School Committee votes to restore art and technology educator positions to full time (Amherst School Committee, 6/28/22)

At our June 28 meeting, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to restore the art and technology educator positions at all three elementary schools to full time, through funding from the school’s budget. You can read about the background of this issue in my March 29 blog post (Amherst School Committee restores art and technology specials teachers for FY23 budget – but how?) and my April 27 blog post (A “rounding error” sized problem with no solution).

To recap: The School Committee came up with a compromise solution for the $79,200 needed to restore the six 0.8 FTE (full time equivalent) positions to 1.0 each – use ESSER funds (COVID relief funds for schools) for one-third of the amount, and request more money from the town of Amherst for two-thirds of the amount.

On June 13, the Amherst Town Council did not approve the additional funds to cover these positions. (You can watch this portion of the Town Council meeting here.

At the June 28 School Committee meeting, Superintendent Mike Morris said that he sees the value in restoring the positions to full time. He suggested using funds in “the back of the budget,” i.e. the Control Account, to cover the amount needed for these positions. The Control Account is a budget line item where funds are reserved for expenses that are unknown at the time the budget is developed. Morris indicated that there are always funds for “one teacher and two paras” in the Control Account, in case extra staffing is needed, beyond what was planned for. Earlier in the meeting, he had presented an update on kindergarten registration, which indicated that fewer kindergarten sections would be needed than originally anticipated, resulting in a cost savings.

Morris said “My thinking [on these positions] has evolved as more data has come to me.” He did indicate that pulling the needed funds from the Control Account is a risk, but that it’s a risk worth taking for this year. 

It is unknown if the positions will be able to be funded the following year (23-24 academic year) or future years. When the new elementary school building opens (expected fall 2026), the district expects to see operational savings, which would change our financial picture.

I am very happy and grateful that these six positions (one art teacher and one technology teacher, at each of our three elementary schools) will be restored to full time for this year. This is the right thing for our students, who need art and technology now more than ever, in addition to the strong relationships formed between full-time educators and students. And it’s the right thing for our staff, who deserve our respect and commitment to full-time jobs. This was a stressful and lengthy process, and I wish we could have gotten here sooner, but I’m glad we got here in the end!

A “rounding error” sized problem with no solution (Amherst School Committee 4/27/22)

A month ago at our March 29 meeting, the Amherst School Committee unanimously approved a compromise solution to restore our art and technology specials teachers to full time. You can read about it in my blog post covering that meeting. Essentially, we agreed to cover the $79,200 needed to restore six 0.8 FTE (full time equivalent) positions to 1.0 position each through a combination of additional ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) funds (an additional $26,400, which is one-third of the needed amount), and a request to the town of Amherst to increase our appropriation from the town (an extra $52,800, which is two-thirds of the needed amount).

Since then, Superintendent Mike Morris received an email from Town Manager Paul Bockelman (which Mike forwarded to the School Committee members) indicating that Paul would not include the extra amount we requested ($52,800) in his submission of the school budget to the Town Council. He went on to say that the Town Council can add the amount in, with a two-thirds vote of approval by Town Council members. He mentioned that the School Committee could adjust our budget request to remove the extra amount, and bring the total school budget in line with the town’s original budget guidelines.

What does all this mean? Basically, with our vote on March 29, the School Committee agreed to ask the town of Amherst for slightly more than the town had planned to spend on schools for the 22-23 fiscal year. The town had planned to allocate $25,052,500 to the school district for 22-23, and the School Committee asked for an extra $52,800 (for a total of $25,105,300). Paul’s email essentially puts this decision in the hands of the Town Council, who would need to vote with a two-thirds margin to approve the additional funds.

But we did have an opportunity at last night’s meeting to change our request to the town. We could have reconsidered our decision from March 29, and decide to cover the $79,200 entirely with ESSER funds, or shifting money from another budget line item, or a combination of both, in order to remove or lower the additional amount requested of the town.

Also, there was a new twist! Mike shared with us that we received “a little over $20,000” in one-time state funds that were granted to school districts who lost enrollment last year and gained enrollment this year.  (Inexplicably, this is referred to as “pothole money,” though it has nothing to do with potholes.) He said that the district plans to use those funds, “plus a little more because we are in good financial shape,” to prepay special education tuition for out-of-district students for next year, which will help next year’s budget (this is legal and commonly done). This means that the 1/3 ($26,400) voted on by the SC at the last meeting won’t have to be spent out of ESSER funds – we will be able to pay it out of our budget. 

This is good news, since there is strong community support for figuring out a way to restore the art and technology teachers to full time. At last night’s meeting we received one live comment, two voicemails, and 10 emails, all in support of using ESSER funds or finding a way to fund these positions within our budget, from community members and Amherst educators.

With all this information on hand, I made two suggestions:

  • I suggested that we shift $30,000 that is earmarked in the Contingency section of the budget for Professional Leave, and use that to partially cover the art and technology specials teachers. That line item, reserved for teacher sabbaticals, has had zero spent on it for the past four fiscal years. I am strongly in favor of teacher sabbaticals, but if it isn’t needed then there seems to be no reason to set it aside. In fact, Mike acknowledged that the deadline for educators to request sabbatical for FY22-23 has passed, and there have been no requests.
  • I also suggested that we do what we agreed to at the March 29 meeting, and spend the additional $26,400 of ESSER funds. If we do this on top of the plan for the one-time state funds, that would cover two-thirds of the $79,200 needed to restore the art and technology teachers. 

If we agreed on both suggestions above, then we would fully cover the needed amount! If we could agree to one but not both, then we could lower the extra amount requested of the town (we could request an additional $26,400 instead of an additional $52,800), and make it easier for the Town Council to approve our request. However, my ideas did not gain any traction with the other School Committee members. Members expressed a desire to stick with the decision we made at the March 29 meeting, a desire to keep the $30,000 in case someone does request a sabbatical, and discomfort with using more ESSER funds on staff salaries.

