My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Making Tough Choices

As you can probably imagine, I've heard a lot from many people over the last few days -- by email, by phone, in person, and of course at the School Committee Meeting. These people have made passionate arguments about the merits of their position -- the importance of a small school which by all accounts is succeeding in creating a warm and academically rich environment by some, the importance of the instrumental music program which by all accounts is truly extraordinary and has touched the lives of many kids by others (and some have made both arguments). Both of these are the types of things that we want to foster in the Amherst public schools.

But the reality is, we have a very, very severe budget crisis, and thus we have to make very tough choices. The list of cuts proposed by the principals and superintendents speak to these choices -- we have a limited pot of money, and we must choose how to spend that money wisely (and yes, some people have said we should push for getting a larger pot of money -- but that isn't in our control, and thus I don't think we should count on funds from an override, economic stimulus package, etc.). The reality is, we are going to have to make some tough choices.

So, let's look at the proposed budget and what is impacted (the full budget proposal is on the ARPS.ORG website -- this is public information):

Tier 1 (these are cuts that are DEFINITELY going to happen -- this is the "best case" scenario):

Special education -- 2 teachers, one secretary ($135,029)
Intervention - 3 teachers ($184,800)
Instrumental music - 3 teachers ($172,800)

(There are some other cuts, such as an IT administrator, computer teacher, cafeteria paras, a custodian, 2 other secretaries, and supplies, but these are the "big ticket" cuts).

Tier 2 (these are cuts that are somewhat likely -- they are the "medium case" scenario):

Science coordinator ($54,000)
Librarian, PLUS library paraprofessional ($73,000)
Intervention - 4 teachers PLUS a paraprofessional ($235,000)
ELL teacher ($54,000)
Computer teacher - $54,000

Tier 3 (these are cuts that are unlikely -- they are the "worst case" scenario):

All homework clubs and afterschool buses for homework clubs - $28,000
8 teachers - $400,794
ELL teacher - $54,000

So, when you look at these options, they all, to me, seem bad. Because as much as we want to say it isn't this group versus that group (close MM or keep instrumental music), our dollars are limited, and hence we as a community, and unfortunately we as a School Committee, are going to have to vote on a budget. And that budget will reflect our choices between very tough options.

As I said at the start of this posting, I've heard a lot from parents who want to keep Marks Meadow open (although increasingly I'm also hearing from Marks Meadow parents who believe the right decision is to close this school). I've also heard a lot from parents who want to keep instrumental music (although increasingly I'm also hearing from people who say we should consider starting music later on and/or charging fees to help reduce its cost).

But there is a third group that I haven't heard from at all -- literally not one call, not one email, not one passionate plea at a School Committee meeting. And that is the group of parents who have kids who use many of the services that will disappear under Tier 1 (so they are definitely occurring) and Tier 2 (so they may occur). These include people who have kids who need intervention support because they are having trouble with math, reading, and/or writing (we lose 3 of our 11 positions at Tier 1, and a total of 7 of our 11 positions at Tier 2), as well as people who have kids with special needs (we lose 2 special education teachers and a paraprofessional at Tier 1). And in addition to these two groups of kids, I worry about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may be more in need of the types of services we are cutting, because these services and opportunities may be less available at home. If we lose a computer teacher (and 1 is at Tier 1, a second is at Tier 2), kids from families with computers at home will be fine. If we lose librarians (2 library positions are at Tier 2), kids from families with lots of books will be fine. If we lose a science coordinator (this is a Tier 2 cut), kids from families who talk about science and expose their children to science will be fine. But precisely these cuts -- to computers, library, science -- will disproportionately impact some kids, and I worry that in the midst of all the very loud voices (save our school! save instrunmental music!), these kids are the most likely losers in all of this -- because these voices are the silent ones in our community.

I don't know where any other member of the Amherst School Committee stands on these choices, and how they'll vote, so I certainly can't predict what the ultimate resolution to this budget crisis will be. But I strongly believe that we are going to have to make tough choices, and I hope that members of the community will give serious thought not to just what they want to see saved in our budget (I think we all understand the push to save Marks Meadow and instrumental music), but rather what are the cuts that we are willing to live with. If you want to save Marks Meadow AND keep instrumental music, you have to go up to that list above (see ONLY the Tier 2 cut options, because the Tier 1 options are GONE), and find $172,800 we can move from Tier 2 to Tier 1 to save instrumental music. If you can find a swap here that you think makes sense, let me know -- seriously. Because I can't find one that I would feel good about making (even if those parents aren't showing up to meetings and pleading their case).

Over the next month, more information about the budget will become clear, and the School Committee will hopefully be gathering information at public forums about these choices and how the community feels we should make them. I hope when you attend these meetings, and/or communicate with School Committee members, you'll consider the values you'd like to see our schools reflect, and that the choices you ask us to make reflect those choices. It isn't as simple as close Marks Meadow or save instrumental music ... but it is precisely as simple as if you want to save something from being cut, you have to cut something else. And I'd truly likely to hear from the community -- anonymously or by name -- how'd you make these tough decisions. But since I'm just ONE member of the School Committee (and, as some of you have noted, not always the member in the majority), you should communicate those views NOT just to me, but to all members of the School Committee (and in fact, to the principals who propose the budgets and to the Superintendents who make the final choices). Let the dialogue begin (or should I say, continue?).


Information Seeker said...

I, for one, would like to know how many SPED teachers there are in each school. How many kids each is responsible for? What do the cuts look like for these kids and the quality of their services? Do these numbers also include services like PT, OT, Speech and Language, Assistive Technology, etc? I am trying to figure out how any of these can be cut because they are legally required to be provided to the kids that need them.

