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.
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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.

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Marc Silver: Big not better, and may be worse

Big not better, and may be worse
Marc Silver
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.

Marc Silver
Amherst

The Dance of the 23 Buses (updated)

The District’s plan is to have one fleet of 23 buses transport all elementary age children to and from both the new 750 student, grade 2-6 school at Wildwood campus AND the PreK-1 school at Crocker Farm campus.

Here is what the morning and afternoon commutes would look like for our kids.

Morning Pick-Up

In the morning, a bus would pick up all the kids in a neighborhood/area, travel to one school to drop off one set of kids (2-6 grade or P-1), then travel through downtown to the other school to drop off the other set of kids (P-1 or 2-6).

Since some kids (presumably from the north end of town) will arrive at the Wildwood campus first and others (presumably from the south end of town) will arrive at the Crocker Farm campus first, there will be a bunch of kids waiting around at each school for the rest of the student body to arrive before school can begin. What will they be doing during this time? What staff members will be responsible to supervise them? Does this mean that school will be starting later than it does currently or that pick-up from homes will start earlier? What will be the total travel time for the kids who are one of the first to be picked up from home and who get dropped off at the second school?

Afternoon Drop-Off

One set of kids would queue up at both schools.  A long line of buses would queue at Crocker Farm – if it is half the fleet, that’s 11 or 12 but it’s not clear if that many can even fit there. The rest of the buses will be in the traffic circle at the Wildwood campus. Only about 12 can fit in the bus loop in single file so any more than that would have to park side-by-side. That means that kids would have to walk in-between parked buses to board.

After this first batch of children gets on the bus, all 23 buses pass each other as they travel north/south through downtown to the other school and, once again, line up to collect more kids.

While all this is happening, half of the kids are still at both schools, waiting for the buses to get to them. What will this set of kids be doing while they wait? Who will be supervising them?

Why 23?

Right now, a set of buses travels between homes in each district and each of our three elementary schools: 6 for Crocker Farm, 6 for Fort River, and 7 for Wildwood – a total of 19.  The proposed consolidation/reconfiguration involves busing kids from all over town to both schools and would necessarily result in much longer ride times. To mitigate against this, the plan is to add more buses.

The District hired an outside consulting company to model scenarios using 19 or 21 buses.   The 23 bus model was proposed in response to concerns that the ride times were still too long.  When we spoke to Versatrans, the company that built the computer model, they recommended running the routes, as their model “optimizes” on the data drivers provide. To date, no actual trial runs (that we know of) have been completed.

What does this all mean for kid travel time?

The following graphs show morning and afternoon bus ride times for the our current three K-6 school system and computer modeled times for 19, 21, and 23 buses for the proposed consolidation/reconfiguration.

Some important notes

  1. The current 19 bus data is based on actual run times for the current school year in which 6-7 buses each travel between homes and a single elementary school. (http//:www.arps.org:district_info:services:transportation:bus_routes)
  2. The 19 and 21-bus models shows projected run times produced by the District’s consultant and is based on a computer model.  (Tyler Technologies, ARPS Run Reconfiguration, October 5, 2015)
  3. The 23-bus model has only been done “in-house” by setting the maximum run time at 34 minutes.
  4. A traffic study was conducted after the School Committee decided to reconfigure and consolidate our elementary schools and after the School Building Committee decided to site the 750 student building at the Wildwood campus.  It was also done after the computer modeling was done, yet it did not evaluate the impact of 23 buses traveling through downtown to go between schools, nor the possibility that with longer bus times for students, more parents may chose to drive, adding to traffic volume.  See Can the Wildwood campus (and the rest of Amherst) handle the increased traffic of a double-sized school?

