Monday, October 3, 2016

Just The Facts, Ma'am

Town Manager and Finance Committee

The Finance Committee put final touches on a memo to Amherst voters at their Thursday night meeting which they hope the local papers -- what's left of them -- will publish prior to the November 8 election, which is shaping up to be the perfect political storm.

The Presidential contest is always four or five times more popular than our local annual town election and with this year's contest spiraling into a bad version of the Jerry Springer Show it alone would generate historic turnout.

Now add to that the state ballot question legalizing recreational marijuana, which will no doubt appeal to younger voters in a town with the lowest median age in the state, and throw in the $67 million school override which will impact homeowners in a BIG way and you have a turnout potential beyond epic.

And for the first time in history the ability to vote early (not often).

The ballot question regarding the schools is #5 after the four statewide referendum questions so maybe folks who are only interested in the Presidential contest or the recreational pot question #4 will not bother to vote on it.

But if they do the Finance Committee memo should be required reading.   It outlines the major tax increase the debt exclusion will require for homeowners and our tiny commercial tax base over a 25 year period.



And, probably to the chagrin of school cheerleaders, the report also points out this is not the final chance to get Mass School Building Authority funding for either a new school or renovations if the question fails with the voters and Town Meeting.

The Finance Committee stops short of making a recommendation up or down on the November 8 vote but that could change when the question comes before Amherst Town Meeting a week later where it will require a two-thirds vote for approval. 


32 comments:

Anonymous said...

What's left of them? We have the same papers we've had for the past 30 years.

Anonymous said...

I think the school debt exclusion will pass by a wide margin, because people (many of them students) will vote yes thinking they are helping the town.

Larry Kelley said...

Yeah, and it's not like it will cost them anything.

Anonymous said...

It won't so that's why the will vote for it. Not out of spite, but just because it sounds like something you should vote for.

Larry Kelley said...

Interestingly the main argument of the No side is not so much cost but the reconfiguration of the entire elementary school system that comes with it.

So they may be able to convince UMass students that smaller neighborhood schools are better than a Mega school and that's why they should vote no.

Anonymous said...

They won't convince UMass students of anything. They will just be voting on an issue that they know nothing about and have no stake in.

Anonymous said...

Umass students are still very impressionable - they are all under the impression if they fail an advanced degree - they will be teachers, also urge to please the professors - easy grade that semester- long term life consequences don' t quite click

Laura Quilter said...

I'd note that it is not the case that students will pay nothing. If they're registered in Amherst and paying rent in any non-campus housing, then those property tax increases will certainly be passed along to the students.

Larry Kelley said...

Agreed.

But that will take a couple years and by then most will be gone.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely, I will not lose a dime on my rental properties.
This is a business.

Anonymous said...

The folley of a mega-school... we just moved to St Johns county in Florida, considered the best school system in the state. The schools are large (mega). Without focusing on the actual quality of the teaching, which definitely suffers in larger schools as I've seen first hand, the logistics are a nightmare! Drop offs and picks? Add an extra 20 / 30 mins!!! Security? Suffers. Parking for parent/teacher nights? Yikes! After school sports? Nightmare.

I feel sad for my hometown, parents and students if this measure passes.

Toeknee said...

"The report also points out this is not the final chance to get MSBA funding for either a new school or renovations if the question fails with the voters and Town Meeting."
That is key. So many people that I talk to think that if they vote No, then we will lose the state funding. That is false.
Voting No will tell the district administration that we don't need to reconfigure the whole town in order to fix our two failing buildings. There are many better options than grade reconfiguration. We must keep K-6 schools, or pre-K-6.

Anonymous said...

A no vote delays this at least 5-7 years. Much too long to leave kids and adults in 'failing buildings'.

Anonymous said...

This is a post about Granby's plan for a new elementery school by a Masslive poster named Mark- It fits our situation too...
"The property owners in Granby better open their checkbooks !!! I think the West street school is a terrific size and in a great location. Just because a school needs updating of its mechanical systems why do we see that as a need to demolish it and start over ? With all the costs associated with such a project too. There's something wrong when the state will help more ($$) if you destroy the building(and start over) than if you update the existing building !! This is an incentive for school systems to neglect their existing schools ! We all agree small schools do better to educate children than larger schools, lets not destroy all the small schools that work just to get a shiny new large school and bigger loan for the property owners to pay. Any thoughts ?

