What is the proposal?
The District proposes to build a large new $67 million school at the Wildwood site, to accommodate 750 students in grades 2 through 6. All Amherst students grades 2nd – 6th will be bused to this school. Second thru fifth grade students will be split into two wings (although according to the project documents, these are designed to be combined into a single grade configuration in the future). Sixth grade will be a combined grade from the beginning.
Construction will take place at the Wildwood site beginning in 2017. The 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years will include construction on-site at Wildwood of “wing 1”. Fall 2019 the Wildwood students will move to Wing 1 of the new school.
During 2019-2020 construction at the Wildwood site will build “wing 2”, and demolish the existing Wildwood School. Crocker Farm will also be renovated to accommodate all the town’s kindergarteners.
In fall 2020, the District will be reconfigured. ALL 2nd thru 6th graders at Crocker Farm, Fort River, and Wildwood will be re-zoned into two new zones and sent to one of the two wings at the new building. Sixth graders will be in a unified “pod”, will be “assigned” to one of the two new zones, and will “graduate” from that zone. (per discussion at School Building Committee meeting, July 2016)
ALL kindergarteners and first graders will be at Crocker Farm. It is not yet clear whether those students will be “zoned” or in a single unified grade of 7 to 9 classrooms per grade.
The new building alone will cost at least $67 million. Additional expenses — such as renovating Crocker Farm — are not included in the $67 million “building” cost.
The effect on the annual budget is unclear. While there are projected savings from energy savings and the ability to have fewer teachers by consolidating classes, some projected savings will not pan out — we are not reducing the number of administrators as originally planned — and there are other expenses not previously anticipated, such as the cost of running several additional buses. A major wildcard is the question of whether more people will opt to leave the District for charter schools, as seems likely based on the unpopularity of the proposal; each Charter student costs the District $18,000 a year currently.
What are the Administration’s arguments for Reconfiguration and the mega-school?
Cost – The Administration has argued that the Reconfiguration proposal is cheaper than renovating, and will result in cost savings long-term. It’s not clear that it really is cheaper than a dual renovation (see Article 38), and research on large schools suggests that the idea of long-term cost savings is similarly shaky.
But the District ignores the traditional social justice definitions of equity in favor of two different versions:
(1) “Don’t leave Fort River behind”. The Administration has argued that we have to build a large new (unpopular) school to not leave Fort River behind, but in fact many people have pointed out that there are numerous other alternatives, from renovating both schools, to using the middle school, to making an addition to Wildwood.
(2) The Administration has argued that drawing District lines to have socioeconomic equity across the schools is hard for the District to do, and unfair to the kids who are bussed away from their home. However, the District has never shown that kids are disadvantaged by being bussed to socioeconomically balanced schools, and in fact, this time-honored approach has been used in Districts around the country for decades to achieve integrated and balanced schools.
School districts have in the past decades learned to add flexibility to their Districting to accommodate the needs of individual families and kids who fit better within particular schools or school communities, but inexplicably, the Amherst School Administration has eliminated all such flexibility and family choice. This lack of flexibility harms families who might prefer to leave a school where their child has been bullied, or wish to join a school which has a number of speakers of their native language, or even families who move within Amherst during the school year, and are forced to change their child’s school mid-year.
Teacher Collaboration – While the District touts the benefits of collaboration across grades, it downplays the benefits of collaboration across grades. It also utterly ignores the arbitrary split between first and second grade teachers, both of whom are certified as early childhood educators; second grade teachers are proposed to be separated from their early childhood peers and isolated in an upper elementary school. Moreover, as Eve Vogel’s research has shown, it is questionable whether collaboration across large grade cohorts (7 to 9 teachers) is actually as effective and deep as small group collaboration (2 to 4 teachers as we currently have per grade at each school). See Eve Vogel, “Continuing Advantages …”, page 6.
Community Support – The majority of the community supports K-6 according to the School Committee’s commissioned survey (January 2016). (See “what do parents and teachers think?”) Notably, even among reconfiguration supporters, many noted that they were supporting reconfiguration only because they didn’t think there was another alternative. Indeed, there are many alternatives! The MSBA requires Town and Town Meeting approval before the project continues, and has a process in place to enable Towns that vote the process down to revise their proposals and still get funding. See “What happens if Amherst residents or Town Meeting vote the current proposal down?” for an overview of the process. We could revise the plan to get a school proposal that the whole community wants.
The public has weighed in strongly against the reconfiguration, with criticisms of reconfiguration and the process greatly dominating all public comment and published editorial, and in the School Committee’s commissioned survey. Despite this substantial evidence of community dislike of the Administration’s plan, the School Committee chose to move ahead with the Administration’s recommendations, ignoring the public outcry.
Process – The Administration has told the MSBA that the process has been open and representative. In fact, the process has been deeply flawed.For the first two years, the public generally understood the proposals to be about renovating or replacing Wildwood. Even newspaper reports, at late as Fall 2015, talked about it only in the context of Wildwood. Reconfiguration was never discussed in the contested School Committee elections prior to the proposal.
In short, neither the public, the families, even the staff, nobody outside of Administration really understood that Reconfiguration was even an option, much less the preferred option, until mid-October– when Administration simultaneously released their recommendation and scheduled a School Committee vote a scant two weeks later. Administration argued they were “required” by MSBA to do so, but Maria Kopicki simply contacted the MSBA and found that was wrong — in fact, the vote did not have to happen for several months. Kopicki alerted the School Administration of their error but they did not respond; Kopicki again contacted the MSBA to explain the problem, and the MSBA then corrected the School Administration, which finally rescheduled the vote.
The School Administration has also argued that the School Building Committee, which is in charge of the process, is “representative”. In fact, of the SBC’s 20-plus members, almost all were employed by the School District, most as administrators. Theoretically, each of the elementary schools had a representative to the committee. In fact, there was no open process for selecting those representatives, and those representatives have not presented or done any liaison work with the schools. Wildwood actually had no parent representation for most of the time. The SBC has barely made a quorum in most of its meetings. The meetings are largely held during the business day and are not recorded or broadcast as most Town committee meetings are.
While volumes of public comment have been recorded at School Committee meeting and in written comments to the School Administration, the meeting procedure of the School Committee allow members to sit through a “public comment period” without responding, and then proceed on their business, without ever responding to the public comment. At community forums, Administration and the Project Manager present for the majority of the scheduled meeting time, and allow only a small amount of time for “dialog”; in these sessions, Administration and the Project Manager choose which questions to answer, ignoring others.
- Costs of Reconfiguration
- Article 38 – a request to Town Meeting to generate more cost information about renovation and complete project information about the reconfiguration project