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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Regional Meeting, June 23, 2009

This was a really, really long meeting -- it lasted over 3 hours. In addition, ACTV was NOT there (probably due to taping Town Meeting), so I'm going to do my best to really summarize it ... but I'd strongly encourage you to also check out the full meeting minutes when they are posted on the ARPS website because by the end, my note taking abilities were likely falling short.

We started with a few announcements from the superintendent (who was leading, for the final time, a SC meeting). These included a thank you to Marianne Jorgensen (who served for 9 years, I believe, and attended her last meeting last night), enthusiasm about attending the ARHS graduation at few weeks ago, and an update on the special education review. The Request for Proposals (RFP) for the special education review is nearly complete, and will be circulated to the SC and superintendent Rodriguez for comments before it goes out. Then, companies/groups put in bids to do the work, and a committee will meet to review the bids and choose who does the review. This review is being paid for out of funds from the economic stimulus package, and this review will include a cost-benefit analysis of our current programs. Information on the findings will be presented publicly. Finally, Dr. Rodriguez has hired a consultant to analyze some data on our district, and that person will be doing this work from July 3rd to 13th.

We then turned to the ARHS school improvement plan. I believe this report (power point) is being put on the ARPS website, so I'm not going to go over each of the slides. But here are the key things I took from the report: the high school has lost a lot of funds (8.2 teachers, lots of instructional supplies), there will be much less flexibility in moving between classes next year as a result of the loss of teachers, and the budgets for the future are dismal. This means that we need to make pretty major changes -- not just small cuts (like eliminating low enrolled classes/teams).

The faculty voted (49 to 25) to keep the trimester system, which is their right in the contract, but this has some major consequences -- with a change to a semester, students would only need to take one study hall whereas now they need to take two. The cost of moving to one study hall in a trimester is about 5.2 teachers -- or $270,000.

We also discussed course enrollment. Although the HS has a mean of 22 students per class, this number is pretty misleading because many of the electives have space only for 15 to 20 students, which brings the mean down. There are core academic classes (including math, social studies and world language) with class sizes as high as 27/28, and even 30. The SC asked for a report on class enrollments by all classes, which Mark Jackson said he would send to us.

We then discussed graduation requirements (which are lower, at least in math/science, in our high school than in many of our comparison districts). Some preliminary data on this issue has been gathered, and there is good news and bad news. The good news is that most students seem to be taking more than the minimum required (which is two years of math and two years of science). However, there are exceptions to this trend for students in some sub-groups (race, free/reduced lunch, gender, special ed), and Mark will do a report on this in the fall for the SC. Farshid noted that even if most students are taking more than the required, it still sends a message to students about our expectations. Mark also noted that taking more years of math/science opens doors for students in terms of future opportunities, and thus is important.

We then discussed Student Activities, and how all support for the clubs (teachers get a stipend of $544 per club they advise) has been dropped. The School Council/Parent Center are therefore running a campaign to raise $25,000 to add stipends for clubs next year. This campaign will get running this fall.

Next, Mark noted that all ARHS are now using PowerSchool, and that a parent portal to power school will be piloted next year.

He then reported on the two alternative high schools (South Amherst Campus and East Street), and his goal to increase alignment between these schools and the main campus. This will mean creating a program of studies for these schools, integrating students into the standard 9th grade curriculum (starting next year with world civilization), and increasing contact with guidance counselors.

Finally, he reported on the problem of students exceeding the absence limit -- as many as 263 students exceeded the absence limit in at least one course in the spring trimester, which means in theory they should not receive credit (but in reality are often earning an A or B). The HS is now contemplating making some type of change in their enforcement of this policy.


We then turned to the school improvement plan for the middle school. This presentation started with an overview of the model used in our middle school called "Turning Points" (which you can google to learn more about), and then turned towards the specific goals, process, and update of both the 2008-2009 year and the 2009-2010 year. The big issue (not surprisingly) is budget -- there are now 3 teams in both 7th and 8th, and next year there will be 2 1/2 teams in 7th and 2 teams in 8th. This means that teachers will have larger classes, and more grading.

Next, this presentation included information on outcomes -- related to MCAS data (English, math), Reading (as measured by the DRP), and discipline. The MCAS data reveal that most students in both English and math are scoring at the proficient level. The DRP data reveal that most kids show either greater than expected (nationally) or expected reading growth during the MS. The discipline data show that fewer kids are receiving suspensions from 2001 to 2009.

The MS then presented the two goals for the current year (which are the same as the goals for the upcoming year). These goals are (1) achievement and academic excellence and equity for every student, and (2) enhanced communication between home & school. In terms of the first goal, there is work occurring now and next year on differentiating of instruction, common assessments (not just waiting for MCAS scores), increasing rigor for students who need academic support, and inquiry groups. In terms of the second goal, students now learn of team assignments PRIOR to the start of school, there is much more contact between MS principals and elementary school principals as well as 6th grade teachers, there was an evening orientation presented in March which was attended by 240 (of the 260) 6th grade parents, and the Family-School Partnership has hosted coffees/lunches (although these were not well attended). There is also on-going work on keeping the website updated, although this will be hard with increasing budget cuts which reduce staff.

In terms of next year, there will be work in all core academic areas to examine the effectiveness of the challenges/extensions provided (are enough students getting to do this work?). Current and past students/parents are being surveyed, and focus groups may be held. There will also be a survey of families to determine what type of communication from school is most helpful. Currently, families have a single conference in 7th grade, and no conference in 8th grade, which may be inadequate in terms of keeping updated on students' progress. There will be more work on training teachers/students/parents to use on-line grading to improve information.

Finally, there was a brief discussion of whether Turning Points is the most effective model. The School Governance Council believes it is, because of its focus on relationships, and that we should continue to use this model (but make sure it is working well).

Members of the committee then asked a number of questions (which I tried to write down, though I may have missed some -- if so, apologies, and again, what for the official minutes). Andy asked two questions: could the parent portal be used to give parents information about homework assigned each night (which he would find helpful) and how well is the extensions model working for math? He also wondered why the MS has regular 8th grade math and honors algebra, instead of a regular algebra option (an excellent question that I've asked before -- and I still can't see the rationale for this). Answers to these are going to be provided later.

Farshid then noted that the issue of regular algebra as an 8th grade option was being discussed on the math curriculum council, and that, in theory, once Impact 1-2-3 is fully implemented (which is two years away), all 8th graders will have completed algebra.

Steve then asked a question about whether Turning Points was the right model to use, seeing as this is NOT a widely used model, and seeing as this is the only MSAN school that used this model. He noted that many middle schools do use teams, but that Turning Points is a particular approach that is not widely used. He also noted that we should be assessing the effectiveness of extensions, and that there are many middle schools that use tracked math in 6th or 7th grade. He specifically noted Princeton, NJ (a MSAN district, where I attended middle and high school) tracks students for math in 6th grade, and that their "low track" gets all kids through algebra in 8th grade, and that their "high track" gets kids through algebra in 7th grade (and the kids then do algebra II in 8th grade).

I then asked a question about whether there was data on differences in the DRP and/or MCAS scores as a function of team, based on the very different comments I heard from MS parents about the type of work/expectations/feedback provided by teachers on different teams. Glenda said this type of data was going to be analyzed next year. I also asked a question regarding the differences in how MCAS scores look in English (most kids are proficient) and math (some kids are proficient, but there is much more variability). Mike Hayes remarked that this trend is typical of state-wide scores -- and does not reflect the Amherst experience in particular.

Kathleen then asked how the district's commitment to social justice is being carried out. Glenda responded that she would prepare a written summary to answer this question, which she would send to the committee.

There was then a brief discussion of whether the SC would continue to take School Choice seats in 7th and 8th grade. The current recommendation is NOT to do so, given the increased class sizes already, but that final decisions will be made soon (as final enrollments in the MS become clearer over the summer). Tracy Farnham asked about the number of applications, and I asked about how many of those applications are from siblings of students currently in the district. We learned that there are 8 applications in total, and that two are from siblings.

