the business manager, and instead opted to increase the number of school choice kids. Given the very clear information on where increases in enrollment come from (Belchertown and Amherst), it seems clear that the Amherst schools will continue to pay an increasing amount to maintain the Pelham school. If Rob Detweiler is correct, and 80 school choice kids will be in the Pelham schools by 2012, Amherst kids will presumably make up 30% of this total (or 24 kids), which would cost the Amherst schools well over $100,000 a year (and very likely considerably more).


Alison Donta-Venman said...

It is clear to me from this information that having Amherst and Pelham share a Superintendent is clearly a conflict of interest. This conflict of interest could be eliminated either by Amherst and Pelham dissolving their Union 26 agreement or by Amherst and Pelham instead forming a regional K-6 district. I still think the best solution is the regional K-12 district (and have some questions about the reported lack of financial savings allegedly in the regionalization report).

Gavin Andresen said...

I always get lost in the "choice out" and "charter school" numbers.

So we pay $5,000 to another district to educate kids (ignoring special ed just to keep things a little simpler)...

... but if those kids stayed at Amherst we'd pay over $10,000 each to educate them (Amherst's cost per non-special-ed pupil is over $10,000/year).

Seems like a bargain to me, assuming that we downsize to match declining enrollment and don't just ignore the fact that we have fewer students. That's painful, but that's reality; if parents are choosing to send their kids to Pelham instead of keeping them in the Amherst schools, that's a good sign that we've got something to learn from Pelham.

If we lived closer to the Pelham border, I'd be very tempted to choice out our kids; I think they would do better in a smaller school.

All that said: I agree with the main point of the post; the Amherst/Pelham relationship is irrationally complex, and aught to be simplified.

Roy Palmer said...

How much is Amherst earning by bringing kids in through school choice? Why haven't you given us that data? Since your position hinges on how much money we are providing to Pelham, wouldn't it be good to know how much our districts bring in as a result of school choice?

I'm guessing the kids we bring in more than offset the Pelham "drain" on our purses.

How many teacher equivalents do we gain as a result of students choosing Amherst?

Since school choice is the focus, why aren't we also looking at enhancing our Arts dept so we don't lose so many kids to PVPA?

In the name of fair and balanced reporting, please provide us with the numbers on incoming school of choice students at every grade level and outgoing kids to pvpa, exactly as you have for your position on the Pelham "drain."

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Alison - I agree completely. Either a K to 6 (Amherst only, or Amherst-Pelham combined) or a K to 12 (Amherst, and/or Amherst with any or all of the other towns) would be a much better system. I don't think there is any chance Leverett and Shutesbury would vote to join Amherst in a K to 12 regional district, so we are really looking at improving our K to 6 system (which I think could happen in one of the two ways I note above).

Gavin - yeah, so it is confusing! I think the issue is what it would cost us to educate those 14 kids in Amherst -- and that answer is nothing since there are sunk costs. So, adding 14 kids back to Amherst means 3.5 kids per school, or about 1 kid every other grade. That doesn't cost us ANYTHING: we don't need more teachers, or another librarian, or another school bus, etc. It just costs us -- and I don't think the absence of these kids lets us downsize (now, if 100 kids were going, that would be an opportunity to downsize).

However, I agree that we need to know why people are choosing Pelham over Amherst -- which is why the SC voted unanimously this year to require an "exit survey" when families opt out of our district. I believe the superintendent is collecting that data now, and will present a summary this fall. We certainly need to know this.

And yes, I agree that this situation is needlessly complex.

Roy Palmer - great questions! So, the Amherst elementary schools don't take in any choice students, so the net gain is zero (we have a policy that forbids it). And PVPA takes in 7th to 12th grades, which aren't part of the Amherst elementary schools, nor the Pelham elementary schools. Thus, regional School Choice has nothing to do with Amherst-Pelham School Choice. And finally, we don't share a superintendent with PVPA -- if we did, I'd be highly concerned about this conflict of interest.

Anonymous said...

And how many elementary school kids does Amherst lose to the Chinese immersion school? I wouldn't be surprised if it were a much bigger figure than the one you cite here for Pelham-bound students.