I made a motion to reduce the additional amount in appropriations that we made of the town by $26,000, which was seconded by Peter Demling. The motion failed with all other members present voting against (Allison McDonald, Peter Demling, Ben Herrington), and only me voting in favor (member Irv Rhodes was absent).

I agree with Fort River educator Nicole Singer, who said in her public comment last night, “We have them [ESSER funds] so that we can use them for what students need. If it’s between using grant funding and not restoring the positions at all, I’ll take it.” Piecing together a patchwork solution that is not guaranteed past one year is not ideal, but if it’s between that and not restoring the positions at all, I’ll take it!

In addition, I feel that by requesting additional funding from the town for these teacher positions, and placing the decision in the hands of Town Council members, we are passing the buck. Now, those who advocated to the School Committee for finding the funds to cover the positions will have to advocate to the Town Council. We are ceding our decision making to the Town Council, which feels irresponsible to me. I’m not against the idea, in theory, of requesting more from the town than the guidance we were given, but to make teacher salaries contingent on the decision makes me deeply uncomfortable. I feel that we are failing our students and our educators, who have so clearly stated how important these positions are, by passing the buck.

I’m disappointed that we could not agree on a solution to this “rounding error” of a problem. $26,400, or $52,800, or $79,200 … these figures are so small in the context of our $25 million budget – we’re talking tenths of a percentage point. And yet, these positions are so impactful to our students and our school community. It seems all we can do now is advocate to the Town Council, for two-thirds of them to vote in favor of approving the additional amount requested by the School Committee. I hope you’ll join me. You can find contact info for the Town Council here.

Amherst School Committee restores art and technology specials teachers for FY23 budget – but how? (Amherst School Committee meeting 3/29/22)

Siblings of students in special education programs will be offered to attend the same school, but no guarantee of transportation.

At the Amherst School Committee meeting on March 29, 2022, the committee voted unanimously to restore the art teacher and technology teacher positions to 1.0 FTE (full time employee) per school. These six positions (one art and one technology teacher at each of our three elementary schools) had been reduced to 4.8 FTEs for the 21-22 school year, and the plan was to have teachers from Wildwood and Fort River cover sections at Crocker Farm on a part-time basis, while still teaching the same number of sections in their home school. This resulted in less prep time and more stress for those teachers. The committee received public comments and emails from several educators and many community members, urging the restoration of these positions. Perhaps the most poignant was from Fort River technology educator Trevor Takayama: 

“If I have to teach my full load of classes at one school and add on another 20% (5 classes) at another school for the second year in a row… then I am quitting the 20% part next year and I’ll take a paycut for teaching my full load in 4 days. I am exhausted from the added workload.”

You can read the submitted public comments on the Boarddocs site for the March 29 meeting.

The amount of funding needed to bring the 4.8 FTEs up to 6.0 was pegged at $79,200. In my view, this is a relatively small number (in a $25 million budget) that has a very large impact. As one parent said, 

“It shouldn’t have to be said that our students desperately need consistency and support for arts integration and technology. We have already lost fabulous educators because of the budget cuts. It is critical that the district prioritize arts education, and technology education.”

The original FY23 (‘22-’23 school year) budget proposed to the School Committee did not include restoring the positions to full time. When I asked, at the March 8 meeting, what the budget would look like if these positions were restored to full time, Superintendent Mike Morris immediately responded that the funds could be pulled from ESSER funds (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, a temporary federal COVD relief program). The proposed budget already included $393,531 in ESSER funds to “support the budget.” That is, it had already been proposed to use these temporary funds for operational costs. Morris suggested on March 8 that we could pull the additional $79,200 by increasing our usage of ESSER funds.

However, at the March 29 meeting, Morris stated that he did not think it was a good idea to use these temporary funds for the specials teachers. The funds will be available for one more year after this one (FY24), and after that we will fall “off the cliff” of temporary funds – that is, those funds will no longer be available and we will have to figure out how to cover that amount.

Much discussion ensued about the advisability of using a higher amount of ESSER funds ($472,731, as opposed to the $393,531 originally proposed). Several other school committee members were uncomfortable doing this, and did not want to use temporary funds to cover salaries. However, I felt that, since we were already going to do that – we were already going to use almost $400,000 in ESSER funds to cover staff salaries, and since we have the funds available this year and next year, why wouldn’t we use them?

School Committee member Peter Demling brought up the idea of requesting a higher appropriation amount from the town of Amherst in order to cover the $79,200. (Brief background: The town gives the school district guidance as to how much the school district can spend in the next fiscal year. Typically, the school district works within that guidance. The amount the town allocates to the school is called the “appropriation.”) Finance Director Doug Slaughter responded that the school committee *can* approve an appropriation amount that is higher than the guidance given by the town. It will then be up to the town to approve that amount or not.

I did not think it was a good idea to request an appropriation amount higher than the town’s guidance, in order to fund the art and technology specials teachers at full time. To me that feels like “passing the buck” to the Town Manager and Town Council to decide whether or not to fund these positions, instead of the School Committee making the decision. But in an effort to compromise, I proposed splitting the difference – what if we fund half of the $79,200 with ESSER funds and half through town appropriation? 

In the end, we landed on a one-third ESSER/two-thirds town appropriation model. One-third of the $79,200 ($26,400) will be pulled from additional ESSER funds, and two-thirds ($52,800) will be added to the total amount we will request in appropriation from the town. I don’t love this plan! But it was super important to me to get the specials positions restored to full time, so I voted in favor of it. It remains to be seen if the town will agree to the higher appropriation amount.

Later in the same meeting, the School Committee discussed the policy of allowing siblings of students in one of the three district-wide special education programs to attend the same school. The AIMS (Academic Individualized Mainstream Support) and Building Blocks programs are located at the Fort River School; the Intensive Learning Center program (ILC) is located at the Wildwood School. Students enrolled in these programs go to the designated school, even if they do not live in the defined enrollment area for that school. This can result in siblings attending different schools. SEPAC (Special Education Parent Advisory Council) sent a public comment strongly urging the School Committee to allow siblings of students in these specialized programs to attend the same school:

“The shared experience of school for siblings, both disabled and non-disabled, is an important part of growing up. At present, families of non-disabled children have the luxury of being together at school. Our special education students and their families deserve the same.”

