CANDIDATES FOR SCHOOL COMMITTEE RESPOND TO INDY’S QUESTIONS

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Last week, the Amherst Indy posed four questions to each of the seven candidates (including four incumbents) for five openings on the School Committee. All of the candidates responded to our queries except for one. We have published the candidates’ unedited responses below. 

Our Questions

1. What are the two or three most important issues facing the school system right now?

2. Do you think there is consensus in town on how to approach the elementary school buildings? If not, what do you think needs to be done to reach a consensus?

3. Do you have any concerns about the operating budget or total per pupil cost for elementary or secondary students?

4. Name one or two issues that you wish the School Committee had addressed or acted on differently and describe what your approach would be.

Candidates’ Responses

PETER DEMLING (incumbent)

1. What are the two or three most important issues facing the school system right now?

Funding, facilities and student well-being.

Funding: Our schools have for years received less state funding than what we’re owed under MA General Law, far less than what it takes to meet the needs of all students, and as a result we will continue to face challenging fiscal conditions for the foreseeable future. Chronic under-funding negatively impacts our ability to meet the current needs of each and every student, and inhibits investment in progressive changes. 

I’m grateful for the strong support from our town every year, but it’s wrong for the state to abdicate its responsibility and shift the burden to local taxpayers in this way. School Committee should therefore invest time advocating for the state pay its fair share, which is what we’ve done for the past three years, with multiple successes that have directly benefited our district.

To that end, reforming the way charter schools are funded is an absolute necessity if we’re ever going to have sustained budgetary breathing room. We pay $5K if a student goes to Hadley Public Schools, but $20K if they attend a charter. $3.4M taken from our budgets last year in what Senator Comerford calls “the brutality of a zero-sum game”.

Our committee has successfully opposed local charter school expansions three years in a row, but what we really need are new funding laws. Our state representatives are strong allies, and we need public awareness to grow into united action. I stand with our School Committee, Amherst Town Meeting, the MTA, the NAACP, our state representatives and many others: charter schools cannot be allowed to expand until funding laws are fixed.

Facilities: The clear and urgent need to replace both Fort River and Wildwood as soon as possible is well-documented, so I won’t elaborate the reasons why here. The more pressing question is how to achieve that. Specifically, what constraints are we operating under that frame what’s possible?

Not to be forgotten in the attention on Fort River and Wildwood are the significant facilities issues at Crocker Farm, the Middle School and High School. For one example, making old buildings ADA Accessible is both a moral imperative and a major cost to achieve completely.

And during upcoming capital planning discussions, we must all raise public awareness and gain support for phase one of a new High School field. Our current fields are literally unusable by our teams for portions of the year, and the track is long overdue for replacement.

The reality is that our town and region have not done a great job making proactive capital investments to replace old facilities. We therefore all need to collaborate to address these issues in the most educationally and fiscally responsible way.

Student Well-being: “Well-being” means different things to different people, encompassing a broad range of concerns and issues, and I don’t think there’s a “right” definition. One way to think about it is, anything beyond traditional academics that affects children and how they feel about themselves, their school environment and their world.

Are kids getting enough sleep? Are they getting enough to eat? Are they comfortable being themselves at school, and expressing who they are? And what other challenges are kids encountering when learning and playing at school?

Our committee and district are actively exploring a number of initiatives along these lines, including later start times at the High School, expanding our “Breakfast After the Bell” program, exploring moving 6th grade to the Middle School, vaping education, supporting LGBTQ+ students and families, and increasing preschool access.

An increasing number of students with trauma and anxiety is also an emerging area of need in our district in recent years (and also state and nation-wide). The spirit of continuous improvement that characterizes a healthy relationship between school committee and the superintendent is why we are proactively responding to and planning for these needs.

2. Do you think there is consensus in town on how to approach the elementary school buildings? If not, what do you think needs to be done to reach a consensus?

In short, it depends on what level of the solution we’re talking about; and how we define “consensus”. To get at it, let’s first review what happened last Winter. The MSBA rejected our application, and told us if we could “demonstrate consensus” it would significantly improve our chances of acceptance this year. The Superintendent then presented a compromise proposal to the school committee, framed by the following vision statement:
“- Provide a high quality learning environment for all students, in ADA accessible rooms with walls and natural light.