Overview and take-home points:

  • While the longest run in the 23 bus model is only 2 minutes longer than the current longest run, overall the run times increase significantly.  Half of the runs would be longer than 30 minutes, as opposed to only 1 run being that long in the current system.
  • Currently, 13 of the 19 bus routes take less than 25 minutes.  For both the 21 and 23 bus models, all but 3 bus runs would take more than 25 minutes in the proposed plan.
  • Many of our youngest students (5 -6 year olds) that currently attend Wildwood would spend up to twice as long on the bus as they travel from home to the new school and then on Crocker Farm in south Amherst.

How long would it take for teachers to gather their classes together in the morning, and then wait for dismissal in the afternoon?

The assumed times do not consider many other potential delays associated with doubling the number of buses lining up and boarding/disembarking. Teachers can now gather their students in less than 10 minutes at every school. In fact, at Wildwood the 7 buses come in and disembark students in about 7 minutes. Under the proposal, because they would arrive in two separate waves, this will increase by at least 15 minutes (IF every bus can simultaneously drop off all their students, which doesn’t even happen now, with 6 or 7 buses!).  This will likely increase both disciplinary and safety concerns and take more time away from learning.  More likely, if buses arrive as they do now, roughly one per minute to a site, it will take teachers almost 1/2 hour each day before class can begin.

What are the transportation related costs of the proposal and its 23 buses?

  • The additional 4 buses will cost $220,000 more annually (not including any staffing costs to supervise the waiting students).  This amount will only increase over time, further depleting the presumed operational savings this plan is supposed to produce.
  • The total number of bus miles driven per day would increase from 220 to well over 380 miles, or >160 miles MORE per day  – that’s over 28,800 additional miles every year. These numbers are based on the 21-bus model – the District did not provide the data for the 23-bus version, but more buses will only cause the total mileage to go up.
  • Dividing the same number of kids into more buses means that the number of students per bus goes way down.  Three of these buses would carry fewer than 23 students, and another three would be less than half full – not a very efficient use of fossil fuels.

Future Predictions?

One can imagine that as budgets grow tight or diesel costs increase, a more efficient use of buses will be the logical choice to reduce costs.  That means going back to the 21 or 19 bus model that would have a lot more kids on a lot longer bus rides (35+ minutes) every morning and afternoon.  As it is, the longer runs times for a cohort of very young riders may lead to more parents driving their child to school, adding to traffic and pollution.

Bottom line

Transportation has always been a very problematic part of the proposed plan.  There are financial, environmental/health and safety, and logistical consequences of reconfiguration/consolidation and they would fall most heavily on those with the fewest resources.

 

Updated version of “The Dance of the (23) Buses”, from August 7, 2016.

 

Jacob Mayfield: Proposed configuration is problematic for children

Jacob Mayfield
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.

Carol Lynch: Amherst school plan leaves too many issues unaddressed

Too many issues left unaddressed
Carol Lynch
Published Friday, March 24, 2017, in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Plans for an early childhood center in Amherst are not part of the March 28 vote. Not one penny of the $67 million is allocated for an early childhood center.

All required modifications, furnishings and center development will be at an additional cost to the town.

The current pre-kindergarten program in Amherst is underutilized. The state does not fund pre-kindergarten education for all. Amherst is responsible for its funding. If there is not a need for part-time pre-kindergarten spots, why would we expand this program?

The plan to reconfigure elementary schools needs to be revisited. Early childhood education is defined as K-2. Why is Amherst planning to go against this?

Age 7 is not developmentally the right time to transition children to a large school. It is an age where reassurance is needed. Ongoing support and familiarity is key.

Many second-graders are still learning to read. They need the teachers, books and materials they used in first grade to cement their skills.

Seven-year-olds are not ready for a 35-minute school bus ride (headed toward the University of Massachusetts during the busy morning commute) and their playground should be nowhere near a bus driveway/circle.

With the focus on a new school, a lot of issues and additional expenses are still unaddressed. Vote “no” — we need a cohesive and comprehensive plan first.