The meeting then turned to the final presentation of the night, which was by Fran Ziperstein and Mike Hayes, on professional development and evaluation. This presentation was very thorough (and the SC had received copies of all materials in advance, so they were not reviewed again at the meeting), so we turned right away to questions (it was also VERY late by this point). There were a number of questions, including issues of how evaluations are conducted (a three-step process, in which a teacher describes the lesson he/she will do, then the observer watches it, and then they meet to discuss it), who does the evaluation (usually the principal, but could be the vice principal or department chair), and the challenge of doing professional development in the face of increasing budget cuts. It was noted that the superintendent really needs to take the lead on evaluations -- setting this as a priority and making sure it happens.

We then turned to a few small items of business: setting a date for the summer conference with leaders from the MA School Committee organization (July 22nd), accepting generous gifts from various sources, and postponing the report from the "How Are We Doing" Subcommittee (this will be a very interesting report -- I'm part of this subcommittee -- and I do hope we eventually get to address this!). We also delayed discussing a motion presented by Steve Rivkin to collect data related to the possibility of moving 6th grade to the MS -- it was noted that the hour was late and that it would be good to have the new superintendent in town to begin such discussions.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Amherst Meeting, June 18, 2009

This meeting began with three announcements from the superintendent: she has been attending (and enjoying!) 6th grade graduations at the various elementary schools, the schools' budgets will be presented at Town Meeting starting on Monday (June 22nd), and the parents/staff surveys are continuing to come in from all schools (today is, I believe, the final deadline). She also noted that student surveys will be administered this fall. Mike Morris also thanked the Crocker Farm community for responding to a student in need.

We then turned to the School Improvement Plan for Fort River, which was presented by principal Ray Sharick. I don't want to give a long summary of this (because there were multiple handouts and I don't want to not do the presentation justice), but there were three specific goals noted: curriculum (across all areas, including an examination of data for how students in general and by subgroup were performing), instruction (with a particular emphasis on differentiation), and other (which included scheduling and communication). Members of the SC asked a few questions, including how consistent curriculum was both within different classrooms at Fort River and across the different schools (Steve), plans for hiring a new assistant principal (me), concern about the potentially negative impact of the word "subgroup" (Kathleen), how social justice was being implemented/seen (Kathleen), how data was being used (Andy), how science and social studies fit into the curriculum, given the lack of MCAS accountability on these subjects (me). The answers were (briefly) - consistency is a work in progress (some grades better than others), new assistant principal to be hired as soon as possible (probably July), "subgroup" is a widely-used term in MCAS but is problematic in a sense, social justice is seen in high achievement by all students (regardless of demographics), looking at data is just beginning, and science/social studies alternate throughout the year (unlike math/English) but time is always tight and limited.

Next, principal Nick Yaffe described the Mark's Meadow School Improvement Plan. This plan had five goals: inquiry, teaching/learning/curriculum, belonging and caring, social justice and anti-bias curriculum, and connections to our community. (Again, I'm not going to summarize ALL of the parts of this presentation but they will be summarized in the SC minutes, which will be posted on the web in a few weeks). Members of the SC then had various questions, including how science is implemented at MM (Steve), how the anti-bias curriculum ("Undoing Racism) was implemented (Kathleen) how the Investigations math curriculum works at MM (me), and how the major 6th grade UN trip works into the curriculum (me). The answers were (again, briefly) - there is a greater focus on consistency of science units across the district, thanks to the work of science coordinator Pat Cahill; the Undoing Racism workshops were presented to all staff/teachers on curriculum days (three days throughout the year) with homework in between; the Investigations math curriculum has worked OK for the English language learners but needed some revision by teachers and we need some more time to assess its effectiveness; and the UN trip is part of a 6th grade course of study on "world regions" and is very educational and enjoyable.

Nick then talked about the plans for the closing of Marks Meadow at the end of the 2009-2010 school year (this piece of the meeting was summarized in the Gazette article I posted last week). He has written a thoughtful letter which describes what he is sharing with the MM community, which includes focusing on "celebrating who we are as a community" and asking "ourselves what aspect of the Mark's Meadow spirit we will take with us when we go to a new school." I believe Nick spoke thoughtfully and sincerely about the type of leadership he will bring to the school, and indeed to the district, in the upcoming year (which will be a challenging one for all kids/families/staff/teachers/schools).

Next, and relatedly, the superintendent described the redistricting plan update. Proposals were requested from multiple firms which consult in educational redistricting and capacity analysis, and the services of a firm (DeJong-Healy) in Ohio have been secured (for $4,750). They will review the proposals made this far, and will develop a recommendation for how to redistrict (based on demographic projections and capacity at the three current schools). This work will be completed by June 29, 2009.

We then had some discussion on this process. Steve noted that other schools do close, and we should learn from schools/districts that have handled this transition well. He also noted that the community of MM is all facing the same challenge (e.g., their school is closing) together, whereas students at the other schools would face a less cohesive challenge (e.g., some students would be moving, others not). I then asked about whether we were considering the placement of 6th grade in these plans, given that redistricting 1300 students to three buildings has different implications than redistricting 1100 students (and hence lines might be drawn in different places). Maria noted that the proposal was to redistrict K to 6, and hence that was the focus of this firm, but it might be possible to also ask for lines to be drawn for K to 5. I noted that redistricting once K to 6 and then again (in a few years) K to 5 could involve having some kids have three transitions during elementary school, and hence we really needed to think through these issues at the same time. I felt this was particularly important since some MM families have been highly concerned about both very large schools (with 1300 kids, it would probably be 500 kids, 450 kids, 350 kids, whereas with 1100 kids, it would be 400-400-300) and the use of so many half-wall classrooms in the quads at FR and WW (we would need to use 23 or 24 quad classrooms in FR and WW with 1300 kids, but only 20 or so classrooms with 1100 kids, which means you'd almost eliminate the need for using the inner-most classrooms). Steve agreed with these points, and we asked to have this on the agenda for the regional meeting on June 23rd.

Finally, we accepted some gifts, discussed plans for upcoming meetings (including the potential of moving to a place in which we could have "live" meetings), and learned that the WW school improvement plan would be presented this fall.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Mark's Meadow looks to navigate 'uncharted waters'

By NICK GRABBE - Hampshire Gazette
Thursday, June 18, 2009

AMHERST - Now that the School Committee has decided to close Mark's Meadow School a year from now, the next challenges are how to help the children deal with the upheaval and what school they will attend in 2010.

Principal Nick Yaffe told the committee Thursday that he wants next year to be "a celebratory, meaningful time." He wants to find out what children are saying and feeling about their school closing, and then discern how to make it a positive transition, he said.

"We are moving together into uncharted waters," he said. "As far as I know, there is not a manual describing how to guide a school through a closing year."

Yaffe said that when children ask him about the closing, he responds that there's still a lot of time left for learning and having fun at Mark's Meadow.

"Rather than thinking of next year as one in which the closing of our school is looming over our heads like a foreboding cloud, I would like it to be a year of celebrating who we are as a community," he said.

He hopes that children, families and staff can think about revitalizing "the Mark's Meadow spirit," and next spring ask how it can be transferred to new schools.

The School Governance Council will coordinate the transition. This fall there will be new staff members at Mark's Meadow coming from the other three elementary schools who can serve as "bridge-builders," he said.

"We have started to brainstorm other ways, such as #buddy classrooms,' to connect and familiarize our students with the other schools," Yaffe said. "While there will inevitably be a sense of sadness and loss, this can also be a time of coming together to create a memorable year."

He urged anyone with ideas about how to handle the transition to contact him at

Incoming Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez has experience in closing a school, said Maria Geryk, the interim superintendent.

The schools have hired DeJong-Healy of Dublin, Ohio to review a preliminary proposal for redrawing the elementary district lines and make recommendations. Their work is to be completed next week.

One of the goals of the redistricting is to equalize the percentage of students in each school who come from low-income households. Currently, Crocker Farm School has a much higher percentage than the others.

Other goals should include minimizing busing and keeping friends and neighborhoods together, said School Committee member Steve Rivkin.

Nick Grabbe can be reached at

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What Do Other Colleges/Universities Do?

