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, March 5, 2009

School Committee Candidates

I've had a number of questions regarding the School Committee election -- which will be held on Tuesday, March 31st. Two seats on the Amherst Committee are up (neither Elaine Brighty or Sonia Correa Pope are running again), and there are three candidates for these two seats: Irv Rhodes, Steve Rivkin, and Meg Rosa. The links to each of their campaign websites is below:

Because I will need to work well with whichever candidates are selected, I've decided not to endorse anyone in this race (and I know and personally like all three of these candidates). However, I believe that these candidates have very different backgrounds, experiences, ideas, and strategies for working on the School Committee, and thus I really hope that all voters will take time to learn about each of the candidates as well as attend and/or watch the League of Women Voter's Candidates Forum (Wednesday, March 18th).

I'd pay particular attention to the specifics about what they believe -- all three share a broad view about what they would emphasize (e.g., transparency, data, accountability, communication, equity, excellence), so I believe it is particularly important to ask about what they would do specifically. So, how exactly would they solve this year's budget crisis (close a school, cut music, cut intervention teachers, etc.)? How specifically would they demand accountability, and for what programs/curriculum/ policies? What precisely do they see as the two or three top priorities for the district?

The next year is going to be a critical one for our district, as we face both managing a growing budget crisis that forces us to make very tough choices about what we value in our schools and working with our new superintendent to set clear goals and objectives for our school system. Please educate yourself about all three of these candidates, and vote for the candidate(s) who you believe both shares your views about what our schools should be and the strategies they would use to move the schools in this direction. I can't think of a more critical time to have strong leadership in our School Committee.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for deciding not to endorse candidates for School Committee.

I would note that we still have at least one Select Board incumbent who has decided to endorse candidates for School Committee. I believe that this is both to her and the Town's detriment.

We need officeholders focused like a laser beam on governance (which is hard enough), rather than politicking. The whole mutual back-scratching game of endorsements creates a perception of political camps in town. We don't need that.

Rich Morse

Alisa V. Brewer said...

I completely agree with Catherine's wise and sensible decision, as an already seated elected School Committee member, to not publicly endorse her future colleagues. The non-elected (are you allowed to say "losing" in Amherst?) third candidate will hopefully remain very involved in school issues.

I also wish life was so simple that we officeholders could focus entirely on governance rather than on politicking.

Prior to my election to the Select Board in 2007, I was elected to the Amherst School Committee twice, in 2002 and 2005. Yes, I was part of the superintendent search that unanimously chose Jere Hochman (and would be happy to discuss that elsewhere).

The year my older child was in Kindergarten at Mark's Meadow, 1999-2000, UMass decided Mark's Meadow was no longer a lab school, and panic about whether we'd lose the facility ensued, mitigated by some strong MM parent voices and then asst-supt Ron Bell.

We moved to Amherst in 1998. I've served in Town Meeting continuously since 1999.

I feel compelled to endorse in this election. But that's just me. Luckily we are all free to do as we see best for this wonderful community we are so fortunate to call home.

Anonymous said...

Alisa, who are you endorsing and why?

Alisa V. Brewer said...

This is a joke, right? I'm supposed to respond on *Catherine's* blog to "Anonymous"?? Feel free to contact me at

Anonymous said...

The year my older child was in Kindergarten at Mark's Meadow, 1999-2000, UMass decided Mark's Meadow was no longer a lab school, and panic about whether we'd lose the facility ensued, mitigated by some strong MM parent voices and then asst-supt Ron Bell.

And the State Ethics Commission had a chat with various people and the UMass dean involved in this decision no longer was a dean....

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Anyone who is interested in endorsements of candidates by members of our community can check the individual campaign web sites (thanks, Catherine, for posting those!). Each site has a list of "supporters." Although they are probably updated as people continue to endorse various candidates, checking in there is always a good place to start.

Anonymous said...

What Ms. Brewer feels compelled to do is not necessarily the touchstone of what is right for the community.

I was an enthusiastic supporter of Ms. Brewer in the last election. I have no substantial policy differences with her. I am less enthusiastic now because she cannot make up her mind whether she is an officeholder or a political boss. In that regard, she has learned the wrong lesson from the ultimately unhappy experience of Ms. Awad, who also suffered from the same confusion.

The Select Board and School Committee jobs are almost quasi-judicial in nature. In Amherst, to be effective, they require the public perception that individuals coming before these bodies will get a fair hearing, no matter where they stand in the political firmament in town. The "if you endorse me, I'll endorse you" mutual backscratching pattern of behavior displayed by Ms. Awad and Ms. Brewer undercuts that perception.

It's not always what feels good, or what you feel compelled to do (whatever that means) that's the standard, but what is right and what is good for the community. Ms. Brewer knows better than anyone now the kinds of sacrifices required of Select Board members, enormous sacrifices in terms of time and energy and patience. Unfortunately, those sacrifices may result in members feeling a certain sense of entitlement in town. I think that's what we're seeing from her here.