Carol Lynch
Amherst

One vote away from unification (updated)

Back in January 2016, one of the School Committee members made it very clear that her vote in favor of grade reconfiguration was contingent upon it being 2 co-located schools each with grades 2-6.  She specifically stated that she did not support the grouping of all students in a single grade.  The superintendent at that time reassured her that the building would be divided into “2 schools” and got her vote.

But just weeks later, plans for complete unification into a single 750 student school were alive and well and embedded in the current plan.

Below is an excerpt from the Schematic Design, the document submitted to the MSBA (state funding authority) in August.  This letter is a response by the District’s consultants to the MSBA’s comments on the previous submission (the Preferred Schematic Report).  Note that it is dated April 11, 2016 – three months after the School Committee vote on reconfiguration – and indicates that the plans are specifically designed to accommodate the conversion of this school into a “single grade 2-6 elementary school“.

letter-stating-2-6-by-grade<––––Look here

The above referenced document also contains schematics of how easy the design makes it  to change from “co-located schools” to a single, grade-based school.  The following images are from the April 2016 report that show these labels.  Further down are images from the August 2016 Schematic Design with the final layout that maintains the 5-pod organization of the building.

The top 2 images are the first and second floor for the “co-located schools” and the bottom 2 images are for the single grade-based school.

2-6-co-lo-ff2-6-co-lo-sf

Simply swap out the labels on the classrooms (“Grade 2” and “Grade 3” for “Grade 2/3” and “Grade 4” and “Grade 5” for “Grade 4/5”) and Voila! – 150 kids in each grade.  No need to do anything for Grade 6 since they’re already all together there.

2-6-grade-ff2-6-grade-sf

Below are the final floor plans from the Schematic Design that have some other differences from the April drawings but that still separate out the classrooms into the same 5 pods.

Floor plans

What about making it K-6? 

In an attempt to allay concerns about the plan, supporters have alleged that the building could just as simply be converted to a K-6 school in the future should we learn the hard way that the proposed grade reconfiguration is not working.  However, the architects themselves have said that it is not easy or inexpensive to turn 2nd-6th grade classrooms into PreK or Kindergarten rooms.  MSBA standards call for larger classrooms (between 1100 and 1300 sq ft) and with their own self-contained bathrooms.  In a twin K-6 building, there would need to be 7 or 8 such rooms for but the proposed building has only 4 rooms that are 1050 sq ft (as opposed to the 34 classrooms that are 950 sq ft) and none have their own bathrooms.  The images below are from the Schematic Design.

PSR vs SD

4 @ 1050

No renovation plans or cost estimates have been presented to indicate how much work or money it would take to make the necessary changes.  Plus, the chances of the Town being able to afford an expensive renovation on a brand new building with 3 other major capital projects on the table and a backlog of road repairs to deal with? Slim to none.  It would also be very complicated and disruptive to un-do the grade reconfiguration that would have completely reorganized not only students, but families, staff, materials, and  programs.  Chances are, they would try to make the best of a bad situation which sounds depressingly familiar to what we have had to do with the open classroom design for the past several decades.

These same recommendations for room size and bathroom facilities will also make renovation of Crocker Farm into a PreK-1 only facility far more expensive than the vague “around $50,000” that the administration keeps saying it will cost.  If all ~150 kindergarteners in town were at Crocker Farm, they would need to be in 8 separate classrooms.  Trouble is, there aren’t enough classrooms of that size and with self-contained or even adjacent lavatories in that building – not even close.  They would need to convert about 7 rooms that aren’t even 1000 sq ft and that have plumbing for sinks but not toilets.  This isn’t a simple matter of having smaller fixtures.  It also doesn’t address the many other changes that would be necessary to make this building appropriate for our youngest students.  For example, outdoor play equipment that is great for older elementary kids but completely inaccessible to  5 and 6 year olds.  There has been no itemized accounting of what it would take to do all this and these costs would be borne entirely by the Town (no state reimbursement).