There has been a lot of debate -- in the newspapers, on my blog, and certainly elsewhere -- on what the role of the colleges/universities should be in contributing to the local schools. As I've noted, Amherst College has always allowed some number (I believe it was 30) high school students to take classes for free -- and this year, this cap has been eliminated so that all high school students who want to (and are qualified to) take classes at Amherst College can. U Mass, in contrast, charges high school students $1200 per class. I also was pleased to learn that Amherst College provided a campus space (Buckley Auditorium) at no cost for the recent (and truly excellent) high school wind ensemble concert. In contrast, the school district pays $13,000 to use the Mullins Center for high school graduation.

This debate is going to intensify next year as the school district stops using the Marks Meadow space owned by U Mass as an elementary school -- and the question then becomes whether U Mass will allow the district to use this space for other purposes (such as consolidating the alternative high schools in this space, or using this space for district offices to allow the 6th grade to move to the middle school), or whether U Mass will compensate the district for the 52 students who attend our public schools and live in tax-free U Mass housing. As I've said repeatedly, I believe it is strongly in U Mass and the colleges' interest for our public schools to be strong -- it is one of the first questions potential faculty and staff ask when considering a job. We've seen examples of how Amherst College is stepping up (reducing the cap on high school students taking free classes, assisting with the Pipeline program, providing auditorium space at no cost). And after the district stops using the Marks Meadow building as an elementary school, I very much hope that U Mass will step up next year and compensate the district in some way (space, money, and/or services) for the cost of educating the 52 children living in tax-exempt housing who we educate in our schools.

Along these same lines of the town-gown relationships, an anonymous poster asked for information on how Williams College contributes to the local schools, so I'm posting an article from the Bulletin last January that addresses this issue.

Should Amherst College match Williams on town aid?
BY Nick Grabbe
Amherst Bulletin, January 18, 2008

Evelyn Sullivan thinks Amherst College, with its $1.66 billion endowment, could do more to ease the town's chronic budget shortfall. And in making her case, she pokes the college in a sensitive spot.

Sullivan moved to Amherst in 2001 after teaching in the Williamstown elementary school for 25 years. Williams College has made major financial commitments to Williamstown that deserve to be emulated, she said.

"Since Amherst and Williams are athletic rivals, why can't their rivalry extend off the playing fields?" she asked in a letter to the Amherst Bulletin. "The challenge for each college would be to rival each other in supporting their schools and town."

Others warn that tapping in to a rivalry is no way to strengthen an institution's connection to its hometown.

To call the two colleges "athletic rivals" is to underplay the intensity when their teams face each other. And as two of the top small liberal arts colleges in the country, Amherst and Williams also compete for students and faculty.

But in the arena of assisting their host communities financially, Williams College seems to be ahead, according to information supplied by officials at the two campuses.

Williams College has committed $1.5 million to the construction of a new elementary school and an endowment for the building, $777,000 toward a $3.5 million renovation of Williamstown's main street, and $4 million to a group that seeks to improve the number and quality of jobs in Berkshire County.

"The health of the college and of the community are entwined," said Williams spokesman James Kolesar. "Current and future Williams students will benefit from the existence of strong local institutions. And, like all citizens, the college has responsibilities to contribute to our community's well-being."

Amherst College already makes contributions to Amherst and negotiations are under way to increase them. President Tony Marx has advocated closer ties between campus and community.

"Amherst College is 100 percent committed to the local community and school system, and we are always looking for meaningful ways to support both," he said this week. "While we already contribute a great deal to the town and schools -- in terms of funding as well as the time and energy of our students, faculty and staff -- we are constantly assessing and discussing how we may do more."

Last September, at a community luncheon, Marx said the town's recurring budget deficits are putting the public school system at risk.

"Every year I hear the public school administrators saying that the school is now cutting into bone, and that's scary as a parent to hear and it's scary as a business leader to hear because I have to attract people to live here," Marx said at the time.

Marx said he plans to meet next week with Town Manager Larry Shaffer to "explore other opportunities for cooperation and support."

Shaffer said he would like to see Amherst College reimburse the town at least for the cost of providing the campus with fire protection, a deal he has negotiated with the University of Massachusetts. Shaffer said he would be "delighted" if the Amherst-Williams rivalry motivated the college to do more.

"But it isn't only about leveraging as much money as possible," Shaffer said. "It's about establishing a relationship that asks Amherst College to think about the town in its future plans. 'Give us money' isn't the responsible way to approach Amherst College. Better is 'This is the impact on the town, and we believe it's appropriate as a matter of equity for you to assist us.'"

Tricky calculations
Calculating the value of a college's contributions to its community is not easy. Comparing it to another's is especially tricky.

Williams College is a much bigger part of Williamstown than Amherst College is of Amherst. There is no state university in Williamstown, a town of 8,000 residents (a quarter of them Williams students) compared to Amherst's 35,000 population (including students). And Williams' $1.9 billion endowment is higher than Amherst College's.

Although tax exempt on land and buildings used for educational purposes, Williams and Amherst colleges are the largest taxpayers in their respective towns for other properties they own, just as Smith College pays the most taxes in Northampton ($476,274 in the last fiscal year). Colleges are steady employers, stabilizing their regions' economies and are major sources of spending for local businesses. Smith estimates that it spends $12 million a year in the community and students and visitors spend $3.5 million more.

In addition, there are cultural advantages to having a campus in town. Residents can attend lectures, concerts and plays, they can use athletic facilities if accompanied by a college employee and can even audit courses. Colleges also make donations to hospitals and United Way campaigns.

Williamstown has a higher average property value than Amherst ($385,515 vs. $330,926), but it has a lower average tax bill ($4,426 vs. $5,189).

'Unmet responsibilities'
Amherst College has unmet responsibilities to its host community and should make a substantial payment to the town, said Mary Wentworth, a Town Meeting member who has maintained that the college should use its wealth to do more. It owns 1,000 acres in town, and the land and the buildings on them are tax-exempt, she said.

"One of the things Amherst has done for Amherst College over the years is to maintain a bucolic atmosphere," Wentworth said. "It's a small town, it's safe and very pleasant, and parents coming here to visit can see what a nice place it is. They see their kids wouldn't be in danger and would get an excellent education."

Elaine Brighty has seen both sides as a longtime School Committee member, former Amherst College employee and faculty spouse. She said talking publicly about the Williams-Amherst rivalry isn't the way to go about conversations with the college.

"Everyone says we'd like more money, and we have to wait and see how it works out," she said. "Amherst College isn't going to save the schools or the town. Amherst as a town has to save itself, working with the colleges."

The rivalry is not relevant or constructive to town-gown cooperation, said Peter Fohlin, town manager in Williamstown.

"There is no limit to what the college can do for the town, and no limit to what the town can do for the college to make this a better place to live for everyone," he said.

State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, has for many years sought higher state payments to the town to reimburse the costs of hosting the University of Massachusetts.

"These institutions have a series of impacts in the community, providing jobs and economic activity and supporting small business, but all those benefits accrue to individuals and businesses," he said.

"On other side of the ledger, there are impacts that must be addressed by government. The challenge is to find the proper balance so you recognize and celebrate and don't compromise the contributions by institutions, and at the same time find ways for the institutions to be good neighbors and help mitigate the impact they have on the public budgets."

Amherst needs to engage in a symbiotic relationship with Amherst College that benefits both, Shaffer said.

"Amherst College is a very strong institution, and that allows it a degree of independence other entities don't have," he said. "We need to appeal to them based on how our mutual best interests will be served.

A large endowment means you don't need many friends, Shaffer said. "In this world, if you have needs and don't have resources, you need to develop relationships," he said.

"We can make this town a much better place if we work together creatively."

Amherst Meeting Postponed to Thursday, June 18th

For those who check my blog on Tuessday nights/Wednesday mornings to learn about the School Committee meeting, I just wanted to let you know that this week's meeting was postponed to Thursday, June 18th (due to two of the five members being unavailable last night). The topics on this Thursday's agenda are: Fort River school improvement plan, Marks Meadow plans for 2009-2010, and a redistricting transition update. This will be our final Amherst School Committee meeting until the new superintendent begins on July 1st.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How N.J. town, university came to terms

by Nick Grabbe

Monday, June 15, 2009 - Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST - While the town and gown debate who should pay to educate the children of graduate students, school advocates are considering other ways the University of Massachusetts could help the town.

And some are looking southward to the settlement of a lawsuit between Rutgers, the New Jersey state university, and its host community.

