Urges Amherst to move forward as a town
Published Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 21, 2017
Most parents understand that a larger environment isn’t better for our young kids, and most of us have an instinctual sense about what makes a school that “feels right.”
Unnecessary, increased time spent on buses, does not feel right. Grouping children in a grade cohort that is three times the size of their current one, from the earliest years, does not feel right. Separating siblings into two schools unnecessarily, doesn’t feel right.
Parents and teachers in Amherst were surveyed about our elementary school update options over a year ago, and this grade-reconfigured, large building solution was the least popular solution by far. It was the top choice of only 6 percent of parents and only 4 percent of teachers. Now, after it has been pushed forward, and held onto so tightly by influential supporters, despite ongoing, widespread opposition, we are in a position where it might pass a town-wide vote.
If it does, then I will tip my hat to the hard-working supporters, acknowledge it as the town’s will, and go along.
If it doesn’t, I hope that supporters of the plan will concede the will of the town-wide vote, so that we can finally start working toward a solution that more people can get excited about, on behalf of all of our town’s kids.
The marathon of this effort, on both sides, has had more hills in it than any of us anticipated — and I know that people who have worked the hardest on both sides are feeling it — but I am left feeling grateful.
I am grateful to the Building Opportunity for Learning and Diversity (BOLD) members that I have spoken with, who have engaged in real conversation, as we each genuinely stretched to understand each other’s outlook more.
Reprinted by permission from letter circulated by Melissa Perot, Amherst.
I do not have children or grandchildren in the Amherst school system and so could easily say this is not my issue. However I would be guilty of lying. Like the climate, how children are educated and to what end, affects us all, now and in the future. It creates our expectations, dashes our hopes, and above all challenges us to fundamental change.
I will not vote for the proposed innovative school building because my priority in education is to teach through example the short term difficulty and long term benefits of building not just your self but community; how to deal with conflict resulting from differing priorities or socio-economic circumstances, how to adapt to financial and energy (material and human) restraints and whether to risk creative ideas in unpredictable times.
To me education is like a compost heap that recycles old information to create new soil and the potential for growth and adaptation. It is a messy, complicated process that requires the integration of multiple factors to ‘work’. Attention and adaptation are key in the presence of uncontrollable circumstances. Composting can be achieved in an expensive, purpose built, attractive green plastic, smoothly rotating container, often with ‘additives’ or in an open semi-confined space exposed to various natural influences, including potentially harmful ones that could, through a form of alchemy, create something no-one had yet thought of, moving mankind a step forward … or backward in the dance of life. Either works, but for me Buildings are Bling without U and S holding up either end and with D (for $) closely guarded in the middle.
Reposted with permission from an individual email by Carol Gray:
Regarding the school issue, here’s why I am voting No:
1) This is not the only plan, or the best plan, or even the second or third best plan. During a survey of parents and teachers in 2016, there were four plans presented and this one we’re voting on now was ranked as preferred by only 6% of parents and 4% of teachers. Many people have been left with the misimpression that it is this plan or none at all. Let’s leave behind the scare tactics and hold out for a plan that won’t leave us with a bitterly divided community. (See more info. about the numbers attached.)
2) Bad timing: We’re looking for a new superintendent and two new principals. Could there be a worse time to start a multi-million dollar project with a divided town?
3) This project is very expensive! The national (2012) average cost/per/square/foot for elementary school construction was $211.55. This plan’s square foot cost is :$441.00
We need better/new schools but we don’t need the most expensive schools that this state grant has ever funded (which this current plan would be).
4) We shouldn’t lose K-6 schools. There’s a reason why the norm for primary education is K-6: it works! Creating a transition so kids would have to go to a new school for the second grade is bad for kids. Plus, our son loves the Book Buddy program where 6th graders read with kindergartners. Our schools thought they were being cutting edge 50 years ago, breaking from the pack to create open floor plan classrooms. It turned out it would have been better to stay with the pack and have regular walls. Let’s not branch out again with a K-1 and 2-6 school system only to find some years down the road that there was good reason to stay with the K-6 model.
