Curious about our schools? How to get the facts.

There is a lot of confusion out there about our schools, and about the MSBA process. Are our schools segregated? Are they sick? Are they crowded? Are enrollments going up or down?  Where does Amherst rank in terms of its schools’ condition?  It can be hard in the midst of a political campaign to know exactly which competing claims to trust, and how to assess them.

We recommend going straight to the source of the data, rather than simply relying on Facebook, a newspaper, a friend, or even a local grassroots group of fellow parents who have spent way too much time digging into these issues.

DESE – Massachusetts Dept. of Elementary & Secondary Education
The first and best source of general information about our schools is the Massachusetts Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE.  The DESE website (http://www.doe.mass.edu/) is a great source of information about our schools, and the statutes and regulations guiding them.

From the DESE website, you can go to “School and District Profiles” (http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/), and see general state-wide reports or statistics. Or, click on Hampshire County and then Amherst to get to a page (http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/search/map.aspx?mode=g&county=Hampshire&town=44) that links to all our local public schools (and two Amherst-based private schools). Here are our three elementary schools:

On each school page, you can click the “Students” tab to see the current enrollment, race/ethnicity, gender, etc.  To the LEFT of the tabs, you will see a year, and you can click to see previous years’ data. (That tip is GOLD. It took me many visits to the DESE website to find that.)

The “Analysis – DART” tab has more detailed information about a variety of topics; if you click this tab, then look on the left, you can see enrollment; curriculum; achievement gap; etc., with visual aids.

 

MSBA – the Massachusetts School Building Authority

The best place to learn about the MSBA process is the MSBA website.

The MSBA (http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/) is a state agency that administers a fund to support Massachusetts school districts’ school construction costs. The MSBA has a dedicated revenue stream from the state sales tax.

Quick facts about the MSBA are here on the “About” page: http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/about

Check out the menu on the left, but to see everything you have to HOVER OVER the menu options to see the pop-up menu .

For instance, “Polices, Forms & Guidelines” — if you click it, it takes you to the “Guidelines” page, which has MSBA policies, including reimbursement rate calculations, green school guidelines, and a variety of other forms.  http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/guidelines . But if you hover over the “Policies, Forms & Guidelines” option, you see a link to the statutes; the vote requirements; and model contracts, among other topics.

(Curious why the language of the proposal is so long and hard to read? Because the MSBA specifies very closely the language that can be used for these votes.)

Check out “Our Programs & Initiatives” for some key points. The MSBA Repair Program, which has both “Major Repairs” and “Accelerated Repairs”, is described here: http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/programs/repair_program , and there’s some helpful charts about what kinds of repairs can go to which program. (The two major categories the MSBA has right now are the “Accelerated Repair Program” and the “Core Program”, for everything else. [1])

Another key resource is the “Building With Us” menu, which includes links to information about the statements of interest.

The School Survey is extremely valuable, because it tells us a lot about the condition of our schools, and what the MSBA bases its judgments on.  Check out the 2005 and 2010 needs surveys on the survey page at http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/programs/needs_survey.  A 2016 needs survey is being finalized now. The 2010 Needs Survey Report is a PDF (linked here), and you can easily search for “Fort River” or “Amherst”.  But don’t just look at the charts — read some of the other sections to understand the categories and rankings. The MSBA also created several short presentations that summarize state-wide data; these are listed under the “2010 Needs Survey Report”. Totally worth a quick review!

If you’re not sure what’s going on with the MSBA, still, the MSBA has a community liaison, Diane Sullivan.  Under the “About Us” link, if you click “Contact”, you’ll get the general email information; you can also call and ask to speak to Diane Sullivan.

Want to understand what went down with a particular school system?  You can click on the “Your School” link, and then dig down into school and district applications.  On any given school or district, you will see a list of schools, and a list of press releases about projects in those schools, and a link to “View Projects” for the schools. The “View Projects” link takes you into the MSBA database which lists projects and status. Unfortunately, you can’t quite a holistic picture of applications very easily from this method.

(We at SASS used a number of different sources of information to figure out what happened in any one school district. First, we used the data from the website. Then we contacted the MSBA and spoke with staff there at length, and got additional data from them directly. We also reviewed board meeting notes (under “About Us”, click the pop-up menu to see “Board Meetings”). For instance, if a press release dated August 6, 2015, talked about the MSBA board approval, then we knew that approval would be in an MSBA board meeting just prior to that date.  Last, we reviewed materials local to the school district — School Building Committee minutes and School Committee minutes — and talked to district staff to help put it all in perspective.)

 

ARPS – the Amherst Regional Public Schools

ARPS has a lot of information on its website (arps.org), but copies of the important documents and submissions in the MSBA process are not as easy to find.

They have been mostly published to Facebook (“Amherst Elementary School Building Project”), so are in reverse chronological order.

The project website set up by NV5, called the “Wildwood Elementary School Design and Construction Site”, is at http://wildwood.projects.nv5.com/ . It’s very difficult to find the key documents on this site; however, meeting agendas and minutes, and public presentations, are mostly listed here.

Because it’s so difficult to find the key documents on the official project pages, we have stored copies and linked to original copies here on the SASS website (look at ARCHIVE and then “Official Documents”) https://saveamherstssmallschools.wordpress.com/archive/official-documents/  The key documents are:

  • The Educational Report, from fall 2015;
  • the “Preliminary Design Program” (PDP) from December 2015, which included the various alternatives then under consideration (including renovation, dual K6, etc);
  • the “Preliminary Schematic Report” (PSR), which spelled out in more detail the current proposal (February 2016); and
  • the “Schematic Design Report” (August 2016) which includes quite a lot of detail and is 700+ pages long.

If you want to understand something that is not clear from the Amherst system, you can file a Public Records Act (PRA) request with the District. There is some boilerplate language you can include, but the essence of the request is to describe, very clearly, what you want, and be sure to specify that this is a PRA request.

 

This post was written by a librarian [Laura Quilter], and has an agenda: To help you to be more information-literate and better able to fact-check claims you may hear.

 

 

 

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