There is a common misconception out there about once kids are put into the SPED system, they are there for the long haul. This is not correct for a lot of kids. These teachers work really hard to make sure these kids can be put back into regular classes as quickly as possible. It is also better to catch these needs early in the child's development to give them the time to catch up to their peer group.

I realize there was more of an emotional response at the SCM this week and I can only assume that was because there have not been any forums help yet to let these parents and community members speak out. This was the first real chance at this. I really feel that there should be meetings scheduled, possibly at each school, but at least community meetings for people to voice their opinions. Maybe there should be a common email address for parents to use that would get their message to all School Committee members.

Anonymous said...

In Amherst, Land of the Arm-Chair Quarterbacks, I say it's time to stop opening things up endlessly to debate.

The choices are on the table; now choose.

Recognize, too, that this year is a cake walk compared to what lies ahead. We will be short an even larger amount next year, and the year after, and etc.

We have to re-structure costs. This means eliminating staff positions, 92% of the town's annual expenses.

Until there is a demonstrated impact, there will be no overrides. Guaranteed.

For those who are waiting for a bailout - it's not coming. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Amherst town manager asks unions to forgo cost-of-living pay increases
By smerzbach
Created 02/12/2009 - 18:33

* amherst
* gerry weiss
* larry shaffer
* local
* news

AMHERST - Looming budget cuts are prompting the town manager to ask unions to reconsider the 3.5 percent cost-of-living adjustments their members are slated to receive in the coming year.

Though town officials have not yet identified how many positions could be eliminated in next year's budget in light of the governor's recent state aid cuts, Town Manager Larry Shaffer notified the Select Board Monday that he has sent letters to the presidents for the police, public works and service employees unions suggesting that the contracts be reopened.

The firefighters union, which is still working on contracts that expired July 1, 2007 and remains in mediation, did not receive a letter.

Select Board member Gerry Weiss had earlier suggested reopening contracts as a method to deal with the shortfalls expected in meeting next year's budget.

"Thank you for doing that," Weiss said. "I think it was a prudent thing to do."

Shaffer said he would like all unions to agree to a gathering where everyone can be in the same room and determine how to proceed. "The outcome would have to be agreed on by everyone," Shaffer said.

Idea not rejected yet

So far, Shaffer said the police bargaining unit has responded. He characterized the response as guarded "but not categorically rejected."

Tina Swift, president of Service Employees International Union 880, said Thursday that her preference would be to have all unions meet together with Shaffer to talk over the idea.

"I've told him that I certainly would meet to discuss the issue," said Swift, who pointed out she has a good relationship with Shaffer.

SEIU represents 76 employees, including administrative assistants and emergency dispatchers. But Swift noted the union has been losing membership through attrition and may be the lowest paid of the town bargaining units. Employees are also being asked to shoulder more of the burden by paying higher health premiums.

"I hope it can come to an equitable solution, and I am hoping we can retain positions," Swift said.

School officials have also been informed of Shaffer's letters to the unions.

Stan Gawle, spokesman for Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change, said he has pushed for reopening the contracts in these difficult times and Shaffer's letter is a good first step.

"This has been what I've been advocating," said Gawle, who last year served as a member of the Facilitation for Community Choices Committee that examined the town's financial position over the next several years.

Even before recent aid cuts, the town was looking at expenses increasingly outpacing revenues. Employees are slated to receive $669,996 in wage increases next year, a figure that includes cost of living adjustments as well as step increases that elevate the pay for both union and non-union personnel.

"I think there's a realization of the impact of salary increases given the size of the structural deficit," Gawle said.

Gawle said if employees are unwilling to share in the pain, then it will mean layoffs and lesser service to residents and bigger class sizes at the schools.

In the budget Shaffer prepared in January, four positions are eliminated in next year's municipal budget, including the director of the emergency dispatch center, a secretarial position in the town manager's office, a human resources consultant and the head of the public works tree crew.

Additional positions in town government, the schools and town libraries could be lost depending on how much aid the town loses and whether additional revenues can be found.

Anonymous said...

Supercolumn: School committee responsibilities
Published on February 13, 2009

Question: Many school committees seem to be unclear about their scope of responsibility and their legislated authority. Do you agree?

Al and Helen: The question overstates the issue, we believe. In general, looking back over the dozen or so school committees we've worked with, duty and authority relationships are well carved out and mutually understood. A critical key to this success has been a committee's and superintendent's agreement to focus on students and to collaborate in a consistent and positive manner.

Amherst-Pelham schools have developed and adopted policies that can make this happen. Selected excerpts from their policies give a clear picture of how a school committee best helps a school system move forward. As input for the incoming superintendent and all School Committee members, we suggest focus on the following concepts from the Amherst-Pelham adopted policy manual.

School committee's authorities and duties

Because all powers of the school committee derived from state laws are granted in terms of action as a group, members of each school committee have authority only when acting as a committee legally in session. No member of the committee, by virtue of his/her office, will exercise any administrative responsibility with respect to the schools or command the services of any school employee. All policy decisions and other matters as required by law will be settled by an official vote of the committee sitting in formal session.

School committee ethics

Based on the Massachusetts Association of School Committees Code of Ethics and adopted in Amherst-Pelham

This code of ethics delineates three areas of responsibility of school committee members in addition to that implied above: 1) community responsibility; 2) responsibility to the school administration; and 3) relationship to fellow committee members.

1) A school committee member in his/her relations with the community should:

* Recognize that his/her basic function is policymaking and not administrative.