 

This building design is far more amenable to the former superintendent’s original plan to maximize economies of scale by minimizing teachers and classes and getting rid of the duplicated school administrations (principals and office staff).  In fact, there are 5 classroom “pods”, each with its own 500 sq ft teacher room – a set up that makes perfect sense in a single school with each grade cohort of 150 kids in its own area. If it goes forward, we are one School Committee vote and one financial downturn away from removing the veneer of “wings” and becoming a “single grade 2-6 elementary school” for these 750 students who would already be sharing a gym, a cafeteria, a library, an entry area, a nurse, and a fleet of buses.

Note:  You can find all this on pages 17, 18, 415, 616 and 626-629 in the Schematic Design available here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0By0mz4P0v3bWaG9vUk54emJud2s/view

John Kowaleski: School project burdens South Amherst families

School project burdens South Amherst families
John Kowaleski
Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Thursday, March 23, 2017

My two boys went through Wildwood Elementary; the oldest started first grade in 2002 and four years later my youngest started kindergarten.

Both my kids struggled to adapt to their new school. We often met with teachers, counselors, staff, and psychologist to help my older boy. Even with some amazing support, it took many hours and was very difficult.

The referendum on the March 28 ballot for the new Wildwood school requires grade reconfiguration, which means two stressful school transitions for every student instead of just one: Crocker Farm for K-1 and then Wildwood for Grades 2-6.

With my kids, I was available to help them. How will lower-income families where both parents work manage this? How will teachers find time to help this many kids? Will it take time away from learning?

In addition to the stress of a second transition, grade reconfiguration adds an extra burden on families in South Amherst, many of whom are people of color as well as low-income. These children face longer bus rides for five of seven years by making them go to Wildwood instead of Crocker Farm, their neighborhood school. This means waking up earlier, spending more time on the bus, and having less time for homework or after-school help for many more years compared to kids living near Wildwood. Grade reconfiguration gives South Amherst kids “the short end of the stick” when it comes to social justice.

Wildwood and Fort River may need fixing, but this proposal is not right because of grade reconfiguration. It places greater costs and burdens on the most vulnerable children in South Amherst, plus a stressful second school transition on all children.

We need a better plan that levels the playing field for everyone. Please vote “no” on March 28.

John Kowaleski
Amherst

Martini: Increased School Buses in Amherst

Anna Martini: Concerned about increased school buses in Amherst
Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wed, March 22, 2017

The proposed school building plan in Amherst requires a larger fleet of buses to help mitigate long ride times. Right now, only six or seven buses go to each school from their catchment area.

The new plan proposes 23, at an additional cost of $220,000 per year. These buses will be significantly underfilled (three of the 72-seat buses will have 22 or fewer students). The new buses also add more than 120 miles traveled per day— that’s almost 22,000 more miles per school year— an increase of more than one-third over the current three-school model. Unsurprisingly, transportation is one of the reasons this plan is only minimally LEED Silver.

The other issue with moving 23 buses back and forth between two sites is the obvious increase in time kids will spend on buses. For example, kindergartners and first-graders who would have attended Wildwood would experience an 11- to 15-minute longer ride due to the initial stop and drop at Wildwood for the older kids, then the additional travel through downtown to Crocker Farm. This may prompt some parents to drive their 5- or 6-year old to Crocker, further worsening the overall traffic situation.

Class start time would also be seriously impacted. Right now the seven buses that arrive at Wildwood manage the stop and drop in an amazing seven minutes. Between the arrival of the first of the 23 buses and the arrival of the last bus coming from the other school, there will be at least 20 to 25 minutes before each teacher has their entire class accounted for.

Estimates of the two-school, 23-bus system are based on a computer model. When I asked the company whose program is used to comment on how accurate it is, they said it should be “within 10 minutes” but before adoption they would “recommend having the buses run the routes at the appropriate time of day” to get actual driver-derived data.

It’s been nearly 1½ years since the former superintendent recommended this plan, and I don’t believe this test run has been done yet.