The committee chair informed us that the decision had already been made, last year, to allow this, but it had not been implemented yet. It is unclear why it had not been implemented.

The School Committee then heard from the superintendent about the potential challenges of providing transportation to school for siblings of special education students. He talked about vans being filled to the brim already, and bus drivers being in short supply. 

I pointed out that there are around 40 students in the specialized programs (a number that fluctuates year to year, but has been around 40 for several years). Some of those students already attend their home school, some do not have siblings of elementary age, and some families may not want the sibling(s) to attend the same school (for any number of reasons). The number of siblings whose families would take advantage of this could be very low. Still, the superintendent was uncomfortable guaranteeing transportation for siblings. The school committee discussed the inequity of offering the choice for siblings to attend the same school but not guaranteeing transportation – only families with the resources to have private transportation and the time to drive their student to school will be able to take advantage of this. Still, I did not want to hold back on offering this to families. I do hope that, in the end, transportation will be made available to all families who participate in this.

Regional School Committee approves high school track and field project (Regional School Committee meeting 3/15/22)

Last night in an 8-1 vote, the Regional School Committee (RSC) approved a motion to approve borrowing $1.5 million for the ARHS track and field project: 

MOTION: Move that the District appropriates the amount of One Million Five Hundred Thousand Dollars ($1,500,000) to pay costs of resurfacing the existing track, relocating field events areas, improving access to the existing facility, installing perimeter fencing and pathways systems to provide ADA accessibility to the existing track, and for the payment of all other costs incidental and related thereto, and that to meet this appropriation the Treasurer, with the approval of the Chair of the School Committee, is authorized to borrow said amount under M.G.L. c. 71, §16(d), or pursuant to any other enabling authority, and to issue bonds or notes of the District therefor. Any premium received upon the sale of any bonds or notes approved by this vote, less any such premium applied to the payment of the costs of issuance of such bonds or notes, may be applied to the payment of costs approved by this vote in accordance with Chapter 44, Section 20 of the General Laws, thereby reducing the amount authorized to be borrowed to pay such costs by a like amount. In the event that the Committee should determine, on or before January 16, 2023 that at least $2,200,000 has been raised through other sources, including but not limited to, Community Preservation Act Funds contributed by member towns of the District, American Rescue Plan Act funds, grants from the Commonwealth or from any other sources whatsoever, then the amount authorized to be borrowed by this vote shall be applied, instead, to pay costs of relocating the track to a north/south orientation with a synthetic  playing field interior, relocating the field events area to adjoining field space, improving access to the facility, installing perimeter fencing and pathways systems to provide ADA accessibility to the track facility, new field lighting and irrigation facilities, and for the payment of all other costs incidental and related thereto.

The wording of the motion is confusing, due to legal requirements when a body approves borrowing. It essentially says this:

A. The RSC approves borrowing $1.5 million, which will be the responsibility of the four towns according to a predetermined formula (each town will take on a portion of the debt), for a project to resurface the ARHS track, as well as other improvements such as providing ADA accessibility.

AND

B. If, by January 16, 2023, the district can raise an additional $2.2 million through state, federal, or private grants, private fundraising, or other sources, then that $1.5 million approved for borrowing will be applied to a different/bigger project – to re-orient the track to a north/south orientation, install a synthetic turf playing field, provide ADA accessibility, and other improvements.

The project described in A above is referred to as “option 1” and is the bare minimum that needs to be done to make the track safe and usable. What is described in B above is referred to as “option 3” and is the preferred option of the district and all of the members of the public who submitted public comments via email, voicemail, and in-person last night. However, the price tag of option 3, around $4.7 million, is out of reach. We have received input from our member towns that spending any more than $1.5 million (via borrowing) is not feasible.

At the March 1 RSC meeting, Director of Finance Doug Slaughter put forth the idea to borrow $1.5 million, and come up with the remaining $3.2 million needed for option 3 through a combination of Community Preservation Act funds, private fundraising, and grants such as the American Rescue Plan Act.

Image: Screenshot from March 1 presentation to the RSC on the track project.

This idea is a model/plan for how to fund the project; none of these funds have been committed (or applied for) at this time.

Why doesn’t the math add up? We need to come up with another $3.2 million for option 3, so why does the motion say $2.2 million? The RSC felt that if we fall short of the $3.2 million but get almost all the way there, we would still consider doing option 3, so the $2.2 million figure was used, to give a little flexibility in the fundraising goal.

Essentially, the plan is to borrow $1.5 million (this now needs approval from the legislative bodies in each of the four towns), and embark on a fundraising effort to raise an additional $2.2 million. If that $2.2 million (or more!) is raised by January 16, 2023, then the project will be option 3, the preferred project that gets us the track and field we want and need. If that amount is not raised, then we will proceed with option 1, the smaller and less costly project.

So, the district needs to raise at least $2.2 million in the next nine months. Now, I’m an optimist by nature, but I think it’s important to have realistic expectations here. At the March 1 meeting, the RSC discussed how feasible it is to raise $1 million in private donations. IMHO that is a very tall order! For some reference points:

To me, the scale of raising $2.2 million (or more) in nine months feels insurmountable. But I would love to be proven wrong! I hope that I am proven wrong, and that in January we can celebrate meeting the fundraising goal.

School Committee takes important step to move elementary school building project forward

Sibling enrollment and restoring specials teachers to be discussed at next meeting

On Tuesday March 8, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to approve the educational program and space summary for the elementary school building project. This vote was an important step in moving the project forward, on a path to completing the project and opening the new school in the fall of 2026.