The school district in Piscataway, N.J., challenged the tax-exempt status of graduate student housing at Rutgers, where about 65 children live and attend the local schools. A state tax court upheld the tax-exempt status of Rutgers housing last August, but the school district appealed.

In April, the two parties agreed to a settlement that will provide the school district with about $80,000 a year worth of free services, causing Amherst officials to speculate about a similar deal with UMass.

For example, the New Jersey agreement sets up a work-study program that will enable Rutgers students to work in the school district and be paid by the federal government, according to a story on the Web site

Amherst School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said that UMass work-study students working in the school libraries or cafeterias could ease the budget crunch.

Piscataway also plans to use the $80,000 in credits to hold graduation at Rutgers; it cost Amherst $13,000 to rent the Mullins Center last Saturday. It would also like to use the Rutgers pool and send teachers there for training.

Under the settlement, Rutgers will lobby state officials for payments to help cover the cost of educating children whose parents live in tax-exempt housing. The university will also provide a head football or basketball coach to speak at a fundraiser for the local schools, according to

UMass may have difficulty paying the cost of renovating Mark's Meadow Elementary School building for a few years, and should consider letting the school district continue to use it for another purpose, such as the alternative high school program, Sanderson said.

Her employer, Amherst College, has lifted the cap on the number of high school students who can take free classes on campus, whereas UMass charges $1,200 a class, she said.

"Why not, for every child in graduate student housing, have UMass provide free space to an Amherst student?" she asked.

Tight times test Amherst, UMass pact


Monday, June 15, 2009 - Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST - The knotty financial relationship between the University of Massachusetts and the town of Amherst has reached a new level of entanglement as both seek scarce state dollars.

State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, has questioned Amherst's attempt to get money from UMass for services the town provides. And Town Manager Larry Shaffer said he wants to revisit a town-gown agreement three years before it's due to expire and explore a range of topics of mutual interest.

The trigger for the current debate was the Amherst School Committee's decision May 19 to close Mark's Meadow Elementary School, a property UMass owns, a year from now. In return for ceding the building to campus use, Amherst officials would like UMass to reimburse part of the cost of educating about 50 children of graduate students who live in tax-exempt housing.

The two issues are linked in the town-gown agreement, but it says only that UMass "may" reimburse the town for a portion of those costs if Mark's Meadow closes. Shaffer said he wants to negotiate some reimbursement from UMass next year.

"It's a matter of principle and an equity issue," he said. "It's logical and fair for the state to compensate taxpayers for its expenses tied to students."

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said the closure of Mark's Meadow represents a change in the status quo between UMass and the town and some balancing of accounts is warranted.

"I'm puzzled as to why it seems fair for the school district to take a loss in terms of the building and not gain money, and for UMass to benefit from the additional space and not pay anything," she said.

But from Rosenberg's viewpoint, Amherst should count its blessings as all cities and towns in Massachusetts cope with a decline in state aid. The state already pays, indirectly, for the education of those 50 children, he said.

Population factor

Amherst gets a high level of state money because UMass students count in the population figures used to calculate local aid, Rosenberg said. The students skew downward the town's per capita income, which helps draw in state aid, he said.

Students living on campus were removed from the state's calculation of Amherst's population in the 1980s, but then reinserted, he said.

"They can by amendment be removed," Rosenberg said. "There's no plan to do that; it's #out of sight, out of mind.' I don't think there is a risk, but you never know. In this business, you let sleeping dogs lie."

Some mayors and municipal leaders from struggling communities ask why Amherst's state aid is as high as it is, Rosenberg said.

"If the students were removed from the formula, we'd see a drop in local aid that would be significantly higher than the cost of educating those children," he said.

That cost is estimated at $700,000 a year, but Amherst is seeking a lower amount because some of the revenue that pays those expenses already comes from the state. Amherst is getting about $17 million from the state this year, funding 23 percent of its budget.

It isn't any easier for UMass to put cash on the table than the town, Rosenberg said. And campus officials have estimated the economic impact of UMass on Amherst at $172 million a year.

"This is a very difficult moment for everybody," Rosenberg said. "The major employer in the region is under the most extraordinary fiscal stress they've been under in decades. I think we have to be conscious of that and not be overly ambitious about what can be done."

But Sanderson said UMass will feel the hurt if budget cuts diminish the appeal of living in Amherst to prospective faculty members and graduate students.

"The university benefits from having a top-quality educational institution here," she said. "People being recruited by colleges always ask how the public schools are."

Shaffer said that when he was town administrator in Durham, N.H., in the 1990s, he worked on an agreement with the University of New Hampshire that produced a contract providing the host community with reimbursement of the net costs of educating children of graduate students living in tax-exempt housing.

Amherst is expecting to absorb a 22 percent cut in state aid next year. Meanwhile, it had to pay $76,000 in weekend overtime to police officers keeping order at off-campus parties this spring, he said.

The town's annual police budget is about $4 million. If the student residents were single-family homeowners, Amherst would not need such a large police force, Shaffer said.

He said he "respectfully disagrees" with Rosenberg's position on students counting in the state aid formula, and called the questioning of Amherst's aid level by other cities and towns "completely outrageous."

"This suggests that we are two communities, that somehow the university is an impenetrable fortress that has no influence on our town," he said. "The university enjoys a tax exemption and enjoys the benefit of having these students educated in our schools. It's eminently fair to have this conversation."

Shaffer said he also wants to talk with UMass about the reconstruction of North Pleasant Street, a town road that runs through the campus, and the new power plant, while campus officials may want to talk about water and sewer rates.

There are many economic and cultural benefits to the town from hosting the state university, and the aid formula is one of them, said UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. He said campus officials have received no official request to revisit the town-gown agreement.

"We think it's important to have a vibrant and beneficial partnership with the community, and are open to discussions of the best way to work together and achieve joint goals," he said.

Nick Grabbe can be reached at

Friday, June 12, 2009

Amherst committee eyes 'snapshot' of comparable schools

By NICK GRABBE - Hampshire Gazette
Friday, June 12, 2009

The school district wants to measure its performance and learn how it compares to similar towns.

The "How Are We Doing" subcommittee has met three times over the past year. It has compiled lists of criteria to use in a kind of annual report on the schools and of districts that are demographically comparable.

"We want to have clear data to look at year to year, so we're not just looking at MCAS or other single measures," said Andy Churchill a member of the subcommittee. "We want a more detailed snapshot we can look at to see trends."

Student achievement could be measured by the percentage of: elementary students reading and doing math at grade level; students found proficient on MCAS; SAT scores; National Merit scholars; and high school students with one or more D or F grades. Other criteria include the average daily attendance, graduation rate and the percentage of seniors going on to college.

The other measurements the subcommittee suggested using are course offerings and requirements, coursework completed, number of expulsions and suspensions, satisfaction as determined by surveys, and extracurricular activities.

The subcommittee looked for similar communities. Amherst's elementary schools serve 1,310 students, who are 56 percent White, 14 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian and 8 percent African American, with 27 percent low-income.

The regional schools serve 1,786 students, who are 71 percent White, 10 percent Asian, 8 percent African American and 8 percent Hispanic, with 16 percent low-income.

One community the subcommittee cited is Northampton. It is similar in size and comparable in low-income students, but is less racially diverse. Longmeadow is also similar in size to Amherst, but is less diverse and has few low-income students.

The subcommittee also looked at Brookline, which is somewhat larger than Amherst and has fewer low-income students, but a similar level of diversity.

Framingham is larger and more racially diverse and serves more low-income students, while Newton is larger, less racially diverse, and serves fewer low-income students.

The subcommittee also suggested comparing Amherst to these out-of-state communities: Chapel Hill, N.C., Evanston, Ill., Montclair, N.J., Oak Park, Ill., Princeton, N.J., Shaker Heights, Ohio, and White Plains, N.Y.

Nick Grabbe can be reached at

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Education Matters: Let research, evidence guide the curriculum

Published on June 12, 2009 - Amherst Bulletin

Shrinking budgets force administrators to choose how to spend scarce dollars. We believe that rigorous evaluation of existing programs and comprehensive comparisons of possible new curricula or programs are core components of prudent and responsible resource allocation regardless of financial conditions.

