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, January 13, 2010

Amherst pro-override group launches Web site, petition

Hampshire Gazette
Thursday, January 14, 2010

AMHERST - A group that supports passing a Proposition 2½ override to alleviate some of the townwide impacts from a projected $4 million budget shortfall is collecting signatures from residents in an online petition drive.

Vote Yes for Amherst, which just launched its Web site, currently has a petition aimed at the Select Board and School Committee to demonstrate the values the community holds, said Kevin Collins, a member of the group.

"The idea is to listen to everybody and to give everyone a chance to speak," Collins said. "The petition is so that the elected representatives can vote with a clear conscience and know they are respecting the wishes of everyone."

The petition, which aims to collect 1,000 signatures, reads, in part, "The federal and state governments have cut our schools and town funding. We can't control that or the economy. But we do have control over our local dollars.

"We need to save the worst from happening with a sensible Proposition 2½ override. There have only been two overrides in 30 years."

The Web site will serve as a means of educating the public about the override, the first attempted since a failed effort in 2007, and the possible cuts that would result.

"The override is about the people who will be losing their jobs and the effect that will have on the value of people's homes," Collins said.

Andy Churchill, spokesman for the override group, said organizers are already speaking to those who helped successfully achieve an override in Northampton last year.

"We really see this as an opportunity for community building," said Churchill, who is also a member of the School Committee.

Churchill observed that the Facilitation for Community Choices Committee in 2008 recommended a combination of cuts and an override to get the town through the fiscal crisis. Many of these cuts and cost savings, including the closing of Mark's Meadow School, getting givebacks in health insurance, layoffs and regionalizing the emergency dispatch operations, have already taken place or are in progress.

The override is a time for residents to decide what kind of town they want Amherst to be. "We can protect against the worst of the cuts," Churchill said.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O'Keeffe said she sees the Yes for Amherst petition more as the beginning of a conversation about the override, as it has already been certain for several months that the municipal election scheduled for March 23 would feature it as a question. Her board is responsible for crafting the text of the override and then submitting it to the town clerk's office by Feb. 16 at 4 p.m.

The Budget Coordinating Group, which includes representatives from the Select Board, School Committee, Jones Library trustees and Finance Committee, will receive an executive summary of the budget proposals from each of the departments and outline of cuts at its meeting Jan. 21. At that time, group members will begin discussing the size and structure of the override, and the following week will vote on its draft recommendations, and then present and approve these on Feb. 4.

At its Feb. 8 meeting, the Select Board will discuss the override question and get it ready for the ballot.

Residents will have an opportunity to provide feedback that night.

If the discussion is not completed that night, the board will continue the meeting Feb. 12 at 8:30 a.m.


LarryK4 said...

Well at least the free bricks-and-mortar press (not to mention cyber-press) should stimulate the signature process.

Although I'm amazed it is taking this long to get a lousy 1,000.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Andy Churchill on the School Committee when they voted to buy those portables that weren't needed? Wasn't he on the school committee when they just nodded and agreed on everything without asking tough questions? Ali

Anonymous said...

Yes and yes.

Anonymous said...

Thought so.

Alice said...

Wow, this blogging thing is sure curious.

Anonymous 1:09 is quick to take the word of Anonymous 1:03, a person he/she doesn't even know....could be a real nut or someone spreading inaccurate information on purpose. Where is the credibility in anonymous posting?

If anyone is looking for real and accurate answers, I suggest they go to the source (Andy in this case) and ask their questions directly. It may actually lead to some meaningful dialogue and insight.

Anonymous said...

"In 2007, the School Committee asked the town to purchase two portable classrooms for use at Marks Meadow (to avoid having to have mixed grade classrooms). This was a pretty expensive purchase ($380,000 ultimately was spent by the town, although as much as $400,000 was originally budgeted for this purchase). The School Committee clearly felt pressure to add classrooms to this building, because of problems Marks Meadow parents and the Marks Meadow principal expressed at School Committee meetings (including overcrowding in classes with only one grade, and difficulties with the mixed-grade classrooms). These problems were probably particularly salient since two of the five members of the Amherst School Committee from 2004 to 2007 (when this decision to purchase portables was made) were parents at Marks Meadow (Alisa Brewer, Andy Churchill). In fact, there was even discussion at a School Committee meeting about buying FOUR portables!"

Andy Churchill has been on the School Committee since 2004.

Anonymous for my children

Anonymous said...

Andy Churchill no doubt has made mistakes as a school committee member and no doubt would say so. But he's out there doing his best to serve his community. Let's lay off the potshots.
(I'm anonymous for me, because people like 12:33 and 1:03 and 3:14 are unnerving.)

curious observer said...

I think past actions and statements are important when evaluating current statments and actions. How can it be otherwise?