The committee first viewed a short presentation on the educational program, a 34-page document that summarizes how elementary education is delivered in our district. I had already sent the superintendent and the lead designer my input on the educational program, and I summarized my input at the meeting:

  • Wildwood and Fort River each have around 350 students right now, for a total of around 700 students. The enrollment in the new building will be 575; in other words, the new school will have about three-quarters the number of students as WW and FR today. And yet, based on the Educational Program, it seems that there are many cases where staffing in the new school is at the same level as in the two schools combined. 
  • For example, according to the Educational Program, there is currently one psychologist each in WW and FR, and two will be required at the new school. But with a reduction in students from 700 in the two schools combined to 575 in the new school, I would expect to need fewer than two FTE psychologists. I don’t say this to imply that we shouldn’t provide the services that our students need, but just from the math, I would expect that fewer students would require comparably fewer staff. The same holds true for adjustment counselors and guidance counselors. According to the educational program, there is currently one each of these two positions at Fort River and Wildwood, and two each are stated as a requirement for the new school. Again, the same number of staff for fewer students. The more staff we have, the more space needed to house them. This is one of the reasons that the total size of the building is bigger than it needs to be, in my opinion.
  • In addition, the Literacy Professional Center sounds like a nice to have, not a need to have. There appears to be multiple other spaces in the building to serve as alternate locations for specialized small group or one-on-one instruction, as well as staff collaboration. If we had unlimited funds, we could fulfill all of the “nice to haves,” but when difficult decisions need to be made to keep the building both within our means as a community and right-sized for the environment, then we need to be willing to forgo some of the nice to haves so that we can focus on the need to haves.
  • Lastly, I feel that the descriptions of access to the outdoors and outdoor space needs are insufficient in the educational program. Our students deserve and need ample, accessible, and age-appropriate play scapes, space for creative play on fields and hardtops, and continued access to the outdoor learning that has been so important in these last two years of the pandemic.

Other committee members also voiced their opinions on the educational program.

Next we viewed a short presentation on the space summary, a detailed spreadsheet that describes the number and size of rooms and spaces needed in the new school, as well as the total square feet of the building. The latest proposal describes a total building size of 105,750 square feet.

(Both the educational program document and the detailed spreadsheet can be viewed in the School Building Project Education Plan agenda item of the March 8 meeting on Boarddocs, in the attachment called 22-03-02 Ed Plan_DRAFT.pdf)

Many of the comments, from School Committee members as well as from members of the public via email, voicemail, and live comments at the meeting, centered around the size (square feet) of the building. Some think we needed to make the building bigger – bigger and more rooms to serve our students. Some felt we needed to make the building smaller – use space more efficiently, lower cost, more environmentally sustainable.

Here are the remarks I made about the building size:

I’m looking at the project from several perspectives and points of view, and one point of view is that I’m a single parent who works full time and owns a house I can’t afford. I am perpetually in arrears on my property taxes. It’s the first bill I put off paying, or don’t pay in full, when my finances are tight, which is most of the time. That said, as a voter, I fully intend to vote in favor of the debt exclusion override next year, to pay for this school building. The increase in my property tax bill won’t force me to move out of town, but it will impact my quality of life – it will reduce my ability to pay my bills on time, and to pay for extra things like extra-curricular activities and hobbies for myself and my child. But as a tax payer and as a voter, I’m all in.

As an elected official, my job is to make sure that residents like me, who struggle to make ends meet, whether they are homeowners or renters, are not faced with a higher tax burden than is absolutely necessary, for a school project to meet the educational needs of our students. In addition there will be those who will be pushed out of town due to higher rents and higher property taxes. Already, living in Amherst is out of reach for many families. If we make it even harder to live here, then who is this school for? Is it only for people who can afford the higher tax bill or the higher rent that results from the higher tax bill? We say that our mission is the academic achievement of every student learning in a system dedicated to social justice and multiculturalism. But there is no social justice or equity in a town that only resourced families can afford to live in. 

We know that the size of the building is just one element of the cost. All of the other elements that go into the cost of the project are out of our control, but this one thing is within our control. At each step in this process, each individual or group that makes decisions, whether it’s the school committee, the school building committee, or the town council, has to do their part to develop a reasonably sized and priced building that meets the educational needs of our students, AND that our community can support, AND that is a net-zero building. While each body has a different piece of the total picture, we can’t make decisions in a vacuum; we must consider the whole picture. Tonight it is this body’s moment to do our part. We need to hand off to the school building committee an educational program that meets the needs of our students, and a space summary and total square footage that sets them up for success in terms of completing this project at a cost this community can bear. And then it will be the responsibility of the town council and the voters to approve the tax increase and the borrowing. But we get to go first, tonight, and we need to set ourselves up, to set this project up, for success. 

A right-sized building is the right choice for fiscal reasons, as well as for environmental reasons. This will be the first major town project to be built under our excellent net-zero bylaw. And there is already talk in the Town Council about weakening the net-zero bylaw to control the cost of this project. We don’t want that to be this project’s legacy. We don’t want to look back and say, we had a great net zero bylaw but we revised it so we could afford the school project. We owe it to our students, both our current students and the ones who will be inhabiting this building for 50 years to come, to deliver a right-sized, net-zero building.

All that being said, I’m not planning on suggesting any reductions to the current proposed plan. I also could not support any increases to it.

In the end, no proposals were made to increase or decrease the building size, and all School Committee members voted in favor of it.

Next we discussed the FY23 budget. I requested of Doug Slaughter, ARPS director of finance, to show us a version of the budget that restores the cuts that were made to specials teachers last year, which were implemented in this current academic year. The plan was to reduce the Art and Technology specials teachers at Crocker Farm to part-time, and have the teachers in those positions from Wildwood and Fort River fill in the gaps at Crocker Farm. I don’t know how this plan actually played out, but I hope to hear about it at our next meeting. Superintendent Mike Morris responded that a budget that includes restorations to those specials positions would simply pull the funds from ESSER funds (a federal relief program) and would not be permanent. It was agreed that this would be on the agenda for our next meeting.

I also asked about the policy for siblings of students in district-wide special education programs to be able to attend the same school. Currently, if a student is enrolled in a special education program that is not located in the school they are districted to, that student can attend the other school, however this sometimes results in siblings attending different schools. This topic was supposed to be discussed by the School Committee in fall 2021, in preparation for the FY23 budget, but it wasn’t discussed. It was also agreed that this would be on the agenda for our next meeting.