– Provide reasonably maintainable buildings

– Address both buildings before our Kindergarten students leave elementary school (within the next six years)

– Is fiscally responsible to the Town of Amherst”

So pause there for a moment: do you think there’s consensus in town on just those four points? I think there is. Not unanimity – but yes, I think today there is broad acceptance of the clear and urgent need to replace both Fort River and Wildwood as soon as possible, in a way the town can afford, and in a way that doesn’t leave either one behind indefinitely.

The challenge then is what the Superintendent points out on the next slide: 

“Addressing both buildings as soon as possible (within the next six years) means one MSBA project – and one MSBA project means one building. Replacing both buildings with one was a point of contention in the past Project. Other points of contention were:

– Number of students in one building

– Grade configuration

– Busing of special needs students and students living on East Hadley Road

– Socio-economic balance between schools”

“Point of contention” is putting it mildly: there was strong, emotional disagreement in town for a long time over the last project. And however any of us felt about it, about half the town disagreed with us. That should give us all a dose of humility, and a recognition that if failure is not an option on the next project, then we’re going to have to put our preferred outcomes aside, and compromise to get this done for our kids.

I was a vocal and public supporter of the previous project, and I’ve stated publicly multiple times that my personal preference is still for the previous project. But I am no longer advocating for it, because I think taking care of Fort River and Wildwood as soon as possible is more important than getting what I personally think is best, and compromise is essential if we’re going to get this done.

And so the Superintendent proposed the following compromise, that meets the framework of the vision statement:

– One MSBA project
– One warm, child-centered building
– Approximately 600 students
– K-5 or K-6
– Community survey(s) will be completed during the Feasibility Process prior to binding decisions

Further, the design of the two-classes-per-grade Spanish-English dual-language program means that there would be two cohorts of students much smaller than 600 within the building (exact size depending on inclusion of 6th grade and other factors).

The school committee supported this compromise unanimously, the Town Council (with members split on the previous project) supported it unanimously, it received strong support in public forums and was submitted with our MSBA application in April. I think that’s a pretty good result achieved in short order to a difficult problem.

It’s not my first choice. It doesn’t solve everything. And there are many important aspects still to be determined. But for a town that struggles to come together on big decisions as much as ours does, I think it’s a reasonable, practical compromise that’s both educationally responsible to students and fiscally responsible to residents.

3. Do you have any concerns about the operating budget or total per pupil cost for elementary or secondary students?

Our operating budget is lower than it should be to fully meet the needs of students, as detailed in question 1. In addition, we made major, painful cuts at both the elementary and regional levels two years ago as a result of a crisis with our town-managed health insurance trust.

Our Director of Finance has been knowledgeable, transparent, thoughtful and creative in managing a complex, constrained budget that will continue to face challenging times in the years ahead. I’m confident that our schools operate efficiently, are making the best use of funding, and school committee continues to pay close and continual attention to the budget.

As for “per-pupil cost”, I don’t find it all that useful of a metric for a district’s overall spending or cost efficiency. School budgets are complex, especially for a town like ours with multiple districts, a regional agreement, significant charter costs and complex capital needs. We should spend what it takes to meet the needs of each child, whether that requires $100 or $100,000.

4. Name one or two issues that you wish the School Committee had addressed or acted on differently and describe what your approach would be.

The spirit of continuous improvement that’s the hallmark of our committee’s approach to work says that we can always do better, and we should always be looking for ways to improve ourselves in how we support our students. I’m comfortable with my work on the committee, and have always been happy to speak with anyone individually with questions or concerns about any topic.

I can be reached at demlingp@arps.org, online at https://www.facebook.com/DemlingForSC/ and campaign website at https://demlingforsc.org/ . Thank you for your time.

BEN HERRINGTON

1. What are the two or three most important issues facing the school system right now?

The single greatest issue that we face right now is the conditions that exist within our schools, especially our elementary schools. Most would agree that we absolutely need to address the conditions of our children’s learning environments, here in town. I would like to take it a step beyond just building a new school or taking on a major renovation project (one of those options is inevitable) and would like to be a part of creating a Facilities Development policy. The purpose of the policy would be to set a minimum standard and solidify infrastructure goals for the district. Failure to plan can be equated to planning to fail and our buildings have fallen into a state of disrepair because we didn’t plan ahead. Deferred maintenance and the lack of an adequate plan for the upkeep and improvement of our buildings has lead us to this point and we need to lead ourselves, and future generations of Amherst residents, out of this situation while committing to never again allowing such deplorable conditions to exist in our schools.

