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, August 19, 2009

Amid reductions, a new schools chief at helm

Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

AMHERST - The biggest changes in the schools this fall will be the unprecedented reduction in staff positions and the arrival of an energetic new superintendent.

The Amherst and regional schools have absorbed budget cuts that resulted in the elimination of the equivalent of 55 full-time staff positions. Some of the people in these positions resigned, retired or were reassigned, so only about 20 were laid off.

(For a detailed account of which positions were eliminated, see the accompanying story.)

These reductions mean that class sizes will be larger this fall and teachers will have more students whose papers they will have to grade. Whereas the Amherst schools typically hire 50 to 60 people a year because of retirements and leaves of absence, this year they will hire only 12 to 15, said Kathryn Mazur, the human resources director.

In the elementary schools, students will be able to start learning to play an instrument a year later than previously. Mark's Meadow and Crocker Farm Schools will have to share a music teacher. And students in the high school will have an additional study hall because of cuts in electives.

Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez burst on the scene in July and quickly made it clear he wants to shake things up.

First, he brought in an educator he knew and trusted to spend 10 days in Amherst, reviewing data and talking to administrators, then writing a report detailing the shortcomings of the school system. The report vindicated the critics who have said Amherst schools aren't as strong as their reputation. It agreed both with those who say the schools don't do enough for students of color and underachievers, and with those who maintain that there should be more emphasis on "excellence."

Then, Rodriguez wrote a report that recommended that the 6th grades in Amherst, Shutesbury, Leverett and Pelham move to the Regional Middle School. This is likely to be a topic of much debate over the next six months.

The Regional School Committee has several new members and a new chairman, Farshid Hajir of Leverett. He said recently that the time is right for the schools to do some reflecting.

"There's a new superintendent, a new School Committee, a new fiscal reality, and pressure from the state to regionalize," he said. "This makes it a perfect time to look at ourselves and take stock of where we are and where we want to go."

The Regional School Committee's next meetings will be on Sept. 8 and 15, Oct. 13, Nov. 17 and Dec. 8. The Amherst School Committee will meet Aug. 25, Sept. 22, Oct. 27, Nov. 24 and Dec. 15. All meetings are open to the public.

This is the last year for Mark's Meadow School, whose students and teachers will be reassigned to other schools next fall. Teachers and Principal Nick Yaffe will emphasize to students that there is a lot of learning left to do, and try to make this year what he called a "celebratory, meaningful time."

A recommendation on how the elementary school district lines will be redrawn is expected in October. The goals are to equalize the percentage of students from low-income homes, which has tilted heavily to Crocker Farm, and to keep friends and neighborhoods together as much as possible.

There may also be a debate this year over whether or not the regional agreement between Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett, which currently covers grades 7 through 12, should be extended down to kindergarten. A committee composed of three representatives from each of the four towns has been crunching numbers this summer and is expected to make a report soon.

New professional staffers this fall include: high school: Margo Russell, ELL; Robert Ferullo and Heather Crossen, special education; Annie Paradis, science, and Tobias Thomas, music; Lisette Williams, guidance; South Amherst Campus: Paris Muska, math and science; Wildwood: Immanuel Wineman, special education; Huihong Bao, Chinese; Lisa Bailly, assistant principal; Fort River: Susan Kennedy Marx, assistant principal.


Anonymous said...

"First, he brought in an educator he knew and trusted to spend 10 days in Amherst, reviewing data and talking to administrators,..."

Do we know what that cost us?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 9:17 - the cost of the consultant was $4,999.

Anonymous said...

Is it true that anything under $5K doesn' t have to go out to bid?

And if the SC wants objective data did you think it worth questioning the use of former supervisor of new superintendant or is it all ok because of the consultant's credentials and you are sure that the personal relationship was not a factor in choice of consultant?

Any consideration being given to the idea that perhaps the new superintendent knew what outcomes he'd prefer to have a report support and knew that the research his former supervisor provides would support his desired outcomes?

