report from the school forum, 9/28

Amherst parents seeking to preserve the town’s small, K-6 education system went head-to-head with those calling for “21st century schools,” last night at a forum on the district’s $67 million consolidation proposal.

“This is a 50-year decision we are about to make, and we need to get it right and not create a host of problems with a very expensive, very flawed plan,” said Maria Kopicki, a Crocker Farm parent who represented Save Amherst’s Small Schools.

Nearly 100 people gathered at the forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, held at Amherst Regional Middle School. The plan launched by former Schools Superintendent Maria Geryk’s administration was touted by Acting Superintendent Michael Morris, and members of a pro-construction group, Building Opportunity for Learning and Diversity (BOLD).

Meanwhile, Kopicki and Anna Martini of SASS argued that small K-6 schools provide a better learning environment, especially for low-income children and those with unique educational needs.

Town Finance Committee members, although taking no official stand, noted that the project would require the largest borrowing in Amherst’s history, and that towns can defeat such proposals and then successfully win state funding for different, revised plans.

“The town can present a new statement of interest (to state officials), including some kind of renovation or expansion, or a combination of both,” said Finance Chairwoman Marylou Theilman last night.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority has said it would pay about 51% of the $67 million capital cost, leaving Amherst taxpayers with about $32 million. However, Amherst’s share with debt interest over 25 years grows to $54 million, said Finance Committee member Steve Braun. The resulting annual tax increase would wax and wane over the loan’s life. On a $300,000 house, the property tax increase would be $405 in early years, falling to $189 as the debt neared payoff.

Voters going to the polls on Nov. 8 will decide whether to approve the “debt exclusion override” to fund construction of the townwide grade 2-6 “twin school” campus on Strong Street north of Amherst center. Town Meeting would also have to authorize long-term borrowing of the funds by a 2/3 majority at its session set for Nov. 14.

The existing Wildwood and Fort River buildings would be demolished under the plan, while Crocker Farm in South Amherst would lose grades 2-6 to the new building, and serve children townwide in preschool, kindergarten and first grade.

Besides SASS, teams that gave statements and fielded questions last night included Morris and School Building Committee member Ludmilla Pavlova-Gilham; BOLD members Susan Bellak and Liz Larson; and Theilman and Braun of the Finance Committee.

Morris, during a brief slide presentation, claimed that Wildwood and Fort River have outlived their usefulness and must be replaced. “Our buildings are old and outdated … they were never meant to house the students we have now,” he said. Morris and Pavlova frequently criticized the “open” or “quad” classroom design of the two schools as being noisy and chaotic. Pavlova said the buildings are “so inadequate we couldn’t consider renovation.”

However, audience questions included whether possible renovations were sufficiently studied. Braun answered indirectly, alluding to a proposal at Town Meeting last spring to study renovation options in detail. “A lot of people felt there really hadn’t been a good hard look at a more fiscally prudent approach,” Braun said. That proposal, Article 38, was ultimately defeated.

Larson, of BOLD, said she has a child at Fort River, and represents a diverse group “brought together by this amazing opportunity,” to replace schools that “are in very bad shape,” and almost 50 years old. Larson cited the “dysfunctional classroom design,” and said there are issues with ADA compliance and security.

Larson, Bellak and Morris said the new consolidated school will make the district more equitable for children now living in housing complexes on East Hadley road, and for children in special education programs, who are bused outside their neighborhoods.

The claim that such children are being treated unfairly was made often last night, although the parents in question have not publicly rallied against current busing arrangements, or called for the consolidation as a solution.

Vira Douangmany Cage, the sole Amherst School Committee member to vote against the plan, has said that many low-income and immigrant families come to Amherst out of dislike for more urban environments, and find smaller schools easier to navigate.

Kopicki, of SASS, focused last night on what Amherst “stands to lose” under the consolidation plan, especially the continuity for a child attending just one elementary school from kindergarten through sixth grade. “The long-term relationships that seven years together builds – children and families who are well known to staff, teachers and peers … educators who can better collaborate with each other … all this would be broken up after just 2 or 3 years,” she said.
Kopicki criticized the plan for splitting up siblings and forcing children to transition to a new school after first grade, and said there is research showing such transitions are disruptive.

Bellak, of BOLD, argued that it is good for children to be faced with, and overcome challenges. “People doom their children to failure with their attitudes,” she said.

How placement of kindergarten pupils entering in 2019 will be handled was the focus of debate, sparked by an audience question. Children from Fort River and Wildwood would spend kindergarten in their original schools, then go to first grade at Crocker Farm, and to second grade at the new school, unless special arrangements are made. “Children would be ping-ponged back and forth – three schools, in three years,” Kopicki said.

Morris said different configurations are being considered to avoid that problem, including having Crocker Farm sixth graders stay in place that year with the early childhood center. Parents are being surveyed about that option, he said.
Morris said he would rather his child “pingpong” than “spend a year in a quad (classroom).” If the district’s plan fails to win votes, Morris said he would call families to apologize, and he refused to speculate about a future school building committee and what it would do. “I don’t want to predict things for committee that I might or might not be on,” he said.

Although the new building is described as “twin co-located schools” by Morris and the building committee, Kopicki said 750 students there would share all major facilities, including a cafeteria, library, front entrance, and gym/auditorium. The grassy outdoor play areas Amherst children now enjoy would be reduced, and much of the new campus would be taken up by increased parking and roadways, Kopicki said. She cited transportation problems, including the need for a larger bus fleet that would stop at both Crocker Farm and the new building, creating traffic flow issues.

“So, pedagogy, logistics and expense — all suggest that this approach is not the right one,” Kopicki said, adding that transportation and other burdens would “fall most heavily on those with the fewest advantages and resources.” Kopicki said her preference would be to “reduce, reuse, recycle” and renovate the small elementary schools in “a more fiscally restrained manner,” combined with better plans for drawing school districts.

Following Geryk’s resignation, and resignations on the Amherst and Regional school committees in recent months and weeks, the district lacks an interim superintendent, a position Morris has said would best go to a retired school superintendent. There is no regional school committee chair or vice chair, and a search for a permanent superintendent has not been launched.

— By Marla Goldberg-Jamate

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