Although school district leaders have bemoaned the lack of capacity to enact evidence-based decision-making processes, we believe that lack of capacity has not been the constraint.

Rather we believe that the historical reluctance of the Amherst school district to conduct this type of evaluation seems to have been one of philosophy about how decisions are made, driven in part by the beliefs that Amherst is so unique as to make the experiences of other districts irrelevant and that quantitative data have little to offer.

Compare the recent processes used to adopt an elementary school mathematics curriculum in Amherst and in Framingham, MA, a district similar to our own in terms of student demographics.

In 2007, then Amherst superintendent Jere Hochman chose to purchase the most recent version of the Investigations math curriculum (the curriculum already used in our district) without conducting a serious review; money in the budget that had to be spent by June 30th was simply used to purchase this new curriculum. This decision was made in spite of a spirited national debate about the teaching of mathematics and in spite of some local concerns about the curriculum.

Like Amherst, Framingham had also been using Investigations in its schools, but Framingham embarked on a different process in its most recent consideration of elementary school math curriculum. First, a committee examined seven different math programs and narrowed the list to two (the new version of Investigations and an alternative). The committee then conducted a "pilot test" in which four elementary schools used one curriculum and the other four elementary schools used the other for one year, and all teachers reported their experience using a standardized rubric. The evidence collected from this one year trial strongly favored one of the curricula (which, interestingly, was not Investigations), and this new curriculum was adopted district-wide with substantial support. Note that no outside consultants were hired, as district personnel handled the entire process.

Encouragingly, we see a greater willingness to engage in such evaluation taking hold in our district over the last year. The adoption of the new middle school math textbooks last spring, coordinated by Amherst Regional Middle School Co-Principal Mike Hayes, followed a procedure in which teachers and staff reviewed multiple textbooks using a rubric, selected three finalists, and then sought feedback from parents and community members before making a recommendation to adopt the Impact math series.

One of us (Catherine) has conduced an empirical evaluation of the Pipeline Scholars Program. This is a program created by current Crocker Farm Principal Mike Morris to raise achievement by providing year-round tutoring with Amherst College students and summer classes at Amherst College to support students in Grades 6-10 who are members of subgroups who are underrepresented in honors/AP classes at Amherst Regional High School.

This evaluation, which was conducted at no cost to the district, revealed that students in the Pipeline program scored higher on both the English and math MCAS than students from these subgroups who were not in this program. Finally, both Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk and incoming Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez supported the collection of survey data from parents, students, and teachers/staff at all of the schools to provide valuable information on strengths and areas to target for improvement.

We believe that a commitment to a more rigorous, evidence based decision-making process as well as a belief that we can and should learn from the experience of districts all over the world will lead to a far better use of resources regardless of financial conditions. Moreover, it will send a powerful message to our community that money spent on our schools is money well spent.

Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are members of the Amherst School Committee.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Regional Meeting, June 9, 2009

Tonight's public meeting consisted entirely of honoring teachers and staff in our district. Specific awards were given to four members of the clerical staff, and teachers/staff who had reached 20, 25, 30, and 35 years of service, as well as those who were retiring, were honored. If you have a chance, watch this on TV/internet because special tributes were read aloud by School Committee members (these were written by peers of the honorees), and they were really descriptive in conveying the contributions of each person to the district. We then entered executive session.

Not finding right person, Amherst delays a search


Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

AMHERST - The search for a new assistant superintendent for curriculum and development has been abandoned.

The school district's financial problems were not a factor in the decision to abandon the search. The national economic downturn may have caused some candidates to decide to stay in their jobs, said Kathleen Mazur, the director of human resources.

A committee reviewed 30 resumes and interviewed six candidates for the position, which carries a salary of between $100,000 and $115,000 a year. But no one was hired, and the search will resume in the fall.

"We wanted to find a world-class assistant superintendent, and we saw some terrific people, but their skills didn't translate well into the full range of things we were expecting," said Mazur.

The duties include working with principals on teacher evaluation, mentoring and designing professional development. This year they have been handled by Fran Ziperstein and previously by Wendy Kohler. Next year, a combination of outside consultants and in-house specialists in particular curriculum areas will handle these responsibilities at a cost of $60,000, Mazur said.

School Committee member Irv Rhodes called the suspension of the search "shocking" and said, "Not having an extra pair of hands, especially for teacher evaluation, leaves a giant hole."

Meanwhile, the latest list of proposed cuts shows the equivalent of 29.6 full-time positions in the regional schools and 23.59 at the elementary level.

Assistant principals at the high school and middle school are on the cut list. At the high school, cuts include 8.2 teacher positions, half a student activities coordinator position and one guidance counselor. At the middle school, cuts include five team teachers, two other teachers, a .4-time performing music teacher and a guidance counselor or librarian. Four paraprofessional positions and four support staff are on the cut list.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The 8th Grade Algebra Debate

There has been a lot of interest on my blog, and in the community, in 8th grade algebra, so I've posted an interesting summary by the Brookings Institute on this topic below. Let me make a few points here first.

First, I'm definitely in favor of increasing the % of our 8th graders who take algebra. Taking 8th grade algebra is virtually the only way (other than doubling up on math classes in high school or going to summer school) to be able to take calculus in high school -- and taking calculus in high school opens many doors to college classes and majors (math, economics, sciences). Again, this does not mean EVERYONE should take calculus ... it means that it would be good if more students had the OPTION to take calculus (which means they need to take 8th grade algebra).

Second, there are districts (some in California most famously) in which people said "let's make them all take algebra in 8th grade" -- and this is, I think, a bad idea. So, increasing the % of our kids in 8th grade algebra does NOT mean just enrolling all of them in that class! It means seeing what skills are necessary to succeed in 8th grade algebra, and then making sure that our entire curriculum (K to 7) prepares ALL kids to get these skills. It may also mean adding a regular algebra class for those who COULD do algebra but aren't ready for HONORS algebra (currently our only option).

One more thing, for those (like me) who like numbers from other districts: As part of my work on the math curriculum council, I contacted math curriculum leaders in other MSAN (Minority Student Achievement Districts) and asked the following questions: What percent of students take 8th grade algebra (and of these, what percent take 8th grade algebra and are then ready to move on to geometry in 9th)? These districts were: Arlington (VA), Brookline (MA), Cambridge (MA), Champaign (IL), Chapel Hill (NC), Framingham (MA), Evanston (IL), Princeton (NJ), Newton (MA), Windsor (CT). Here is what I found.

  • In Amherst, roughly 35% of 8th graders take algebra, and most of these move on to 9th grade geometry. Two to three percent of 7th graders take algebra, and then take geometry in 8th grade.
  • In some districts, most or all 8th graders take algebra and move on to geometry in 9th grade (80% in Chapel Hill; 80 to 85% in Princeton; 100% in Brookline).
  • In other districts, approximately half of 8th graders take algebra and then move on to geometry (52% in Arlington; 50% in Framingham; 55% in Newton).
  • In still other districts, fewer than half of students take 8th grade algebra and move on to 9th grade geometry (43% in Champaign; 34% in Evanston; 26% in Windsor).
  • In Cambridge, no 8th graders take algebra.
Moreover, in several school districts, a relatively sizable proportion of 7th graders take algebra and then as 8th graders take geometry or algebra II (10 to 15% of kids in Evanston; 15 to 20% in Princeton; 13 to 15% in Chapel Hill; one class each year in Arlington).

In sum, the percentage of 8th graders taking algebra in Amherst compares favorably or at least equally to some of these districts (Cambridge, Champaign, Windsor, Evanston). However, our percentage is lower than that in the majority of these districts (Arlington, Brookline, Chapel Hill, Framingham, Newton, Princeton). The districts which are most similar to Amherst in terms of the percentage of students finishing 8th grade algebra (Champaign, Evanston, Windsor) all have approximately 40% low income children (more than double that of Amherst).

Two more points to note: none of these districts reported using an "extensions" model to prepare students for 8th grade algebra, and none of these districts reported teaching only "honors algebra" (instead of regular algebra) in 8th grade. These seem to be two areas in which Amherst is unique.