It seems to me it would have been better to have a consultant who had no former relationship with new superintendent who is still an unknown to us.

I hate to be cynical but am very wary of "research" in fields that can be based on which data one chooses to review.


Anonymous said...

The $4,999 was the consultant's fee. How much did the district pay for hotels, meals, transportation, and other expenses?

Anonymous said...

After my post, I've been reflecting and I feel bad for such a negative, knee jerk response.

Actually in most fields, folks are going to have relationships some close AND
I was actually happy the new superintendent was acting so quickly.
It's just the comments he's made about overrides have rubbed me the wrong way and the appearance that the fee may have been set to avoid going out to these fiscal times, actually in any fiscal times when people are using tax dollars, it bothers me.

The credentials of the consultant appear stellar and if the SC did feel that that trumped the personal relationship, I want to trust that.

But I do think the bidding process would have alleviated that concern I have about pre-selecting someone whose ideas may be reflective of the results one wants.

As for my comment about the research and the data....that was a bit mean spirited but I am sooo tired of feeling that funds get spent avoiding systems set up to ensure that tax dollars are used responsibly. So for that I apologize.

I hope the new Superintendent is successful and that our schools can continue to grow. But, please, take seriously your charge to spend other people's money (tax dollars) responsibly and within the guidelines and regulations set up to ensure such responsibility.

thanks, E.
problem with blog postings, too easy to react emotionally and I succumbed!

Anonymous said...


You are way too kind. Please don't feel a need to apologize for a "knee jerk reaction." Many times first impressions are the most accurate. Our hostess, although being very professional in her responses and attempting to salvage her fellow board members' mistaken selection, also had a first impression. One, from my observations of A-Rod, which is also proving correct, unfortunately for the Town.

Anonymous said...

"The $4,999 was the consultant's fee. How much did the district pay for hotels, meals, transportation, and other expenses?"

May I second this question and ask for a reply?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Elaine - the consultant was indeed brought in at that price to avoid going through the bid process. However, two key things here. First, there is NO WAY an outside consultant who did not personally know the superintendent would spend 10 days for $5,000 - it was a personal favor. Second, the committee did not ask for such a review/consultant -- the superintendent felt it would be informative to him to have such a report. It is hard for me to imagine how/why he would have hired someone to produce a biased report ... or what he would gain from having such a report? I guess I'm not sure why the fact that he knew the consultant previously meant that he would tell the consultant what to find? I'm just not sure why anyone would have such a motivation?

Anonymous 11:11 - the district paid nothing else. Hence the huge deal it was for us.

Elaine - point well-taken -- no need to apologize! However, it is VERY clear that if Dr. Rodriguez had put the outside review out to bid, we would have paid far, far more than $5,000, and we likely would still have have that info (since the contact would not have even gone out to bid in early July, let alone choosing among bids and having the work done). And I think time is of the essence. It is also important to note that the SC did NOT ask for such a review -- Dr. Rodriguez felt it would be the fastest way for him to get thorough info on the district, which would then inform him about goals/priorities for his first year (which I think seems very wise). Ultimately, this is the superintendent's call/decision, NOT the SC's.

Anonymous 12:58 - Dr. Rodriguez is our superintendent at the moment, and I imagine for at least his three year contract, and possibly longer. It is in ALL of our best interests that he succeed, and I certainly will help him do that to the extent I can. I hope the community can at least give him a chance (again, he's had less than two months at the job).

Anonymous 9:41 - as noted above, zero.

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Tina said...

On the other hand, allowing Maria Geryk, Director of Student Services (also known as Special Education) to choose the evaluator for HER administration is clearly a conflict of interest because she DOES have something to gain from a report biased in her favor. Has her choice of evaluator been released to the public yet? Did she choose the evaluator herself or was there someone else involved? If so, who was it? How much will it cost? Please don't just say that the bill will be paid out of stimulus money for special education, as if there is nothing better we can do with that money to serve disabled students. Can someone clarify the facts in case I have missed something? Thank you.