* Remember that the chairperson is the public spokesperson for the committee at all times except when this responsibility is specifically delegated to others.

* Be well informed concerning the duties of a committee member on both a local and state level.

* Remember that he/she represents the entire community at all times.

* Accept the office as a committee member as a means of unselfish service with no intent to "play politics," in any sense of the word, or to benefit personally from his/her committee activities.

2) A school committee member in his/her relations with the school administration should:

* Recognize and support the administrative chain of command and refuse to act on complaints as an individual outside the administration.

3) A School Committee member in his/her relations with his fellow committee members should:

* Realize that statements or promises should not be made regarding how he/she will vote on matters that will come before the committee.


The school committees will rely on the professional staff under the supervision of the superintendent to design and implement instructional programs and courses of study that will strive to achieve the educational goals of the school system. The school committees will encourage and support the professional staff in its efforts to investigate new curricular ideas, develop and improve programs, and evaluate results. The superintendent will direct curriculum development for the school system. Working with him/her will be members of the administrative and professional staff. The superintendent will establish appropriate curriculum committees for the development, review, evaluation and revision of curriculum guides and instructional programs.

In our many years in public school administration, we have not seen a year when fiscal projections were so dismal. If dismantling the quality programs that Amherst-Pelham schools have worked so hard to develop is imminent, the policies excerpted above can help us all through these troubled times. The best decisions need collaboration between consumers and providers - our families, citizens and our well-prepared, hard-working professional educators.

Al Sprague and Helen Vivian are the married, co-superintendents of the Amherst Regional Public Schools. Their column seeks to provide answers to questions from community members regarding the school system. Questions for the co-superintendents should be sent by email to, by fax to 549-8181, or by post to Letters, Amherst Bulletin, 100 University Drive, Amherst, MA 01002.

Ed said...

I share the concern about the parents from whom nothing has been heard, but it is a bigger problem.

There are many, who, for a variety of reasons, do not value the education of their children. I spent nearly 5 years as the inspector for the local housing authority, I saw a *lot* and I feel comfortable saying this.

I am not saying that the parents don't love their children, in their own ways, I think they mostly do. And I want to be clear that this isn't limited to low SES, I have seen some of the same issues with some very wealthy people.

First, there are a lot of parents who simply haven't grown up. They aren't mature enough to have the responsibility of caring for a dog, let alone a child. I don't want to pick on the single mothers but, you know, you can't just abandon the child to go out partying until 3 AM anymore unless you can find another responsible person to watch the child. (And other parents don't particularly like *their* children up until 3AM babysitting yours on a school night....)

Second, I know there are issues of money but you can go down to the dollar store and buy some halfway decent books for a buck apiece. We have a fairly good public library in this town and I think they issue library cards to kids. We have a fairly good bus service that the college kids pay for. There really is no reason why one who wants to get his/her/its child reading materials can't do so.

I have gone into apartments and not seen a single thing for the children to read. They have had toys, lots of toys which looked like they were fairly expensive. They have had televisions, some literally bigger than my car and expensive cable service and other stuff that does cost money. But no books. Not even coloring books, nothing for the child to read.

(We won't even get into smoking dope around the living room table with the Latin Kings. Yes, that was a fun day when I walked into that little mess...)

Third, and this is more an issue in the high school/college level, but parents really don't want their children to do better than them. They won't say this outright, and it is a truly complex issue that someone ought to research, but parents that don't have much education often become passive/aggressive in the sabotage of their children's education.

Reflecting on these three issues, and sorta figuring out the cadre that Catherine is referencing here in not having heard from, I am not surprised.

I don't have an answer to any of this, and even were I to try, I likely would be a bit too far to the political right for public acceptance (although folks like Bill Cosby are saying some of the exact same things).

And what to do - I don't know. But this is the reality and it exists. We have a significant cadre of parents whose own lives are so disfunctional and who have so little personal value of education that they aren't going to be advocating for the education of their children. We are going to be doing good if we can get them to have the kids showing up to school on something resembling a frequent basis.

Anonymous said...

I want to begin by saying that I feel nothing but empathy for MM families. Since I am not directly affiliated with the school, I can only imagine the pain staff and families feel there.

It is true that MM has done amazing things for the educational growth of this town. No one should dispute that. However, it is unfair and a complete disservice to the ENTIRE elementary student population to keep MM open when compared with the proposed budget cuts.

This "budget thing" is NOT going away after this year, no matter how hard we strategize, pray, stress or argue.

Do I WANT MM to close? No! I've lived in this town for more than half my life and have only ever known this community with that school.

Do I think, for the benefit of EVERY child in this community, that it makes SENSE to close? Yes. I think the cuts planned (especially in tiers 2 and 3) are going to virtually disable the level of performance and success we have in Amherst.

Now, I don't think we should rush this process, particularly because of chaos that redistricting, packing, moving, planning and adjusting would create in such a short time. But by the end of the '09-'10 year, it needs to happen, otherwise EVERY child will suffer.

Ed said...

Defending Democracy.

Yes, it is that simple. In a democratic society, the folk whom the voters elect get to tell the bureaucrats what is going to be happening.

The "ethical" piece written by the Superintendents (whom I personally think need to reexamine their own social justice values relative to the Larry Kelly trespass order) isn't the worst I have seen but it is yet another example of telling school board members that their job is to quietly sit by and cheer the professionals.


You have folks elected by their peers to set the policies of education in the community AND to ensure that the practices are within these policies. The elected members may or may not know anything about education but they do know and do reflect the values of the community toward it.