As of now, our next meeting will be Tuesday, March 29, at 6:30. It hasn’t been officially scheduled yet, so keep an eye on the Amherst School Committee page on Boarddocs for confirmation. You can also sign up on the town of Amherst’s website to be notified when a new meeting is posted (scroll down to Calendar >> Boards/Committees), BUT you will be notified of every town board or committee meeting AND this does not apply to Amherst Regional School Committee meetings.

Where are we with the elementary school building project? (2/22/22 Amherst School Committee meeting)

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) is like the bank in our elementary school building project. They will partially fund the project, and as the funder they require information and documentation about our project, as part of their process of working with school districts. The next step in the process for us is to submit the “Preliminary Design Program” (PDP) to the MSBA. Two important elements of the PDP are the educational plan and the space summary. 

The educational plan is a document that describes how we deliver elementary education in Amherst, and what building elements are necessary to fulfill our needs. This document is 35 pages, and can be found on the BoardDocs page for the February 22 meeting (it is called 22-02-17 Ed Plan_DRAFT.pdf). The educational plan feeds the space summary, which is a giant spreadsheet that can be downloaded from the same page (22-02-17 FRES reduced program areas options (1).xls).

The February 22 meeting was largely devoted to going through the space summary section by section, with School Committee members asking questions and offering suggestions to the superintendent and the lead architect. Other members of the administration also attended the meeting to answer questions. We talked about things like the size of classrooms, the size and number of “project areas” rooms, the size and number of staff offices, the size of specialty rooms such as occupational/physical therapy rooms, the size of the gym, the size of the cafeteria, etc. It was all very detail-oriented, and rather tedious, but super important!

At the beginning of the meeting we heard and read public comments about the project. Here are the things I took away from the various comments we received, and the things I kept in mind when considering all the details about space in the building project:

  • In order for this project to move forward to completion, Amherst voters will have to vote in favor of raising our property taxes for 30 years, via a debt-exclusion override*, to pay for the town’s portion of the building. Living in Amherst is already out of reach for many people, and current residents are finding it harder to afford living here. When we ask people to vote on raising their taxes, we need to be able to tell them that the amount that we’re spending on the building is not more than what we need in order to be able to deliver quality education to our students. As one commenter wrote, “We must ensure now, before we are locked in, that the size of the building is no bigger than absolutely necessary and uses all space extremely wisely.”
  • This will be the first major town project to be completed under the net-zero bylaw. All other things being equal, a net-zero project costs more than a non-net-zero project. Our community has decided that fighting climate change via net-zero buildings is something that we value, therefore we must be willing to balance other needs in order to achieve net-zero. As another commenter wrote, “We don’t want to jeopardize the new school and our first net zero project by sticker shock due to an unnecessarily large new school building.  There would also be a temptation for some to blame the net zero bylaw for the sticker price, which could undermine public support for the bylaw, one of the town’s essential efforts to fight climate change.”

I’m not an educator, nor an architect. I don’t have any expertise when it comes to how many square feet a break-out room or counselor’s office should be. I see my responsibility as representing the public and the school community, to deliver a project that people can support. I almost wrote “deliver a project that everyone can support” in that previous sentence, but I don’t believe in platitudes, and I don’t expect the debt-exclusion override to pass with 100% in favor. In fact, it only needs 50% + 1 voters in order to pass. But, I would love to see it pass with 60%, 65%, 70% in favor!

My overall feedback to Mike (superintendent) and Donna Dinisco (lead architect) on the space summary was: It would be great if we could get the building size down from the current/latest proposal of 105,750 square feet to around 100,000. AND we should focus on prioritizing space for students, and where reductions need to be made we should look to reduce individual/dedicated space for adults.

I’m hopeful that Dinisco and team will be able to take in the feedback from the other School Committee members and me, and come back on March 8 with a right-sized building. We will also be presented with cost estimates for the first time at that meeting. And we will need to vote our approval on the educational plan and space summary at that March 8 meeting. 

Stay tuned! This is a very exciting time for this building project!

*Here is a useful article that explains what a debt-exclusion override is: https://patch.com/massachusetts/norton/explaining-what-a-debt-exclusion-really-is

Amherst’s school building project: We need to set ourselves up for success

At the February 8 Amherst School Committee meeting, the SC discussed a high-level summary of how space would be allocated in the new elementary school building. The summary was displayed in the form of a table on page 11 of the presentation given to the SC by Donna Dinisco, lead architect on the project. (To access the presentation, go to the February 8 meeting page, click on the agenda item “Building Project Update – Education Plan Presentation” then click on the attachment called “21555 22-02-08 School Committee (final).pdf)

First, a primer on how to read the table on p. 11, titled “Preliminary Design Program | Enrollment Alternatives.” The first two columns represent a building option that we are required to study (renovating or replacing Fort River only), and did not warrant any discussion by the SC. The second two columns are where we focused much of our time.

The column titled “Fort River + Wildwood Schools @ MSBA” had part of its title cut off due to formatting, and was actually called “Fort River + Wildwood Schools @ MSBA Standards (575 students)” in a previous version of this document. This column represents a high-level summary of the proposed space usage in the new school. The “MSBA Guidelines (575 Students)” column indicates the amount of space that the MSBA recommends based on their guidelines. (NFA stands for Net Floor Area; GSF stands for Gross Square Feet. You can think of both as “square feet of space.”)

The first eight rows are categories of space needed in the school. The Sub Total Program row is a sum of the eight rows above it. After you add up the proposed space for each category, you must then multiply by a “grossing factor” to account for hallways, bathrooms, stairs, and even just walls. (The MSBA uses a 1.43 grossing factor, but for this project our architects have used 1.5).

So, the total square feet for our proposed project is 113,765, which is around 29,000 more than what the MSBA would recommend for our project (85,052).

Phew! Are you with me so far?

