Friday, November 28, 2008

More study needed on elementary school consolidation plan

Two versions of this column were submitted to the Concord Monitor this morning.
On Monday night, the Concord Board of Education will be voting on a plan to consolidate four of our elementary schools into two. But they are doing so after a very flawed and limited process, and should delay action until more information can be analyzed.
I was involved in the first “community” task force focusing on education. I agreed to participate because, as a parent of young children, I am concerned about the public school system.
At the first meetings though, I was surprised by the lack of community members present. Almost half were school board members, administrators, or other elected officials. Sorely missing from the process were parents of young children. I was also struck by the strange role playing exercises which had us thinking about imaginary schools and watching online videos pontificating about the “fact” that children entering the school system today will be performing jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. This struck me as odd since we really don’t know what the future holds. As well, if this were the case, why are we planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on schools that will soon be obsolete? After the initial meetings, a few of us were completely taken out of the loop, even though we continued to request information about future meeting dates and times. The next thing you know, a report had been issued about the education guidelines.
After this experience, I decided that my time was better spent not participating in the task “farce” process despite the importance of this issue to my family. Watching from the sidelines was the best decision since much of what many of the community members have had to say about this has been completely ignored. It is clear from all the data, number-crunching, documents, and emails back and forth, that this school board has been led in the wrong direction, to a preconceived outcome they had already voted to approve.
School officials are ignoring projected population increases and future enrollment data which all points to a boom in population growth for Concord during the next 12 to 20 years. In my neighborhood alone, which is on the Walker/Kimball district line, there have been many new houses built, all filled with young children, children that were mysteriously missing from the enrollment data maps presented by the administration at one of the meetings [our firstborn wasn’t even on the map and we’ve been here for years].
In looking at the financial projections, it is clear that they fudged the renovation numbers by low-balling capacity at Walker and Rumford in order to make the consolidation plan look less expensive even though it isn’t. When proper capacity numbers are injected into the data, renovating the schools is more affordable than consolidation.
Then there is the historic importance of the buildings, the fact that existing buildings are actually “greener” than new buildings, and the need to do what is best for our children. While everyone loves to build new buildings, renovating old ones is more cost effective and yields less construction debris and waste. As well, every study that I have seen shows smaller schools to be the best learning environments. When it comes to educational excellence, bigger is not better.
This decision is a 50-year decision which will have great impact on our community and families. Simply put, this plan will bankrupt our city while at the same time warehousing our children into schools that will be too big. Many of us who were born, raised, and educated here, decided to have and raise children here because the school system is intimate and relatively affordable. Let’s not change that.
With the economy in a tailspin and Wall Street and the bond market in tatters, now is not the time to implement this flawed plan. Instead, the school board on Monday should delay action until the four new school board members can be seated in January 2009. After that, this new board should continue to collect more data and study the issue, not by using manipulative tactics which lead to a certain conclusion, but by actually reaching out to the parents of the children our school system serves.


Anonymous said...

o, they have been studying it since 1994, they need to just do it.

For everyone who complains, no one has ever sat down with Matt Cashman and gone over numbers. It is cheaper year by year, to build new schools, rather than to retro fit them.

Tony said...

With all due respect Anon7:40, I don't need to talk to Cashman. I've been covering school boards as a journalist for years and years. I have been through this process many times before in other cities and towns. I know what to look for. I have also spent a lot of time analyzing this issue.
I've looked at the spreadsheets that Cashman has produced and he has low-balled capacity at Walker and Rumford in order to make consolidation look more affordable. If, however, you plug in the correct capacity figures of the two schools, renovation turns out to be millions less than consolidation. Combined with the other things I mentioned in my column and the verdict is overwhelming: Renovating Concord's small neighborhood schools is in the best interest of our elementary school children.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Anonymous said...

Who is the THEY that has been studying it since 1994? A school board that is not representative of the entire city? When the entire community was finally involved via public hearings they said "NO" we like the idea of neighborhood schools. the
Dore Whittier report which the school board swept under the rug woould indicate that renovation is cheaper.

Ben Venator said...

I was watching a replay of some of the school board meetings and it was interesting to hear the lame ducks talk about how bad they think the Dore Whittier was. How do we know that the new numbers are any better. Marty also got all agitated by the fact that the PTO had to kick into buy pads for the pillars in the basement multi-purpose room for Eastman. Sorry, but that sounds like the New Hampshire way, kicking in a smaller amount to make for a reasonble solution (and what exactly do K-2 graders need a full gym for?). I am glad that there seems to be some momemtum for re-evaluating the East Side consolidation (thanks Jenny for being explicit about that!), but in any case we need better information, with any an all assumptions explicitly called out.

Anonymous said...

Why shouldn't they have a gym. Every child should be given the same opportunity,

Anonymous said...

Consolidation has been a "done deal" from day one. Dam the torpedos, full speed ahead.

Jennie said...

Consolidation has not been a done deal since day one, but the alternatives are too costly, and the results are bad.
Tony you obviously work for the monitor, the monitor is so biased it is ridculous, one of the reasons is that Meg, can't seem to get the numbers correctly, she might not understand.

Tony said...

Hi Jennie,

First, I DON'T WORK FOR THE MONITOR! How many times do I have to tell people that?

Second, the Monitor's editorial board has ALWAYS SUPPORTED consolidation. In fact, I think they have written three or four editorials supporting the plan, even before some of the details were unveiled.

Third, if you looked deeper into the numbers, you would find that the alternatives ARE NOT "too costly" ... in fact, they are the only affordable option. When all is said and done, this plan is going to be in the $90 million to $100 million range. Even spread out over 35 to 40 years, that is just too much money.

I think if you are that concerned about reporter performance, you should take it up with the editors at the Concord Monitor.

Thanks for reading and commenting.