Amherst schools critiqued

AMHERST – The cost of education in Amherst is high compared with simi­lar school districts, and the spending hasn’t re­sulted in test scores that match the other districts, Mike Akillian told school officials recently.

The former select­man, representing an Amherst citizens group called Working for Great Schools, gave a slide pre­sentation to the Amherst School Board that focused on school quality and costs.

Graphs showed math test scores going down be­tween elementary school and high school, and 87 percent of the elementary students had math scores proficient and above in the New England Com­mon Assessment Program tests. That number went down to 78 percent for the middle school and 45 per­cent for Souhegan High School.

Science scores were worse. Sixty-seven per­cent of elementary stu­dents were proficient, and that went down to 46 per­cent for the middle school and 36 percent of high school students.

"This is not good," Akillian said.

Scores in many other cities and towns follow a similar pattern, he said, "but just because we’re sharing them doesn’t mean they’re not a ter­rible problem," consid­ering the fact that there are 4 million unfilled jobs in the science, technol­ogy, engineering and math fields in the United States,

But for Akillian and his group, the primary issue now is that the cost per pupil for the elementary schools and middle school is higher by sever­al thousand dollars than the costs in Hollis and Bedford.

"They are getting bet­ter outcomes for less ex­penditures of dollars," he said.

The staffing levels in Amherst seem to be in line with those of the comparable schools, and it seems as though the high cost per pupil has more to do with compen­sation packages, Akillian said.

Akillian, who initi­ated the strategic plan­ning process for Amherst town departments and for the village area when he was a selectman, told the School Board, "We have an obligation to think this thing through and understand the ef­fect of our actions."

For example, he said that in the March elec­tion it was odd that voters voted down the school budgets, yet ap­proved a collective bar­gaining agreement with­out thinking that it’s the collective bargaining agreements driving most of the costs.

School board members said they want more pub­lic input on the issue and look forward to working with the group.

In November, a firm that was hired to evalu­ate the district’s math program will give a presentation, there are many indicators that the district has made a lot of progress over the last four years, said Chair­woman Lucienne Foulks, who disagreed that Am­herst schools are in trou­ble.

Superintendent Peter Warburton noted that the Amherst schools’ culture is not "test-centered."

The cost per pupil was a major issue at the school districts’ deliber­ative sessions this year.

Working for Great Schools has been meet­ing twice a month, ac­cording to its web­site, "doing research and analysis, framing/ investigating issues, and formulating recommen­dations that might help the school boards ad­dress those issues."

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.