The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra

Tom Loveless
, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution, September 22, 2008

(Web link:

The following is a special advanced release of a Brown Center report on eighth grade algebra levels. The full report will be published in February 2009.

Algebra in eighth grade was once reserved for the mathematically gifted student. In 1990, very few eighth graders, about one out of six, were enrolled in an algebra course. As the decade unfolded, leaders began urging schools to increase that number. President Clinton lamented, “Around the world, middle students are learning algebra and geometry. Here at home, just a quarter of all students take algebra before high school.”1 The administration made enrolling all children in an algebra course by eighth grade a national goal. In a handbook offering advice to middle school students on how to plan for college, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley urged, “Take algebra beginning in the eighth grade and build from there.”2 Robert Moses ratcheted up the significance of the issue by labeling algebra “The New Civil Right,” thereby highlighting the social consequences of so many poor and minority students taking remedial and general math courses instead of algebra.3

The campaign was incredibly successful. Several urban school districts declared a goal of algebra for all eighth graders. In 1996, the District of Columbia led the nation with 53 percent of eighth graders enrolled in algebra. From 1990 to 2000, national enrollment in algebra courses soared from 16 percent to 24 percent of all eighth graders.

The surge continued into the next decade. Eighth-grade enrollment in algebra hit 31 percent nationally in 2007, a near doubling of the 1990 proportion. Today more U.S. eighth graders take algebra than any other math course.4 In July 2008, the State of California decided to adopt an algebra test as its eighth-grade assessment of student proficiency. The policy in effect mandates that all eighth graders will be enrolled in algebra by 2011.

At first glance, this appears to be good news. Transcript studies indicate that 83 percent of students who take geometry in ninth grade, most of whom completed algebra in eighth grade, complete calculus or another advanced math course during high school.5 Research also suggests that students who take algebra earlier rather than later subsequently have higher math skills.6 These findings, however, are clouded by selection effects—by the presence of unmeasured factors influencing who takes algebra early and who takes it late. Schools routinely assign incoming eighth graders to math courses based on how much math students already know. Moreover, it is no surprise that excellent math students want to take the most challenging math courses available to them and that low-achieving students avoid these courses as long as possible. Whether algebra for eighth graders is a good idea, especially for those who have not learned basic arithmetic, cannot be concluded from existing evidence. Studies that test for causality, such as experiments with random assignment of students to treatment and control groups, have not been conducted.

The push for universal eighth-grade algebra is based on an argument for equity, not on empirical evidence. General or remedial math courses tend to be curricular dead-ends, leading to more courses with the same title (for example, General Math 9, General Math 10) and no real progression in mathematical content. By completing algebra in eighth grade—and then completing a sequence of geometry as freshmen, advanced algebra as sophomores, and trigonometry, math analysis, or pre-calculus as juniors—students are able to take calculus in the senior year of high school. Waiting until ninth grade to take algebra makes taking calculus in high school more difficult. From this point of view, expanding eighth-grade algebra to include all students opens up opportunities for advancement to students who previously had not been afforded them, in particular, students of color and from poor families. Democratizing eighth-grade algebra promotes social justice.

1 Remarks by President Clinton, Education Roundtable, Springbrook High School, Silver Spring, Md., March 16, 1998. Available at html.
2 Quoted in Matthew Bowers, “Virginia and the U.S. are Improving Slightly at Math, but We Lag Behind Our Economic Competitors in the Developed World,” The Virginian Pilot, March 28, 1997, p. B3.
3 Robert Moses, “Algebra, the New Civil Right,” in The Algebra Initiative Colloquium, Volume II, edited by Carol Lacampagne and others (U.S. Department of Education, 1995), pp. 53-67.
4 Data available on the main NAEP data explorer: See also Jay Matthews, “Adding Eighth Graders to the Equation,” The Washington Post, March 12, 2007, p. B1.
5 Carolyn Shettle and others, America’s High School Graduates: Results from the 2005 NAEP High School Transcript Study (Department of Education, 2007), p. 11. Other than calculus, advanced math is defined as pre-calculus or AP statistics.
6 Julia B. Smith, “Does an Extra Year Make Any Difference? The Impact of Early Algebra on Long-term Gains in Mathematics Attainment,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 18 no. 2 (1996): 141-153.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

10 steps to world-class U.S. schools

I'm a bit late in my newspaper reading, so I just came across this Op Ed from the Hampshire Gazette earlier this week that I thought really suggested some concrete ways we could do education better (not just in Amherst, but across the country). I found all of these points very interesting -- and I agree with the authors that making these changes would have a dramatic (and I believe beneficial) impact on our education system.

Hampshire Gazette - Wednesday, June 3, 2009


The key to U.S. global stature after World War II was the world's best-educated work force. But now the United States ranks No. 12, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and today's younger generation is the first to be less educated than the preceding one.

No Child Left Behind is about getting our lowest-performing students to minimum standards. That is nowhere near enough. To get us where we need to go, we propose the National World Class Schools Act to replace NCLB. To get its fair share of federal education funds, a state would need to:

1. Set standards for licensing teachers that are high enough to recruit from the top third of college graduates, as the top-performing countries do, and never waive them during a shortage. If we insisted on high standards for our teachers and didn't waive them, teachers' pay would have to rise, a lot, and the pay for those in the shortest supply - math and science teachers, and teachers willing to work in tough inner-city schools and isolated rural areas - would rise the most.

2. Get outstanding students to go into teaching and treat them like professionals, not blue-collar workers in dead-end jobs. That means putting teachers in charge of their schools.

3. Reward schools that do a great job. NCLB penalizes schools when they fail but offers no rewards for outstanding work. Provide cash payments of 10 percent of the school budget every year to every school whose students significantly exceed the statistical predictions of performance for students with the same characteristics. Tell principals and faculties that they will get their normal budgets if their students are making adequate progress toward the standard of ready-for-college-without-remediation by graduation, and that they will be handsomely rewarded if their students are making substantially more progress toward that goal than other schools with similar student bodies. The financial reward should come as a big bonus for the school, and the faculty should decide how to spend it. This is better than rewarding individual teachers on the basis of their students' performance, which is hard to measure and will destroy the team spirit essential to a good school.

4. Hold faculty accountable for student achievement. Take over every school that, after three years, is unable to get at least 90 percent of all major groups of students on track to leave high school ready to enter college without the need to take any remedial courses; do the same for every district in which more than a quarter of the schools are under review for underperformance for three years or more. Declare such schools and districts bankrupt and void all contracts with their staffs.

5. Replace the current accountability tests with high-quality, course-based exams. The way we measure student performance is crucial. Rigor, creativity and innovation in student performance require a high-quality curriculum and exams, and will be impossible to achieve if we continue to use the kind of multiple-choice, computer-scored tests that are common today.

6. Collect a variety of information on school and student performance and make it easily accessible to parents, students and teachers. Allow parents to choose freely among the available public schools.

7. Provide high-quality training and technical assistance to every school whose students are not on track to succeed. Most struggling schools are in chaos; their morale is in the basement and their faculties don't know how to improve things. States have little capacity to fix this; the federal government needs to help.

8. Limit variations in any states' per-pupil expenditures to no more than 5 percent by school, except for the differential cost of educating disadvantaged students and those with disabilities to the same standards as students who don't face those obstacles. In this country, students who need the most help have the lowest school budgets - a formula for national failure.

9. Make a range of social services available to children from low-income families and coordinate those services with those students' school programs. We have the most unequal distribution of income of any industrialized nation. If the problems posed by students' poverty are not dealt with, it may be nearly impossible for schools to educate the students to world-class standards. The state cannot eliminate students' poverty, but it can take steps to alleviate its effects on students' capacity to learn.

10. Offer high-quality early-childhood education to, at a minimum, all 4-year-olds and all low-income 3-year-olds. Students from low-income families entering kindergarten have less than half the vocabulary of other students. In kindergarten and the early grades, those with the smallest vocabularies cannot follow what is going on and fall further behind. By the end of fourth grade, they are so far behind they can never catch up. By the time they are 16 and can legally drop out of school, they do so because they can no longer stand the humiliation of not being able to follow what is going on. That is why we lead the industrialized world in the proportion of students who drop out.

