Thursday, May 03, 2007

Our Neighborhood Schools Dealt a Painful Blow

Our neighborhood is just reeling after Monday evening's school board meeting. Our state has been severely burdened with a school spending limit (QEO - qualified economic offer) made into law in the 1990's that is now really taking it's toll in the form of painful cuts to children's scrvices throughout the state. Our district has not remained unscathed - we've cut millions from the budget year after year. This year (07-08) requires another $7 million in cuts.

So I don't envy district officials and members of our board of education in their task of figuring out how to manage cuts of these magnitudes. And I've really had enough of politicians who think more about warring with others than about educating young children!!

Sadly, the cuts for this coming year have laid a disproportionate burden on our neighborhood's elementary schools, when there were options on the table which could have shared the impact of the cuts more equitably. My letter to the board post-decision speaks to my concerns for the well-being of our children, their teachers and our neighborhood.

Dear Members of the MMSD (Madison Metropolitan School District) Board of Ed,

I am writing to express my deep disappointment in Monday’s decision to consolidate Lapham and Marquette Elementary Schools into one K-5 school. While the district has referred to this move as a “consolidation,” it is in truth a school closing, as Marquette will now be closed to elementary-aged students. I fully acknowledge the incredible burden placed on the BOE of figure out how to cut millions of dollars from the district’s budget. Sadly, the decisions made Monday night will have laid a disproportionate burden on one segment of the district’s population – families and staff members in the Lapham-Marquette attendance area.

I am a long-term Wil-Mar Neighborhood resident, living in the neighborhood since 1988 and purchasing a home with my partner in 1992, a professional educator and small business owner (my partner is also an educator) and a parent to two daughters, one attending Lapham and the other currently at Marquette. I have a investment in the long-term health and well-being of central city neighborhoods and believe deeply that the re-opening of Lapham Elementary in the 1990s was instrumental to the revitalization of neighborhoods on the Isthmus. Therefore I am profoundly concerned that closing Marquette to elementary-aged students may have a destructive impact on the health of these same Isthmus neighborhoods.

As I assume you are aware, there are many challenges facing our central city neighborhoods these days - very high property values and property taxes as well as the influx of "mixed used buildings" with condos (most units not being adequately sized for families) - factors which potentially make the neighborhood less accessible for families with young children and families with lower incomes. A big draw for our families has been the school pair - vibrant, well-managed and exciting places to learn, geared to the developmental needs of children. Residents have found ways to stay in the neighborhood, despite the high cost of housing to keep our kids at Lapham-Marquette. Removing this pairing and consolidating the nearly 500 children into a small building I firmly believe removes a key attraction to young families.

I'm assuming you’re also aware that placing nearly 500 children in a building which at one point was said to have a capacity limit of about 300-350 means that children will enter the school in an over-crowded condition. If our enrollment increases at all in the next few years, we will be over-capacity and will need to seek yet another alternative for housing these kids. Again, placing children and teachers in a building so that in Year One of the consolidation we're nearly at (or at) capacity seems to be applying a “band-aide” to a problem that requires much longer-term solutions.

As I assume you are also aware, school mobility has a negative impact on children's learning. The children currently at Marquette will be expected to make a school change this coming fall - some of whom just moved to Marquette this past fall as incoming third graders and others who will be moving to Lapham for one year and then moving to O'Keefe the following year as middle schoolers. My older daughter, for example, will make three school transitions under the current plan by the time she enters middle school - once in the 2006-07 school year to transition from Lapham to Marquette as a third grader, next in the 2007-08 year to transition back to Lapham as a fourth grader and then in 2009-10 to transition to O'Keefe as a sixth grader. While I fully acknowledge that they will be moving with peers, the simple fact is that they will be moving three times - even with the best resources to support resiliency, these sorts of moves are extremely stressful for young children and confusing as well - things that are not assets to productive learning.

Another very large concern for me is the rapid time-table for consolidation. A decision of this magnitude that impacts the next school year was made in late April giving very little time for planning for a smooth transition and puts staff under incredible stress. Additionally, it seems that there is not clarity about the security of teaching positions amongst the staff at Marquette - many of us wonder if they will be able to keep their jobs or will be surplussed (yet another stressor for our students, not knowing who their teachers might be next year). We have been given a new principal - one who is not familiar with our neighborhoods, students, families and teachers and who will be returning after a leave of absence, who is now expected to help support this transition. Non-clarity of who will be working in the school, new leadership and a consolidation all targeted at one population at the same time are major detriments to our schools' resiliency and sustainability.

I understand that our current elementary schools with large student populations have assistant principals assigned to them. I am confused and concerned about why no such mention of an assistant principal has been made for the new consolidated elementary school, as it too will now be a large elementary school.

I understand the issues of needing to find a stable home for the affiliated programs housed at Brearly Street and support stability for these students and teachers. I believe some ideas about how to house these programs and keep Lapham and Marquette open as elementary schools have been (or will be) proposed for consideration. I would strongly hope that all board members will actively consider these proposals as they have the likelihood of taking the "higher ground" for the good of all of these children and young people and may provide a more true long-term solution.

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