So, for me, the important thing is not how big the school project is but how much will it cost Amherst taxpayers, and the size of the building is one of the main factors that determines the cost. The town manager and the town finance director gave a presentation to the Town Council in February 2021 on how the town would be able to afford four major building projects (elementary school, Jones Library, department of public works, and fire station). The model indicated an estimate of $80 million for the school building project, with the town’s share of that at $40 million (and the assumption being that the MSBA would fund $40 million ).

I asked Donna if she could give a rough, ballpark estimate of the cost of our building project, or even a rough cost per square foot. She said they weren’t ready to give a cost estimate or range at the time, and that she expected to be able to do that at the March 8 SC meeting, the meeting at which the SC is expected to vote to approve the educational program.

That said, using the figures that we do have, I did a rough back-of-the envelope calculation.

If we need the project to come in at $80 million (assuming MSBA will reimburse us for $40 million and the Amherst taxpayers will pay $40 million):

$80 million divided by 1.25 = $64 million. This 1.25 factor represents the “soft costs” that are not direct construction costs (“hard costs”), such as architect and OPM fees, site costs, etc. We don’t know what the soft cost amount will be, but a 1.25 factor (or 25% of construction costs) is a reasonable guess.

$64 million divided by 113,765 sq ft = $563 per sq ft

Is it reasonable to think that our building can be built for $563 per sq ft? Good question! I am not a construction expert, so I don’t claim to know the answer. Looking at data on recent MSBA projects tells me that there is a range from around $430 to $825 per sq ft. Given that our school building will be net-zero, per Amherst bylaws, do we think our building will end up being low, middle, or high of that range? These are all questions that need to be answered before the School Committee votes on March 8. 

The cost of this project is important, because Amherst voters will be asked to approve a debt-exclusion override for it, a vote that is likely to take place in March 2023. Approving a debt-exclusion override means that voters are agreeing to “override” the state’s limit of 2.5% on how much towns can increase property taxes. In other words, the town can’t raise property taxes more than a 2.5% increase, to pay for this project, unless voters agree to it. (And the February 2021 presentation I referenced above stated that raising taxes via the debt-exclusion override is the only way the school project can be funded.)

The last time Amherst voters were faced with a debt-exclusion override vote, in 2016 for the previous school building project, it passed by 126 votes, out of 13,524 total votes cast (6,825 yes; 6,699 no). That is a little too close for comfort for me (50.4% yes; 49.5% no), and shows how divided voters were at the time. I would love to see this building project pass its override vote with 60%, 70%, 75% voter approval! The public should be excited about a public school, not only because they will have to pay for it via property taxes, but because a public school reflects the community’s values.

If we want the public to be enthusiastic about this project, we need to set ourselves up for success by developing a project that people can be excited, or at the very least accepting, to have their property taxes raised for. We need this project to cost an amount in the range of what our finance experts have planned for, so that voters can get behind it, and so that the town’s other major capital projects can move forward.

“Most of the principals who have left the district have been women” (Amherst and Regional School Committee meeting: 2/1/22)

This meeting started out as a joint meeting of the Amherst School Committee, Amherst Regional School Committee, and Pelham School Committee. (For a refresher on the difference between the Amherst School Committee and the Amherst Regional School Committee, see my Amherst has two school committees? post.)

These three school districts share a superintendent (currently Mike Morris) and the first item on the agenda was to review the process for evaluating the performance of the superintendent, which is done annually. 

The next item on the agenda was a presentation from consultant Rick Rogers on a qualitative study he conducted on why our district has had high principal turnover in some schools. The report that Rick produced is straightforward and easy to read, and contains some really meaningful and important points. (I recommend anyone interested in supporting Amherst schools read the report: Supporting and Retaining School Leaders.) Here are some of the nuggets I took away from his presentation and report:

  • It’s not easy to be a school principal in Amherst, “where only the H is silent.” In a community that prides itself on being highly educated, people often question the decisions of those in positions of power. In my opinion, this is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But when the feedback and questioning turns personal, that is where the problems lie. Respondents in Rick’s study (current and past principals, and district administrators) reported experiencing personal attacks and name-calling.
  • A direct quote from the report: “It is worth noting that the longest serving administrators (Superintendent and three principals) are all white men. It is also noteworthy that most of the principals who have left the district have been women.” In my opinion, this is one of the most important findings to come out of this study. Although this is just one snapshot in time, and the “sample size” is small, it seems that Amherst has a much harder time holding onto women as principals than men. Another direct quote, which I found very distressing: “Some women leaders reported feeling that their gender contributed to a lack of respect and they were more likely to be the subject of comments about their age, appearance or eating habits.” Eating habits! Women principals reported that people feel the need to comment on their eating habits! To me, this is a sign that even Amherst is not immune from patriarchal attitudes towards women.
  • Another interesting nugget is this: “… veteran principals cited “coming up through the ranks” as contributing to their longevity.” If Amherst is a tough town to be a principal in, perhaps educators who have been in the district for a number of years would have more “staying power” than someone from the outside. When I asked Rick about this, he responded that he was aware the district has some initiatives to support educators in working towards principal licensure, but that this is not a comprehensive solution, since a district will always need principals from outside the district, and that in fact it is good to have some leaders who come from outside the district. I can see his point, but I maintain that supporting current Amherst educators to work towards a principal position should be one prong of the district’s approach to supporting successful principals.
  • I asked Rick why his recommendations did not include something specific to supporting women principals. The recommendations he gave seem excellent, and seem that they would support people of all genders, but since we know that women principals are more likely to leave, I felt that we needed some action items to support women in leadership positions. He acknowledged that he wished he had included something on this topic.

