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.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pledge a thorny issue in Amherst

Hampshire Gazette
Saturday, November 21, 2009

AMHERST - Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez and the School Committee would much rather deal with educational issues than get tangled up in the question of whether teachers have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day.

At Tuesday's committee meeting, Rodriguez said he would send an email message to teachers notifying them that a state law requires them to lead daily recitations of the pledge. But on Friday, after learning that this law is in legal limbo, Rodriguez said he would like to consult the schools' attorney before acting on "this very thorny issue."

"Are we going to get into enforcing a law when we know that the moment it's challenged, we're going to be on the losing side?" Rodriguez said. With budgets tight, it makes more sense to spend the schools' limited resources on children, rather than on attorneys' fees, he said.

"The School Committee needs to make judicious choices about how to spend our dollars," he said.

The issue arose at Tuesday's School Committee meeting when member Catherine Sanderson said some parents have asked her why the district is changing its policies to obey state laws about clustering students by ethnicity while ignoring another state law about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Massachusetts General Laws read in part: "Each teacher at the commencement of the first class of each day in all grades in all public schools shall lead the class in a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance."

But the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion in 1977 that this law is unconstitutional, and a school system cannot require teachers to recite the pledge, said William Newman, a Northampton attorney who heads the western Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rodriguez said Tuesday that compliance with the law in Amherst is "inconsistent."

The superintendent, who arrived in Amherst from Florida in July, said Tuesday that the Pledge of Allegiance should be important to educators because they are giving young children a sense of what is important.

"I'm from the South, where we salute the flag and say, 'Thank you, ma'am' and 'No, sir,'" he said. Rodriguez said he is not accustomed to "some of the stuff that seems to be cultural" in Amherst, citing the tolerance of the annual marijuana festival on the town common.

"I'm all for law and order and making sure we salute the flag," Rodriguez said.

News of the School Committee discussion set off a flurry of comments on Sanderson's blog. While many criticized the pledge as indoctrination, especially its phrase "under God," others said citizens can't choose which laws to obey.

"The pledge is not about what America is, it's about what America should be," wrote Rick Hood, a candidate for School Committee.

The best option is to "let sleeping dogs lie," because the schools have many more pressing issues to deal with, said Andrew Churchill, chairman of the Amherst School Committee. He said he recited the Pledge of Allegiance in school every day when he was young.

"I don't feel I was improved or harmed by it," he said Friday. "But what does it really mean to pledge allegiance to a flag? Personally, I'd rather have us sing 'America the Beautiful' every morning. The bottom line is I don't think this is a big issue, and we have bigger fish to fry."

Sanderson said Thursday that she doesn't have strong feelings about whether or not teachers recite the pledge, and agreed that the School Committee has more important issues to grapple with.

"But to me, not saying the pledge, when it is the law, strikes me as emblematic of a broader concern I have about the schools - that somehow we in Amherst believe that we are so unique that rules and laws and curriculum and policies used in other districts don't apply to us and how we do education," she said.

According to attorney Newman of the ACLU, although the law is on the books, it is unenforceable.

Teachers may lead their classes in recitations of the pledge, but students may remain quiet and can't be ordered out of the room, Newman said.

"No school system can require a teacher to lead the class in the pledge, and no student can be compelled to participate if a teacher should choose to say the pledge," he said.

This issue became a sideshow in the 1988 presidential campaign. Former Gov. Michael Dukakis had vetoed a Massachusetts law that would have required teachers to lead students in the pledge, citing the 1977 Supreme Judicial Court opinion. The Legislature then passed the law over his veto, Newman said.

"The law sits on the books but was declared unconstitutional before it was enacted," he said.

As a presidential candidate, George H.W. Bush used the incident to impugn Dukakis' patriotism, and many voters missed the fact that the law he vetoed had been ruled unconstitutional, Newman said.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to a Florida law that requires all students to stand and recite the pledge unless excused in writing by a parent.

In 1977, the Massachusetts court wrote: "A majority of the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court made answer that as applied to teachers, bill which would require each teacher at the commencement of the first class of each day in all grades in all public schools to lead the class in a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag would violate the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution, even if under the proposed bill there would be no criminal penalties against non-complying teachers, since there would still be an element of compulsion on a teacher inherent in the existence of the statutory mandate."

Nick Grabbe can be reached at


Anonymous said...