The budget remains as an ever important (looming perhaps) issue for any school system and Amherst is no exception. It will be essential for us to properly, yet efficiently, fund our schools. Throughout that process, we also need to factor in accountability. Often, when a particular project is allocated funding, all of the money isn’t actually spent. For example: the Wildwood building required a new boiler system. $500,000 was budgeted for this project. Approximately $362,000 was spent with no explanation or accountability of where the remaining funds ended up. We need to abandon the practice of having “floating” or “phantom” money and adopt a more transparent and responsible fiscal policy. 

2. Do you think there is consensus in town on how to approach the elementary school buildings? If not, what do you think needs to be done to reach a consensus?

I absolutely do not believe that there is a thorough consensus on how to approach our elementary school buildings. But…this is Amherst. With so many informed and active voices (the only thing silent being the H in our name) a complete consensus probably isn’t within reach on most subjects. Where there is more of a consensus isinglass the recognition that there is a great need that can’t be ignored. The keys to gaining consensus are relatively simple (again, this is Amherst though); two way communication and the willingness to compromise. We all have our proverbial lines in the sand, relative to the issue of how to proceed with our school buildings, but to reach a more true consensus many of us will have to concede some points in the interest of the greater good. Starting at the point where we agree is a necessary step towards progress. Taking ownership of the fact that we won’t all have every last one of our wishes met is equally imperative. 

3. Do you have any concerns about the operating budget or total per pupil cost for elementary or secondary students?

I don’t really have a great deal of concern surrounding our cost per pupil spending. We seem to be (according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, aka DESE) in line with similarly performing school systems. Where I am concerned is the amount we lose each time a student leaves our public schools for a charter school. Every student we don’t retain amounts to an approximately $22,000 loss to our school system.

In addition to the aforementioned accountability I spoke of, I would like to see us make the total dollar value lost to charter schools made public. The matter of retaining current students and families and attracting new students becomes slightly more urgent when we are aware of the literal cost of losing a student.

4. Name one or two issues that you wish the School Committee had addressed or acted on differently and describe what your approach would be.

I might as well address the elephant in the room. Anyone who paid attention over the summer is probably aware of the fact that the Middle School and High School both benefited from prison labor. It became a national media story after Sarah Barber-Just inspired her student, Spencer, to engage in some investigative reporting. We learned that the superintendent brought a plan to reupholster seats the Middle and High School auditoriums, by using a company called Masscorp, to the school committee. There was a previous quote from a co-op named Wellspring that was approximately $28,000 more than the Masscorp quote. We chose to utilize Masscorp, which paid prisoners $1 an hour as compared to the $13–$25 an hour range that the employee-owned Wellspring pays its workers (many of whom are parolees and recovering drug addicts/survivors of addiction).


Considering the impact of this decision, it is a hard sell to say that we did the right thing. As a school system that touts a commitment to social justice in our mission statement, we benefited from the school to prison pipeline. As a survivor of that very pipeline, I couldn’t possibly have made the decision to exploit those who weren’t as fortunate as me. I have had friends, family members and coworkers who have passed through the corrections system and have held similar jobs. I know, far too well, just how exploitive those jobs can be and also have seen, first hand, that there is little to no vocational benefit for prison workers. Most former convicts don’t want to have to tell future employers about that part of their lives and so a letter of recommendation from a prison labor corporation is of little value. There are few, if any, reupholstering jobs at any given time in the job market. My life experience and conscience would never allow me to make such a choice for our schools.

What I would have done differently would have been to change the conversation. I can’t vilify anyone for having a different path in life and different human interactions than myself. I can only make the valid effort to become a part of those conversations. This, among other issues over the last few years, highlights the need to have a more diversely experienced school committee. I can offer that, at the very least. 

KATIE LADOWSKI

1. What are the two or three most important issues facing the school system right now?

The common theme that constituents talk about as I door knock, attend forums, and engage in community settings has been the expressed need for new school infrastructure. The range of constituents’ understanding about the district’s progress towards this goal varies. Some people are very knowledgeable about the issue, whereas others are aware it’s a big issue being discussed in town, but aren’t clear on the specifics. I have used my response to question number two (below), to provide a summary. 

