Oldham: School Proposals Need Closer Vetting (2015/12/16)

Opinion: Jim Oldham: School proposals in Amherst need closer vetting

December 16, 2015
published at: http://www.amherstbulletin.com/Archives/2015/12/d18OLDHAMcolumn-hg-121815

Thursday, December 16, 2015

Last month I wrote about the many big changes being made in the Amherst and regional schools. In adding my voice to those of others who are concerned that major decisions — about everything from school buildings to programs and teaching methodologies — are being made too quickly and without meaningful input from teachers, parents, students, or the general public, I wanted to draw attention to the cumulative impact of so much change.

Apart from concerns regarding any specific proposal, there is, more generally, a critical lack of accountability in the process of change.

Claims are made that a particular decision will save money, or be more equitable, or improve learning, yet past changes made with similar claims have rarely delivered as promised, and the public seldom learns what the outcomes were. School committees turn over, superintendents change, while students and families, teachers, staff and taxpayers live with the outcomes.

Seven years ago, not long in the life of a community, the school committee approved a plan to outsource the jobs of cafeteria workers, including many long-time employees. Despite strong public outcry, these low-paid workers were shifted to an outside contractor, with fewer benefits and a worse health plan, all to achieve a predicted budgetary savings of some $100,000 a year. Guess what? I recently learned, and the current superintendent has publicly confirmed, that no savings were achieved.

Five years ago, when Marks Meadow School was closed, one of the benefits promised was that, with the university no longer providing the in-kind support represented by the building, it would instead provide cash payments to the town toward the net cost of educating students living in untaxed university housing. Yet despite a signed agreement to this effect, no such payment has been received, and school and town leaders do not appear to have made any attempt to collect.

The promises and predictions aren’t just about money. The Marks Meadow closure and the redistricting of the remaining elementary schools were advocated as necessary to promote equity, by rebalancing class sizes and the distribution of students from different socio-economic backgrounds. Oddly, the lack of such balance is now one of the arguments being used to justify abandoning that recently adopted “community school” configuration.

Another way this lack of accountability plays out is in which factors are, or are not, shared with the public or considered prior to a decision. At the time of redistricting, I advocated for changes to the district maps to prevent the creation of “islands” of students living in apartments being bused out of their neighborhoods. I was told by people in the administration that my proposal wasn’t workable because assigning children in some parts of town to certain schools would create unacceptably long bus rides due to narrow bridges, railroad crossings, and other impediments.

Now, however, eliminating the islands is presented as one of the benefits of building a large new school for all students in grades 2-6, and sending all younger students, pre-kindergarten through first grade, to Crocker Farm. Obviously this requires addressing the busing obstacles I was previously told about. But nowhere in the documents prepared by the administration comparing this concept with other options can one find any analysis of maximum and median transportation times children will endure under each scenario.

Along with unmentioned potential downsides of proposals, the public should consider all the potential consequences of the claimed benefits. For example, one of the advantages of the two-school model described above, as stated in the administration’s submission to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for the “Wildwood Elementary School project,” is as follows: Ensure that regular collaboration between groups of educators with similar positions can occur on a consistent basis so that best practices can be shared and transferred to multiple classrooms, providing a similar experience for all students.

This sounds great in theory, but given the context of recent teacher and parent concerns about top-down imposition of teaching methods and programs, the implications could be more problematic.

Next month the Amherst school committee will be asked to vote on the future grade configuration of the elementary schools and the regional school committee will be asked to vote on the consolidation of the middle and high schools. Given the far-reaching impact of these proposals, and the poor history our system has of delivering promised outcomes, both committees should strongly consider delaying their votes.

Any vote on consolidation of grades 7-12 should simply be put off for a year. The community hasn’t had proper opportunity to vet the proposal or consider alternatives. As for the elementary schools, one of the configuration options was only put on the table last month, and the full range of pluses and minuses for each option have not been explored. Committee members must not allow community concerns to be ignored, as happened last year when changes to the middle school program went unchallenged.

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.