Counting chickens before they hatch

To soften the blow of the over $67M price tag on the new building, the administration frequently refers to some $400 to 500K in ”annual operational savings” they say would result from their plan. Let’s take a closer look at that.


Where would this money come from?

Staff reductions would make up the bulk of projected savings under the reconfiguration/consolidation plan.

A large portion of the administration’s projected annual operational savings would come from having 5 fewer teachers ($59K x 5 = $295K per year). More on how they teach the same number of students with fewer teachers below. Another $90K would come from having one less assistant principal at $90K (although the organization of administrative staff of the proposed school arrangement to achieve this remains uncertain).

Because the proposed building has less square feet than the combined square feet of the current Wildwood and Fort River, they calculated that they will need 3 fewer custodians ($30K x 3 = $90K per year). Food service is likewise estimated to cost $35K less when 750 students share one cafeteria rather than two.

These staff reductions would also mean less fringe benefits to pay, so another $75K there brings the total to $585 per year.

However, the proposed plan is estimated to require 4 additional bus runs to get students from all over town to both buildings. That’s $55K x 4, or $220K more per year bringing the total projected savings down to $365K.

Lately, the administration has been using a higher figure ($400-500K) but they have not explained where the additional $100K would come from. The above figure are from district public presentations and documents submitted to the MSBA as part of this process.


How certain and accurate are these figures?

The projected savings are based on the administration’s plans to reduce staff in the proposed model. It does not entertain the possibility that there would be additional costs to the new system.

We’ve already seen 1/3 of the original projections disappear into higher transportation costs. It seems likely that there will be other additional costs that the administration has not anticipated. For example, the double bus drop-off/pick-up will result in half the student body waiting around while their colleagues are travelling between schools. Someone will have to be responsible for them during that time and that will mean increased expense.

There may well be an increased need for support staff to manage discipline and logistical problems that frequently come with a large student body. Studies on large vs small schools point out that the hoped for economies of scale just aren’t there when the actual function of larger schools is realized.


What would this mean for students?

The “economy of scale” that was touted by the superintendent last year came from the original plan to have all elementary school students segregated by grade. For the proposed building, all 150-180 second graders would be grouped together, all 150-180 third graders would be grouped together, etc. That would still be the case under the grade reconfiguration/consolidation plan for kindergarten and 1st grade at a converted Crocker Farm.

In a school system like we now have, there are sometimes grades with too many students to be split into 2 classes while maintaining desired class size (less than 22 – 25, depending on the grade). The solution is to add a class, hence adding a teacher, to that grade and having a smaller number of students per class.

If all the students in town of the same grade are in one place, this situation can mostly be avoided by allowing administrators to shuffle the 150-180 kids into 7 or 8 classes in a way that makes class sizes more uniform. Essentially, the proposed grade reconfiguration produces savings by decreasing the number of teachers while maximizing the shuffling of kids.


How do the “co-located schools” factor into this?

By creating two “co-located” schools in the new proposed building, the problem of uneven distribution of students per grade is not necessarily entirely eliminated. Instead of 2 – 3 classes per grade per school (as we have now) or 7 – 8 classes per grade per school (as they originally proposed), there would be 4 – 5 classes per grade per school. Also, one of the co-located schools has one fewer grade 2 -3 classrooms. That means that the vagaries of demographics can still result in years when one of the “co-located” schools has too many kids in a particular grade to meet the required limits on class size. The only solution then may be to “transfer” some students out of their districted “co-located school” to the other “co-located school”.

The “compromise” of “co-located schools” results in the worst combination of shared facilities for children and duplicated administrations. 750 students will share a gymnasium/auditorium, cafeteria, nurse’s office, entry, parent drop-off/pick-up, and outdoor play areas that are smaller than what students now enjoy at their three separate schools. Students and the staff would occupy a campus that can barely contain them once you account for the additional parking space, roadways, and roundabout (to keep vehicles away from a play area).


What has been promised with the use of the projected annual operational savings?

Immediately prior to the School Committee’s vote, the former superintendent made many grand statements about how this proposal would allow universal preschool to become a reality in Amherst. This was to be one of the many things that would happen using the money they thought they would save.  These alleged savings have been cited as the future funding source for several different programs including free transportation and tuition for these preK slots, starting an ambitious newcomer ELL program, reintroducing a world language program in the elementary schools, and so on.

The problem is that there has been no actual commitment to these programs and the rapidly dwindling operational savings are all theoretical at best. Universal preK has since been reduced to 2 additional half day classes and the school committee has yet to guarantee any financial or transportation assistance for these kids. The enlarged bus fleet has already eaten away 1/3 of the original savings and it’s not hard to imagine that circumstances unforeseen by this school administration will deplete this magical source of funding to a point that prohibits any additional services or programs.


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