Yes, these are radical proposals. But decades of incremental proposals have brought steadily increasing costs and flat performance. Time is running out. It is hard to make a case that the federal government should continue to fund the states to maintain the status quo.

Brock was secretary of labor in the Reagan administration. Marshall was secretary of labor in the Carter administration. Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). They are leaders of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, an initiative of the NCEE.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Amherst looking for union givebacks

Amherst looking for union givebacks
Hampshire Gazette

Friday, June 5, 2009
AMHERST - With the teachers union not prepared to reduce or eliminate cost-of-living adjustments in the next budget year, getting other municipal unions to adjust their salary arrangements may be a daunting task.

But Town Manager Larry Shaffer said Wednesday that, despite the Amherst-Pelham Education Association's reluctance to give up its negotiated pay raises, he will engage in respectful, courteous discussion with the other unions.

"We will have a conversation with our unions, but I won't predict what their response will be," Shaffer said.

Shaffer has twice sent letters to the police, public works and service employees unions, the three unions on the town side with settled contracts for next year, asking their members to consider forgoing cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) because of the difficult budget year. But all have said that unless the teachers are on board with similar discussions on the COLAs, they would be unwilling to do so.

The COLAs on the town side total about $380,000.

Already, more than nine positions have been removed from next year's budget, and Shaffer said another six to seven jobs could be eliminated to bring the town budget to $18.3 million. The specific positions being cut have not yet been outlined by Shaffer, though department heads are actively working with Shaffer on this task.

Tim Sheehan, president of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, said Wednesday that no meetings are scheduled with the School Committee to discuss the teachers' contract. Instead, teachers are prepared to wait and see how other things play out that affect the budgets for the regional and elementary schools.

"We bargained in good faith," Sheehan said. "It's the obligation of both parties to uphold the terms of the contract."

Sheehan said he was dismayed at the tone of the School Committee meeting this week, at which it was announced that up to 50 full-time equivalents will be laid off and at which committee member Andrew Churchill said he wanted to "send a clear signal" to the association in hopes it would reconsider its decision not to reopen the contract and its wage provisions. The contract calls for 3.5 percent COLAs, and about half of the teachers will also get 4 percent step raises.

Sheehan said Churchill was at the bargaining table when the contracts were negotiated.

He added that there have already been concessions from teachers. First, the union accepted the new health plan for school and town employees that will result in $280,000 in savings for the school budget. This comes by increasing the cost of co-pays for doctor visits and medication purchases, meaning some teachers will see an increase in out-of-pocket expenses.

"Teachers should be acknowledged for that and appreciated," Shaffer said. "It's movement."

With the exception of the fire union, all municipal unions have agreed to this, as well, saving $85,442. "It's a big number, and very gratifying," Shaffer said.

Shaffer said it reduces the amount of premiums the town has to place in its health trust fund and encourages employees to transition to an HMO, which is less expensive for the town.

The teachers union, Sheehan said, is also giving up its stipends for individual teachers and groups of teachers who do high-quality research. Finally, middle school staff recently revised the master schedule, a means of providing more class offerings for students, but which will force staff to work harder during the school day and need to do more work at night, Sheehan said.

At the Tuesday School Committee meeting, member Irv Rhodes called the cuts "devastating and unconscionable."

He said all around the country, teachers are agreeing to concessions rather than sacrificing the jobs of their colleagues. "Adults used to sacrifice for kids, and it wasn't the other way around," he said.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Amherst schools budget calls for 'staggering' cuts

Amherst schools budget calls for 'staggering' cuts
Teacher union won't give up wage hikes
By NICK GRABBE - Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

AMHERST - The Regional School Committee voted 6-1 Tuesday to approve a budget with massive cuts, in response to drastic reductions in state aid.

Member Andrew Churchill said he wanted to "send a clear signal" to the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, in hopes the union will reconsider its decision not to agree to reopen its contract's wage provisions.

The contract provides teachers with a 3.5 percent cost-of-living increase for the next fiscal year, with about half the teachers also getting 4 percent "step" increases. Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk announced the union's decision at Tuesday's School Committee meeting.

The $27.7 million regional school budget, as voted, is 1.2 percent lower than the current year's. The budget would require cuts of the equivalent of 17.66 positions at the high school, 8.2 of them teachers. The middle school cuts would be 9.4 positions, 8.4 of them teachers.

The regional cuts also include elimination of three full-time equivalents in the central office, cuts of three teams and an athletics fee hike at the high school, and giving up $115,250 for professional development. There are also cuts in supplies, books, equipment, and teacher substitutes.

The elementary schools face the loss of the equivalent of 16.55 full-time positions in school-based staff and 6.5 positions in the central office.

No one on the School Committee was happy with the cuts, which total 50 full-time equivalents at both the regional and elementary levels.

Irv Rhodes called them "devastating" and "unconscionable." Farshid Hajir called them "staggering" and said, "This is a sad day." Marianne Jorgensen, the only member to vote against the budget, called the budget "shocking" and "a severe altering of the programs of our schools."

Churchill said another reason to vote the budget Tuesday was to remove ambiguity. High School Principal Mark Jackson, who will speak to teachers after school today, said half of them are "hanging by their fingertips, wondering about their future." Many have rewritten their resumes and some have gotten other job offers, he said.

Administrators and the union have one more shot to come up with an alternative plan, Churchill said. The union should consider that "maybe we could make some concessions and have smaller class sizes and not get so many of our colleagues cut," he said.

Amherst Town Meeting will reconvene to vote on a budget June 15, and Pelham Town Meeting will reconvene June 13. Shutesbury and Leverett have already voted regional school budgets with a much less severe level of cuts.

Regional Meeting AND Amherst Meeting, June 2, 2009

The regional meeting began with announcements and public comment. Mark Jackson, high school principal, spoke about the upcoming high school graduation, which will take place the the Mullins Center. I asked whether the school district was charged for the rental of this space, and learned that we pay $13,000 to hold our graduation ceremony at this location (hmmm, perhaps this is a way that U Mass could help the schools -- by reducing or eliminating this fee?). Andy Churchill then suggested, in light of the many new SC members and the new superintendent, that the SC have an orientation meeting with a member of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC). We agreed that we would try to find a date to do such a meeting this summer, based on everyone's availability.

We then turned to the superintendent's update. Maria made three announcements. First, surveys have now gone out to parents at all of the schools electronically, and paper copies are available at each school (and are going out through PGOs). Work on translating the surveys into different languages is also now occurring. The staff survey will go out soon. A graduate student will work this summer on compiling the survey results and preparing a report for the superintendent and School Committee (and let me again convey my thanks to the current and incoming superintendent for their support of having this important data collected). Second, the search for an assistant superintendent has been suspended. Although a number of good candidates emerged, and 6 were interviewed by the search committee, the conclusion of the committee was that candidates with the particular range of desirable experiences did not emerge (this committee including the HS principal, an elementary principal, parents, adminstrators, and me as the SC representative). Thus, this budget line has been cut, and the roles this person would have taken on will be filled by a combination of current staff members (to be determined) and some paid outside consultants. Third, there was an update on the discussion with teachers/staff about opening negotiations regarding contracts. Thus far, the teachers union has declined to enter such negotations, the administrators (assistant principals, administrators) are accepting a 2% (instead of 3.5%) raise, and the non-unit staff (principals, directors) are accepting a 2% raise. In addition, the paraprofessionals unit has voted some changes in health insurance (including increases in co-pays for emergency room visits and prescription drugs) that will lead to lower insurance costs to the district. There was then some discussion about whether the teachers should agree to enter negotiations.

I am not speaking for the entire SC here -- let me be clear. I believe the teachers union needs to decide for themselves whether they want to enter such negotiations. These wage increases were negotiated in good faith, and thus it is up to teachers whether they would or would not like to enter such negotiations. Salary discussions are complex for many, many reasons, and I think teachers are in the best position to decide for themselves whether entering such negotiations (and of course agreeing to new terms) makes sense.