An unrelated question: a newspaper recently referred to the Special Education Director as Assistant Superintendent. Is this correct? When was this appointment made? Did you do a search and interview other candidates? How much did she earn as SPED Director and how much as Asst. Superintendent? What financial benefits are there other than salary? How has her job description changed? Are you still planning to hire an Asst. Supt. for Curriculum?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 11:15 - Maria Geryk is now an assistant superintendent. The appointment was made, I believe, as of July 1st. This was not a new position, and hence a search didn't occur -- it was just a change in title. There was no increase in salary, nor, I believe, in financial benefits. The superintendent will reveal his plans for hiring/organizing in central office in the next few months (probably January) -- I do not know what his plans are with respect to the assist. super for curriculum position.

Anonymous said...

I also noticed Maria's change in title. If she continuing to do the duties of SPED Director now that she is Ass't Super or has someone else taken over the duties? Of should we wait until Dr. Rodriquez reveals his organizational plans?

Rick said...

It would be nice if this kind of info (what's up with Maria Geryk) could be available on the website. Similar to how ARHS has “daily announcements” for students (and parents):

it would be cool if ARPS could do something like that. They could also create an RSS feed for it so it could just show up in your Google News Reader (or whatever you use) – or one could sign up to get a weekly or daily email digest of the news.

Of course that would require that somebody (or multiple people) be the “reporter” for ARPS.

ARPS has improved a lot on this front – just need to keep moving in the direction of letting people “outside the system” know what’s going on “inside the system”.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:45 here.

Sorry for all the typos in my message. Here it is again, sans typos:

"I also noticed Maria's change in title. Is she continuing to do the duties of SPED Director now that she is Ass't Super or has someone else taken over the duties? Or should we wait until Dr. Rodriquez reveals his organizational plans?"

I guess I was going too fast the first time I posted this message!!

LarryK4 said...

Journalistically speaking what is FASCINATING about this article, and what gets lost in Catherine's simple cut-and-paste posting (which oddly enough, violates the Gazette's 'Terms of Use' and the federal 'Fair Use Doctrine' but still turn-about-fair-play since Nick Grabbe steals comments from this blog) is that it appeared on the FRONT PAGE, Above-the-Fold no less.

Yeah, slow news day for sure. But still...

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 11:45 - she is continuing to do exactly what she has done ... just with a new title which the superintendent thought better reflected her responsibilities and is in line with what often occurs in other districts. Again, this is a change in title ONLY -- not a change in responsibility/duties/salary.

Rick - I thought this change was announced at an SC meeting ... I might be wrong, but my recollection is that last summer (maybe July?) this announcement was made. It could certainly be posted on the website ... not sure of the level of broad interest in this (and am not sure if this is really crucial info re. education for our district)? I thought it was a pretty minor thing, in all honesty.

Anonymous 12:20 - no problem -- I got what you meant!

Larry - yeah, I'm talking with the Gazette now re. whether I should instead just post links to the article (not the whole article). There may be a change in what I do on this blog. And yes, this article was on the front page, above the fold ... a big story in the Pioneer Valley! I do think it reflected good reporting/investigation by Nick, and thus a really good extension of the story that appeared initially after the issue came up at an SC meeting. I would also have been interested in hearing whether other local schools (e.g., Easthampton, Northampton, Hadley, etc.) say the pledges regularly -- again, is it just Amherst that ignores this law or is it pretty widespread in MA (or in Western MA)?

LarryK4 said...

Hey Catherine,

Well if the Gazette is smart (and I have not seen evidence of that over the past decade or so) they will let you do whatever the Hell you want with their articles. The more eyeballs the better.

Agreed, however. A well written article from their most experienced reporter.

But he probably should also have mentioned the Department of Education rule about displaying the American flag in every homeroom.

Which, if I had to guess, the schools also pretty much ignore.

Anonymous said...

The sideshow becomes the main show as the pledge issue presses on toward a solution...

Kudos to Nick who got the goods from Newman and "My School Committee Blog."

If the pledge law - requiring teachers to lead students in the recitation each day - has been identified as unconstitutional by the MA Supreme Judicial Court it is not legally binding. The Amherst school system can do as it wishes without concern about complying with the law.

Will those who asked "why the district is changing its policies to obey state laws about clustering students by ethnicity while ignoring another state law about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance" accept the very reasonable explanation and the new policy whatever the SC and Super decide upon? Let's hope so.

Maybe the best policy is the current policy whatever that is becuase whatever it is is in compliance with state law.

Let's get on with other important issues.

CS, what's on the agenda in the near term?

Hi Nick! Good Job!

Anonymous said...

Larry @ 1:12 PM,

Its inappropriate for you to allege wrong-doing without facts in hand or an attempt to verify.

You talk about the rule "displaying the American flag in every homeroom" and say "if I had to guess, the schools also pretty much ignore," which is pure conjecture on your part and it is reckless accusation.

