Category: analysis

Survey of low-income and special needs families

A survey was conducted over the last few months of Amherst families in low-income apartment complexes, and families with special needs children. The survey led by Eve Vogel, a UMass assistant professor of political and environmental geography, is entitled “Equity, Transportation, Location, Configuration,” and can be read here:  https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bxao77AcxLVSVFJndG1wVVY0VVU/view

It shows that our town’s current system of small, geographically-districted, (Pre)K-6 schools provide highly-valued benefits to low-income families, English language learner families, families of color, and families of special needs children.

Sylvia Brandt: Asthma rates in Amherst

Sylvia Brandt, a UMass associate professor of resource economics, researched asthma rates at Amherst’s elementary schools, finding that numbers are rising at the renovated Crocker Farm, but have remained level at Fort River and Wildwood, the two schools that would be demolished under the district’s consolidation plan. In this letter, Brandt also outlines the environmental threat posed by increased bus traffic, which would be necessary to get Amherst’s children to and from the consolidated school.
______________
While we need to address the problems in two of our schools, Fort River and Wildwood, the referendum to consolidate the existing schools is not the environmentally friendly option. I would like our community to consider the increase in pollution and health hazards this project would create.

If the schools are consolidated the diesel school buses will travel more than 100 additional miles a day, which is a substantial increase in greenhouse emissions and dangerous diesel pollution. There is no safe level of exposure to diesel exhaust. Children on traditional diesel engine buses are commonly exposed to the levels of diesel pollution that are up to 7.5 times the level of these pollutants outside the bus. The pollution created by diesel engines leads to asthma attacks, children developing asthma who would otherwise not have asthma, heart attacks and a long list of other health hazards. Emerging evidence even links traffic pollution with autism and Alzheimer’s disease. The costs of these illnesses are huge. Tragically those who bear these costs are typically those who can afford it the least —- lower income and minority families.

The data from the school committee’s analysis show that under school consolidation, 86% of our kids would be spending one hour or more a day on the bus. Research shows that longer bus rides are associated with more absences from school and lower test scores.

The health effects of this pollution are not in question. The reality is that if we increase the number of miles traveled a day, and the length of bus rides, we put our health at risk. Technology will not help us. Electric school buses are not an alternative because of technological limitations and their huge price tag. What is tagged “clean diesel” can reduce some emissions but considering the extremely high levels of toxics, this reduction is not impressive. Furthermore, any reduction from “clean diesel” would be offset by the increase in the length of bus rides.

This consolidation project has been defeated twice before. Why are we voting in a referendum again? How did this project even get to the voting stage when the overwhelming majority of teachers and the community preferred options keeping kindergarten through 6th grade together? Sadly, the process has been driven by fear and misinformation. Teachers and parents have been put into an impossible position where they are told this project is their only option. They have been given the message that conditions at Wildwood and Fort River are destitute.

The data tell very different stories. Amherst has a positive operating balance, and policy makers could prioritize education. We could be solving these problems now rather than arguing over a contentious consolidation project. Like other communities that vetoed proposed buildings, we could take the time to design a project that has wide support. Priority in getting state funds for school buildings is determined by need. Therefore, our chances of re-entering the state funding pipeline would not be compromised by turning down this problematic project.

Because I am on the Children’s Environmental Health Scientific Advisory Council of the Environmental Protection Agency, I was very concerned by the message that two schools in Amherst are unhealthy. Thus I collected data on rates of asthma in our schools, which is a measure the EPA uses to evaluate children’s health risks. I also collected the publicly available data on the race/ethnicity and income indicators for the schools to see if these are factors. It turns out the three schools are virtually indistinguishable from each other in terms of race/ethnicity and income characteristics.

The data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health show that we are doing well in Amherst. All three elementary schools have asthma rates that are equal to or lower than the state average. It is notable that rates of asthma are statistically constant in Wildwood and Fort River in recent years. These are the two schools that have been characterized as unhealthy. In contrast, the rate of asthma has been increasing in Crocker Farm over time. In the most recent year of data, Crocker Farm has a rate of asthma that is statistically higher than Wildwood. Crocker Farm is the school that is characterized as being in the best condition.

