Amherst school board race raises interesting issues in tough time
By MARY CAREYStaff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009
AMHERST - With only four contests and for relatively low-profile positions at that, Tuesday's townwide election has not attracted as much advance attention as in past years. Yet, the three-way race among Irvin Rhodes, Steve Rivkin and Megan Rosa for two seats on the School Committee comes at a time when the schools are at a painful crossroads. The voters' choices will have a significant impact on the direction the community ultimately takes. All three candidates have been closely involved with the schools but each one would bring a markedly different set of experiences to the post, making for a race with many cross-currents. Neighborhood issues, educational ideology and experience and the candidates' interpretation of the role of the School Committee are a few of them. In addition to having ties to different elementary schools in a town where each of the four schools has a demographic makeup and culture quite distinct from the rest, the candidates have played different educational roles.
Rhodes, 66, has been an elementary school and college teacher, a middle school librarian and assistant superintendent at the former Belchertown State School. He has served on the Finance Committee and is a Town Meeting member. In his campaign, he has stressed that the schools need a long-range plan to close the widening gap between revenues and spending. His grown children attended Crocker Farm Elementary School.
Rivkin, 47, is an Amherst College professor and economist who has written extensively on issues ranging from the effects of poverty and segregation on public education to the significance of class size, teacher turnover and the role of special education in school choice. He has helped with the math program once a week in his daughter's class at Fort River Elementary School.
Rosa, 30, is a product of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School system and has also been closey involved with Mark's Meadow, which her children attend, as co-chairwoman of the Parent Guardian Group as well as a member of the School Governance Council and Diversity Committee. She was a member of the Amherst Schools Organization Committee that examined options for reconfiguring the elementary schools.
The possibility that Amherst might have to close a school, and that it would most likely be Mark's Meadow, has proven to be one of the most emotional issues the district has confronted in some time. The three candidates agree that the option should be on the table if closing Mark's Meadow would save enough money to prevent other painful cuts in the school system. Rhodes and Rosa, however, have not been as adamant as Rivkin has been that the community should begin laying plans now to close it next year. While Rosa has insisted that she is not running for School Committee to advocate keeping Mark's Meadow open, she has expressed concern that some misinformation and unsubstantiated information has found its way into discussions of closing it. Rhodes stresses that closing a school is a wrenching emotional experience for a community and should not be undertaken lightly. He also said he has been dismayed by discussions at which Mark's Meadow principal Nick Yaffe and teachers have been present but were not included.
Of the three candidates, Rivkin has been the most outspoken on the role of the School Committee, some of whose members in recent years have appeared to view as one of its primary missions "to almost knock down any criticism of the schools," he said. With its newest member, Catherine Sanderson, Rivkin founded the Amherst Committee for Excellence, a parent and community group that has advocated for more rigorous evaluation of the school system. Since Sanderson's election to the board last year, several members of the group have attended every School Committee meeting and signaled their support for initiatives she has brought before the board. One of their signature issues has been that some ACE members are not convinced the new ninth grade ecology and ecological science curriculum will prove to be beneficial to students. They have called for a rigorous evaluation of the new course, which Sanderson and Rivkin say is not being done.
Outgoing School Committee member Elaine Brighty, whose last meeting was last week after more than nine years on the board, has repeatedly challenged Sanderson's interpretation of the School Committee's purview, saying it should not be closely involved in curriculum. In recent votes, other School Committee members, with the exception, sometimes, of Kathleen Anderson, have often voted with Brighty, leading Sanderson to say that she has not been effective in bringing about the changes that she promised she would work for in her campaign last year.
Sanderson has not endorsed any of the candidates and has said she could work with any one of them. However, if Rivkin is not elected, she said this week, she will take it as a sign that the public does not approve of the direction in which ACE has tried to take the schools.
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.