Before you make such an accusation you should verify it. If the school system has not yet revoked it's protective order prohibiting you from entering our schools then you should verify it by corresponding with the principals.

Anonymous said...

WHen my kids went to Ft. River, and the Middle School, there wasn't a flag to be seen, anywhere. That was only 2 years ago. Can't imagine it's changed. Larry's right on!

Anonymous said...

If we have to make a choice between buying Chinese made American flags for every classroom and having a teacher to teach Chinese language skills to our students, I would favor the latter.

Anonymous said...

The high school has flags in every classroom. Just saying....

Fed Up Parent said...

I'm all for concentrating on getting our curriculum in order but I do want to say that I think we are doing our children a disservice by not teaching them the Pledge. It is part of being an American schoolkid. It is part of history. It is what our founders were thinking when they risked themselves to break away from England. This is a symbol of what enables them to be standing there, each and every morning, receiving a free public education, many with a free breakfast in their belly. I don't care if the teachers use the "under God" or if some kids choose to sit during the Pledge. I still think we are not above every other school system in the country such that we do not need our own history.

LarryK4 said...

Anon 8:16 PM
When products compete they get better. Can't get any more American than that. If China can produce good quality American flags cheaper than American unionized labor then so be it.

If you really want your students to properly learn Chinese language skills then send them to the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School (they are expending soon to K-12.)

As I said when products compete...

Anonymous said...

I wish that school had been around when my kids were in elementary school here. We would have moved them immediately. Instead, we felt stuck. That's why the resentment towards the school and town.

Gazette Reader said...

You must have a paid subscription and register to view Gazette articles. Posting just a link is pretty useless.

Anonymous said...

Or wait until Friday when it becomes a Bulletin article. Then you can read it online for free.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:15 I find it pretty secretive that the former interim superintendent is now assistant superintendent and I do not exactly believe that her pay scale did not rise due to this "promotion", if it is a promotion--sure sounds it to me....And I wonder what the results of the investigation/evalutaion into the Sped Dept. turned up? There were many, many posts stating concerns about the way the Building Blocks program was being run. CS can you fill us in on that?
I think the connection to 'education' MG's position has is lack of transparency in this system...And although it may not be 'crucial', it certainly is an imnportant reflection oh how things are run in administration.
Other districts in western Mass do recite the pledge--I think it is important for children to participate in this oral part of their history.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Larry - the Gazette is pondering letting me do a link to the articles from my blog so that readers could then access the stories I post (even if they did not have a Gazette subscription). That may be a future development ... stay tuned!

Anonymous 6:24 - I agree that given the ruling, what we are doing now is probably fine legally -- let each teacher do what he/she wants. The big agenda item now is (sadly) budget ... and how to make key decisions about our schools. We will also be examining some policies soon (e.g., one is up tomorrow night on the evaluation of curricula!), and at the regional level, I believe we will have a report in January from the middle school consultant.

Anonymous 6:31 - Larry's restraining order has, FYI, been removed! I do not know about the flag rule -- Larry, can you provide a link to MA law on this one?!?

Anonymous 7:47 - I can't recall seeing any flags at Fort River (where I have three kids), but I also haven't looked for them. Will do so now out of curiosity!

Anonymous 8:16 - ummm, I haven't heard that this is one of the choices under debate.

Anonymous 9:33 - interesting re. the HS and flags!

Fed Up Parent - I think you raise some good points ... we do live in the USA, and saying the pledge takes little time. I would still be interested in knowing how many districts in MA have kids say it.

Larry (6:49) - I agree with Larry on this one ... if the public schools were meeting the needs of all kids, there would be less interest in other options. Charter schools provide an option for parents who can't afford private school. I have asked the district to do exit surveys when families leave so that we could understand why people opt out of our schools ... have not yet had support from other members of the SC for such surveys (although I have not tried again with the new SC/superintendent, but I failed with the last two superintendents -- not including Maria Geryk -- and prior SC).

Anonymous 8:19 - indeed. A charter school provides options for people who aren't happy with the public schools ... and I hope the presence of charter schools will push our public schools to be better!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Gazette Reader - the Gazette is actually considering letting the articles I post be available for free from my blog!

Anonymous 3:35 - some Gazette stories, but not all, also appear in the Bulletin (and sometimes in somewhat different forms).

Anonymous 8:02 - well, administrative changes occur all the time, and the superintendent is in charge of hiring people ... all of those decisions just don't get announced at an SC meeting! I'm sorry that you don't believe that no change in salary resulted (the SC has to vote in changes in salary, so I would know), but again, I don't see how to convince you of this. The change in title merely reflected what a lot of other districts do for the person in charge of special ed, and reflected what she had been doing since last year.