Based on past statements of school board members and administrators I find it hard to believe what is being said now. Is the sky falling in or not? Is cutting 2 Sped teachers at the middle school a crisis -- when at least two were added last year? Maybe or maybe not.

Anonymous said...

Last year the high school cut $100k from the athletics budget by eliminating several teams. This year it is proposed that $50,000 be cut from the athletics budget - NONE of it by eliminating teams.
Why didn't we start there last year? Why go for the teams first?
Not every decision is going to be perfect but in this case I believe the impenetrable budget allocations helped obscure a bad decision. For instance, evidently part of the athletic director's salary comes from her work directing the pre-school program at the high school; by eliminating that and making some other administrative changes you save money - yes, at a cost, but not at the cost of teams.

Anonymous said...

Curious observer.....I am not commenting on whether loosing two SPED teachers (I believe it could actually be 2-4) is a crisis or not but you should look at the line item budget posted on the Middle School WebSite. Last year I believe that the additions were to the Bridges program and if I read it correctly this specialized SPED line item still have 4 teachers so the SPED decreases are to the "regular" SPED budget.

Alice said...

We have one of the longest town meetings in the country because we talk a lot and ask a ton of questions. TM had plenty of time and opportunity to discuss the portables, after which they voted to allocate the funds.

Let's not blame all this on Andy and the school committee. Sometimes it takes a village...... to mess up. (I'm not even saying they DID screw up. I don't remember the discussion. Maybe it was an idea that made sense at the time. You know what they say about hindsight.)

Town Meeting is always looking for good people to run so if you think things are really going amok, take out a ballot and run! (Although that means you would have to put your name on it. "Anonymous" doesn't work real well at the polls.

Anonymous said...

I really need to understand this:

What is it that causes the fear expressed on this blog?

If it's fear of retribution, I'd like to know where the senders think it will come from.

I'm always interested in different perspectives, but I think that anonymity undercuts the credibility, especially when the poster goes into attack mode.

BTW, I'm pretty sure that I voted for the modulars in Town Meeting, so, cut Andy some slack, and use it to hang me, if you like. My vote seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Having said that, I'd just like to know what the root of the fear is that we see on a daily basis here.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Rich, quite often if you express a different opinion you are treated rudely by other parents after that. I have witnessed it, during the last override vote, I have been subjected to it, with the Marks Meadow episode. I dont blame anyone for not wanting to sign their name anymore.

LarryK4 said...

So is THAT--don't rock the boat, go along to get along--what we teach our children by example???

A coward dies a thousand deaths.

Anonymous said...

Reconciling the data CS posted on cost per student at ARHS as compared to Hamp High and state averages is the first step in addressing whether voting for an override (or a time-limited override) is prudent.

I don't think you can ask taxpayers to increase their tax burden (especially when they've been experiencing years of real income stagnation) until you can explain why the cost structure in Amherst education is higher than Hamp and state averages. Are we getting better educational values, better results, for the premium cost?

If the school budget is 60% of the town's annual budget, then a study of the remaining 40% of the annual budget is warranted too.

Anonymous said...

I will likely vote for the override (as I have for previous overrides), because I am worried about the continuing cuts being made at the town and school district levels.

However, I believe that it would be easier for town members to agree to the override and to the added taxes resulting from override, if the override wasn't in part necessitated by the COLAs and other (step) raises for school district and town employees. UMass employees have not have any COLAs or across the board raises for a number of years; and many private sector employees have not seen raises either.

Anonymous said...

Good point. 80% of the school budget is personnel so an override would essentially be going to fund those raises that our previous administration/school committee agreed to. I would much rather wait on an override until we get through this contract (next year? I hope) and then when I see that raises have been kept at a more realistic level (again, I am hoping here), I would be more willing to vote for an override to support our kids. I am not in favor of an override to support already-well paid (if average teacher's and administrator's salary is any indication) adults. No one in my family has gotten a raise for years.

Anonymous said...

I must confess that both my wife and I enjoy the benefits of working for the Town. But we cannot in all honesty vote for an override, experiencing first hand all the financial waste.

Anonymous said...

I do believe that Anon 6:19 AM (why not just sign your name and come out of the shadows?) has hit on the crux of the override problem: the sense that it will simply weaken the Town's and Schools' bargaining position on salaries. We saw how they did with the Superintendent, in which the SC could not say "no" to his outsized demands in bargaining, for fear of appearing less than committed to "diversity" if he or they were to walk away from the table (Oops, I said it: bring tar and feathers to Mount Holyoke Drive, South Amherst.)

I read the opinion pieces in this week's Bulletin and the message about Catherine's efforts is clear: when it comes to the schools, love 'em or leave 'em.
If Catherine and Steve are driven from the field, sure, it'll be quieter, but parents will vote quietly with their children's feet: taking them elsewhere. The questions Catherine has been asking have been there during the entire 15 years I've lived here, I heard them, but those doing the asking were afraid of the potential condemnation.