We then turned to a (very depressing) budget update. The only "good" news is that the Amherst Finance Committee is suggesting the use of 1.2 million in reserves (including $700,000 based on the projected savings from closing MM), which helps avoids some of the even worse cuts than could have been made. I'm summarizing the cuts here, but the key ones I believe are:

Middle School
A reduction of one assistant principal
Reduction of 5 core academic teachers, meaning a reduction of 1 team in 7th grade (leading to class size averages of 27) and a reduction of 1 team in 8th grade (leading to class size averages of 25)
Reduction of 2 exploratory/integrated study teachers (1 on each of the eliminated teams)
Reduction of either a guidance counselor or librarian
A .40 cut in instrumental music (meaning music will now occur every other day instead of every day)

High School
A reduction of one assistant principal
A reduction of one guidane counselor
7.20 teaching positions (meaning class sizes of 25 to 29)
A reduction of three paraprofessionals
A reduction of $100,000 to the athletic budget (and cutting three teams)

These cuts are at the bottom of Level 2, which is further than we had all hoped to go -- and between the Amherst and Regional schools, a total of 50 positions will now be cut.

There was a discussion of these cuts, and their impact on education. A number of people asked questions/made comments, which I'm not going to summarize all of (watch ACTV!). I do want to highlight, however, a few things. First, Mark Jackson announced that Amherst College had eliminated its cap on number of students taking classes at Amherst (it used to be 30 seats, and there was high demand for those seats). In these tight budget times, perhaps this is a way in which at least some kids can explore options outside of the high school offerings, and, in turn, reduce some seats in other classes. U Mass allows students to take classes as well, but charges students the full tuition rate -- about $1200 a class, which thus makes this option less viable for many students. Second, Mark Jackson announced that the high school faculty voted in favor of keeping the trimester system by a 2 to 1 margin (this vote was for the 2010-2011 academic year -- it was already considered too late to make a schedule change for the 2009-2010 academic year). I am discouraged by this news, given that the trimester system (under our current tight budget) requires students to have two study halls, whereas under a semester system, our students would have only needed to take one study hall. It also means that students now are going to spend 13% of their day in a study hall, compared to 7%. This seems very, very unfortuate -- which is why I was so impressed with Mark Jackson's recommendation to his faculty this spring that such a change to a semester system from a trimester system be considered (in light of this year's budget, but also the expected very poor budgets in years to come). If a student has 2 study halls a year for four years, he/she will spend a total of 8 class periods in a study hall during high school -- and since students have only 15 periods per year, this is equivalent to 1/8th of their education time.

We then conducted a few small planning issues. We received information on recommended school choice seats (to be voted on at the next meeting), voted to approve four clerical/media awards (I served as the SC representative on this committee, and it was great fun -- with many outstanding candidates), and conducted a calendar review (the last two meetings in June will include information about an upcoming report from the "How Are We Doing Subcommittee" and middle school/high school school improvement plans and information on the teacher evaluation process). Finally, we voted on a vice chair (since Marianne was vice chair but is serving as chair since Michael Hussin's term expired) to serve for the next month, until the final new member of the SC (from Shutesbury) joins us on July 1st (and we hold new elections). Andy Churchill was nominated by Tracy Farnham to serve as vice chair and was elected unanimously.


We then turned to the Amherst Meeting--which consisted almost entirely of a budget update. The final proposed budget cuts are as follows:
  • 3 classroom teachers (1 at 5th, 1 at 6th, 1 at 2nd) -- which still allows classes to remain at appropriate levels
  • 2.70 math/ELA coaches
  • 1.25 instrumental music cuts (meaning a one year delay in music instruction, so that orchestra begins in 4th grade and band begins in 5th grade)
  • 1 librarian and a library paraprofessional
  • reduction from full-year to school-year for all assistant principals
  • 1.0 specials (which will remain proportional at all the schools based on # of classrooms)
  • .80 computer teacher
  • 2.3 cafeteria paraprofessionals

These cuts are, of course, hard -- but I'm glad they are not worse than they could have been.

Our final meeting of the year will take place on THURSDAY, June 18th (based on conflicts of two members with the 16th). At this meeting, school improvement plans for WW and FR will be presented.

Amherst Meeting, May 19, 2009

Sorry for the long delay on doing the update of this meeting -- I rushed to post the outcome of the meeting in which the vote on closing Marks Meadow was taken, and just never got back to posting the rest of the meeting update. So, I'm starting with that.

Following the MM vote, a brief recess was taken. Some parents and community members had a few questions/suggestions -- how to plan for future facilities use, whether MM could potentially still close this year, and how we would solve our continuing structural deficit.

We then heard announcements from the superintendent about a number of topics, including the decision to adopt of Impact 1 math textbooks for the 6th grade (which I'm thrilled about -- this book will lead directly into the Impact 2 and 3 textbooks now in use in 7th and 8th grade, and thus will help increase both horizontal and vertical alignment in our math curriculum, at least in these three grades) and that surveys would be sent to all staff and parents from all elementary schools on June 1st (again, I think this is a great way to help our incoming superintendent learn about the strengths and areas of concern perceived by parents and teachers).

I then asked a question regarding the impact of the proposed cuts to specials (art, music, PE) for the elementary schools. The superintendent explained that the proposed cuts had been somewhat revised, such that only 1.1 positions were being cut (NOT 1.7 as had been announced), and that the cuts were now being done based on creating equitable cuts across the four schools so that children in all elementary schools would have equivalent levels of exposure to specials (so, teachers were allocated based on number of classrooms they need to serve). An art teacher from Wildwood spoke in support of the superintendent's decision to manage the cuts in this type of equitable way, and described the importance of specials to children's overall education experience.

We then voted on two policy issues (both were important to do in light of the MM decision): not accepting School Choice children (the same as our current policy) and suspending the open enrollment policy for new children (meaning that children must attend the elementary school they are zoned to attend, unless they are already attending another school).

Finally, we reviewed items for upcoming meetings (our last meeting of the school year will be June 16th). We will hear about the school improvement plans for both Fort River and Wildwood at this meeting, and we discuss sub-committee assignments for members of the Amherst SC. Steve Rivkin suggested two items: the teacher evaluation process and the math curriculum used in our elementary schools (K to 5).

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

School boards mull more cuts

Tuesday, June 02, 2009 - Springfield Repubican


AMHERST - The Amherst School Committee and Amherst Regional School Committee will hold a joint meeting tonight to discuss new cuts to their budgets.

The Finance Committee last week approved a townwide budget that further reduces department spending to make up for more reductions in state aid. On June 15 Town Meeting will begin deliberating on the $62.2 million recommended budget, down from a $66.6 million level-services budget.

In approving a budget that does not meet the spending sought by the Jones Library trustees, the Finance Committee could be putting the library in jeopardy of losing state library funding, said Library Director Bonnie J. Isman.

Andrew M. Churchill, School Committee chairman and a member of the regional school committee, said elementary schools could be looking at another $232,000 in cuts, with the region needing to trim an additional $149,000 over previous cuts.

Churchill said the general theme is "sharing the pain."

"Nobody wants to be where we are," he said. "I'm particularly concerned we will be decimating the music program" in the elementary schools.

The School Committee last month voted to close Marks Meadow Elementary School in a year as part of a money-saving restructuring. The Finance Committee has indicated it would allow the schools to use some reserves to help in anticipation of that closing.

Churchill said officials are preparing more budget information for the committees to consider tonight.

There are other things under consideration besides cuts, including whether employees will forgo 3.5 percent negotiated cost of living increases for the next fiscal year and possible changes in health care, he said.

Isman, meanwhile, presented the Finance Committee with a budget that was .7 percent lower than a level services budget but one that would satisfy state requirements to qualify for state aid to libraries. She said however the Finance Committee cut the budget by an additional 1.5 percent or $34,704 in the town contribution.

That means the library system would not meet state requirements and could lose $70,000 from the state and its accreditation. Losing its accreditation would mean no interlibrary borrowing privileges, she said. It also means reducing library hours at a time when more are needing library services.

She said, however, the Finance Committee believes the library could apply for a waiver from the state because all the town departments are being cut equally. But if the schools don't have to cut as much she feels the library aid is still at risk.

The school meetings begin at 7 in the Amherst Regional High School.

The Jones Library Trustees are meeting tonight at the library at 7 with financial advisers to look at the library's endowment.

Isman said the Board of Trustees, meanwhile, will likely take the $2,121,288 budget that meets state library guidelines to Town Meeting for consideration despite the Finance Committee vote for a lower budget.