Our community loves its children. Parents and teachers want the best possible schools. Amherst can afford to wait for a design that protects our kids’ health, enhances education and limits our carbon footprint. Let’s stand up for using good science to set public policy. Let’s stand up and say that we want a project that works for all of Amherst. Let’s stand up and save we will fight climate change on the local level. Vote “No” on the referendum to build a new consolidated elementary school in Amherst.

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.

 

 

 

How green is that building? Not very.

This building project misses many opportunities to be environmentally friendly and sustainable.  It barely makes the relatively low threshold of LEED silver certification, and offers no environmental benefits over renovation.  It also adds significant environmental costs in increased transportation miles and fuel because of the increased busing and parent traffic created by the split grade configuration.

 

LEED SILVER CERTIFICATION

The District and the project developers have touted the fact that the proposed building meets the requirements for LEED silver certification. In fact, LEED silver is the second lowest certification possible, and the proposed building barely meets these criteria.

 

leed-status

The proposal does best in points from innovation of design (4 of 4).  But it falls off significantly in water efficiency (7 of 12), indoor environmental quality (10 of 16), and sustainable sites (8 of 12).

It does poorly in terms of Location and Transportation (3 of 15), Energy and Atmosphere (12 of 31), and Materials and Resources (5 of 13).  Let’s look at each of these categories to see what this project is NOT doing.

 

Location and Transportation (Neighborhood Development Location)

Surrounding Density and Diverse Uses (5 potential points)

Intent

  • To avoid development on inappropriate sites
  • To reduce vehicle distance traveled
  • To enhance livability & improve human health by encouraging daily physical activity

Points for this project: 0

 

Access to Quality Transit (4 potential points)

Intent

  • To encourage development in locations shown to have multimodal transportation choices or otherwise reduced motor vehicle use, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and other environmental and public health harms associated with motor vehicle use

Points for this project: 0

 

Reduced Parking Footprint (1 potential point)

Intent

  • To minimize the environmental harms associated with parking facilities, including automobile dependence, land consumption, and rainwater runoff.

Points for this project: 0

 

 

Energy and Atmosphere

Optimize Energy Performance  (16 potential points)

Intent

  • To achieve increasing levels of energy performance beyond the prerequisite standard to reduce environmental and economic harms associated with excessive energy use.

Points for this project: 6

 

Renewable Energy Production (3 potential points)

Intent

  • To reduce the environmental and economic harms associated with fossil fuel energy by increasing self-supply of renewable energy.

Points for this project: 0

This project calls for 3 oil-fired boilers for heating.  There is no natural gas supply at the Wildwood site and the design includes no ground or air sourced heat pumps.

The building is only “solar ready”, meaning that it could have photovoltaics installed at some point.  The school administration has stated that the plan is to use the contingency budget to pay for panels, but the contingency budget is established to pay for all the unforeseen costs that are a part of any construction project.  With a building of this size and complexity, assuming that there will be money left over and that it will be used for solar power is purely theoretical and hopeful.

 

 

Material and Resources

Building Life Cycle Impact Reduction (5 potential points)

Intent

  • To encourage adaptive reuse and optimize the environmental performance of products and material

Achievable through either (a) Building and Material Reuse Reuse or salvage building materials from off site or on site    OR   (b) Conducting a Whole-Building Life-Cycle Assessment for new construction by demonstrating >=10% reductions in 3 0f the following:

  • global warming potential (greenhouse gases) – must be included
  • depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer
  • acidification of land and water sources
  • eutrophication
  • formation of tropospheric ozone
  • depletion of nonrenewable energy resources

Points for this project: 0

 

Benefits of Greening Available with Virtually Any Plan (Including Renovation)

Many of the improvements over the current structure would occur no matter which way we choose to address the problems of these buildings

All of the building options (renovation and new construction) would have included a more efficient envelope (windows, doors, roof), improvements in air quality, energy efficient HVAC, and water efficiency. Renovation has the additional benefit of having less carbon impact because it doesn’t involve demolishing two large structures and hauling them off to a landfill. A design with different priorities could also incorporate alternative energy sources, with other possible funding sources to help foot the bill.