Members of the school committee do not leave their civil rights at the schoolhouse door. They have every right (and an obligation) to state what their personal views are and how they intend to vote on matters of importance to the community. Never forget that the word "candidate" and the word "candid" come from the same Latin root....

Catherine Sanderson not only has ever right but she has an ethical OBLIGATION to tell people what she is thinking and to share information with the voters. As she is going to have to vote on re-opening contract negotations relative to the pay raises, I don't see any problem with her stating her views on even that at this point.

The Maine School Management Assn essentially tells school committee members that the Superintendent is the professional who knows about education and that they are the elected hicks who know nothing so they should be nice and quietly just applaud their superintendent. I say BULL**** to that....

Even if I didn't agree with Dr. Sanderson, I would encourage her to post her viewponts so that I could build my argument against her. To imply that there is something unethical in her reporting to her constitutients what she is thinking is beyond bizarre...

LarryK4 said...

So let me get this strait: some Anonymous nitwit uses ‘Comments’ (without actually adding their own comment) to post the entire “Supercolumn” from this week’s ultra crusty Amherst Bulletin aimed directly at Dr. Sanderson (although they didn’t have the balls or vaginas to mention her by name) as intimidation?

Sure the Bully circulates about 10,000 FREE copies 98% of which goes mostly unread (except for the Police Log); so that means the ridiculous “Supercolumn” from our not so super stand-ins had about 200 avid readers.

This blog received twice as many hits than that yesterday.

And is there a single nitwit in Amherst who has been paying attention over the past few months or so who actually believes some other nitwit would write the question: “Many school committees seem to be unclear about their scope of responsibility and their legislated authority. Do you agree?”

Sounds like pillow talk to me.

Anonymous said...

Regarding redistricting:
Redistricting needs to be done right not twice. It should be deferred just until the issues of regionalization and moving the sixth grade to the Middle School are settled.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

OK, my responses:

Information Seeker: I will get SPED numbers for you. This is a common question, and we should have these numbers presented at the next budget meeting so people understand what is cut and what is not (and what is legal). Thanks for the question!

I also agree that there should be public forums -- my understanding is that this will be occurring at each elementary school at least (in late Feb./early March).

Good luck with that "common email" for all SC members ... seeing as I lost the email suggestion box vote. But would it help if I posted all the SC emails on this website somewhere?

Anonymous: I agree. And closing MM seems like a step towards reducing on-going administrative costs and structural deficits, yes?

Anonymous: I know that some towns have had employees go back on contracts and reduce expected raises. In all honesty, I'm still pondering how I feel about this. On the one hand, the schools are clearly hurting and these raises are going to consume a lot of resources (and likely cost some staff their jobs). On the other hand, we negotiated with the unions in good faith, and they agreed to these terms (as did we), which accompanied the agreement that we would have teacher evaluations even for those post-tenure (this was a big step). I also think we want to be known as a district that treats teachers/staff right so that we can attract great people to work here. So, I'm still pondering where I am on this issue -- other than to say, yes, this is occurring in some districts.

Anonymous: Thanks for posting that column -- I was actually going to do a separate blog entry on that later, so I'm not going to comment here right now. But I sure did enjoy reading it!

Ed: OK ... but still, we should provide some type of services in school for those who might need them, yes?!? I think you raise thought-provoking points, but still, I don't think you mean that we therefore prioritize a school over intervention teachers, yes?!?

Anonymous: You raise a good point. As you know, I too think MM should close, and that we need to redistrict. Can they both happen this year? That's a key question, and one that I hope we have the answer to soon.

Ed: Thanks for the support of my right to actually share my views ... after reading today's Bulletin, I began to think that maybe I was not actually allowed to speak in public about the schools since Andy Churchill is the Chair, not me. I'm going to have to sleep on this.

Larry: First, as much as you like to use the word "vaginas", the parallel to "balls" is actually "ovaries." Just FYI.

Second, I would LOVE to learn which parent/community member, in this time of massive crisis in the budget, hiring of a new superintendent, discussion of closing a school/dropping instrumental music/stopping the Chinese program at Wildwood -- yes, that's on the TIER 1 list -- would think the most central question facing our schools is:
"Many school committees seem to be unclear about their scope of responsibility and their legislated authority. Do you agree?” I'd love to see a hard copy of that question.

Anonymous/Steve: I agree and disagree. First, I think we can redistrict once a decade, so yes, we can't screw it up. Second, it is quite clear that regionalization is going to take A WHILE. And RIGHT NOW we have a school that is 60% free/reduced lunch, and we can clearly fit the 1310 projected kids in 3 buildings (and it costs us $700,000 a year to keep MM open). That is a lot of money to spend waiting for regionalization to materialize, as we cut other things. I am in favor of closing MM now to save that money AS LONG AS we can find a way to redistrict well in time -- and if we can't, that becomes a major issue (e.g., are there shorter-term fixes, like one year with some over-crowding until the 6th grade moves up?).

Anonymous said...

Could you also comment (to a degree you feel comfortable) about these two articles in today's paper?

Amherst Regional parents hear cuts are coming

Northampton school advisory: Stick to values
No closing, more choice

Catherine A. Sanderson said...


Thanks for the great question on the two articles in today's Gazette -- here are my thoughts.

First, I think the situation in ARHS is awful -- two study halls means that kids will be spending 13% of their time in study halls, and some kids will have two study halls a DAY (given the rotating schedule). I think it is a bad idea, but of course I understand the budget realities.