Unlike some of the folks slapping Catherine, I can hold two contradictory thoughts in my head at the same time:
1) The Amherst schools are terrific.
2) There needs to be more scrutiny of how they are doing their job, whether they are engaging every kid for most of every school day.

Feel free to sneer at me whenever you like, but I'm not going anonymous.

Still an override supporter,
Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Rich, I agree that the schools are pretty darned good. And there is a lack of accountability and oversight that is just not OK ever, but especially in these hard times.

I have seen staff twiddling their thumbs (not that they're happy about it) and no one can explain why. I was hired as a one on one para, shortly thereafter the student no longer needed me, and I was not reassigned for months!! True story! Happened recently!

I made myself useful to the school librarian (she had no para) for lack of anything better to do. The administrators in charge of me are gone, BTW.

Is this any way to run a school district?

However, my solution to that problem would probably make most parents shriek: MORE not less staff supervision at the building level. Nobody is keeping track of how staff spend their time, altho I hear the superintendent's office is starting to require time logs to see what's going on.

More power to him.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

One quick comment from me: I am going to do a separate blog post in a week or two about the override issue ... so I'm not going to comment in great detail here. However, I do wish that the pro-override group had waited until next year to mount this battle ... when the union contract was up for renewal, when we would have more information available about the true costs of running three (as compared to four elementary schools), when we had the review of special education completed, when the superintendent has gone through a full year of leadership (e.g., and having opportunities to find efficiencies, etc.) and when the fiscal picture (2012 fiscal year) is expected to be EVEN worse. I would have felt a lot more comfortable waiting a year to ask the tax payers to support an override, as I've expressed to many people.

I have not yet decided how I will vote on an override, and I don't know that I will take an official position on an override. However, I am certainly NOT going to ask people to support an override until I have really examined the fiscal picture (including how we are spending our resources now and why it costs so much more to educate students in Amherst than in Northampton and how an override in 2010 would impact the school budget in 2011 and 2012) and believe that having an override this year is in the best short- and long-term interests of our schools.

Supporting-Override-and-Questioning said...

I support Catherine's questioning of our schools AND I support an override in 2010. Sadly, Catherine, I think we can't wait the year that you mention. I don't see an override and a vigorous scrutiny of our schools as mutually exclusive. I see them as going hand in hand.

I appreciate your thinking about the issues and hope you're listening to pro-override people who also support what you do on the school committee, as you consider a position of your own.

Anonymous said...

I think if you support an override the questions raised by Catherine and others (all school supporters) must be answered. This year I am hesistant to support an override mainly because of these questions -- and I have kids in the schools.

another person who supports an override and questions said...

9:39am- I have kids in the Amherst schools and I support an override and accountability. I understand the hesitation 9:39am writes about and felt it myself. Now I'm thinking that the cap set by the override is artificial and not based in the real world and real economic needs of our town. We need to hold our systems accountable but we also need to make sure the town has the resources it needs to provide my family with the services we need.

LarryK4 said...

Keep in mind Prop 2.5 allows for "new growth", which in a normal year adds another 2.5% in increased revenue for the town and 5% is well above the average rate of inflation.

Although in the People's Republic of Amherst, where the NIMBYs rule, "new growth" was down last year.

anonymous nitwit said...

Larry, did you notice the worldwide economic collapse, the national collapse of lending markets and real estate stall (and fall).? Only in the Republic of Amherst (i.e. in your mind alone) would anyone attribute the slowing of the local real estate market to NIMBY! Have you ever lived or traveled anywhere else or read a newspaper other than the Bulletin? There's a big world out there and it's connected to Amherst....

Anonymous said...

9:39am - agree completely!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

One more thing from me:

In terms of the override - I definitely do NOT think an override and scrutinizing what we do in the schools are mutually exclusive -- we can do one, both, or neither.

But I also think that support for an override should be a function of whether the schools need more money to be better ... and in all honesty, I'm not yet convinced of that. It is very confusing to me (and I'm a reasonably intelligent person) that Amherst spends $4,000 more per student than Northampton and yet we have more study halls. It is also very confusing to me that we spend basically the same per student as Brookline, yet Brookline pays their teachers/staff about 20% more. I can't ask people to give the Amherst schools more money until I understand why it costs more to educate a student in Amherst than in Northampton, and/or why it costs the same to educate a child in Amherst as it does to educate a child in Brookline (BUT Brookline spends a lot more on salaries). This suggests to me that needing more money just may not be the issue -- it may be examining how we spend money. Now, I may be wrong here -- maybe there is a very good and reasonable explanation for these numbers, but when I've asked people for an explanation, I haven't gotten any real answer. This is part of the information I'm trying to get BEFORE I form an opinion (and I think that is the responsible thing to do as a member of the SC).