 

The implications for transportation increase the environmental impact of the proposal significantly

Whatever the benefits gained by a more efficient building would be greatly offset by the dramatic increase in fuel use and green house gas emissions from a 21% larger bus fleet traveling much farther distances (over 100 extra miles every day).  In addition, parent/guardians will be driving more to get to two different schools every day for pick-up and drop-off.

SUMMARY

This project and this building design did not prioritize environmental concerns.  Arguably, the most important thing we could provide to our children is deep attention to and action with regard to our climate.  This plan fails to do that.

Operational Savings? (Counting Chickens Before They Hatch, Version 2.0)

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.

But wait…. there’s less savings!

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.  And this is just the current monetary cost – it will likely rise in future years (if money gets tight, those extra buses might get cut resulting in even longer bus rides for the kids).

And it doesn’t reflect the significantly increased environmental impact of well over 100 additional bus miles driven every day.

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 traveling between schools. Someone will have to be responsible for them during that time and that will mean increased expenses.

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 came from the original plan to have all elementary school students segregated by grade (all 150+ second graders would be grouped together, all 150+ third graders would be grouped together, etc.) as would already be the case under the grade reconfiguration/consolidation plan for kindergarten and 1st grade at a converted Crocker Farm.   In fact, the building design allows the school to be easily switched to this grade-separated configuration should the School Committee decide that it wants to do so (for example, to save money with further staff reductions).

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 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 rearrangement of kids, making it much harder for kids children and families to get to know one another.

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, library, nurse’s office, entry plaza, and parent drop-off/pick-up.  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).  The outdoor play areas have been reduced  greatly from what students now enjoy at their three separate schools necessitating the shared use of middle school fields accessed down a steep slope.

Bottom line…

The annual operational savings are theoretical and primarily projected through staff reductions.  Whatever savings are possible will be decreased by known increased transportation expenses and unknown other costs of managing a very large building/student population.

site plans

It seems a lot of people still haven’t seen the site plans.

jcj-siteplan
This is the site plan. Note that Wildwood is on a hill, with slopes on 3 sides — immediately behind to the middle school; at the back of the proposed new building; and from Strong Street down to the school.

unnamed
This chart shows student flow from parent-loop and bus-loop into the entrance plaza. (622 of the Schematic Design)

14962809_1870990893124441_3565111387558347504_n-1
This is the plan of proposed play areas.

 

 

jcj-firstfloorplan

This is the first floor plan.  The second floor plan has the fourth and fifth graders (in both wings) and the sixth grade “pod” together in one wing.

Dujovne: The future of parent pick-up in Amherst

Submitted to Amherst Bulletin the same week it published 4 editorials for “yes on 5” and only 2 for “no on 5”. 

We’re voting on a question that will consolidate our elementary grades, but split our families across different schools in different ends of town. What could that look like?

Imagine it’s a Wednesday afternoon in 2020, 4 years after Question 5 passed.

Your youngest kid, a kindergartner, has a doctor appointment after school. You have a second kid in second grade.

At 2:40 you start driving to Crocker Farm, hoping you won’t get stuck in traffic in downtown Amherst. You get there, and park in the expanded parking lot. At 3:00-3:05 you are at the parent pick up line, waiting for your small child.

At 3:10-3:15 you finally leave Crocker Farm. Now it is time to pick your second grader, who is waiting for you at the 2-6 School, on the other side of town. You drive back through downtown Amherst for the second time to get to the new 750-student building.

At 3:30 (if everything went smoothly so far), you arrive at the other school. You park, and go with your 5-year-old to pick up her brother, who has been waiting for about 30 minutes. You are now ready to drive to the doctor.

Total time: 50-60 minutes.

Total mileage: about 10 miles

Now imagine a 2020 that looks more like what we have now — small K6 schools, distributed in neighborhoods in Amherst.