Anonymous said...

I want to commend Maria Kopicki for digging deeply into the issue and exposing the falsehoods about the funding that have been spread by the administration. Yes, preserving neighborhood schools is at the heart of this, because Amherst is choosing to go for a mega-school while the trend is to go to back to smaller neighborhood-based schools. The smaller size is one of the things people like about charter schools. Another is being able to walk home from school. Keep up the great work Maria!

Anonymous said...

You can walk home from a charter school?
You do realize that right now that the vast majority of kids do not walk to school now. And that many kids who live in South Amherst are bussed to Wildwood. You realize all this. Right Anon 710?

Anonymous said...

Fort River and Wildwood need way more than an update to their mechanical system. If they were to be renovated they would need to be totally gutted inside and totally redone. Where do you put those kids while that work is being done to their school? Also most times it is more costly to renovate an existing building than to just start over. And finally the MSBA will only pay for one school. Where does the money come from to fix Fort River?

Toeknee said...

Anon 10.03, I would rather leave my kids (6 & 3) in the failing building for their entire elementary than be complicit in making a bad decision that will change (for the worse) the educational experience in this town for the next 50 years.

Laura Quilter said...

@Anon 7:48 who says the schools need to be totally gutted -- that was the assumption for the high-end renovation estimates, but actually, it's never been closely examined. A lot of the large spaces have never been held to be problematic -- gym & cafeteria, for instance. Some of the mechanicals have already been replaced -- Fort River's boiler just a few years ago for instance.

... As for, "the state will only pay for one school" -- not true; many towns have had multiple projects in the system. Although, if you don't build a $70 million school, you probably have enough money to pay half of one renovation, all of another, and still be under the $70 million we're going to pay for the 750-student megaschool.

... Where to put kids: We're told routinely that Fort River & Wildwood are under capacity, and so is the middle school, and so is the high school. Townspeople are also not stupid, and understand that renovation (unlike gut reno) can go in stages. We've also now been told that the District is now looking at renting portable classrooms to keep kids at Crocker Farm during the transitions. And it all kind of pales next to a $70 million building (plus renovation of CF, plus demolition of FR, plus site prep, plus move costs). So, um, I'm a little less worried about the move costs in a dual renovation model.

@Anon 10:03 pm -- My kid was in the quad classrooms, as have been 40 years of other kids. Eh. Not really a big deal. Teachers in particular would definitely appreciate renovations & solid walls, but "failing" is really an exaggeration. People do like to talk it up like a nightmare when they're trying to be persuasive, but let's get real.

... I absolutely agree, though, that health issues should be attended to right away. Fort River or Wildwood parents & staff who experience health consequences should ask the District & State to test for environmental issues, and then the District has to REMEDIATE right away. You do realize that the plan is to leave the kids in the buildings for the next 3 to 4 years while the new building is built? Because the School District says they test annually and there are no problems. If the testing is not adequate -- it seems they never tested for lead before -- and you're worried about health issues, get the testing NOW, because mega school or not, it's unconscionable to not fix health conditions in a building that kids and staff are in for three to four years.

Anonymous said...

Laura Quilter - thank you for your repeated articulate and reasonable responses and tireless work on this.
My child is also in an inner quad (less natural light) and when I ask her if she can hear the other classrooms and does it affect her ability to hear her teacher and learn, she tells me no.
I don't buy the dire doomsday picture that the district admin has painted. Leave my kid in the quad for 6 more years if it means making the right decision about our town's future.

Anonymous said...

The amount of mis-information in this post is truly astounding!

Anonymous said...