In terms of other issues, I have noted that constituents have different views, concerns, and questions. I have discussed an array of topics with people: access to extracurricular activities; the district’s school busses;; teachers’ salaries; school start times; the farm to school initiative; special education…the list continues. Understandably, people have different areas of concern and concentration.

One recurring theme I have found in speaking with people is the varying experiences they reference in terms of their children’s experience in the schools. “One of my children had an excellent experience in the schools, whereas my other child did not” is a common phrase I’ve heard in speaking with the hundreds of people I have encountered during my campaigning. These are observations at the family level. I question then, what do we observe when we start to look at particular groups of students? Students who represent varying socioeconomic statuses, ethnicities, races, abilities, gender identities, etc.?

One thing I am continuously thinking about, given our district’s mission, and the rich diversity of our student body, is how successful we are in serving our students according to our mission: the academic achievement of every student learning in a system dedicated to social justice and multiculturalism. The district’s ability to successfully serve its students is always a contemporary issue, and one that must remain at the forefront in our decision-making practices. A sampling of data from the DESE website illustrates the need to continuously examine to what extent we support all of our students. 

Below, please find the 2017-2018 Discipline Data report for the Middle and High Schools, taken from the DESE website. It illustrates certain discipline disparities among our students. “Economically disadvantaged” students comprise 29% of these schools’ population, yet are disciplined at a disproportionate amount, representing 54% of the discipline cases. Boys are disciplined at a rate four times as frequently as girls. Also noteworthy is that our students with disabilities comprise 20% of the schools’ population, yet 46% of our discipline cases are assigned to this population. 

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Above you find the discipline statistics. Below, please look at the data from the Regional High School which shows the 2018 graduation rates (as well as percent of students who dropped out). Notable is the high percentage of English Language Learners, Hispanic/Latinx students, and students with disabilities who do not graduate in four years, or worse, they drop out. 

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These are a few examples that illustrate our failure to ensure the academic achievement of every student. 

2. Do you think there is consensus in town on how to approach the elementary school buildings? If not, what do you think needs to be done to reach a consensus?

In January 2019 Dr. Mike Morris presented Meeting the MSBA Challenge: A Proposal for Consensus (recorded by Amherst Media on January 24, 2019). His presentation justifies the need for new infrastructure, and the necessity of seeking MSBA funding to make new school infrastructure an option for Amherst. He described the need for a Consensus Statement of Interest to be submitted to the MSBA by April 12, 2019 in order to be considered for the grant. Such a statement would show the MSBA members Amherst’s agreement to build one school for 600 students, either K-5 or K-6. Consensus, as Dr. Morris defines it in his presentation, is “an acceptable resolution, one that can be supported, even if it is not the favorite of each individual. Consensus does not equal unanimity.” 

In earlier conversations (for considerations of previous MSBA proposals) one enrollment number being floated for the new school was upwards of 750. In January 2019, Dr. Morris made a call to the community to agree that 600 is a good number to work with, clearly noting that the specifics of the new school did not yet need to be considered. Six hundred does not reflect the size of our schools now (enrollment figures below), nor does it reflect the 750 figure we were once referencing in our conversations. Six hundred is a number between the 750 figure and the smaller, current enrollments. It is a compromise—one that allows for consensus. Such consensus allowed us to apply for state funding (a fiscally responsible decision) which, if granted, will assist in developing new school infrastructure. And while we have reached consensus, many questions ensue, as I outline below. 

What needs to happen in the near future are discussions surrounding questions of whether we renovate or rebuild, at which site, for what age ranges, etc. Many of these considerations are outlined in greater detail in Fort River’s Feasibility study. (See https://www.amherstma.gov/3379/Fort-River-School-Building-Committee for information about Fort River Feasibility Study, and see specifically https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPgWZEp3UHE&feature=youtu.be for video of this presentation) 

3. Do you have any concerns about the operating budget or total per pupil cost for elementary or secondary students?

The Foundation Budget in Massachusetts states there is a minimum amount of money that a community must spend on each student in order to provide each child a basic education. In Massachusetts, the minimum amount to invest in each child is approximately $11,500 per student, per year. The state looks at community income and property taxes to decide how much of the funding will come from the state versus the particular town or city. The state pays between 18% and 90% per child depending on the income levels and property taxes in a community. In recent years the state has contributed between 48% and 51% towards Amherst students’ education. In Amherst-Pelham, the In-District Expenditures per pupil were $21,166.62 in recent years. The State does not set a maximum amount that towns/cities can spend on each student. For more information about this, please see: https://www.wgbh.org/news/education/2019/03/05/how-massachusetts-pays-for-its-schools

