Responses to School Administration comments on Article 38

Numerous statements have been made by school administrators in opposing Article 38.  This document summarizes their assertion (underlined) and offers a response.

 

“Public engagement in this process has been adequate” : NOT.

The school administration lists all meetings when the elementary school building project was mentioned, but fail to note that at any meeting with significant public attendance, there has also been significant public discord and complaint about a) the process and b) the result.  Opportunity for members of the public to express themselves at committee meetings and forums is limited to a brief question and/or comment period. No dialogue is permitted and there is no opportunity to push back for full answers; in fact, at the School Building Committee, members were instructed that answers would specifically not be provided.

 

“MSBA process/committees are representative” : NOT

Parent members of the School Building Committee were hand-picked by the administration. There was no public process to recruit nor was the public aware that it involved a restructuring of the entire elementary school system when these committees were formed. The members are not diverse in viewpoint – the chair outright rejected a number of people who asked to be on the Committee, both neutral (but expert) people like a Wildwood parent who is an architect, and skeptical voices.

 

“The “Educational Program” development was representative” : NOT

The Visioning Team (which met in late summer 2015) was similarly not advertised to the community and was again hand-picked by the administration. Some have complained that it was conducted with a preconceived desire for a specific outcome (reconfiguration).  Yes, the Educational Program is foundational to the MSBA process but that is part of the problem – this was in no way a democratic or accountable process and failed to include voices of dissent/critique.

 

“Article 38’s proposed review will be inadequate because it won’t involve interviews”

Notwithstanding the fact that the MSBA process actually didn’t interview the public either and relied on teachers being willing to speak up against the recommendation of their administration, Article 38 does not intend to duplicate or repeat the MSBA process.  Its intention is to answer questions that were not addressed during the MSBA process, for instance including costs that would not be covered by the MSBA process and would be borne 100% by the Town.  It would also seek to create from existing documents and information an alternative set of options for renovation — the cited needs, and how much those might cost.

 

“Article 38 lacks credibility because it would not involve professionals/architects”

Peer reviews are performed by professional architects. Article 38 proposes a peer review.

 

“Article 38 assumes the costs of renovating both Wildwood and Fort River would be identical” : Wrong.

In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. We know the costs would be different and that’s why we’re asking for the detailed accounting.  We are asking for this review because the existing “renovation estimate” presented was simply a square-foot-cost estimate, and was then doubled for Fort River.  This is obviously problematic. An example: Fort River got a new boiler in 2011 and Wildwood’s boiler budget got re-purposed for the Feasibility Study. The thing that IS the same for the buildings is the open classroom floor plan so a design to fix the problems with this layout could be used in both schools.

 

 

“Fort River is a complex site that has struggled with wetness and mold”

We agree that Fort River’s potential mold issues should be assessed.  We have, in fact, requested on numerous occasions since October that a Hazardous Materials analysis be performed there immediately but this has not been authorized by the school administration because the Fort River building was not the subject of this MSBA Feasibility Study so costs for the analysis would not be available for reimbursement. We argue that Fort River should be tested right away and remediated right away, regardless of the MSBA process. The Hazardous Materials analysis of Wildwood performed by consultants hired in the MSBA process (UEC, Inc.) did not demonstrate a mold problem; Fort River was last evaluated about a decade ago. Incidentally, the Fort River site was still being considered as a final alternative location for the proposed school after the School Committee voted for reconfiguration so the architects clearly hadn’t entirely ruled out this site for a $60+ million dollar new construction project.

 

 

“Swing space would make renovation too costly and complicated”

We believe that swing space costs and logistics should indeed be assessed. The details and justification of the administration’s $1M figure and dispersal of students for swing space have not been presented to the public – only claimed by school administrators.  A detailed assessment of renovation would permit this assessment, since we could see, for instance, if the boiler could be done during the summer; some other renovations could be spread out over a couple of years; and some might require swing space.  We can’t know until we look at it, however, whether gut renovation would be required and whether there are alternative options for housing students during construction. The cost estimators have allotted 14 months for construction time under the current design plan for renovation. By scheduling work non-contiguously, renovation might be able to take place with far less interruption to school functioning than has been suggested.

The current plan of phased construction at the Wildwood site is not without its own challenges. Construction of Phase I would occur immediately adjacent to a fully occupied Wildwood school from 2017 – 2019. In the fall of 2019, Wildwood K-6 students would move into the completed Phase I section. During the 2019-2020 school year, the existing Wildwood building would be abated, demolished, and hauled away and the remaining Phase II built, again adjacent to the populated Phase I. In the fall of 2020, grade reconfiguration would be launched. Wildwood, Fort River, and Crocker Farm Kindergarteners and First Graders would move to the Crocker Farm site while all Second – Sixth Graders would be redistributed from 3 to 2 districts and divided into the two co-located schools at the Wildwood site. This will involve lots of transitions, especially for our youngest students.

 

“Independent cost estimates have already been done for renovation and are accurate”

The cost for renovation was reported as $390 per sq ft without substantiation or evidence at the time that the administration declared it cost-prohibitive and recommended reconfiguration (October 2015). An estimator then provided a lower cost/sq ft figure in January ($338) but included ALL of the existing building’s area to arrive at the $35M figure. Looking at all elementary and middle school MSBA funded renovation projects since 2010, adjusted for annual cost increases, gives a median cost/sf of $300. There is reason to question the figures used during deliberations about which option to choose.

