Peter Demling: Don’t overlook teachers’ support for school project

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

In my past submissions to these pages criticizing Amherst school management, I’ve consistently advocated for two things above all else: a strong teacher voice, and clear information.

At the Town Meeting vote on the school building project however, I feel that voters were deprived of both of these, shouted down by a small vocal faction, in a flurry of misinformation and negativity bent on defeating the measure at any cost.

Town Meeting voters deserve better: they deserve the chance to hear the consequences of starting over, what the real level of teacher support for this is, and the many positive benefits that the new school will bring.

After the vote, we received confirmation from the state that we cannot change the plan or resubmit a new one, without forfeiting the entire $34 million grant. Resubmitting would truly be starting over: with no special treatment, we would be right back at the beginning of an ultracompetitive process, guaranteed of nothing. It took us nine years to get here; many towns never get this far. And you don’t have to sift through misleading, cherry-picked examples to understand the bottom line: resubmitting would be an open-ended gamble, with major risk of delay for many years.

Meanwhile, there are real costs associated with waiting: $1.9 million for a new school roof and boiler, an extra $400,000 to $500,000 every year to operate energy inefficient buildings, and another $400,000 for a new design study. And rising interest rates would mean more expensive borrowing.

But even this sense of fiscal responsibility overshadows the most important question of all: is there great educational value in this project, and do teachers support it? The dramatic demonstration outside Town Meeting after the vote strongly suggests that the level of teacher support for this project has been greatly misrepresented.

As a result, staff have taken it upon themselves to assemble a grassroots petition of elementary teachers and staff, strongly endorsing the value of the current plan. With well over 100 signatures in its first days, Town Meeting deserves a chance to consider this direct input as the most accurate and reliable indicator of teacher position, despite whatever small interest groups claiming to represent them happen to say.

And what teachers are requesting first and foremost is that we solve the serious teaching problems with the current buildings now.

This central point has really been undersold, and it’s at the heart of the whole matter: the space design and structural integrity issues of Fort River and Wildwood have negatively impacted teaching for years, and the reason this project is such a golden opportunity is that it not only solves these problems, but also adds amazing new resources like science labs and maker-spaces to further enhance the educational experience.

Teachers are excited to work in a building that will be a model of green energy, and are fully embracing the twinned, small Grades 2-6 design, confident in their ability to manage transitions as all students move together, and are looking forward to the greatly increased opportunities for teacher collaboration across each grade.

Preschool will be greatly expanded at Crocker, and the new building will eliminate the current need to bus students to separate schools in order to achieve balanced class size, equity of income representation, and centrally serviced high special needs.

It’s clear that renovation is not an option: these buildings are in need of immediate replacement. And there is broad teacher support for the solution in front of us. We have a chance to address a critical town need in a responsible way; I hope we can all come together to make this happen.

Peter Demling, of Amherst, is a parent of three children in the Amherst schools and a community activist for teacher voice and civil discourse.