In addition, I need to understand the impact of having an override in 2010 on the budget in 2011 ... my understanding from people in the school budget office is that 2012 looks WORSE than 2011 ... so, it may not make sense to pass an override in 2010 so that we can keep programs for ONE YEAR which we will then have to cut a year later. If this is what is going to happen, it would be smarter to make the cuts NOW and then have a lower overall operating cost moving forward -- and then, when the picture gets worse next year, we could pass an override that could sustain a new, lower (e.g., leaner) budget. I don't know if this is in fact the case yet (e.g., if passing an override now just delays the major cuts by one year), but I certainly need to understand the impact longer-term before I feel comfortable taking a position.

curious observer said...

Also when comparing Amherst's costs to Brookline's, we should compare the programs, classes, sports teams, class size, etc. that each school offers. Is it apples to apples? Are Amherst and Brookline offering similarly rich programs? And how do the two schools compare with regards to results (in all the ways this can be measured)?

Honest Question said...

to CS "But I also think that support for an override should be a function of whether the schools need more money to be better ... and in all honesty, I'm not yet convinced of that."

Thank you for your honesty, But my question is what do we do if it turns out that we need an override because the schools need more money because the 2.5% cap doesn't give the schools enough resources just to maintain. Or maybe they need more resources to make sure they dont get worse? Then what....?

Anonymous said...

does anyone remember last year? Amherst was screaming that it's sky was falling. Same tactics were used: asking for give backs from unions. Within 24 hrs. of the unions "no" answer, the schools gave all the administrators an 3% increase in salary.....hmmmm.... I thought the town was broke. Now, after having CS and Rivkin finally asking the questions that no one has the canasta's to you think Amherst College is going to come to Amherst rescue, sounds like "crying wolf" to me...

Nina Koch said...


Brookline is not going to work as a comparison district, at least in terms of finances. The Town of Brookline carries a huge amount of school expenses. Here is a quote from the school district's website:

"What School Department expenses are carried in the Town of Brookline budget?

The Town of Brookline carries all employee benefits, building heating and cooling expenses, building maintenance and repair, and certain information technology expenses in the operating budget. The cost of infrastructure, replacement, or upgrade is carried in the Town of Brookline Capital Budget. The employee benefits carried include active and retiree group health, workers’ compensation, town pension, unemployment, and employee assistance program. All oil, gas, and electric expenses are budgeted in the Town Building Department’s annual operating budget. The Town Building Department includes the cost of in-house trade’s staff and contracted maintenance expenses. Finally, the joint Town/School Information Technology Department is carried in the Town’s budget."

It adds up to almost a quarter of the school's total spending:

Net School Spending

I think you will need to find a regional district to compare us to.

curious observer said...

Thanks Nina. Now I am wondering if how like or unlike Amherst's budgeting is from Brookline's. I'm guessing that the capital costs of the high school comes out of the Town's overall capital budget, but maybe not. What if any of Amherst schools expenses get covered from the Town side of the ledger?
Also, Brookline has higher teacher salaries and may have economies of scale that a smaller district can't use to save money.

Abbie said...

Excellent work, Nina!


Nina Koch said...

I actually did a few simple regressions to look for economies of scale, especially because a place like Newton has 11,000 students.

I got a little bit of a negative slope on the line (per pupil cost as a function of district size) but not much. You see the economies when you go from tiny districts to smallish districts, but not so much from small to medium. I was surprised because I thought with administrators it would really make a difference. (I didn't include Spld, Boston or Worcester in the regression.)

I also did a simple regression for salary scale and that does have a little more explanatory power. Even so, there is variation that is hard to account for.

The surprising one was special ed. I looked at per pupil expenditure as a function of percentage allocated to special ed. I thought it would have a slight positive slope, but it is actually negative.

Anyway, the figures on the DESE website don't seem very reliable. They don't even match up with themselves. Like if you look on one page you get a different total for a certain year than if you look on another page. Maybe it's measuring a different quantity but it is not obvious. So I don't know what we can draw from that data. I am guessing there is an office in Quincy that has half the staff that it used to and maybe the data doesn't really get audited. I don't know!

curious observer said...

I don't think it's enough to say the figures on the state website are confusing, so there. The question of the costs of Amherst's per pupil spending versus other comparison districts needs to be looked at and explained. It's out there and needs to be addressed even if everyone inside the school system wants to ignore it.

Nina Koch said...

did I say anything about ignoring it? no. Rather, I reported on several things I did in order to investigate it further. I also mentioned how difficult it was to make sense of it. That's all.

jm said...

Is there anyone trying to make sense of it?

For all we know Amherst is spending less, the same or more than comparable or nearby schools. Even if Amherst is spending more, it may be doing it for good reasons, reasons taxpayers are willing to support.

How are we to know?

It would be helpful for government officials looking for an override to provide an answer to this vexing question.