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
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.
Too many issues left unaddressed
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.
School project burdens South Amherst families
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.
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.
David Mednicoff: Stand up for school reform that enjoys broader support
Op-Ed published in Amherst Bulletin, Friday, March 17, 2017
Several years ago, my brown-skinned son was attacked at his elementary school without provocation. The school’s principal, knowing my son and the other student for a long time, intervened usefully, supporting my son strongly, disciplining the other child, calling me personally, and mediating a reasonable reconciliation later.
At a larger school, and one that had not known the children for years prior to this incident, staff would be much less likely to appreciate the situation’s nuances, and I might fear that my son could receive less caring treatment, in part because of his skin color.
My daughter, now in high school, has expressed clear feelings about how important to her well-being she found attending an elementary school that was small, close to a neighborhood model, and free from disruptive relocation from a different lower-grade school.
As a public policy professor, I appreciate that individual experiences may not represent full debate on a contested public issue. Nonetheless, my multicultural children’s clear ideas about what has made their primary education work connect with the articulate, diverse arguments many friends and neighbors have made against a plan to reconfigure completely Amherst’s elementary schools that was never the optimal choice of teachers and parents, and that has been voted down twice by Town Meeting representatives.
Proponents of the school reconfiguration plan have forced a townwide vote to overturn two prior votes by Town Meeting, upping the stakes. Each effort to overturn the votes of our elected representatives against funding a particular, problematic version of new elementary schools has made more difficult a plan that might retain the successful features of current elementary schools and achieve broader support.
The school issue is now also used to justify changing Town Meeting to a less representative, less diverse governance structure, precisely when democratic processes nationally are at risk. Some proponents of the rejected plan seem hostile toward, and misrepresent the arguments of, well-meaning opponents. This is disheartening. In fact, it pains me deeply to be on the opposite side of this issue from people whom I respect and consider friends, and who share my commitment to our schools.
Yet, several factors make me overcome my discomfort to speak up against the current plan. First, this plan raises sufficient risk of worsening school equity and environmental issues to outweigh unproven claims that an entirely new configuration of schools that are further away for most residents offers advantages over the high-quality education our students currently receive.
Finally, the process through which the plan emerged as the favored option appears to many of us who tried to weigh in much earlier during deliberations as weighted against evidence and stakeholder preference for a different plan.
This last point matters because my best sense is that vocal opponents of this plan advanced alternatives and compromise that would retain K-6 schools and address both equity and funding issues at a stage in the process when cost-effective consensus was easier. Because these efforts were dismissed, and because some supporters seem incredulous that opposition to the current proposal to completely restructure elementary education can be principled, genuine and grounded in shared zeal to fix our schools’ problems, Amherst residents face a terrible choice between an unproven plan riddled with problems, and delay and less-certain funding to recraft the plan to preserve responsive K-6 education.
I regret being forced into this choice, at odds with dear friends. Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable being pushed repeatedly to endorse a plan that many caring families truly, and thoughtfully, believe to be against the long-term educational interests of our town’s children.
I hope that fellow town voters will stand up for school reform that enjoys broader support, and that supporters of the plan can accept that an inclusive process for a better plan honors their commitment to good Amherst schools more than continuing revotes on a flawed proposal.
David Mednicoff, of Amherst, is a lawyer, a professor in the University of Massachusetts School of Public Policy and director of Middle Eastern Studies at UMass.
Lisa Kosanovic: Disappointed in officials over school question
Published in Amherst Bulletin Thursday, March 9, 2017
First, an inconvenient fact: it is simply untrue that the Massachusetts School Building Authority has never accepted a statement of interest from a district after a “no” vote on a school project. Here are the facts.
Only four of the 12 towns that had failed school building votes since 2008 reapplied. One was determined to have “very low needs” by the MSBA, but the other three got back in quickly.
Carver’s statement of interest was accepted the year it was submitted, and the grant was received two years later;
Hopkinton’s statement of interest was accepted the year after it was submitted, and the grant was received two years later;
Granby’s statement of interest was accepted the year after it was submitted, and the grant was received three years later.
Given all the controversy about the proposed school building project, my inconvenient fact would be a great start to a column advocating for a “no” vote. But that’s not what this is.
Rather, I am writing because I am so extremely disappointed with Amherst town officials, starting with those who put voters in a panic by saying or implying that if we don’t vote “yes” on the upcoming vote, we will never get new schools. I am disappointed because it seems to me that some town officials manipulated the process to get a specific outcome.
Manipulation began when town officials ignored the results of a survey commissioned by the School Committee, which polled parents and teachers, and found that the community favored leaving the K-6 configuration (Option B). Instead, town officials chose to put on the ballot the much less supported option, with the reconfigured grades of prekindergarten–1, and 2–6.
Officials made a “yes” vote more likely when, claiming it was too expensive to do otherwise, they put the school question on the November ballot, thereby putting the question to thousands of college students who have no children in the system, but are certainly inclined to support a new school.
Further manipulation occurred when school officials came back from an MSBA meeting to announce that it was either the configuration they had chosen or nothing, creating a situation where they really had the opportunity to say that if we don’t get it now, we can’t get it (this year).
The process was completed Feb. 6, when the School Committee voted not to withdraw their plans for the new school from the MSBA, and instead take the new school plan to a townwide vote March 28. If the new school plan fails, then the earliest Amherst could submit again to MSBA would be 2018. If the school committee had withdrawn from the process by Feb. 7, Amherst could have resubmitted a statement of interest this spring.
So now, with everyone in a panic that we won’t get a new school, we are being asked to vote in a supposedly democratic fashion on the school question.
I am proud to live in a neighborhood where we have all chosen to respectfully argue this question on an email thread, and do our best to provide one another with accurate information.
But I am disappointed in those town officials who have failed to meet that same standard of honesty, by withholding, manipulating and distorting facts. I thought we were better than that.
Lisa Kosanovic, of Amherst, is a Town Meeting candidate from Precinct 7, and a delegate to the Massachusetts Democratic Convention.
Letter by Alan E. Harazin published in the Amherst Bulletin, February 28, 2017
I am not a fan of town meeting government; indeed I hope Amherst’s future does not continue to be tethered to this anachronistic form of decision-making.
However, I find the prospect of still another re-do of the twice-rejected elementary school renovation funding plan by Town Meeting to be completely ludicrous.
It does not matter whether this attempt is made via a referendum or still another Town Meeting vote; no sane form of government permits the losers in the democratic process to keep forcing revote after revote until they obtain a result they like.
I might well have supported the disgruntled folks who backed the proposed plan, but that’s irrelevant. I voted against President Trump, too, but 62 million-plus of my fellow Americans disagreed with me and I sure don’t get a re-do on that one.
Alan E. Harazin