Take an extra 20 minutes getting things done at home. You don’t have to leave until 3:00.

3:00 – Start driving.
3:05 – Arrive at your neighborhood K-6 school
3:10 – Both kids are there at parent pick-up.

Total time: 10 minutes
Total mileage: about 2.5 miles

Version B is only possible if town people vote NO in Question #5 !

Please vote NO on Question #5,

McGowan: Improve Wildwood & Fort River

A thoughtful analysis of Question 5 by Janet McGowan, a member of Town Meeting.

I’ve spent many hours trying to help parents with kids in the elementary schools get the Central Administration to look at other options, and to ask Town Meeting to fund a deeper look at the costs of options. I’ve also struggled in the past weeks to figure out how I am going to vote on Question 5.

Bottom line, I can’t get out of my head that the great majority of elementary school teachers and parents surveyed did not support this option. Why was it pushed forward, despite the beliefs and experiences of most teachers – the experts that make our schools run? Let’s keep our three K-6 school communities intact, supporting the teachers, staff and parents that make our schools such warm welcoming places–and make needed changes that fit.

Other considerations, in my mind:

1. Fort River and Wildwood Schools are not unhealthy places. The air quality problems people refer to are from years ago at Wildwood and the district takes many steps to keep mold, etc. at bay. I’ve asked for and never gotten any documentation supporting former Superintendent Maria Geryk’s remarks in the Statement of Interest filed with the state. The comments included that Wildwood is “in a condition seriously jeopardizing the health and safety of school children,” and has “severe overcrowding.” I found both statements startling. The Statement of Interest goes on to describe “mold growth and poor ventilation are chronic problems at Wildwood School,” and claims that “student and teacher absences are elevated due to severe allergic and asthmatic reactions, especially on Mondays…” and that the classroom “partitions…exacerbate asthma and mold related illnesses.” If these statements were true, it would have been a call for immediate remedial action..

2. The classrooms at Wildwood and Fort River are not “deplorable” or terrible or poor learning environments. The open classrooms make little sense, but the teachers make it work. The classrooms and buildings need to be fixed and can be fixed in other ways. My kids were at Fort River for 7 years and I never heard the school described as it is currently.

3.The new school ties our elementary schools into a Prek-1, 2nd-6th grade configuration for many, many years. If we are spending so much money on a school for the 50 years, the building should be flexible. What if this idea, like open classrooms, turns out not to work, what then? What if the new superintendent wants K-6 (or preK-6) schools? The architect has said that converting the new buildings for younger students would be expensive.

4. It’s more sustainable to use and renovate existing buildings, yet these options were not carefully examined. Wildwood, Fort River, the middle school and high school are all under-enrolled. East Street School stands empty. Let’s use and improve what we have. (If Fort River needs a new roof, for example, add skylights for light and fresh air.) Also, it would be great to add solar panels to any renovation or new construction.

5. I can’t support closing down three K-6 elementary schools for hazy, unsupported reasons. I understand the equity argument in terms of logic, but I’d like to see actual data on whether the split of the East Hadley Street students between Crocker Farm and Wildwood actually depressed the academic performance of low- income kids. The goal in busing was to have all the schools include a mix of kids from different economic backgrounds, thinking that this would improve the academic performance of the low income kids that were concentrated at Crocker Farm. Did busing help or hurt? Do families or students actually feel stigmatized? How many families want to change to the Prek-1 and 2-6 model? So far, I’ve only heard parents comments in meetings who are against grade reconfiguration and that want their kids to attend the same elementary school. These speakers preferred keeping siblings together, fewer transitions, easier logistics, and having older kids as role models.

6. Taxes will go up, not down, making Amherst less affordable to families. Also, if fewer families with kids are choosing to move to Amherst, we should figure out the real reasons, not guess at them. In my experience, families will pay a lot to live in a town with excellent schools. There are many towns in the state with high home values and increasing student populations, if Amherst isn’t one of them, it’s worth figuring out why before we reach for expensive solutions.