But asking incumbent elected officeholders to stay out of electoral town politics during the time that they are occupying a seat is not one of those enormous sacrifices. In a town in which many people are only marginally plugged into what's going on, we do not need elected leaders acting as kingmakers and pooh-bahs, presuming to guide the masses with their all-superior wisdom, in contests not involving them. In that context, this guise that Ms. Brewer presents to us that she is just another parent/citizen expressing her opinion is completely disingenuous.

Rich Morse

Neil said...

What does "Ms. Brewer feel compelled to do" ? Never mind. I think that's more appropriately discussed between you and her.

I read through all three websites to become familiar with the candidates, their reasons for running, and their best argument for why they are a good candidate.

I think we have three good candidates, two of which rise above the third in educational, life experience and applicable professional experience.

Two have their doctorates in fields of study directly related to education and educational policy.

All three are proponents and beneficiaries of public school education.

The same two of the three have both the commitment to excellence as well as specific professional skills regarding the efficacy of educational policies.

Anyone want to talk about the candidates (which I presume we would do so without editorial comment from the blog owner.)

Abbie said...

I personally don't think Catherine's blog is an appropriate place to discuss or debate the merits or shortcomings (or anything) about the three SC candidates. But its a free country and you are always free to start your own blog or use the old-fashioned way of communicating- talk.

Anonymous said...

or you could move it to's amherst forum.

Neil said...

Abbie thinks we should find another place to discuss the merits of the candidates, which is all I'm interested in discussing.

I presume this is an appropriate place to discuss the merits of candidates given that CS made a post on the topic and announced as well that she would not advocate on behalf of or endorse any candidate. I'm comfortable discussing the election here on those terms.

I like to learn from others. That is my interest in doing so.

LarryK4 said...

Come on Neil, stop being so damn transparent.

This is Amherst: O're the land of the PC, and the home of the cowards.

Ed said...

A somewhat unrelated answer to an earlier issue: the math game described earlier is a traditional (old fashioned) approach to the teaching of math (and other things) that relies on game/competition, which is very effective in keeping boys on task. A spelling bee is another example of the same thing.

This approach is, of course, exceedingly objectionable to the modern politically correct educator and hence isn't popular in most circles....

Neil said...

When I attended ARHS, we were encouraged to have open and respectful debate on the merits. That's what I want to discuss, the merits of the candidates, not the relative de-merits. Seriously, is this a "conversation" we are incapable of having?

LarryK4 said...

Only in Amherst!

Anonymous said...

I think the fact that two of the candidate have PhDs is a statement that advanced education is of the utmost importance to them. Of course you don't need to have a PhD to be a good SC member. What the PhD does show me is that these two candidates are high achievers and understand what it takes to become prepared to get accepted into a high level college or university.

The main thing I want my kids to get out of the public schools is to be prepared to get into the best college that they are capable of.

Let's not forget the MAIN reason for high school is to prepare for the next step in life - and for my kids, that is college. Thus, the point of the middle school and elementary schools are all to prepare the kids for high performance in the high school.

Having a higher degree myself, and having gone to a highly competitive college and graduate school, I know what sort of rigor is required in highschool to achieve that level of success with college applications. I daresay that a large majority of families in Amherst who are and are not affiliated with the universities also have the same high hopes for their children, and see that as the ultimate goal of the public school system.

Sure, we are not all aiming for PhDs - but understanding what it takes to create/maintain a rigorous school system whose MAIN goal is to educate our children so they are ready for college will be a key factor in the ability of the SC to keep pushing for educational rigor. Pushing for higher standards will help ALL the kids, regardless of whether they go to college.

The other bonus of having a college education/PhD is that it shows the bearer is capable of critical thinking, a key skill in our next SC members. Not to mention the fact that their advanced degrees and professional experience are in the field of education.

It would be great if the third candidate would expound upon their views of higher education on the candidate's website. There is no mention of college experience on the candidate's website which makes me worry that it's not a priority on their agenda. The third candidate is VERY dedicated in a hands-on manner to the schools (as the PGO leader and in many many other ways). However, I need to see that this candidate understands the importance (and the requirements) of preparing our children for college.

Rick said...

Anonymous March 7, 2009 7:03 AM said:

“The main thing I want my kids to get out of the public schools is to be prepared to get into the best college that they are capable of.”

The Amherst School System already does this VERY well. That is the one thing about the school system that I am really sure about. Yes it could be improved in the math and science areas, but if your kid achieves a 3.5 GPA or better, he/she is going to get into a VERY good college; achieve 3.8 or better, he/she is going to get into the top tier of colleges.

We obviously want to keep it that way, but where work really needs to be done is to help the lower achieving kids to achieve more. As a nation we do not have a problem turning out enough kids to get into Harvard. The problem is we are turning out two few kids with the basic foundation they will need to earn a good living and be good citizens, whether or not they go to college. We are becoming a nation of idiots.

This has always been a problem, but it is worse than ever now. What I would like to see in an SC candidate is not a PHD, but experience and/or knowledge about methods that can help kids who think school is of no value to them to see the value; or if not that, then the passion to support efforts in this area.