One aspect of the move the 6th graders to the MS that was totally glossed over at the last School Committee meeting is that this plan helps subsidize the MS/HS budget -- the elementary school budget would then pay a portion of the costs of staff at the MS (principal, assistant principal, gym teacher, music teacher, custodian, nurse, etc.), which means that we would free up more money for the middle/high school. That is ONE of the reasons that I think this is a really good idea.

The cuts at the middle school and high school level are really bad, and I can't see how they won't impact the educational experience of the kids. Interested parents should come to the next School Committee Meeting (Feb. 24th) to hear more details.

Second, in terms of Northampton choosing not to close a school. Although I'm sure some will take this to be a sign that we should also not close a school, the situations here are VERY different.

Here is what the Northampton schools look like: all four elementary schools have between 250 and 388 students -- so, they are quite close in size (compared to our range of 180 to 450). This is important for two reasons -- first, it means that they are already maximizing some of the cost efficiencies in a way that we are not because of the relatively equal sizes. They are also able to have 2 or 3 classes at every grade (not true in our smallest school), and to handle all of the kids in their given district (whereas we PAY to bus kindergarteners outside of the MM district because all those kids won't fit).

Second, given that all four of their schools are relatively equal in size, it is HARD to imagine how you divide up the 250 kids at their smallest school without having a MAJOR impact at all of the other schools. If you close Marks Meadow, each of our other schools would get about 60 kids (again, this isn't how they would be divided, but I'm just doing the rough math), and this would be a pretty small addition at FR and WW (which already have 400+ kids). But if you close the smallest Northampton school, you have to divide 250 kids into three schools, which is 83/84 kids a school, and these schools would increase in size quite a lot. One more point: in all likelihood, we will move our 6th graders to the MS within the next few years (maybe not this year, but I think it will occur). And this 6th grade population is MORE than the entire population of Marks Meadow. In contrast, the Northampton public schools already have 6th grade in the MS, so there is no room for solving an over-crowding issue in this way.

Another issue which I just want to note: their four schools are very similar in terms of the population on free/reduced lunch: the range is 20.8% to 35%. That is a much, much smaller range than ours (22% to 64%). In turn, the educational experience at their four schools will be more similar than it can possibly be at our four schools.

So, it may be that NOT closing a school is the right decision for Northampton, but could still be the right decision for Amherst.

Anonymous said...

It was my understanding that at ARHS it would be a requirement of 2study halls sometime in the entire year, not per trimester. So unless the student chooses to take them both in one trimester they would never have 2 a day. This also leaves one trimester totally without a study hall.
Am I mistaken? Will they be required 2 per trimester?

Anonymous said...

(whereas we PAY to bus kindergarteners outside of the MM district because all those kids won't fit)

These buses are also filled with kids that are bused from the MM district to FR, and possibly others, for ELL services. Many of these kids don't even need this service because their first language is English. How is this justified?

Also, I am still trying to figure out how, if we were to redistrict, kids would be on buses longer? As far as I can see, a lot of these kids could end up going to schools closer to their house, instead of further away. If you take (for example) all the houses surrounding the apartments in the CF district, and change the WW kids to CF, then they will be going to school a lot closer to their homes, leading to shorter bus rides!

Alison said...

Will the SC meeting on the 24th be held at a larger venue (like that on the 10th) in anticipation of many parents of regional school children being present? Will we be able to see the same sort of well-prepared data for the regional budget as there was for the elementary budget?

I think the question of "how many study halls will be required" does loom large in the minds of many parents of middle and high school students, so it would be great to get additional data on how many COURSES might have to be cut under various scenarios, not just how many teachers might have to be cut. At this level, it is not necessarily just about the size of the individual classes but also about the availability of courses and variety/level (honors, etc) of courses available. Plus, how many study halls your child will be required to sign up for before they even begin their course selections.

Rick said...

I tend to agree with Anonymous (February 12, 2009 2:43 PM) who said:

“The choices are on the table; now choose.”

But whatever else people think, I believe that this budget discussion, including the discussion about closing MM is has been wonderfully open and transparent. This blog has helped with that and ARPS has done a good job of putting facts out there – sometimes not fast enough, but at least they do it.

Just one thing to say about MM closing, and this may have already been said:

If Amherst had no elementary schools, would we build four of them? If yes, then closing MM is not a good long term thing to do. But if the answer is “no” then if you really are truthful about it, we should close MM with or without budget problems.

This is a completely separate analysis from one where MM already exists, but it’s an exercise that should be done.

And one other thing to add, which has also probably already been said:

Sooner or later we need an override. The chances of getting that passed are MUCH higher if every possible cut has been made first. Closing MM is a huge one. So it isn’t just other 2009 cuts that could be avoided by closing MM, but probably the chances of increased funding from an override for all schools in the future is increased.

I am not an MM parent so it’s easy for me to say this. If MM closes, what can we all do to support MM parents? Maybe we should form a support group or something for them? Maybe we should all donate big time to their PGG ( ?


PS: I really wish people didn’t waste this blog space by posting stuff from the Bulletin. At the least they could have just put a link instead of the whole copy.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More responses:

1. Anonymous: Sorry, I should have explained the two study hall a day thing for SOME students. Here is the deal (carefully explained to me by a HS parent): Music ensembles meet all 3 trimesters and have a study hall built in every other day throughout the year. In the new system, with two study halls, these students will be allowed to request an elective, but it is not clear that this will be able to happen (it will depend on space in a given elective). So, these students have been told that they may have 2 study halls in one trimester (2 days per week). Does that help? Maybe a music parent of a HS student can help me out here?!?

