School Committee meeting 6/21

On June 21, a South Amherst parent (Marla Goldberg-Jamate) read a statement to the Amherst School Committee, outlining concerns about the proposed building project and particularly grade reconfiguration, while emphasizing the importance of preserving Crocker Farm as a full K-6 school.

The committee was urged to drop the grade reconfiguration component of its building and schools consolidation plan. The parent stated that many South Amherst families are unhappy that Crocker Farm would be broken up and converted to an early childhood education center, while the new proposed building north of Amherst center would house grades 2-6. Pitfalls of this configuration were noted, including that siblings would often be separated between the schools, requiring parents to drive to two sites on days when children are dropped off or picked up.

Neither the School Superintendent, nor members of the committee, addressed the concerns.

Minutes from a 5/26 meeting were approved, noting that there is no state funding available for the remodeling of Crocker Farm into an early childhood center, although Facilities Director Ron Bohonowicz “believes” the district can afford those costs. The minutes also note that “more research is needed” about whether planned new preschool slots at Crocker Farm could be offered free, or fees charged to families.

An agenda item called “Elementary Schools Building Project Update,” explored details of the proposed building design. Although Town Meeting and Amherst voters have not yet approved the project or funding for it, Assistant Superintendent Mike Morris noted that a construction firm, Fontaine Brothers, has been selected.
At the request of Committee Chair Katherine Appy, Morris pointed out various play areas surrounding the proposed school, although no mention of the size of these was made. Morris noted that play structures will follow the “European model” with “smaller individual components.”

Morris said the School Building Committee will meet with the Massachusetts School Building Authority to finalize a “project scope and budget agreement,” which will clearly lay out costs and specify the town/state shares.

Committee member Phoebe Hazzard asked what would happen if the costs came in much higher than expected. Morris noted that in that case, “you look at axing,” elements of the plan. He suggested that the district may not want to pursue having photovoltaics on the new building’s roof, and the school might instead just be “solar ready.”

There was discussion about the palette that could be used at new building, with committee members expressing that the building should be colorful.

The statement Goldberg-Jamate read to the committee is below:

Letter to the Amherst School Committee

June 21, 2016

My name is Marla Goldberg-Jamate and I’m one of many Amherst parents and residents who are concerned about the plan to consolidate and reconfigure our elementary schools. This plan represents a major and expensive overhaul of our district, which would lead to a significant increase in property taxes.

I am here tonight to urge the School Committee to reconsider its plan, especially the component of grade reconfiguration.

I believe we need a fiscally-responsible plan for fixing building-based problems at Fort River and Wildwood, without eliminating Crocker Farm as a K-6 elementary school. We also need to be mindful of the pressing need for curriculum improvements district-wide, which may require significant spending. If voters agree this fall to a tax increase of several hundred dollars for school construction, they may not be willing to accept a schools-based override again for many years. Innovations such as two-way Spanish-English language immersion and expeditionary learning are being tried with success in public elementary schools elsewhere, and could make our district more competitive with the charter schools that now siphon off many bright pupils. Our district also needs a better, stronger science curriculum, and improved textbooks and workbooks for many subjects.

The grade reconfiguration plan would lead to disruptive transitions for children as they move between schools, and force siblings more than two years apart to attend separate schools. Commutes would be longer and more complicated. Breaking up our K-6 model would deny kids the advantages of peer mentoring, and of growing in place with trusted adults.

Crocker Farm, which would be converted to an early education center, is now a thriving, diverse K-6 elementary school. As an anchor of the South Amherst community, it should not be sacrificed to solve infrastructure issues at other schools. Last Friday I went to my older daughter’s 6th grade graduation at Crocker, attended even by retired teachers who wanted to see children they taught years ago graduate. Today, as Crocker kids boarded buses for the last time this year, teachers waved, sang and clapped for the children, whom they know so well.

For Amherst families several miles south of the center, the proposed grade 2-6 building on the Wildwood site would be so distant that some might simply choice their children into neighboring towns, including Belchertown, where MCAS scores are currently higher.

Our district, although wanting to offer more partially-subsidized preschool slots, does not have the requisite public funds at hand. If, at some point, funding is found, I believe preschool space could be identified in other, underutilized school buildings. It would be sensible for any new construction to have plumbing in place to accommodate possible preschool classrooms.

In a parent/staff survey conducted this past January, less than a third of respondents were “open to considering” grade reconfiguration. However, respondents indicated a willingness to accept twin schools at the Wildwood site, if K-6 grade configuration is kept. This is an option that the state has offered, and many people appear ready to support, even if their first choice was preservation of our three neighborhood schools. A twin K-6 campus, including a reasonable amount of open play space, is an option that stands a chance of gaining significant voter approval. We urge you to consider this compromise.

Please visit the website, Save Amherst’s Small Schools, at https://saveamherstssmallschools.wordpress.com/

Sincerely,

Marla Goldberg-Jamate

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