Just because one kid isn't affected by the quad situation doesn't mean five others aren't. As someone who experienced Wildwood for the first time during the designer selection walk through for the study phase of this project, I was appalled that these kids had to learn in that environment. Sure a basic school day might not be so horrible but what if you are trying to give a quiz and you have a kid from the inner quad having to walk through your classroom just to use the bathroom? What if the next room over in the quad is doing a group activity on the noisier side while you give a test? Elementary kids are easily distracted and I can see how it could be quite detrimental to some students. While i'm not inclined to buy into this mega school idea, I sure as hell don't think that the quad mess is the learning environment I want my kid going into in a few years.

There is way more work needed in these schools than a phased reno can provide. Even just mechanical upgrades are more complicated than most people realize. It's not as simple as replacing boilers. Things like the fact that air flow is restricted and compromised by all of the added "walls" needs to be taken into account and reconfigured. Maybe before going into what I see on here as the standard Amherst uproar against change because "well I don't have a problem with it", really listen to what the people who know the buildings, their systems, and their useful life are saying.

Anonymous said...

All this when the New York Times just reported ion factory floor garage style classrooms of mid century modern minanilast brutalist 1970s style are being built in mass right now as the new " hip" vogue of academia - Sooooooo - Amherst- says it will now demolish them - money- money- money - those Oedipus cycle school klatch moms - got serious Fruedian generational " Issues" !!!$&@?

Anonymous said...

"Fort River and Wildwood need way more than an update to their mechanical system. If they were to be renovated they would need to be totally gutted inside and totally redone. Where do you put those kids while that work is being done to their school?"

Well, I guess you put them in the same place that you will be putting all the Wildwood kids when you knock it down to build a school.

Anonymous said...

The Wildwood kids will stay in their building while the first wing of new school is being built.

Laura Quilter said...

Anon 12:58 pm -- "As someone who experienced Wildwood for the first time during the designer selection walk through for the study phase of this project" --

You might want to consider that in walking through the schools, you were likely being escorted by people who were hitting the highlights of how bad it is. Try talking to the kids who've been in the spaces instead. Or the parents whose kids have been in those spaces. Or the surveys of teachers that are ANONYMOUS, so they can speak their minds. Would teachers prefer solid walls? Sure. Would they rank that above keeping K6? No -- the vast majority wanted to keep K6, and were in favor of the dual K6, or one-school-at-a-time construction options. The dual renovation option was not even on the survey, even though (or perhaps because) that was the option that came up time and again in public feedback. Yet teachers and parents alike both repeatedly asked about dual renovation in the written comments, and noted the problems with the option that the Administration still recommended. Let me repeat: The option the Administration recommended was the LEAST POPULAR option with teachers and families alike. By far. Talk to me about listening to teachers!

It has always been notable to me that our school administration has presented, repeatedly, the one survey of teacher satisfaction with learning environments, while ignoring numerous other sources of data:
* I do not recall ever hearing from the School Administration about the MSBA's "needs survey", which ranked the conditions of Wildwood & Fort River as, in various ways, "good", "fine", and "not that bad".
* The administration has also never mentioned, after the necessary report, the January 2016 survey of parents & teachers. Of course, they resisted doing it and weren't happy with the results.
* The Administration also never even reported on the results of the September 2015 survey, although that could have been because it was so jargon-laden that it was virtually meaningless.

So there is a lot of data that doesn't support what the Administration wants, and perforce that they never cite. I'm not disputing the value of the one study -- but teacher dissatisfaction with learning spaces does not suggest the solution. In other words, we can agree that teachers are dissatisfied with the quads, and that that should be remedied, without arguing that there is only way to solve that problem.

If you then look at all the other data you will see that teachers are concerned with many other issues, as well as quads. They are concerned with teacher autonomy in curricular development; teacher support; teacher prep time. They want to ensure that they have help building community with parents, and many teachers recognize that large schools and long commutes pose particular problems in doing this -- especially for under-resourced families. So the vast majority of teachers do not think of this question

I understand that there is an instinct to go with the big & bold option. That does not mean it is the right option. I frankly don't know how an Administration can continue to recommend a proposal that is so deeply unpopular with the families the District services, and the employees that work in the schools.