2. Anonymous: the busing of ELL kids is complicated, and I'm trying to get more information on this (reasons why it occurs, costs, etc.). Will report back. I certainly agree that at least some kids will be going to a closer school, and others will be going to the same school. I imagine it is also true that some MM kids would be on the bus longer (WW will be farther for some than MM).

3. Alison: I have just asked that we move the meeting to a larger venue -- good suggestion. I believe they will be prepared to answer questions on courses, number dropped, space, etc. There will also, just so people don't forget, be implications of the budget on the MS!

4. Rick: Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful comments. It seems clear to me that we would NOT build four elementary schools (particularly of such vastly different sizes) if we were doing it from scratch. Having three elementary school (all between 300 and 400, which is what they would be if we move the 6th grade up) would seem frankly pretty ideal (pedagogically and fiscally). I also agree that an override may eventually be needed -- but we just can't ask for one until we have truly demonstrated that we have done EVERYTHING possible to cut costs and spend wisely. Closing MM seems like a good step in this direction (as would be eliminating a lot of the extra busing we seem to be doing).

lise said...

Ok. So I have to comment on the Supercolumn....

I am amazed that our Interims have things so under control in the district that they have time to craft thinly-veiled attacks on School Committee members. I hope it wasn't written on the taxpayers dime. Perhaps they could have better used their "Bully" pulpit to speak to some of the actual issues and choices around the budget crisis.

I was particularly amused by the implication that SC members use their office for personal gain. Perhaps Catherine is planning a big Senate run with all the political capital gained from our little local school committee? Is Amherst college awarding promotions based on blogging skills? What could be the possible personal gain? Wait, I know. Some anonymous donor is paying Catherine a nickel for every metaphorical stone thrown at her as she tries to do her best for the community. Certainly that would make her a rich woman.

Catherine thank you for having such thick skin. Please keep asking the relevant questions.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Lise: Thank you for your posting, though I do have to disagree with a few things you've said, in my on-going attempt towards complete honesty and transparency.

First, I don't think it was thinly-veiled. Based on the number of people who sent me their outrage last night via email, I think "unveiled" or "blatant" might be a more appropriate term. But, we do agree on the feeling of contentment that at least they have tackled in this column the single most pressing issue our district is now facing: transparency and communication on behalf of a School Committee member.

Second, wait, I'm confused. I thought you got paid some type of stipend every time you were mentioned in the Bulletin? Is that wrong?

LarryK4 said...

If the Super-Whatevers wrote a pro-Override column on company time, they would be cited by the State Ethics Committee (as town manager Barry Del Castilho was back in 1996 for championing the Town Hall renovation Override, so he could get his fancy office makeover)

Rick said...

The Super column is a distraction that is probably best ignored so that important stuff can be focused on. Too bad newspaper columns can’t be devoted to what’s important, but so it goes…

Alison said...

I agree with Rick. Keep up the good work, Catherine. The public cannot afford distractions at this pivotal juncture.

Ed said...

I live at Planet UMass where one carries a cell phone so one can call the police when (not if) needed - so I missed a good portion of the nuance on this the first time through.

I think the appropriate word in this case is "insubordination." It is unprofessional and inherently wrong for the Supts to be publicly accusing a member of their appointing authority with an ethical violation.

I find it troubling that these clowns have so little respect for basic civil rights. The Larry Kelly trespass is one thing but Larry isn't an elected board member.

To say that only the chair can speak about school board stuff (and that Catherine can't) is to say that only the chair of the town meeting (the moderator) can speak about town meeting stuff. Exactly how long do you think that would be tolerated in this town?

Exactly how long do you think that various members of the town meeting would permit the town manager to say that only the moderator can speak publicly about town policies and practices?

I think this is insubordination. I think that playing the games with releasing the numbers is insubordination. Yes I am from UMass and thus have a tendency to use an ICBM for the shot across the bow, but the more I think about it, I think these two twits need to be called on some of this.

There are things that one shouldn't talk about - anything discussed in a legitimate executive session is essentially it. Anything else is fair game and not only can be discussed but should be.

Catherine the school board person can only speak in the context of official board votes (as can the chair). Catherine the person who is on the school board can say just about any damn thing at any lawful time/manner she pleases. (If you are outside my window at 3 AM with a bullhorn, I am calling the police, that is what I mean by "lawful.")

Julia said...

As the superintendents study relevant codes regarding their authority, they should keep in mind that it is the School Committee that has the power to terminate the superintendents (G.L. c. 71, [[section]] 37).

Anonymous said...

It is not insubordination to question someone's ethics or behavior just because they appointed or hired you. It is not helping matters to encourage divisiveness by pitting community member against community member, and by encouraging sniping against the superintendents and anyone who disagrees with Catherine's views. If there are rules to be followed, then they should be followed. It must make working relationships between the school committee and superintendents difficult and I expect more from elected officials who are making decisions that affect Amherst kids. And no, I do not think that Catherine has a thick skin as evidenced by how she calls out individual Amherst citizens for disagreeing with her opinions.

Ed said...

> If there are rules to be
> followed,
> then they should be followed

This is what so upsets me with the left. I don't know what part of "Congress shall make no law" that you don't understand, or really why you can't fathom that rules don't matter when civil rights are involved.

Within some certain limits, she has an absolute right to say any damn thing she wants to. She did not waive her civil rights at the schoolhouse gate (that is _Tinker v. Des Monies_ for those of you not familiar with the quote).

So you have a bunch of administrators who set up a bunch of "rules" that apparently mean that only approved thoughts can be expressed because anything else is divisive. That is faschist.