This number ($21,166.62) is well above the required minimum, but does not concern me, per se, given the unique offerings and diverse needs of our student population. We have a large number of students receiving special education services; low student-teacher ratio; extensive support staff; and a commitment to various programming, be it the arts, sports, or the recent dual language program. What we must consider in terms of our fiscal responsibility is the students themselves. How much of the $21,166.62 directly impacts students? This question should be considered in determining our habits.

4. Name one or two issues that you wish the School Committee had addressed or acted on differently and describe what your approach would be.

The United States has the highest rate of prisoners of any other country in the world. During his presidency, Barack Obama noted that the US houses 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s prisoners. Mass incarceration is a major issue in this country, most greatly impacting Black men. Black men make up 6.5% of the US population, yet they comprise 40% of the prison population. One in three Black men are imprisoned at some point in their lifetime, whereas one in 17 of White men are incarcerated. The institutional racism that sustains the disproportionate amount of Black men in prisons is outlined in books, journal articles, and documentaries such as 13th (the source of many of the aforementioned facts). 

The responses in local papers from constituents illustrate that the School Committee’s decision to use prison labor to reupholster auditorium seats is an issue of concern to many. It also illustrates peoples’ varying views about the decision: some defended the School Committee’s decision, whereas others questioned the Committee’s lack of critical analysis. Rather than using this space to focus on locals’ reactions, I would like to highlight the larger, national coverage this decision drew (New York Times; CBSN (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhjbsRD6mzs). The reason why this issue received national attention is attributed to ARHS students’ knowledge about prison labor and the school-to-prison pipeline—ironically, the very same issues that School Committee members did not discuss during their decision-making process that resulted in the news coverage our district received. 

Personally, I am not proud of this press given the numerous opportunities for the positive press our district’s students, teachers, and staff deserve. At the same time, this story showcases students’ critical literacy development and expression, and in doing so provides evidence to our educators’ and district’s values. Not only did The Graphic authors exhibit a strong critical analysis of this social justice issue, the mere existence of a publication that offers students a forum to bring such issues to the public eye is a testament to our schools. 

In this instance, I would have used my knowledge of the school-to-prison pipeline and its connection to prison labor to provide another perspective about why cost savings through use of prison labor does not align with our district’s mission. However, what’s done is done, and rather than focus on the would’ve/could’ve of this issue, I instead invite readers to use the School Committee’s decision just as The Graphic authors have- as a teachable moment. The seats will hopefully last for years, even decades, yet the opportunity for the discussion they foster is not time bound. The reupholstered auditorium seats provide the medium to have the difficult conversations if we choose. Or, we may choose to take our seat, silently, and avoid the teachable moment.

As an educator, parent, and a candidate for school committee, I am continuously thinking about the messages we send our children through the decisions we make; the words we say, and the words we choose not to say. While the decision to use prison labor saved the district thousands of dollars, we must ask ourselves, at what cost? At whose cost?

ALISON McDONALD (incumbent)

1. What are the two or three most important issues facing the school system right now?

The biggest issue facing our schools right now is the decrepit state of two of our elementary school buildings. Our two schools, Fort River and Wildwood, are in such poor condition that teachers have said it prevents them from doing their work to provide learning and support for our kids in these schools. Whether or not we are accepted into the MA School Building Authority (MSBA) process for funding a new building, we will need to continue to work with the Town and engage the community to map our plan and secure the capital funds to address facilities and infrastructure, and ultimately ensure our students and our teachers are in an environment that supports and enhances learning.

Another issue is the need to reduce achievement gaps amongst our students. Our new dual-language program at Fort River School (Caminantes) is a significant and promising approach to address these gaps, and we will need to track and evaluate the progress in its first year and support the expansion of it to additional grade levels in the coming years. Also, a study completed last year around our math curriculum identified significant achievement gaps, especially at the elementary level. We will need to work to identify and implement approaches to improve math achievement for all students. 

2. Do you think there is consensus in town on how to approach the elementary school buildings? If not, what do you think needs to be done to reach a consensus?

