A History of Reconfiguration and Public Process (or lack thereof)

This is a narrative response to a question about when the community became aware of the Reconfiguration proposal. For a more “timeline” style listing of dates, see “Timeline of School Renovations and MSBA Project”.

I would like to hear more about the public process for involving members of the school community (elementary and regional parents) and the larger Amherst community. It’s my understanding that most elementary parents did not get notice that Fort River School would be closed and both Wildwood and Crocker Farm schools would stop being K-6th grade schools until last fall.  How did that happen and what happened then? 

Good question.

Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that many (almost all) families felt completely caught off-guard by the recommendation for reconfiguration, which was made publicly for the first time last October.  In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that School Administrators & some School Committee members had supported reconfiguration for some time, but it definitely wasn’t on the wider horizon of the Town, or the schools.

The project was called the “Wildwood Elementary Building” project, and virtually everyone thought of it as a renovation or rebuild Wildwood.  Indeed, those were the first two options listed.  When I asked about the third option at an April PGO meeting, I was told something along the lines that we needed three options for the MSBA project.  I came away with the clear sense, at that time, that a new Wildwood building was the likeliest option.  (That’s what I wrote in my notes.)

You all may remember that we had a School Committee election last spring, and “reconfiguration” was definitely never raised as a candidates’ issue — it simply wasn’t on anyone’s horizon.  I wasn’t in Town Meeting last spring or the preceding year, but I’ve been told it was the same — nobody talked about reconfiguration; it was really billed as a Wildwood building project. 

In late September at a public forum, it started to feel very much like the Administration was leaning towards reconfiguration, but I asked at a mic if all three options were fully being considered, or if any were out of the running, and I was told at that time that they were fully considering all options.  Two weeks later the Administration released their report recommending reconfiguration, and scheduled a vote for two weeks after that at the School Committee meeting in early November.  

During October, people were really starting to get upset and agitated — if you look at public comment there’s an enormous volume of it dating after that September meeting.  But I was already hearing people say, literally, “The fix is in.  There’s no point in engaging.”  A number of PGO parents organized a meeting to share information and wrote up a “concerns” document in October.  I organized a “submit public comment” online form and postcard mailing, which generated scores of comments, the vast majority of which opposed reconfiguration, and many of which complained that they hadn’t heard anything about it.  

At this point, I was honestly still fairly open to options.  I favored small schools, and thought there were many unanswered questions in the documentation.  (I wrote a long document about the unanswered questions, which is posted here: https://wildwoodpgo.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/quiltermarkstein-letteronreconfiguration-20151018.pdf ).  But I said publicly that I thought the worst thing would be for us to not come up with anything.  

Since then, I’ve been reading a lot about the equity and pedagogy of school size, learning from close analyses that Eve Vogel has done of local transportation, and hearing from Maria Kopicki, who has been delving into the school documents and finding more unanswered questions about the finances.  So from early October, my position has really changed, and now I really feel reconfiguration and the large school is a serious mistake — primarily for equity and pedagogy reasons.  

I will say that you are not alone, —-,  in feeling like the reasonable suggestions were basically ignored.  Many, many parents and community members have made comments and suggestions and asked questions, and I think “deaf ears” is a fair description of the response.  The format is part of the problem: At SC meetings there is a microphone & 3 minutes to make a comment, but no discussion.  At the public forums, the architects & Administration would present usually for an hour or more, and squeeze in public comment at the end.  In none of these discussions was there real give-and-take between the public and the “decision makers”.  So there have indeed been a lot of events that can be listed as “public participation”, but it was all weirdly non-interactive.  Administration or the architects would present.  Community would speak, and either not get a response (at School Committee meetings) or get a very limited and often off-point response (public forums). 

From that perspective, I understand why people in the early days felt despairing, and like “the fix was in”.  

But in fact we have had a couple of real victories in terms of public process during this six months.  One victory was when Maria Kopicki, through careful reading of the actual MSBA documents, corrected the District’s incorrect timing last fall.  It was NOT necessary for the School Committee to vote in early November.  Maria pointed this out to the School Administration and didn’t get any response, but after she wrote an editorial, and got the MSBA to call the School Administration to correct them, we were able to get a delay on the School Committee vote.  (Note: She just found ANOTHER major error in the project’s timing, because they were dating things to January, but the 30-month feasibility study actually ends two months later, in March.) 

The second victory was getting the School Committee to finally agree to do a survey.  It could have been done much better in a lot of ways, but the results were clear — parents and teachers alike really supported the K-6 configuration, and “reconfiguration” was the least popular option by far.  (We had argued that dual renovation should have been on survey — it was widely put out that there was no way to do dual renovation, and that therefore Fort River would be “left behind” without reconfiguration.  I suspect that misinformation is responsible for probably 90% of the support for reconfiguration.)  

HOWEVER.  All this is about the procedural problems with the reconfiguration, and while they’re considerable, I’d like to note that Article 38 is really a separate issue.  Article 38 will not stop reconfiguration; it won’t even slow it down.  Article 38 actually just answers some of the unanswered questions that I noted last October, about the other costs in addition to the new building, and the costs of renovating and repairing the actual identified problems at both schools.  We need the “other costs of reconfiguration” information regardless.  And the “costs to renovate” will, again, help inform everyone, because we all need to know, up-front, about the various problems with each school.  

Happy to answer more questions. 

Cheers,

Laura Quilter
May 17, 2016