This gets to the heart of what Amherst education should be all about. It should not just be about getting kids into good colleges. It should be about turning out graduates who:

1. Have the basic math, reading and writing skills that are absolutely mandatory.
2. Have learned problem solving skills – know how to take apart a problem and solve it.
3. Have learned people interaction skills – have learned how to work in a group.
4. Have learned that working hard is the name of the game. You do not succeed without work, and you can succeed with work.*
5. And perhaps most of all, know that whether they go to college or not, learning does not stop at high school graduation.

In other words, they should have learned how to learn, have been instilled with a sense of curiosity, and taught to question what they hear and see.

If we can do that, public schools can be the “great equalizer” that they should be. The playing field is not level, but it could be a lot more level than it is.

There are a lot of good people in the Amherst schools who understand this. We should support them in furthering efforts in this direction.

* [How hard you work is something that is in your control. What a powerful idea to instill: work = success, work is under your control; therefore your success is under your control.]

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

I think the responses to this blog posting illustrate that there are different views about who different people believe should serve on the School Committee! I'll repeat what I said in the initial posting -- all three are good candidates who bring distinct strengths, backgrounds, and experiences. So, I hope that all voters will take some time to read the candidates' websites, watch the candidates at the League of Women Voters, and read articles in the newspaper (which I imagine will appear this month sometime). This is a crucial time for the Amherst schools -- and the beauty of an election is that people get to choose the candidates who they believe will best lead the schools in the direction they'd like to see them go. I look forward to learning which two candidates the Amherst voting population selects!

Anonymous said...

If you have specific questions of the candidates, you should ask them directly. All info is on their websites to be able to do this.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

I agree with Rick that we need to continue to challenge ALL kids to a greater extent in Amherst. We could start by increasing our requirements for graduation at ARHS. Our requirements for Math and Science, for example, are essentially a year below the requirements for other area high schools (I say essentially because it is difficult to compare a trimester system to a semester system). All of our children would benefit from an increase in this requirement, especially in the 21st century! I am looking forward to seeing these candidates in action, answering questions like these so we can all be informed voters.

Anonymous said...

It is not an either/or situation.

The SC needs to take care of those at risk and those who are college-bound, and everyone in between. I fully expect any and every SC member to be capable of taking care of both; it is NOT a conflict of interest, not a choice that needs to be made when looking at the SC candidates.

The candidates just need to show that they have the experience and knowledge that enables them to guide the school system.

Harlen M. said...

What is the value of "free" advice from people posting anonymously worth to you?

Neil said...

Abbie, What are your reasons for believing comments on Catherine's blog are an inppropriate place to discuss or debate the merits or shortcomings (or anything) about the three SC candidates?

Abbie said...


of course its up to Catherine whether or not she thinks its ok for folks to discuss the other SC candidates on HER blog. I can foresee, however, it coming up as a criticism of Catherine and her blog even though she herself is not endorsing any candidates. I also can see this turn into a bad situation. If you want to find out about the candidates first hand, talk/email them, look at their websites, listen to their presentations. The candidates are here, its a very different situation, in my mind, than the Superintendent search.

Its not rocket science...

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Anonymous 12:23: Yes, good idea! Everyone should email the candidates and ask them questions directly -- and attend forums where I hope they will be pushed to answer real and specific questions.

Alison: I agree that requirements should be examined ... I'm planning to do a blog posting on this soon.

Anonymous 6:09: I agree that it could not and should not be an either/or. And for me, I'd focus more on the process used than the particular goals even. So, I believe we need to do much more evaluation and comparison ... and I'm focused on this as a process by which we can make changes. But this process can be used to examine how we help kids who are struggling, kids who are identified as special ed, kids who are ELL, kids who want to go to Harvard, etc. I'm not focused on any group -- I'm focused on the process in which we make decisions, and I think if that process works well (better than it currently does) that is to the betterment of all kids in all groups.

Harlen: Good question! I like when people don't post anonymously, but I understand that people do sometimes feel they need to do that. And I think many of the questions/suggestions raised on my blog have been useful to me -- at least I know what some issues/concerns are, and in some cases, I've learned valuable information.

Neil/Abbie: I believe that since candidates for SC may well be reading this blog, it is probably better for people not to criticize them ... just because it could be hurtful (or frankly, WRONG, since people sometimes give information that isn't accurate) -- which seems unfortunate, particularly since it could be done by anonymous posters. I do believe that all three candidates have strengths, and it is up to each individual person in this community to choose the person/people with those strengths that they most value. And I just hope people will take the time to become educated about all three candidates and to VOTE!

Ed said...

but if your kid achieves a 3.5 GPA or better, he/she is going to get into a VERY good college; achieve 3.8 or better, he/she is going to get into the top tier of colleges.

Get in, yes -- be prepared for it, I am not so sure.

I don't have access to the GPAs of ARHS grads so I might be discussing those lower in the class, but some of the writing and reasoning skills (or LACK THEREOF) is a real issue.