I believe that we have community consensus on the need for a single new building to address the two failing buildings, to do so quickly and in a fiscally-responsible manner, and to engage the community throughout in a way that enables all voices to be heard. We, the School Committee and the town, have learned a great deal from the previous failed project as well as the recently completed Fort River Feasibility Study, and the process we employed last winter was a new approach to build on those learnings. I am committed to continuing my and our learning as we make our way to a new school building, and I welcome your criticism and your ideas to help us get there. I want ALL of our kids in kindergarten today to have high-quality learning environments, with natural light and ADA accessible rooms before they leave elementary school. And I will work very hard to make that happen.

3. Do you have any concerns about the operating budget or total per pupil cost for elementary or secondary students?

We face many of the same budget concerns in our schools that most of us face in our own household budgets: a seemingly unlimited list of things that we want and need and a decidedly limited amount of money and resources available to tackle that list. And on top of that, we face unfunded mandates and unfulfilled commitments for funding from the State, including regional transportation, special education circuit breaker, and charter school tuition reimbursement. We will need to continue to be efficient in our spending and we have the opportunity to build even greater transparency in our budget process.

4. Name one or two issues that you wish the School Committee had addressed or acted on differently and describe what your approach would be.

I am proud of the many accomplishments the School Committee has achieved in the 18 months that I’ve been a member. These accomplishments include the consensus-building around our application for state funding to build a new elementary school and our approval of the new dual-language program in our elementary schools with a primary objective of reducing achievement gaps amongst our English language learners and disadvantaged students. And, we approved the spending for a facilities study on accessibility in all of our schools and secured the capital funds to begin work on some of the priority issues identified in that study.

ERIC NAKAJIMA (incumbent)

1. What are the two or three most important issues facing the school system right now?

The job of the school committee is to help create an environment in which every child is supported and nurtured to grow and learn without limits. We have a focus right now on improving our school facilities, including making them more accessible; emphasizing racial and social justice (through annual school climate surveys, hiring and retaining diverse staff, restorative justice, a focus on wellness including a more supportive environment for LGBTQ students, and professional development focused on racism and oppression); and support for school improvement plans at the elementary and secondary schools that were developed and led by school staff. We need to keep a focus on sustaining those efforts and engaging the public.  We also need to keep advocating for resources for our schools at the state level, knowing that we live in high property tax towns that are stretched to the breaking point.

2. Do you think there is consensus in town on how to approach the elementary school buildings? If not, what do you think needs to be done to reach a consensus?

Consensus is as much a process (or value system) as it is a destination. I think an overwhelming majority of people in town think that Wildwood and Fort River Schools are outdated, run-down and need either major renovations or replacement. A majority of people in town probably favor the one-school proposal offered by the Superintendent last winter. But that won’t matter if the town doesn’t engage all residents openly, transparently and fully when the town is accepted into the MSBA school building process.  There are a number of very important decisions that would have to be made in any school building project that cannot be addressed without an open process and conversation. That includes, among other things: whether the sixth grade should be moved to the middle school; whether Crocker Farm School should be expanded; and any number of design and site considerations for a building (including whether it is a renovation or replacement project).  I was a part of the school committee’s outreach effort last spring and I support the proposal put forth by the Superintendent. But that doesn’t change my commitment to work with integrity to engage every member of the public and ensure transparency, openness and deliberation in all of the decisions we make on this potential project.

3. Do you have any concerns about the operating budget or total per pupil cost for elementary or secondary students?

I am concerned about the impact of our school budget on taxpayers in our town (as well as the other three towns in our regional district).  Our four regional school district towns have among the highest property tax rates in the state. But I also think our towns have made a commitment to investing in programs that improve our ability to nurture every child and help them succeed. That includes investments in special education, the arts and electives that area school districts have had to give up over the years. It is expensive to do, and we need to continue to advocate for more state resources and to change the way that area charter schools can drain funds from our operating budget.

4. Name one or two issues that you wish the School Committee had addressed or acted on differently and describe what your approach would be.