5) Small neighborhood schools are better for the community. Our friends have developed through our neighborhood school. I would hate for our son to go to a location that has twice the number of kids compared to Fort River. Plus I would hate to lose Fort River. It’s been a great school for us plus it has the best fields of any school. I can’t imagine packing twice the number of kids on half the open space of Wildwood’s already small playground area. Also, as an economic point, I read about a study that said when neighborhood schools closed down, property values went down about 10-12%. The town already shut down Marks Meadows a long time back; let’s not now shut down Fort River, another fine school. Sure, it needs to be modernized or rebuilt, but that can happen without abandoning the site. (If you build the new Wildwood next to the old Wildwood, you could put the Fort River kids in the old Wildwood while the new Fort River is being built.)
I hope you’ll vote No so the building committee can get to work on the next school plan, hopefully one that keeps our small neighborhood K-6 schools in our neighborhoods.
Submitted to the Amherst Bulletin March 13, 2017
The upcoming referendum on whether or not to build a new $67 million elementary school may well be the most controversial referendum in Amherst’s history.
Supporters of the project worry that children will continue to languish in substandard buildings if the project is again voted down, and that available state monies will be forever lost. Opponents worry about adopting a seemingly untested model of grade reconfiguration, whether or not the new plan to achieve equity will actually work, and the potential of creating another type of inequity for taxpayers who cannot afford the subsequent increase in property taxes (we need to remember that even with state monies, the town will be responsible for an additional $22 million in interest payments over the life of the bond, and that the town is planning other capital projects that will raise taxes even more).
As shown by the numbers in both the fall election and now two Town Meeting votes, the town is evenly and deeply divided. Emotions are high, positions have solidified, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for opposing sides to really listen to each other. Real and viable alternatives that might provide us with what both sides ultimately want – better school facilities – cannot be considered or even seen objectively in such an atmosphere.
This is why I will again vote NO on March 28. This is an expensive, controversial project that has pitted neighbors and friends against each other, that has failed to win widespread town support, and that may well force residents from their homes because they can no longer afford their taxes or their rent. To proceed with this plan because it seems that there is no other way is folly.
Both sides want the same thing. There are other ways to move forward and achieve what we all want. We need to stop, step back, and find them. Otherwise, proceeding with a project that divides residents into winners and losers will cut the fabric of our community, and ultimately we will all lose if that happens.
67 North Whitney Street, #1
Amherst, MA 01002
Letter to the Editor:
Amherst should vote no on education referendum
Letter published in Daily Collegian March 27, 2017
I’m a local parent of two kids, ages six and four. I’m writing to ask that you vote no on Tuesday’s referendum ballot.
It may seem appealing at first–$67 million for a new school!—but this proposal is actually going to close one of our schools, and completely change our beloved system of small K-6 elementary schools. It will consolidate 750 children, who are in second grade through sixth grade, in the new building, on a site with small, fragmented playgrounds. It will send their little brothers and sisters—all 300 of the kindergarteners and first graders—to a school in the south end of town. In fact, the smallest children at my end of town will be on the bus twice as long, stopping first at the big kid school to the north of town before driving through downtown to the K-1 school. With this plan, 23 buses will stop at both schools twice a day.
I and other parents, teachers and community members want to keep our community schools. We currently have three small schools, with 400 or fewer kids per school, where the youngest kids can have fifth and sixth grade reading buddies, where everybody is a single bus ride from their school and where each school has great playing fields and playgrounds.
All of this would be lost with the proposed consolidation of elementary schools. Of course, many of us do want to renovate or rebuild our schools and deal with some outdated floor plans, but this plan throws out the baby with the bathwater.
We can vote this down, and devise a better solution to address our old buildings. Other towns have done just that.
Please help us “Save Amherst’s Small Schools.” Please vote no in the special referendum on Tuesday, March 28.
Local Amherst Parent
(Posted on Town Meeting listserve; pasted by permission)
I went to a middle school that was much like the proposed consolidated elementary school: three “separate” schools (called “houses”) which shared gyms, cafeteria, library and playing fields. There were three separate pick-up/drop off entrances, one for each house, and a common bus area for the whole school.
It did not feel like a small school. It felt like the giant school that it was.
As a middle schooler, I liked it. However, for K-6, it would have been an overwhelming nightmare.
In both my elementary school and the middle school. there were 4 classes per grade, but, again, 4 classes per grade times the three houses felt very different during much of the day than the 4 classes in one school. …and that was for only a three-grade middle school.