Read _West Virgina v. Barnette_ about how only a graveyard is harmonious. School boards ARE INTENDED TO BE DEVISIVE - that is why there is more than one person on them. We could have great unity with a dictator - agree or die - but I personally prefer democracy.

Two other things -- first has anyone actually presented a justification for keeping Marks' Meadow open that has anything resembling facts contained therein. I am so sick of this "I feel" logic -- If you want to save Mark's Meadow then you had better get your act together and present something resembling a logical argument as to why it benefits the town to do so.

Second, lets be pragmatic here. Lets say she is going to vote to close the school regardless (actually, I think she would listen to credible factual arguments against that, but lets just say she intends to axe the place.

She *could* be telling all the MM parents all kinds of nice things and then just vote to close it, she could be privately calling her colleagues and lobbying them to do likewise. And apparently that is "ethical."

Instead, she tells you where she is so that you have time to organize and to oppose her. And that is UN-ethical?????

Would it be that every elected official had the courage to state what she believed in and why...

Nina Koch said...

Just to clarify, there is in fact a common email address for school committee members. It is:

Each individual school committee member has an arps email address as well. All of these individual addresses are listed on the arps web page. The general page for the School Committee is:>. From there, you can go to the page for each one of the school committees (Amherst, Pelham and Regional) and find a directory for those members. You will also see an archive of minutes from that school committee and the agenda for any upcoming meetings. In addition, there are links to presentations that have been made to the school committee. If there is some other piece of information that you would like to see there, you can go to "Contact Us" on the arps site and let us know what you are looking for. In fact, I am reading this blog right now for the purpose of finding out what people are thinking and seeing if I can help by posting more information on the arps site.

Rick mentioned above that it is better to provide a link to an article than it is to paste in the entire thing into the comments section of the blog. I would agree with that approach for information posted on the arps site. It is best to provide a link to the info on the arps site rather than to copy and paste the information elsewhere. This is because information often needs correcting or updating. For example, when I first posted the bios for superintendent candidates, there were a few small mistakes in the information I had been given. As soon as I was informed of the mistakes, I corrected them. If someone has copied and pasted information onto another site, then those mistakes will probably persist rather than being corrected.

Anonymous said...

Abbie says:

What if this discussion involved teaching intelligent design(i.e. creationism by another name) in our science classes as an alternative hypothesis to evolution and our school committee members openly discussed their opinions and how they would vote. I, for one, would expect to hear the opinions of SC members before a vote so that I would have a chance to "educate" them on the topic, if needed.

In my hypothetical situation of evolution vs creationism, if folks say that SC members ought to keep quiet then that frightens me...This is an analogy but I think the comparison is valid for our budget discussions with the SC.

I guess our Superintendents would expect silence form SC members in the face of a push for teaching creationism... Would/could they still defend their position and "rules"?

Rick said...

I agree 100% with Ed; but I still think the Supers vs. Catherine issue should just be ignored. The Supers are temporary and they will be gone very soon.

The really big issue that I applaud Catherine for raising is the one about protecting disadvantaged kids, who have no voices speaking for them.

Rick said...

Therefore, repeating once again

“The choices are on the table; now choose.”
- Anonymous (February 12, 2009 2:43 PM)

A. Dump instrumental music.
B. Let the disadvantaged kids get even more disadvantaged.
C. Close Marks Meadow
D. ?

Rick said...

I'll start:
C then A, then B (last resort)

Anonymous said...

But Rick, C, A & B could all be dumped together! :(

Ed said...

On ID -- I do have to say this -- not all aspects of it are creationism with another name. Many are, but not all.

There is an argument that while evolution exists, it is not totally random and instead is guided by a larger process that we don't understand.

This can involve a religious being, or not - as Einstein essentially argued. And taking his point, one can argue that there is an order to the universe that is not religious but does exist.

As how this gets into K-12, I personally prefer to teach children that science presents the best proven theory we have right now, subject to change when we learn more stuff (anyone remember "matter can neither be created nor destroyed"?).

And I love the use of the ID example for why school board members not only should be able to speak to their community but essentially have an obligation to do so.

But I kinda had to defend ID, at least those aspects of it that aren't tied into the crazy Biblethumpers. I prefer to keep an open mind and haven't personally seen convincing evidence either way as to the random/planned aspects of evolution. We just don't know....

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

OK, just now catching up to respond to the assorted comments:

1. Rich/Alison: Thanks for keeping this on task ... even in the midst of the very distracting Super Column.

2. Ed: I think the column was inappropriate and disappointing -- not because it was an attack on me, but rather because it was a time in which they could have shown real leadership in discussing central education issues instead of criticizing a board member. What do they think about the pros/cons of closing MM? What do they think we should do about our massive budget crisis? What do they think we should do about the fact that we have MASSIVELY different schools in terms of equity? Again, I think many community members would have been interested in hearing thoughts on these important issues.

Julia: Agreed. Thanks for noting! That is one of the reasons why I felt it was an unusual choice for their column.

Anonymous: Thanks for sharing your view on the column. I'd be interested in hearing what more you expect of an elected official. That I not share my views? That I blindly accept whatever is told by the Superintendents? I'm also not sure when I've called out individual Amherst citizens -- I've not said ONE WORD in the press or at a School Committee meeting about ANY citizen of Amherst. I have responded ONLY ON MY BLOG when individual citizens of Amherst (such as John Keins) have written about me in the press, but these have been reactions to when others have criticized me. Can you name a single person that I've criticized at any point who has not initiated that criticism?