After this discussion was completed, the Pelham School Committee and the Amherst School Committee were adjourned. But of course, two of the Pelham members and all five of the Amherst members are also members of the Regional School Committee, so we stayed in the meeting. Some highlights from the rest of the meeting:

  • In Mike’s Superintendent’s Update he shared that he has received some communications from families asking whether and when the district will lift or ease the masking mandate. He said that at this time the Town of Amherst’s indoor mask mandate is still in place, and as long as that is the case, the school district can’t lift our mask mandate (“it’s a moot point for schools right now”). In addition, he spoke with the town’s health director who said “not yet”; it’s not time to lift the mask mandate yet. Also, the CDC still says that universal masking in schools is the best protection.
  • We had a presentation from Doreen Reid, ARMS assistant principal, and Sarah Fefer, UMass professor of school psychology, on the Happiness Project. This initiative is taking place in ARMS, where students were screened on overall well-being, and those whose screening indicated “room for growth in happiness” were eligible to participate. Around 20 students participated in small group sessions with a trained facilitator once a week for 10 weeks, with the goal of increased life satisfaction, strengthening relationships, and promoting gratitude and positive feelings. The program will be repeated next year with a different cohort of students. 
  • A “School Choice Hearing” was next on the agenda, which was intended to be a public hearing (an opportunity for the public to weigh in) on school choice (allowing students who reside outside of Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, or Shutesbury to attend ARMS or ARHS). No members of the public made comments. The committee had some discussion about the logistics of school choice, a little bit about the pros and cons, and our past history as a school choice district (or not). Students who “choiced in” at any of the four towns’ elementary schools prior to the 2019-20 academic year will be able to stay in the district and attend ARMS and ARHS. However, a new state regulation means that students who choice in for elementary school in the 2019-20 school year or later will not automatically be enrolled in middle and high school in that district. At a future meeting, the Regional SC will vote on whether to allow new students to choice in to ARMS and ARHS. (Note: a previous version of this blog post mis-stated that all current K-6 school choice students would be able to stay in the district for middle and high school.)
  • We discussed a potential new policy to require students in extracurricular activities or sports to participate in pooled testing. Pooled testing (the process of testing a group of students as a “pool,” then following up with individual tests if the pool is positive, is more efficient than individual testing) is optional for students and vaccinated staff. The question was, should we require students to participate in pooled testing, as a prerequisite for extracurricular activities or sports. I asked what the goal of this policy would be? Presumably, the goal is to minimize the spread of COVID in schools, but is COVID more likely to spread in extracurricular activities or sports? Are those settings more risky than, say, eating lunch unmasked? Would this policy actually help mitigate the spread of COVID? We heard from the superintendent that this prospective policy isn’t a priority right now. Ultimately, after some discussion, the committee decided not to pursue it at this time.
  • We reviewed a prospective new policy that would require the district to “​​provide a written translation of vital documents (as defined in District guidelines) for each language that constitutes at least 5% of the District’s total multilingual student population.” We were told that, at this time, the two languages that constitute at least 5% are Spanish and Portuguese. I think this is a great idea! And/but I would like to see this investigated further. I was surprised that Chinese was not on the “5% or greater” list. I also believe that if we are going to institute a policy to help multilingual families, we should talk to multilingual families about what their translation and interpretation needs are. “Nothing about us without us,” to borrow a phrase from disability activists.
  • School Committee member Irv Rhodes appeared to have some connectivity issues. He joined by phone for the earlier part of the meeting, but he dropped and re-joined several times. 

January 18: Amherst School Committee and Regional School Committee meetings

Amherst School Committee Meeting: 1/18/22

This extra meeting of the Amherst (elementary) School Committee meeting was called in order to get an update on the elementary school building project. Margaret Wood, a consultant with Anser Advisory, is the owner’s project manager (OPM) on the project. The job of the OPM is to provict project-management guidance to the building committee and the town through the life of the project, manage communication and outreach with the community, and handle interactions with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). Margaret started the meeting by telling us that the MSBA is like “the bank” in this project. Since they are providing funding, they require documentation of our process and progress.

The next submission of documentation to the MSBA will occur in early March, and will include the preliminary design program (PDP). The PDP comprises the educational program, which is basically a description of how elementary education is delivered in Amherst and needs to be approved by the School Committee, plus a list of options for the project (# of students enrolled and in what grades, Wildwood vs Fort River site, renovation vs new construction).

I asked about the outreach plan to get input on the educational program, and the timing for viewing, voting on, and approving the ed program. The School Committee will view the educational program at our February 8 meeting, and the plan is to vote on it at our February 22 meeting.

Regional School Committee Meeting: 1/18/22

The public comments submitted for tonight’s Regional School Committee meeting were all regarding, and all in favor of, the project to renovate and improve the ARHS track and field. It struck me that someone involved in athletics must have sent an email blast to their contacts, asking them to submit comments for tonight’s meeting, which is great! It’s great to know that members of the public are paying attention to school committee agendas, know how to submit public comments, and encourage their peers to do so as well.

Observations from the meeting:

  • According to Superintendent Mike Morris, the ARHS track, and the field within it, is in very poor shape and has been for years. The condition and size of the field disqualifies it for some tournament games, which means that ARHS sometimes can’t host their own home game, and have to play on a neighboring district’s field. 
  • In addition, the orientation of the field and the surrounding landscape make it inaccessible for those wheelchair users and others with movement issues. 
  • The proposals the School Committee is considering involve renovating the field and track, changing the orientation to better make use of the space, and adding synthetic turf, or some combination of those variables. Finance Director Doug Slaughter proposed several ideas for how the four towns would share the cost of the renovations, including use of CPA (Community Preservation Act) funds. He also proposed a funding model whereby Amherst would pay more than its fair share, since the field is located in Amherst and would be a community resource for the town.
  • All committee members spoke in favor of the project. Member Gene Stamell of Leverett suggested that Leverett’s funds are limited and this could be a heavy lift for the small town. He also posited that Amherst should pay even more than the model Doug proposed.
  • Other funding sources, such as other state funds, sponsorships, and foundations, were discussed.
  • Mike shared in his Superintendent’s Report that 49 students received their booster shot at last Friday’s vaccine clinic, run by the town of Amherst at ARMS. He also shared an announcement made today by Governor Baker and education commissioner Riley that rapid tests would be made available for free to school staff and families soon. Lastly, he shared that the federal government’s website for requesting free at-home COVID tests is now up and running. Each household can receive four tests by mail.
  • We discussed and decided on membership on subcommittees and other areas that require a school committee representative:
    • Budget and Audit Subcommittee: Margaret Stancer, Irv Rhodes, Allison McDonald
    • Policy Subcommittee: Jennifer Shiao, Stephen Sullivan, Sarahbess Kenney, Peter Demling
    • Superintendent Evaluation Subcommittee: Stancer, Shiao, Sullivan, Rhodes
    • School Equity Advisory Committee: Ben Herrington, Rhodes
    • APEA (educators) contract negotiating team: McDonald, Kenney
    • AFSCME (maintenance/custodial) contract negotiating team: Kenney
    • APAA (assistant principals) contract negotiating team: Demling
    • Warrant Authorization: Rhodes
    • Clerical Merit Award Selection: Stancer
    • Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) Delegate: Shiao
    • Collaborative for Educational Services board: Sullivan
    • SEPAC( Special Education Parent Advisory Council) liaison: Sullivan
    • BiPAC (Bilingual Parent Advisory Council), also called MPAC (Multilingual Parent Advisory Council): Shiao

