Daily Hampshire Gazette, Nov. 1, 2016
There has been much debate about ballot Question 5, but little attention has been paid to the hidden costs that restructuring our elementary education will impose on the Amherst community.
Currently Amherst has three elementary schools for grades K to 6. Crocker Farm Elementary is a well-functioning school in adequate condition. The two others, Fort River Elementary and Wildwood Elementary, need major renovations or new buildings. Creating healthy buildings for the students in the Fort River and Wildwood districts would be an excellent policy.
Sadly, Question 5 introduces new problems and costs instead of efficiently addressing those actual needs.
Question 5 would allow the Town of Amherst to increase property taxes beyond the current state limit for increases. Instead of directly dealing with the physical problems with the two schools, it dramatically restructures elementary education. The new taxes along with state funds would go to building one new school for grades 2-6 for all of Amherst. Crocker Farm Elementary would be dissolved and the building would house pre-K to 1st grade.
One large problem that has not been addressed is the negative health impacts of the plan. The new structure creates longer bus rides and more traffic congestion at the new school.
The evidence is absolutely clear that exposure to vehicular pollution harms human health. Kids with longer bus rides suffer more asthma attacks and miss more days of school due to asthma than their peers with shorter rides. Exposure to vehicular pollution causes asthma in otherwise healthy kids. The traffic at this larger school will exacerbate asthma in adults and kids who already have asthma.
Vehicular pollution is linked with increased risk of heart attacks and other diseases in adults. These health impacts have dramatic costs to families and society. Reducing these impacts is a primary area of concern at such institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
In the spirit of full disclosure, it is the major focus of my research as an economist. I am at a loss as to why Amherst would adopt a plan that would increase these health costs when other options are available.
Reorganizing the educational system will require extensive review of all existing institutions and policies. There will be unforeseen complications in creating this new model. Anyone who has been involved with projects from a simple home renovation to creating a new department understands that unexpected problems always come up and that they always involve additional costs. Directing the tax revenue to the need for new buildings rather than an experimental education system would avoid these costs.
The proposed structure imposes new educational costs. It forces children to move after 1st grade into yet another new school with significantly larger grade cohorts than we currently have. Research shows that additional transitions and larger schools are worse for students than our current organization.
The plan entails reducing the number of teachers which will negatively impact those children who face the greatest needs. Those children should not face the cost of this consolidation.
The argument that we can’t wait to reorganize the schools because we have the money now is a sad reverberation of so many politicized decisions that all too often lead to worse ends. There have been many schools built on unhealthy sites for this very argument.
Let us take the time to find evidence-based solutions that improve educational outcomes in a financially efficient manner. A policy focused on the school buildings themselves could use all the new tax funds to build new facilities and provide resources directly to students while avoiding the negative health impacts, educational outcomes and costs of reorganization.
I urge a no vote on Question 5 to preserve K-6 education in Amherst, to use our tax dollars wisely and to protect our children’s health and educational opportunities.
Sylvia Brandt, of Amherst, an associate professor of resource economics and public policy at the University of Massachusetts, is the parent of a student at Crocker Farm Elementary School.