Let's stop demonizing Pelham and return the focus to improving the quality of an Amherst education.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 2:28 - this year, 35 kids from Amherst chose to go to the Chinese Charter School. However, we do NOT share a superintendent with the Chinese Charter School - and if we did, I'd be very, very concerned about this conflict of interest. This isn't about demonizing Pelham - they need School Choice kids in order to continue to run their school, and Amherst is a likely source. But it certainly raises the question of how easy it is for one superintendent to balance the competing demands of one school that depends on students leaving other schools for its survival. This seems like an untenable situation.

Anonymous said...

Oh, so it's not actually about school choice after all....its about the Superintendent!

Oh, now I see. Now I understand.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 2:58 - it is about how one superintendent, whoever that person is, can effectively and ethically provide guidance to two school districts whose interests are in direct contrast.

Michael Jacques said...

This issue has many faces. There is a conflict of interests as Alison states. A clear example of this is the fact that Pelham has Spanish and in Amherst we have to push to get that for our kids. Yet, we have the same superintendent and we are giving Pelham the money that could fund at least 3 FTE's in Spanish instruction.

Also having 3 different committees that have impact on the children of Amherst is inefficient at best. I would also agree with Alison that a K-6 district at a minimum would be better but a K-12 seems more desirable.

I really believe we would have better results during our superintendent search if our system was simplified. Maybe we would not need to pay such a premium for the super's position if our district was reorganized?

Ed said...

This is a conflict of interest, not just with the Supt but with the regional school committee. I really am surprised that school choice includes what is essentially inter-district choice.

Of course, for every child that goes from Amherst to Pelham, the workload of the Superintendent and her staff is shifting from an Amherst child to a Pelham child and thus the percentage should shift with each child.

Let's say that both Amherst & Pelham have 100 children - and there is nothing beyond 6th grade. Both Amherst & Pelham would pay half of the central admin costs (Supt & staff). Now lets say that half of Amherst's kids go to Pelham under choice, taking the $5K/child with them.

Amherst is now using 25% of the Supt's time, while Pelham is using 75% -- yet Amherst is still paying half of her salary. Which would be fine if it was one district, but when you have the payment out from Amherst to Pelham, Amherst is getting "double billed" for services.

And taking Amherst kids might not be so profitable were Pelham required to pay Amherst back for the pro-ratio of Central Svc Costs for each child it gets.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we should look at why Pelham is so attractive to school-choice students -- so appealing, in fact, that families are willing to travel great distances to have their children attend. Pelham is an example of excellence in education. It's a close-knit and high-functioning school with consistently stellar MCAS scores that put Amherst's to shame. The outgoing and much-admired principal worked at Pelham in one capacity or another for over three decades. Let's look to Pelham as a model the Amherst schools can learn from.

Anonymous said...

Two things Pelham has that cannot be reproduced in Amherst as our situation currently stands: small school and completely separate classrooms. Our two largest schools operate in buildings constructed in the old "quad" open-classroom model, resulting in a lot of noise and disruption. And next year our smallest school (Crocker Farm) will still be significantly larger than Pelham.

I think the suggestion that we "learn from Pelham" is a good one but I just don't think Amherst could do what Pelham does, based on physical limitations alone.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

The other clear thing is that the populations are totally different: the Pelham population is 0% limited English proficiency, 7.2% low income, and 83.2% White. In contrast, the Amherst elementary schools are 13.2% limited English proficiency, 33.6% low income, and 53% White. I would also bet the Pelham population is MUCH less transient from year to year, which should increase achievement for many reasons.

But regardless, we can learn from Pelham (or another district that is more similar to ours with greater success) regardless of whether we are in a union with them or not!

Anonymous said...

Catherine, you're right that the populations of Pelham and Amherst are dissimilar in certain respects. However, Pelham's demographics *are* very similar to Leverett's, and Leverett has poor MCAS scores while Pelham has consistently excellent ones. So it's not just about demographics -- it's also about the fact that some schools have a culture of academic excellence and others do not. Leverett does a great job of educating "the whole child" but when it comes to the core academics is not rigorous enough.

So I think we can learn from Pelham's approach to education, demographics aside.