My second first meeting (Amherst School Committee Meeting: 1/11/22)

This blog post covers my observations, impressions, and comments on the January 11 meeting of the Amherst School Committee. It is not meant to represent meeting minutes, and will not include all topics discussed at the meeting. All opinions are my own and do not represent the school committee, the superintendent, or the district.

January 11 was my first meeting of the Amherst School Committee. (If you’re thinking, didn’t I already have a “first meeting,” check out my Amherst has two school committees? blog post.)

As with the Regional School Committee meeting last week, the first order of business was electing officers. Allison McDonald was nominated, ran unopposed, and was elected unanimously to chair. For the vice chair position, Irv Rhodes and I were both nominated, with Irv getting more votes. Voting for Irv were Peter Demling, Allison McDonald, and Irv. Ben Herrington and I voted for me. 

Finally, the secretary position. The secretary of the Amherst School Committee (along with the chair and vice chair), sits on the Union 26 committee, for the purposes of employing the superintendent, along with the Regional School Committee (see Amherst has two school committees? for more info on Union 26). Peter and I were both nominated, with Peter winning with the same votes as Irv (Peter, Allison Irv). (Ben and I voted for me.)

Observations

  • The Amherst School Committee is now allowing members of the public to make public comments in real time, by joining the Google Meet. This is a change to the past practice up until now, which was that people could only give public comments by voicemail or email. I’m pleased that the School Committee is now allowing members of the public to join the Google Meet and give public comments “live.”
  • I asked Allison, in her role as the chair, to consider varying the order that she calls on members when doing a roll-call vote. I have noticed that the Town Council president calls on people in alphabetical order, but varies who goes first. In the past, Allison as the school committee chair has called on members in alphabetical order, with the same person going first every time. She seemed amenable to the idea, and in fact did vary the order later in the meeting. I think this a more fair and equitable way to take roll-call votes.
  • In Superintendent Mike Morris’s update, he shared that due to last Friday’s snow day, the session that had been planned for collecting input from current 6th graders on moving 6th grade to the middle school had to be rescheduled. I’m very pleased that the process for figuring out the best way to manage and implement moving 6th graders to the middle school is starting out by going right to 6th graders. I think they will have some valuable insight into how to manage the move in the best way for students.
  • The committee discussed a draft document called “Amherst School Committee Norms 2022,” which summarizes the policies on School Committee Governance and Operations (Section B of the ARPS Policy Manual). This proposed two-page document lays out bullet points on how the school committee carries out its responsibility, with reference back to the specific policies in Section B. I questioned why we need a document that summarizes another document. Everything in the document looked reasonable, but I didn’t think we needed to spend time reviewing and approving a document that summarizes our existing policies. Peter seemed to agree with me on this, saying “I see no need to group wordsmith a summary document.”
  • Mary Kiely, ARPS coordinator of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and Stephanie Joyce, ARPS title 9 coordinator, presented the initial work of the K-5 Math Curriculum Review committee. This committee is tasked with identifying and recommending a new math curriculum for grades K-5.  After a selection process and a six-week pilot of two finalist curricula, they will make a recommendation to the superintendent around the end of April. I shared that I hoped that in choosing the new curriculum we would have an eye towards developing students who will grow up to be adults who are not afraid of math! As a math major myself, I have often been perplexed by adults who are afraid of math, or claim they are not good at math – I think it probably goes back to their own K-12 math experience, and I have higher hopes for the current generation of students! Ben shared a story about his son’s reaction to a clumsy attempt at “diversity” in a math word problem that his son said was “so corny” and asked if input would be gathered from students on the proposed new curriculum. Mary responded that the curriculum would be piloted in a 2nd grade class, with teachers trained on the new curriculum. “This is equity work” choosing a high quality curriculum.
  • Mike gave an update from the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC). Two workshops will be held this month, to engage the community about the education plan and vision for the new school building, as well as for elementary education in Amherst overall. The education plan will be developed and presented to school committee on February 8, then we anticipate voting on it on February 22 (at an extra/additional meeting). I asked if these two sessions are the only opportunities for members of the public to give input (yes), then suggested other venues for collecting input. I offered to contact Cathy Schoen (Amherst town councilor and chair of the ESBC) and Phoebe Merriam (ESBC member) to develop other ways for the public to give input. This education plan will be relatively high level, and there will be opportunity in the future for input on more detailed things, like building layout.
  • In the Safety and Health update, Mike shared that the district is making sure teachers can work from home on teacher curriculum/work days if they prefer, and focusing on lightening the load for non-teaching work, which he referred to as “non-core work” (the core work being teaching!).
  • We reviewed a proposed survey to be sent to community members about the school budget. I suggested it should have mostly open-ended questions, and that we treat it as an intention to gather qualitative information, not quantitative data. Asking something like “What creative ideas do you have for making budget cuts in a way that minimizes direct impacts on students?” could generate some new and fresh ideas. I also think it’s important that people can submit it anonymously.
  • I volunteered to be one of the two school committee representatives on the JCPC (Joint Capital Planning Committee), a body made up of representatives from the school committee, library trustees, and town council. The JCPC is tasked with producing a written report on recommendations for capital spending. Irv also volunteered.