For an elementary school with 5-7 grades, depending on configuration, I cannot imagine…….and I was an extroverted kid. For a shy or sensitive child, or anyone on the autism spectrum, it would be truly traumatic.
Having all the K-6 kids in town in one building is insanity.
Stephanie Gelfan, pct 2
We Need Schools Big Enough For The Next 50 Years.
Another “NO” letter the Amherst Bulletin did not publish.
While the cost of renovating both Wildwood and Fort River schools is similar to the cost of the new project with ‘co-located’ schools, right now both Wildwood and Fort River have more gyms, playgrounds and fields for kids to run and play in, and space for preschool classrooms. And room for more students.
It is doubtful enrollments will decline over the next 50 years, the building life span required by MSBA. New housing is being built in Amherst and the University is adding more students. Renovated Wildwood and Fort River schools will have room if enrollments increase in the next 50 years. But the new $67 million school will need an addition.
Renovating Wildwood was estimated at $34.7 million, roughly half the cost of the proposed $67 new co-located elementary school. (Construction cost consultants A.M. Fogarty & Assoc. Jan. 6, 2014). If Amherst reapplied and got 50% MSBA reimbursement, Amherst taxpayers would pay $17.4 million for a lovely K-6, renovated Wildwood–with its own gym, cafeteria, library/media area, large playground and fields. The Middle School and Fort River could be used as swing space, similar to what was done in the past. Fort River could go next. Total ballpark for taxpayers: around $35 million for 164,000 sq. ft. of renovated space–with room for increased enrollments.
Or, for about the same money, Amherst taxpayers can pay for a building that cannot handle many more students. At 122,714 sq. ft., it is 25% smaller than Wildwood and Fort River combined. Its 750 students, in separate wings, will share one gym, one cafeteria, one library and two small playgrounds with little on-site field space. If enrollments increase, the new $67 million school will need an addition. How much more will that cost?
It’s worth waiting to do the right school project that will last.
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.
Big not better, and may be worse
Letter to the editor, published in the Amherst Bulletin Sun., March 26, 2017
Friday’s illogical editorial (“Support Amherst school plan”) extols the “mega-mania” that periodically grips Amherst, as the town too frequently confuses size with quality.
Two of our grandchildren attend a beaten-up, 60-student K-5 school in California that their parents sought out and that would horrify the members of the Amherst School Committee. There is a sense of community about the school — where teachers, kids and parents all know each other — that is wonderful to see. Despite the fact that the facility is far from 21st-century, state-of-the-art, successful education is realized there.
Big is not better, and may be worse. Glitz is nice, but unimportant.
Incidentally, the $32-plus million debt you wish to foist on Amherst (plus interest costs) will buy Wildwood 80 new $400,000 boilers or Fort River 30 new roofs.
Letter submitted to Amherst Bulletin three weeks running
On March 28th Amherst votes on a school plan with a configuration that most published research and data suggest is problematic. Dozens of data-driven studies suggest that larger school size, larger grade cohorts, transitions, insufficient playspace, and barriers to community involvement worsen school performance, increase discipline problems and widen achievement gaps. The effect size of any feature in isolation should not be overstated; nonetheless, the findings identify features shared by high-performing schools. In town meeting, Diana Stein shared US Department of Education data that mirrored the published studies: Massachusetts’ top 25 public schools had fewer than 570 students, and all but one are K through at least 4th grade. I can accept higher taxes and pragmatism, but of the four school options originally proposed, we vote on the one least aligned with success.
Amherst’s own successful schools validate the small, K-6 plan. Wildwood and Fort River have big problems, but not with academic performance. Before replacing a thriving and supported K-6 standard, we should know the specific measures planned to detect and mitigate foreseeable problems. But instead of transparent due diligence, there has been active denial of the problems experienced by other district. To say that our parents and high-quality teachers will compensate for the obstacles associated with grade reconfiguration misses the point: why impose obstacles? In making a data-driven decision on a vote directly impacting my young children, I find the available, published data far more compelling than trusting that Amherst will be the outlier in future studies.
I support new schools for Amherst’s excellent teachers and students, but not one so deeply flawed. After spending five decades with then-fashionable open classrooms, residents should remember that a new building with decades of problems is no bargain. Vote NO to avoid another 50-year experiment.