The single design produced by architects (as opposed to the multiple options for a larger school) assumes that gut renovation is absolutely necessary because of the open classroom design. In speaking with several architects, the absence of permanent walls between classrooms can indeed be a challenge but they point out that, depending on the design and the building, it can also provide more renovation options as existing internal structures do not need to be braced, demolished, and replaced in other locations. We are asking that an alternative design plan, pursued with the goal of making renovation work rather than assuming it can’t, could provide a more cost-effective way to manage our schools’ issues.

 

“The School Committee’s primary reason for choosing reconfiguration was not cost”

This has never been asserted. What we have said is that from the very first time the public was informed about this project, renovation has been dismissed as cost-prohibitive by the school administration. That strongly implied to the school committee that the only choices left were for new construction. The School Committee also had the opportunity to select the option that had the support of the vast majority of elementary teachers surveyed (a twin K-6 school), an option that preserved the favored K-6 structure and would still have allowed Fort River to be addressed within this round of MSBA funding.

 

“The School Committee’s vote for reconfiguration means that no other option can be considered within the current Feasibility Study so renovation cannot receive MSBA funding”. FALSE.

The District’s Preferred Solution of the large, 750-student school still has not been voted upon by the MSBA Board. This vote has been pushed back from March to the end of May by the MSBA. The MSBA process provides Districts with 30 months in which to produce a building plan and budget that has been approved by Town Meeting and town residents in the form of appropriation and debt exclusion. Within that timeframe, there is flexibility in timing for other benchmarks and the opportunity to make changes. The point, then, is not so much about whether renovation can be chosen as whether committees are willing to reconsider their decisions once a more complete set of data is made available. During the pre-Town Meeting process for Article 38, we were asked to get clarification from the MSBA as to the impact of a Peer Review on the current process. The MSBA representative suggested that an official town representative ask whatever specific questions they had directly of the MSBA but, to date, no one has done so.

 

“Reconfiguration is the ONLY equitable option”

The School Committee’s laudable focus on equity unfortunately flies in the face of published research on equity and school size.  The School Committee’s interpretation of “equity” is also an oddly unique and narrow definition.  “Equity” traditionally means considerations for groups that are marginalized or disempowered in our society, specifically, communities of color, lower socioeconomic groups, people with disabilities.  But the School Administration’s view was clearly not focused on including the voices of people of color in decision-making, or analyzing why certain groups are not achieving as well as they ought to, according to MCAS scores.  In fact, the School District’s view of “equity” simply assumes that by providing a unified district they could provide sameness, which means “equity”. Their equity is about providing programs within particular locations:  all programs and all students in one location = equity.  In other words, it’s not about actually having equitable participation or results.

Among other things, we might ask what was the involvement of the School Equity Task Force? Was there good representation within the decision making apparatus, at any point, of minorities/low income people?  Have there been any substantive responses to the research that shows significant negative effects of large school size on minority populations?  Or plans to assess the reconfigured schools to see if there are negative effects on traditionally disadvantaged populations, and how to mitigate them?

Finally, transportation is an equity issue. Splitting up siblings into two difference elementary schools separated by a downtown will be inconvenient and undesirable to most families. However, for a family without a car, it will be downright impossible to manage, let alone participate fully in both schools.

 

“Making Crocker Farm into an early childhood center will close the achievement gap”

The proponents of reconfiguration argue that converting Crocker Farm from an elementary school to an “early childhood center” could close the achievement gap. They argue that, first, putting all children in the District into one school will necessarily be more equitable, an assertion which is unsupported, and which is in fact contradicted by virtually all research.

More importantly, the Superintendent suggested that the District would try to add two preschool classrooms. Preschool is a great educational benefit, and, indeed, increasing preschool for the communities most in need very likely could narrow the achievement gap. Unfortunately, that is not what the Superintendent has proposed. First, the Superintendent has not actually committed to the increase, which will require both additional renovation (one-time expense) and additional staff (on-going expense). Second, the proposal is only to expand the current half-day preschool. The existing preschool is not always filled, because working parents actually need full-day preschool, not half-day preschool. Third, the preschool is not cost-free, and the School Committee has not committed to their “intention” of making it cost-free.

Adding preschool classes to Crocker Farm is, ultimately less desirable than making preschool available at sites closer to families’ homes–for instance, expanding the preschool at the High School, or adding it at Fort River or Wildwood.

We would also argue that the achievement gap would be better addressed by hiring and keeping more teachers, particularly teachers of color, which would also decrease class size. Adding teachers of color and decreasing class sizes are proven ways to reduce achievement gaps, and give us more certainty than the “possibility” of empty seats in a part-time preschool.

The Early Childhood Center proposed for Crocker Farm is used in other Districts

In one handout, the school administration referenced 11 towns that have an early childhood center model. However, only 2 of these have grade configurations that include a PreK-1st grade school and NONE use the PreK-1/2-6 model proposed for Amherst. Most of the districts cited have a transition between 2nd and 3rd grade, a more developmentally appropriate milestone as noted by research and our own educators. (Second grade teachers are certified “early childhood educators”, along with their 1st and kindergarten colleagues.)

In addition, these other towns, for their own particular reasons and presumably with the consent of their community, have elementary school systems that have only one to three grades per school. Our parents and teachers have made it clear that they do not favor this model but would prefer to maintain a K-6 model with fewer transitions and longer relationships.

 

Operational savings under reconfiguration will be ~$400-500K/yr

The efficiencies that are expected to generate these savings include 5 fewer teachers, 3 fewer custodians, less money for food services, and one fewer assistant principal. In addition, while there will be two administrations with two sets of offices, the 750 students will share a cafeteria, gymnasium, library, outdoor play space, bus loop and entrance. Annual savings have also decreased because of the need for 4 additional bus runs ($220,000/year) to transport children to both schools without increasing travel times significantly.

 

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