At the very least, after the January survey, the Administration should have undertaken to do some research to see if the Town more broadly would support the plan; if Town Meeting was likely to do it; or a more detailed research into the communities. That's what a data-driven process would have looked like. Instead, our Administration and School Committee chose to circle the wagons, dig the trenches, and stick with it. And over the next six weeks we'll see the results.

Anonymous said...

I think you missed my point that yes a k-6 option is much better than a mega school and yes the teachers prefer that but there are a lot more considerations that have to be taken into account than first meets the eye. Your average joe does not fully understand the building systems, structures, and codes. You don't just get to reno piecemeal and only the parts that you want to. Certain changes trigger other changes to make sure systems are in compliance with the current building code. It's not always about choosing everyone's favorite option.

Anonymous said...

How placement of kindergarten pupils entering in 2019 will be handled was the focus of debate, sparked by an audience question. Children from Fort River and Wildwood would spend kindergarten in their original schools, then go to first grade at Crocker Farm, and to second grade at the new school, unless special arrangements are made. “Children would be ping-ponged back and forth – three schools, in three years,” Kopicki said.

Morris said he would rather his child “pingpong” than “spend a year in a quad" (classroom).
Seems Acting Superintendent Morris studied Drama instead of Child Psychology when he was in school.





Anonymous said...

So much of the discussion here reflects the concerns parents had when Wildwood was first constructed. Ft. River followed a few years later using basically the same building plans in an attempt to save money. Wildwood was built in a natural hole, with the areas surrounding being a soggy old cow pasture. Thus, water problems. Open space classrooms were an enormous concern. The huge numbers of children, compared to smaller, neighborhood schools, was another parental worry.

Now, similar discussions and concerns are being expressed by many people about whether or not it is a wise decision to build this "mega-school" on the same soggy place. Putting all these young students together, in such a large building, will not help their learning. In fact, over the years, many families have felt that Wildwood and Fort River are too large and their kids "get lost."

Next, we need to think about the "sky is falling" mentality that is being expressed. We already know that the two existing buildings, have never been the greatest physical spaces for optimum teaching and learning. But many highly skilled teachers have made the best of them.

Time certainly matters, but being hasty in deciding this huge expense, will not help the town choose the best options for our children. Let's not make the same mistakes that were made the last time schools were built in Amherst. Renovate as best as possible for the time being and then, make a really informed decision about which direction the town will move to build really good schools for the children. If only one happens at a time, so be it.

Don't be attracted by the shiny new object. Be patient and aim for the best.

I am sorry to see this on November's ballot as I feel it is too soon to decide. I think it should be in a Town Election, after rational thought has been put into this.


Anonymous said...

So the district is looking at portable classrooms now for Crocker Farm, to deal with the extra students at CF during the transition period when the new school building is being phased in.

Didn't the district have portable classrooms at Mark's Meadow to deal with overcrowding there. How did they work out? All I remember is that they were expensive to buy, used hardly at all, & then destroyed during the UMass renovation of the Mark's Meadow building. What a waste of money.

There are still many logistical & other questions about the new school building & the grade re-configuration. I hope that that voters will vote NO on Question 5 so that we can get more answers before moving forward with such an expensive school and town building project.

Anonymous said...

In other school-related news, I see that at least one person is willing to step up and serve in the seat vacated by Laura Kent.

Jennifer Page launched this page today.
https://www.facebook.com/jenniferpageamherst

I wonder how many others will be, and how many of the usual suspects (you know the ones) will be among them. The deadline for applying is tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

I was really disappointed to see the pro-new school, Yes on Q5 group canvassing at Crocker Farm's family Open House last night. They were right outside the main entrance and were quite forceful in trying to give everyone their BOLD materials. I politely declined.

I understand that they have been canvassing at the other school Open Houses as well. They are entitled to their free speech, but it felt almost harassing to me and some other parents. The canvassers were right next to the main door and when I was there, enthusiastically trying to engage every single family and parent, even those who were not interested and who just wanted to go see their kid(s)'s classrooms. The community is divided about Q5 and there are many parents, many residents who do not support it -- and there are some who do. It felt wrong to me to have such a political, polarizing presence at a school community and community building event.