By James Kwak
If you live in Massachusetts, early voting has begun. You can ask for an early ballot by mail, or just find a polling place here. This is what my town hall looks like today:
Not surprisingly, I voted for Hillary Clinton (more about why here). If you don’t live in Amherst, Massachusetts, you may want to stop reading. If you do live in Amherst, I’d like you to consider voting no on Question 5.
Technically speaking, Question 5 allows the town to override Proposition 2-1/2, which ordinarily limits property tax increases, in order to issue bonds to build a new school for all Amherst children in grades 2–6. (The bonds would be issued now, but presumably property tax increases will be necessary to back them.) I ordinarily vote for overrides as a matter of course, but this time I voted no.
The original motivation for this project was that two of our three neighborhood elementary schools for grades K–6, Wildwood and Fort River, are in poor physical condition. To make a long story short, the school district successfully applied for money from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, but that money can only be used at one physical site—hence the plan to build one large school complex instead of building two smaller schools (or renovating both Wildwood and Fort River). According to current estimates, the MSBA will contribute about $33,700,000 to the project, and the town’s share will be $32,700,000.
At the same time, the plan is to completely reconfigure elementary education in the town. The third current school, Crocker Farm, will become a K–1 school. (Crocker also has a small, not-universal pre-K program, which will remain.) The new, $66 million school complex will serve all students in grades 2–6. It will be organized as two separate “schools” with various shared facilities. This is what I am opposed to.
I am opposed for two types of reasons. First, there are several obvious problems with this plan. It significantly increases time on the school bus for both grade K–1 children in North Amherst and grade 2–6 children in South Amherst. Amherst is a tall and skinny town, and it takes a long time to get from one end to the other—considerably longer on a school bus. Our children would be better off if we were to invest the extra ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the afternoon in classroom time rather than bus trips.
In addition, the reconfiguration creates an extra school transition for seven-year-old kids, just two years after the wrenching transition of starting kindergarten. It also increases grade cohorts by 200% (or 50% in grades 2–6, to the extent that the two “schools” at the new site will be kept distinct).
Second, and more fundamentally—and this is what I said in last year’s survey of parents—reengineering the entire grade configuration is a solution in search of a problem. The clear problem is that Wildwood and Fort River are in bad physical shape and need to be renovated or replaced. We should solve that problem. But a school is more than a building. We have three of them. And nowhere in all the documents that I saw last year did I even see an argument for why we need to blow them up and start over from a theoretical blueprint.
I saw some claims for why consolidating entire grades in one place would be a good thing, along the lines of greater efficiency using shared resources. (For example, instead of three small libraries, you can have one big one.) I used to be a management consultant. I can make that argument, too.
But there’s a more important principle: Don’t tear apart things that work well just because, in theory, you can put them back together in an even better way. Running any kind of organization is hard enough as it is without creating complications trying to solve problems that don’t exist. There’s a reason why most school districts in the country don’t make all children switch schools between first and second grade. What research and debate there are center around when to switch from elementary to middle school—not whether to split elementary school at age seven. Are we really confident that we—including a superintendent who just resigned—know better than anyone else how to organize a school system?
My daughter goes to Crocker Farm. We think it’s a good school. We have friends who sent their kids to Wildwood. They think it’s a good school—in a bad building. I don’t want to blow up Crocker Farm (the school, not the building), and I don’t see why anyone would want to blow up Wildwood (the school, not the building). I would gladly vote for an override to fix Wildwood and Fort River, or build new buildings for them, or—if necessary—build new buildings for them right next to each other.* But I don’t think it’s right to inflict a vast, unnecessary grade configuration experiment on our children.
* Lest anyone think this is about my property taxes: If anyone can tell me what the actual increase in my property taxes would be under Question 5, and if Question 5 is defeated, I will donate that amount to the schools.