The RFP was due last Friday, meaning proposals to evaluate special ed have just been submitted -- a group to do the review will be chosen in December (so the results clearly aren't available yet). The review will cover all aspects of special ed, including the Building Blocks program was being run. Again, I can't imagine the public wants to hear every time there are changes in personnel -- what would you suggest would be an appropriate amount of information and how do you believe it should be conveyed?

I do agree that the pledge is part of our history, and it still seems odd to me that it is said so inconsistently in our district (obviously it seems like we can't compel teachers to say it, but I guess I am surprised that so few teachers would want do say it). I do wonder whether this is typical in all districts in MA or if this is, like many things, unique to Amherst in some way!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this information. I certainly can and do imagine that the "public", especially the part of the public who have children in the schools, want and expect to be informed and kept informed regarding the changes in administration. Maybe these changes could be made "public" on the e-mail newsletters that go out to parents/guardians. That would be one way to keep us up to date.
I know the schools in Amherst, at one time not too far in the past, recited the pledge standing in front of the U.S. flag. I often wondered why this practice stopped and thought perhaps it was the "one nation under God" part that people objected to having their children recite....If so, then this part of the pledge doesn't need to be said by those who believe in a higher power who goes by a name other than God...or don't believe in God at all....pretty simple....
This discontinuation of the pledge before classes begin is just another example of the disconnect among the many teachers in this system--not a good thing...It shows the outside that many these schools are a free-for-all type set-up... You any given time of the day in any given classroom--anything goes!!
What is an RFP?? And when will the "public" be let in on these results??
Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

RFP is Request For Proposal.

LarryK4 said...

Hey Catherine,
Sorry, don't have a link to the flag in homeroom requirement. When I was one of the 15 "founders" of the Charter School I had to read a 100+ page manual put together by the Charter office on rules and regulations. It was in there (even had a cute color graphic of Old Glory).

And since, as you well know, Charter Schools ARE public schools I assume the same rule applies even to the venerable Amherst schools.

Anonymous said...

The flag requirements are in the same section as the pledge requirements. Note the requirement for US manufacture, and also the penalty on the school committee for failure to do its part!





Chapter 71: Section 69. Display of national flags; pledge of allegiance; penalty for violation

Section 69. The school committee shall provide for each schoolhouse under its control, which is not otherwise supplied, flags of the United States of silk or bunting not less than two feet long, such flags or bunting to be manufactured in the United States, and suitable apparatus for their display as hereinafter provided. A flag shall be displayed, weather permitting, on the school building or grounds on every school day and on every legal holiday or day proclaimed by the governor or the President of the United States for especial observance; provided, that on stormy school days, it shall be displayed inside the building. A flag shall be displayed in each assembly hall or other room in each such schoolhouse where the opening exercises on each school day are held. Each teacher at the commencement of the first class of each day in all grades in all public schools shall lead the class in a group recitation of the “Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag”. A flag shall be displayed in each classroom in each such schoolhouse. Failure for a period of five consecutive days by the principal or teacher in charge of a school equipped as aforesaid to display the flag as above required, or failure for a period of two consecutive weeks by a teacher to salute the flag and recite said pledge as aforesaid, or to cause the pupils under his charge so to do, shall be punished for every such period by a fine of not more than five dollars. Failure of the committee to equip a school as herein provided shall subject the members thereof to a like penalty.

LarryK4 said...

That wasn't me, honest.

But thanks to whoever (or whomever as the case may be).

Ed said...

I look at this very simply:

Amherst Townies don't want to obey state law mandating flag in classroom and flag salute.

UMass students don't want to obey Amherst ordinaces about noise and parties.

Both say they are unConstitutional.

Wanna get kids to obey the latter, show them you obey the former. OR SHUT UP...

Anonymous said...

Exactly! Thank you for writing that!

Anonymous said...

ED, it isn't the Amherst townies that don't want to say the pledge or show a flag, haven't you been paying attention???
How much longer are you going to hang around Umass complaining about Amherst?

lucy2shoes said...

I personally would like my kids to learn the Pledge, lest they are featured on Jay Leno or Late night TV as one the baffled teens that never are taught geography, correct history and civics. It turns into a comedy and entertaining for us....but if our schools don't teach them we shouldn't be laughing and the idiots that don't know anything other than Twilight Vampire movies. I asked my both first graders and one said they did, and another said no....this is alarming and proof how inconsistant each class is. This should not be a political's educating our kids regarding the country they live in.