Nina: Hey, even I didn't know there was a way to contact us all together! Does that just get individually sent to each of us? Thanks for all your hard work on our website (you too, Rick).

Abbie: I fully agree with your view here ... I don't see why the community shouldn't learn what School Committee members are thinking so that they can both try to present rational information to change someone's mind and use that knowledge about someone's view to make informed decisions on election day.

Rick: Thanks for supporting my view about the importance of speaking out for disadvantaged kids ... and more importantly, for trying to get this discussion back on the CHOICES we are going to have to make!

Anonymous: If I read you right, you are saying that at level 3 cuts, we are doing all three (close MM, lose instrumental music, hurt disadvantaged kids)? True -- but now prioritize those in case we get to have "just" Tier 1 or Tier 2 cuts!

Anonymous said...

In terms of prioritizing cuts I agree with Rick, C, then A and then B as a last resort.

Rick said...

Just FYI: Nina is the one who does the fantastic job of putting info on the ARPS and ARHS websites. They have both gotten better and better over time due to her.

Anonymous said...

Information Seeker...

Speaking as a parent and teacher of SPED kids I have this to say.
The "common misconception that once kids are 'put' into the SPED system, they are there for the long haul," is quite true. Many of these kids, who were blessed with all their physical abilities, are labled, marked, segregated, separated....whatever term you would like to use, from their peers, often at a very early age. Their brains are picked apart and laid open for the 'specialists' to come in and try out their experimental approaches of 'teaching' the unteachable. How dare they mark a child as 'learning disabled'?? Can you grasp the entirety of this label? And even if and when they are placed back into the 'regular' classes many experience a lifetime of damage to cope with and carry with them.
I would like to address the use of the word regular here if I may. The last time I used the opposite of this word, which is being inferred upon these kids, is when I was talking about a bodily function!!
I find it an outrage that any system sits back while this is going on. Do you know how much money is collected by the schools to 'educate' SPED kids. A huge hunk. I do not have the actual figures in front of me, suffice to say, it is a much larger sum than 'regular' education.
The SAC campus is very difficult to find when you get the school directory recording over the telephone. Could this be that Amherst is trying to hide this school and if so why would that be? Could it be illegal or at the very least immoral to segregate these kids, these 'irregular' kids from the mainstream of the 'regular' classes, of the 'regular' day-to-day events at school?
I mean no ill intent toward you, but someone needs to be informed of just what goes on in these SPED classes and buidlings. Someone needs to understand that while administrators would love the public to see a rosy colored picture, kids are being denied their one shot at equity in education. The one right I thought every child was entitled to.
Thanks for 'hearing' this.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous:

Have you ever been to the SAC campus? Do you have any idea what goes on there? Do you know anything about the population of students served there? Do you know anything about the wonderful, caring teachers who staff the SAC campus?

The program run at the SAC campus is a god-send to the school system. My son attended "regular" school until he hit 10th grade. Then he had a major melt-down in his academic progress and in his desire to go to school. He was on the verge of dropping out. The SAC program saved him. It provided the smaller community that he needed to thrive in school. He was an unconventional student who could not make it in the large conventional high school.

I will admit that at one time the kids at the SAC campus were known as the throw-away kids. At one time the school was just ware-housing kids there and not providing much of an education. That all changed when Scott Goldman was principal of the high school. He said there are no throw-away kids in the Amherst School system. And he made the SAC campus a wonderful program of learning, exploration and creativity for the unconventional kids in our system who would otherwise just drop out altogether. My son, who was on the verge of dropping out of high school, thrived at SAC and earned his high school diploma.

I am proud to say that after taking several years off from "regular schooling" my son, who will be 28 in a week, is now a straight-A student in his second year at the University of North Carolina working towards a degree in Political Science and planning on going to grad school. Without the wonderful program and teachers at the SAC campus he might have never gotten a high school diploma.

Please don't slam what you don't know about.

MaryAnn Grim

Anonymous said...

Dear MaryAnn,

I know full well about the SAC campus, and have been there many, many times.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not slamming the school or the teachers who work there by any means.
My own daughter attended this school, had a baby during her school year, and was tutored at home by one of the SAC teachers. She received her diploma and went on to get her Associate Degree from HCC. She too, was an 'unconventional' student and thrived in this environment. She now attends UMass and is working toward a degree in history. She wants to become a teacher like the one who tutored her.
What I am saying is, why is this school hidden from the rest of the population? Why can't you find it listed on their website or be directed to it over their telephone directory? Why are SPED kids made to feel so different from their peers? This is a great and unresolved fault of the adults given the task to educate our youth. For the most part it goes unrecognized and too many kids suffer its consequence. This is what I am saying.
Just recently we drove by the SAC school with a Jones realtor at the wheel. I pretended not to know anything about the area and asked him, out of curiousity to his answer, what this building was. He told me , "Oh, that's the school for the bad kids."
Too many kids, at a very young age, are earmarked to become SPED kids. I know this. I have seen it over and over. And among this group of SPED kids there is a disproportionate number of 'nonwhite' children. These kids are led to believe they are different for not adhering to the 'regular,' often fast paced, classroom curriculum. Because of the predispostion of the ways (too many of) our teachers are teaching and thinking we are losing valuable young hearts and minds to a system that is blinded by its own indifference.
Thank you for your response.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous:

So sorry for mis-understanding your first post. I think we are mostly in agreement about SPED. It is unfortunate that SAC is known as the school for the "bad" kids. I wonder how that perception can be changed.


Anonymous said...

That perception would change if the kids weren't told they will be sent there if they are being "bad!"