Everyone is getting a crash course in how the economy works. Have you figured out the local situation yet? And if you have, can you explain it to us? It sounds like the state’s fiscal picture is really bad. But wait, Obama’s stimulus may save the day. Or not. When will we hear? Who knows? It’s a moving target, and while we hope for the best, sadly, budgets need to be planned for the worst.
This affects all town departments, but with a focus here on schools, the question is this: What does it mean to provide an “Amherst” education? What pieces of that are at risk? How do we decide what has to be cut? And where do we draw the line and say, this is something to fight for?
Amherst has a tradition of great schools, and they are a big part of our town’s public identity. Ask any realtor why people want to move to Amherst and why our houses are worth what they are, and the schools are right up at the top of the list. As we work on solving our fiscal problem, we need to do so in a way that doesn’t irrevocably damage something valued by all.
So, what is an “Amherst” education? It’s not just putting 30 kids in a room with a teacher and drilling them on MCAS. In Amherst we believe in educating the whole child. We teach art and music and languages. We have clubs and athletics. We have math and science coaches to help our teachers challenge our kids. We have support staff helping struggling readers and children with disabilities, which helps classroom teachers meet the needs of the rest of the kids.
But there is a budget gap to close. School administrators are dutifully making lists of things to cut, and there are some doozies on those lists: eliminating band and orchestra in the elementary schools, eliminating all languages in the middle school, cutting after-school clubs and some of the athletic program and putting students in more study halls in high school, and on and on.
Cutting programs isn’t the only option, of course. Other choices include raising fees, closing a school, using reserve funds, renegotiating wages, or even – gasp – asking the voters for a tax override if necessary. No single option will close the gap, and getting the mix and timing of options right is critical if we are to keep our “Amherst” education.
We are not at a decision point yet. The scope of the gap that needs to be closed is not yet clear, and the lists of options are still being assembled. But this very difficult decision-making process is underway.
This leads us to ask: Is our committee deliberation process equal to the challenges we face? Does it give us the level of public input, open access and time for group deliberation that we should expect in making hard decisions about town values and resources?
Maybe it’s time to start using 21st-century communication tools as a way of increasing the level of public exchange among the full school committee and the community. What if the entire School Committee could have its own online blog, where all of the members could post topics for discussion and discuss them together, along with any interested members of the community?
The committee would be deliberating online, for anyone to see, which would seem to satisfy the concerns of the Open Meeting Law. It would introduce a new level of exchange into the board deliberation process. And it would enable the community to chime in without having to make the meetings in person.
However our boards decide to deliberate, they need to hear from the community. If you have an opinion about what an “Amherst” education should look like, make your voice heard. You can reach the School Committee and school administrators by clicking on the “contact us” tab at http://www.arps.org. Or maybe, watch for a blog coming live near you.
Amherst Center is a monthly column which appears in The Amherst Bulletin that seeks to portray local issues from a centrist perspective. It is written by Town Meeting members Baer Tierkel and Clare Bertrand and School Committee member Andy Churchill. Amherst Center appears in The Amherst Bulletin on the last Friday of each month.