I am the chair of the regional school committee and, as such, feel responsible for the completely inadequate (to put it mildly!) debate we had on the use of MassCOR to renovate the auditorium seats at the middle and high school. We had our heads down focused on the lousy conditions of our auditorium and didn’t demand a discussion of the ethics of using the labor of people in our prison system. That was wrong.  We’ve tried to revamp how we engage in discussions of any item that comes before our committee and slow things down enough to ensure we give appropriate thought and public discussion to what we’re doing.  That’s one example of something I will do differently in the future.

KERRY SPITZER (incumbent)

1. What are the two or three most important issues facing the school system right now?

The infrastructure of our schools needs to be addressed. The past year we saw an ADA audit that highlighted how inaccessible all our buildings are to kids with physical disabilities. In addition, I have heard from parents of elementary students how difficult it can be to learn in the environments of Wildwood and Fort River because of the design of the classrooms is such that you can hear what’s going on in the other classrooms. For our kids, teachers, and staff we need to come together to address the urgent building needs. 

2. Do you think there is consensus in town on how to approach the elementary school buildings? If not, what do you think needs to be done to reach a consensus?

When I lived in a student co-op in college, we defined consensus as all members of the house agreeing. I don’t believe that there is a solution that would reach that high a standard. But if you define consensus as “general agreement” then I’d say “yes”, and we can still do more to build even broader consensus. I’m proud of the work that the committee did in a very short time frame to hear from residents in facilitated listening sessions. As a working parent of three young kids, I know we need to find a way to reach out to folks who can’t attend community forums in person. We need to do more to engage those folks who work long hours, don’t have transportation, or simply don’t feel comfortable in these settings. I would love to see events where kids are welcome or childcare is provided. I think we can do more to reach out to residents through virtual means and also to venture out into the community and meet folks where they are.

3. Do you have any concerns about the operating budget or total per pupil cost for elementary or secondary students?

I attended high school graduation this year. Twenty years ago, when I graduated there were over 300 graduates, this year there were fewer than 200. There are a lot of factors driving the decline in our enrollment: lower birth rates, rising costs of housing in Amherst, charter schools etc. This decline means that it is challenging to maintain the breadth and depth of academic, artistic, and athletic offerings that our schools have historically offered. If we want to keep our schools strong the school committee needs to continue to advocate with our partners in state government to fully fund our schools. We also need to be able to make cuts when necessary, but to do so in a way that minimizes the impact on the quality of the education. I believe we have done so during my term, but it will continue to be a challenge.

4. Name one or two issues that you wish the School Committee had addressed or acted on differently and describe what your approach would be.

I wish that there had been more of a conversation around the use of MassCor to reupholster the auditorium seats. If I am re-elected, I would reach out to our state representatives to discuss how we can change the system that incentivizes the use of MassCor. For family reasons, I was not present for the vote or discussion of this topic, but I have a lot of concerns. I would like to work with state leaders and advocate to ensure that in the future our schools and town are not forced into a situation where the only way to complete a project in a timely manner is to use the labor of incarcerated people. I believe incarcerated people should have access to meaningful vocational training, but I worry that we will be setting those very same people up for failure after their release, if incarcerated people are paid far less than minimum wage and additional incentives for school districts and towns to use MassCor persist. 

2 thoughts on “CANDIDATES FOR SCHOOL COMMITTEE RESPOND TO INDY’S QUESTIONS

  1. Thank you, Amherst Indy. I find these answers far more informative than the other sources of candidate statements. The question about consensus is particularly pertinent as I feel some candidates are conflating support for a framework (from a tiny subset of likely voters in an override) to support for a particular plan.
    While I am on record supporting the STUDY of a consolidated school with no more than 600 students, I have not signed on to a particular plan this early in the process. It seems some incumbents are already committed to a new 600 student K-5 building with 6th grade moved to the Middle School, before we look at multiple options.
    There are other ways to address both Wildwood and Fort River at one time , including expanding Crocker Farm to having two K-6 schools of ~560 students each; expanding Crocker to have two smaller K-5 schools of ~480 students; or having three smaller K-5 schools of 360, 360 and 240 students. There is also the possibility that the MSBA would fund two smaller projects in lieu of one bigger one, as they have committed to doing in Holyoke.
    Until such time as we have fully studied multiple options and presented information to the whole community with pros and cons and cost estimates of each option, I cannot support the notion of “consensus”. Fewer than 1% of likely voters in a debt exclusion override participated in the “Listening Sessions” around the MSBA process. That is not statistically relevant to claim as representative of the community.

    Toni Cunningham

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