Saturday, January 30, 2016

MS & HS Consolidation Updates & the ARPS Administration's Recommendations

The Superintendent's weekly newsletter (Jan 29th) included the administration's recommendations regarding the consolidation of the MS and HS into one building.  One of the main recommendations is that the Regional School Committee's vote regarding consolidation be delayed until Fall 2016, with the consolidation to occur for the fall of 2018 at the earliest. 

The administration's full report is available at this link (MS-HS report)


One year ago, the district launched the 7-12 Consolidation project with an expectation that consolidation could occur by September 2017. The funding gap and ability of the four towns to pay their assessments for the Regional Schools and their municipal departments, including the local elementary schools, is increasingly challenging. Declining enrollment in three of the four towns and significant reliance on choice funding in two of the four towns is putting into question the viability and sustainability of local schools. At the same time,each of our communities highly values the education and the variety of opportunities being provided to our children. Also significant is that the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools are distinguished by having an exceptional teaching staff committed to serving all children and to providing an enriching and vibrant educational experience. The Regional Schools,despite having lost some low enrollment courses over the past several years, remain unique in the depth and breadth of core educational offerings,elective courses,extracurricular and athletic clubs and activities. 

It is not an overstatement to say that consolidation will be an historic change for the district.Our K-12 schools once educated almost 4,000 students. Now there are fewer than 2,700 students in Amherst, Pelham and the Region,with half this number at our Regional middle school and high school. If you remove the Choice students from the K-12 population, there are 180 fewer students. The capacity of the high school is,on paper,more than sufficient to house all of these students. Space and financial savings are important and students and staff could simply be moved; however, maintaining the exceptional quality of an Amherst education must be the lens through which this work is done. Great consideration has been given to the potential expanded opportunities consolidation could mean for our students. The study of potential consolidation considered how to maintain the high quality of education provided to students,stop the annual budget cutting and also more wholly prepare students for the future by providing them with the necessary skills to be successful in the 21st century. As a community,can we both consolidate and take the necessary steps to maintain and enhance how students are educated? What is the shared community vision,what do we value and can we afford it?

 It is important to remember that the renovation and expansion project on the current high school took place 20 years ago. Regardless of consolidation, there are updates and upgrades that should take place. While working with JCJ architects, it was pointed out that the free standing,handicapped accessible corridor that connects two old portions of the high school building is not actually ADA compliant. Alone, this improvement will cost more than $350,000. Funds must be invested to correct this,but might it also make sense to look at enclosing an adjoining courtyard and expanding that space? Another code requirement will be adding girls?toilets in the locker room area to accommodate the additional females in the building. Converting some office and storage space into classrooms needed in order to consolidate could cost hundreds of thousands more.There are some funds for high school improvements in the capital budget that can be used for this purpose,and an initial investment of $800,000 is needed. 

Combining the middle and high schools is not enough to bridge the financial gap faced by the Region. Our communities need to stop working from a belief that K-12 Regionalization is a dead concept and start considering what is at stake if we do not both regionalize and smartly consolidate.

With any consolidation,we will save well over $700,000 annually in staffing and utility efficiencies. Adding in K-12 Regionalization would realize and additional $300,000 annual savings. It is time for our communities to look seriously at the practical and financial benefits of regionalizing our schools. This is a critical decision for the future of our communities and the education of our students. 

Consolidation seems inevitable if we are to financially sustain the rich opportunities we currently offer our students. What the consolidation looks like and how it is operationalized is crucial,and there are many unanswered questions at this time. These questions include educational and practical concerns such as: 
* finalizing a bell schedule for a consolidated school, 
* clearly identifying the number of staff sharing space, 
* determining how special education and ELL programming will work in a consolidated building and whether these programs can be partially or wholly merged for students in all grade levels,
* determining the number of computer labs needed and whether the district will adopt a 1:1 computer program so that each student has a personal computer device,
* determining what access students in Grades 7 and 8 will have to electives,and
*  carving out space to accommodate storage,meeting rooms,etc. 

Concurrent with considering consolidating, repurposing of the Middle School is a major undertaking,and presently there is no articulated vision for the facility other than the apparent desire and need to sustain the building for present and future educational purposes. This topic is a crucial one which requires significant community input and thoughtful planning. It would be a mistake to rush planning or make hasty decisions in the interest of covering overhead costs,without regard to planning for capital improvements that will surely be needed over time. 

Last, and of equal importance, is the recent Amherst School Committee decision to reconfigure the elementary school structure and build a new school. This is a major project that will continue to require significant public input and support and sustained attention from our town officials,employees and the community at large. It is our belief that some period of time should pass before asking our community to formally engage in decisions about 7-12 consolidation. 

For these reasons, it is the recommendation of administration that a decision by the Regional School Committee concerning 7 through 12 consolidation at the Regional High School be held until Fall 2016,with consolidation not to occur before September 2018-- one year later than originally planned. In order to fund the gap anticipated for FY18, the district will continue to effect reductions through appropriate district-level and building-based cuts and, potentially, the one-time use of funds from the Excess and Deficiency and/or School Choice accounts. In the interim, the following groups will be established in order to address outstanding consolidation questions: 
* Operational Working Group 
* Educational Working Group for 7-12 Schedule and Curriculum 
* Vocational Programming Group
* Middle School Repurposing Group 

Community members with interest and expertise in the above areas are invited to join the discussion and help articulate the educational vision for our district moving forward.