I know this is a lot, but I’ve thought a lot about this issue. I want to see Wildwood and Fort River improved as school buildings and school communities-not destroyed. I am happy to work toward, and to pay more for that goal.

Sylvia Brandt: Hidden Costs of Question 5

Sylvia Brandt
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.

D’Souza: No on Question 5!

Edridge D’Souza wrote an op-ed in today’s Daily Collegian, “Vote “No” on local Question 5”, Oct. 25, 2016.

This week, I interviewed Laura Quilter, a local parent, librarian and lawyer, as well as Maria Kopicki, a local parent, physician and researcher. Quilter and Kopicki are Amherst community members affiliated with Save Amherst’s Small Schools (SASS) and are worried about the effects of the local ballot Question 5. They are concerned that Question 5 will have harmful effects, not only to the students attending the elementary schools but also to the college students who live in the area.

The gist of the proposal is it aims to restructure the Amherst school system. Instead of three small schools, the town will close down two of them to create one large school to hold 750 students. SASS is concerned that with the increase in school size, there will be complications with the quality of education, cost and effect on the students and teachers.

The proposal is also massively expensive. As Quilter says, “The superintendent’s proposal is to make one of the most expensive elementary schools, after inflation adjustment, in the history of Massachusetts: $67 million. This will raise taxes, say, for instance, my home at $325,000 a year will result in a tax increase of around $400 a year for the first 10 years.” College students will also feel this tax increase, as the tax increase will be passed on from apartment owners to the students who rent the apartments. The time frame for this is as soon as the coming year.

This tax increase is historically large and unpopular among the people it claims to help. According to Kopicki, a $33 million debt would affect Amherst rental values over the next 25 years, and is actually opposed by a three-to-one margin among educators and parents. So why has this not been raised as a bigger issue? According to Kopicki, “the wording on the ballot does not sufficiently indicate to someone who hasn’t followed this issue that this is a very controversial proposal and that it ends the current K-6 system that Amherst families and students love.” A University of Massachusetts Amherst student registered to vote in Amherst would only see that the proposal aims to give more money to local schools, which seems like a fairly innocuous assertion. What it doesn’t mention is the fact that this proposal will continue to raise taxes and increase debt for the next quarter of a century.

What does the other side have to say about this? The pro-Question 5 side claims consolidating the elementary school system into one larger school will save money due to “operational savings.” However, Kopicki argues that these savings are only by having larger grade sizes while hiring five fewer teachers and custodians. Quilter adds, “our website, sassamherst.org, has a tax increase calculator. If you email us, we can help you learn how much your taxes are projected to increase. For instance, we can estimate that a $150,000 house would increase its property tax alone by $200 extra every year.”
Quilter and Kopicki provide an important insight into Question 5. Bills like this often exploit creative wording to appear palatable on the surface while having strongly negative consequences for the actual communities they impact. It’s massively unpopular among its supposed target audience and only really seems to be benefiting the administrators.

This bill has something that everyone can oppose. Fiscal conservatives will appreciate the fact this bill calls for an unnecessary increase in government spending that could otherwise be devoted to improving the existing educational infrastructures. Liberals should take note of the fact that while the bill appears to be about spending more on education, it ends up spending most on aspects that are tangentially related to education while gutting funding for the core components that would actually matter to students. And perhaps most pertinent to UMass students, the enormous financial toll of this project would substantially increase apartment rentals for the next quarter of a century, assuming costs don’t increase over time.

Question 5 seems like it would help teachers and students. However, when approval for the measure is so low among the teachers and students, it seems that the only members who stand to benefit from this proposal are the administrators. Massachusetts prides itself for having the best educational system in the nation; Amherst, at the heart of the Five College Consortium, is no exception and we owe it to our national reputation to prevent measures like this from devaluing our children’s futures. For all UMass students who plan to vote locally in Amherst this November, it would be in their best interests, as well as the best interest of the permanent residents of the town, to vote no on Question 5.

Edridge D’Souza is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at edsouza@umass.edu.