Anna Martini
Amherst

Callahan: School project is too expensive for Amherst

Op-Ed published in Amherst Bulletin on March 23, 2017

On March 28, Amherst voters will decide whether the town should borrow $66,369,000 for two co-located, Grades 2-6, elementary schools on the Wildwood site in North Amherst.

Those in favor of incurring this debt emphasize the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s (MSBA’s) commitment to reimburse $34.4 million, which they say leaves Amherst’s share of the cost to be only $32.8 million. Not exactly; not by a long shot. First, that $34.4 million is the maximum that may be reimbursed by MSBA; frequently reimbursements are less than the maximum.

Second, this accounting does not include the interest on the amount to be borrowed, estimated by the Amherst Finance Committee to be $21.3 million. For this estimate, the committee assumes a 25-year bond with 5 percent interest. Their conclusion is published in a report on the town’s website: “The Town’s actual cost would thus be approximately $54.1 million.” This is 65 percent more than the $32.8 million touted by the referendum proponents.

The new school project is alarmingly expensive. Indeed it is the most expensive new elementary school funded by the MSBA, even with all dollar amounts adjusted for inflation. The construction cost of $441 per square foot is $50 more than the average for buildings of similar size and enrollment. In particular, the per-pupil cost is by far the most expensive; for Amherst, the cost is just under $90,000 per pupil, with the next highest per-pupil cost around $80,000.

Furthermore, other costs associated with this school proposal are neither determined nor allocated. The educational plan’s regrouping of grades for the town will put all the younger students, through first grade, at Crocker Farm School, and this school will have to be renovated for the smaller children. The decommissioned Fort River School will likely need to be renovated for repurposing or demolished. The intersection of Strong Street with East Pleasant near Wildwood will have to be reconfigured and rebuilt. These additional costs must be added to the net $54.1 million estimated by the Finance Committee.

The division of the elementary grades between two schools, one in the north of town, one in the south — with long bus rides for many children twice a day — will lead some parents to enroll their children elsewhere, with significant loss of revenue for the Amherst school system. MSBA money comes with strings attached; by accepting it, the town will lose small locally centered elementary schools for “at least 50 years,” as stated in the referendum. Years hence, the unpalatable elementary school structure will not be improved by a memory of financial support from the commonwealth.

In addition to the new school, three other major capital projects are currently being proposed for Amherst. Their costs, without consideration of any interest on borrowing, are: a new fire station ($13 million), a new Department of Public Works facility ($38 million), and an expansion and renovation of the Jones Library ($36 million). The Finance Committee states that the impact of these projects on taxpayers “will need to be paid for by some combination of another debt exclusion override or the Town’s existing capital budget.”

In addition, repair and reconstruction of many roads and sidewalks has been deferred for years and will be a significant future infrastructure cost.

The tax rate in Amherst is the second highest in the 69 communities of Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin counties. The debt exclusion, already approved, allows Amherst taxes to be raised beyond the Proposition 2½ limit. The Finance Committee says that if this referendum passes, “The actual impact on tax bills will change with time: payments will be highest in the early years of the bond repayment period and lower in later years.” For example, the tax increase for the $300,000 median house value will be $400.

With higher taxes, some will find Amherst has become unaffordable; there will be more foreclosures and tax liens (95 homes in Amherst since Jan. 1, 2015); and the inevitable higher rents will push out young families and cram additional students into housing units to cover the rent increases.

The Finance Committee addressed the elementary school situation in the context of the town’s resources. Their conclusion: “If funding for this project is defeated, either by voters or Town Meeting, options for addressing the schools’ needs are available.”

The referendum asks, “Shall this Town appropriate the sum of $66,369,000…?” This is too much money for a plan with too many problems and for a plan that too many people don’t want. Please vote “no.”

Felicity Callahan, of Amherst, has been a Town Meeting representative from Precinct 9 for 30 years and has three children who graduated from the Amherst schools. She is a mathematics instructor at Holyoke Community College.

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.