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.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Important Meeting Reminders

Just wanted to remind blog readers that there is an Amherst School Committee meeting tonight, Monday February 8th, at 6:30 pm in the High School Library (this meeting will be shown later on ACTV, but will not be shown live). This meeting will focus on the budget. Then, for those who love meetings, there is a joint Amherst and Regional School Committee meeting tomorrow, Tuesday February 9th, at 6:30 in Town Hall (this meeting will be shown live). This meeting will also focus on the budget. I will do blog updates after each meeting.


Abbie said...

I haven’t posted because I have been trying to formulate my position on the override and trying to understand CS (and Rivkin’s) position. I unreservedly support an override. I think CS’s and SR’s current position has reduced the chances of it passing this year and if it doesn’t pass this year then next year’s opportunity will be scuppered. This is my reading of the tea leaves. So as this train is already steamed and ready to head out the door, CS and SR are essentially killing the opportunity for an override this year AND next year.

I think I understand CS’s position in that she doesn’t want to ask for money which is earmarked for certain things IF that is where it HAS to go. If I understand correctly, CS doesn’t want to get locked into the distribution of $1.1 million to MS/HS and $176,000 to the ESs. They think that we need more time to consider the zero budget (how we WANT our schools to be instead of how do we keep them as exactly as they are now).

As I understand it, override allocations only stand for FY11 and the increase in the budget (or rather less of a cut) can be allocated HOWEVER in subsequent years. I understand that this year has been brutally busy for the schools and administrators (at least the ESs) and maybe this could account for some of the slowness in examining the HS and best practices, as well as the ongoing current SPED review. I fear, however, that CS and SR are using the override as some sort of leverage to FORCE the schools (MS/HS) to consider the changes that they desire (some of which I agree with). I think this is playing hardball where the losers are kids.

Next year I believe negotiations open with the teachers union. I think its critical to understand (at much as possible) what kind of money will be in the budget going into those negotiations. If the override was to be postponed until next year (or fail this year and be resurrected next year), we wouldn’t have clue. This would make negotiations really difficult. Am I wrong in the timing?

I, personally, can say that our experience has been that the budget cut to the ES was devastating but won’t speak more to it publically. When Meg Rosa says that it has been devastating to her child’s experience, I take big notice. Meg has always shown herself to be a loyal school supporter, when she says cuts are unsupportable for her child, then I believe it. Could some of these problems be avoided without an override? Maybe, but the fact is, they haven’t and they are a DIRECT consequence of last years cuts. So I take issue with CS’s view that the cuts have been painless. Maybe her kids were lucky, but believe me, a sizable number weren’t.

It will take time to make structural/programmatic changes. An override will buy some time and potentially (after FY11) pay for some of the new programs on CS and SR want.

A question, where does the 1:10 ES:MS/HS number come from CS? I can’t come up with anything close to that ratio... 170,000:1.1mill isn’t 1:10 (its 1:6.4) and the ES budget vs the MS/HS budget also isn’t close...

I suggest, as others have, that we seriously consider the phrase “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. It seems, however, that CS and SR positions are immutable, which is sad because I fear that it makes impossible an override this year or the next. The override horse is heading out the door, next year the stall will be empty.

Rick said...

Great Amherst School Committee meeting tonight. Kudos to Catherine and Steve for pushing for the summer program and Pre-K that were added to the budget, and for the motion offered to simply put forward the best guess of what money is needed, including bumping it up to $400k, without needing to make a statement about where that $400k comes from (override, reserves, union givebacks, whatever).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...


So, first, I think you more or less describe my position (I am not going to speak for Steve's) on the override. Just to clarify a bit, I am uncomfortable asking voters to pay more taxes for "programs to be determined later," and I think voters might well feel hesitant about that as well. I am also uncomfortable saying to voters that we need to spend so much more on the regional level than the elementary -- and sorry for my bad math -- the 1 to 10 number was $170,000 (ES) to 1.4 million (the 1.1 is Amherst's share of the regional number, which each of the other towns paying $100,000) -- so I guess that math is 1 to 8, not 1 to 10. Still seems bad to me, particularly given what we all know about the benefits of spending money in the early years more than the later years.

Second, I really don't think it is fair to characterize "CS and SR are essentially killing the opportunity for an override this year AND next year." I think it is really unfair for multiple reasons. One reason is that CS and SR don't have a majority on any community, so unless SOMEONE else agrees with CS and SR, nothing happens. I think it is pretty clear that Irv agrees with CS and SR ... so, is Irv killing the override, or just me and Steve? Another reason is that I've asked repeatedly for an override for next year -- and I wish that an override WOULD take place next year, when I'm almost certain I could support one.

Thus, you could easily say "well, three members of the Amherst SC say they'd prefer to have an override next year, and they could support one next year -- if the Select Board is going to put an override on the ballot this year, then the Select Board is essentially killing the opportunity for an override." I believe that an override vote next year is a better idea than an override vote this year. And I know a lot of people who share this view, and these people aren't just deciding this because I have this view. They are deciding it because they are uncomfortable with the proposed allocation of funds, or concerns about how funds will be spent, or distrust in the schools, etc.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Abbie (continued) -

And I really disagree with the view that we are playing "hardball." I think we are being responsible, and we've pushed very hard to maintain programs in the HS that are hard to recover (e.g., wood technology, music ensembles). What I am uncomfortable supporting is an override to bring class sizes in the high school to below the levels they were in 2003 -- and maintaining six world languages 7 to 12. Those don't seem truly necessary to me, and I don't feel like I can go to the community and support an override that is largely based on avoiding these cuts. Is that hardball? I just don't see it that way -- and this has nothing to do with programs at the high school (which I believe Steve and I, along with the vast majority of the Regional SC, have tried to maintain).

The issue of negotiations is an important one -- and I know of many people who say they will support an override WHEN there is a clear commitment from the SC to have more sustainable COLAs in the contract. That means more people would support an override next year than this (if we assume the SC will try to negotiate more sustainable COLAs). Others feel if we pass an override now, we will have more money to pay larger COLAs because we have more money to spend. Again, these aren't my views, but this is what I certainly hear from others -- and it doesn't suggest that delaying an override hurts us at all in terms of negotiations.

I honestly have no idea what cuts you are talking about at the ES level in terms of cuts this year --but maybe you aren't hearing my focus which is on MORE money to the ES and LESS to the regional schools. I'm not sure why you think the cuts now are bad at the ES, so you think it is OK for these schools to have such a low increase. That's one of my big concerns about the current projections -- 1.4 to region, and $170,000 to elementary.

And finally -- I agree with don't let perfect be the enemey of good. That's why I'd rather use reserves this year to cover some gap (maybe not the full gap) and then do a thoughtful K to 12 planning process next year, and pass an override next year. That's not perfect -- but it would be good (and I think such an override AFTER thoughtful planning would have a much greater chance of passing).

Rick - thanks for the nice words. I think the $400,000 number is too low ... and want to give that more thought. But it was a best attempt to provide a number, which I still feel like is not the right process to use to come up with a number.

Anonymous said...

All of the above contributes to my view that voters should have the opportunity to evaluate each part of the town government, schools, libraries and Town, individually on a menu. Stephanie, Aaron, and Diana should heed Stephanie's admonition from an earlier meeting: "do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good." That is what they are doing by insisting on the lump sum question. (I will vote yes on all lines or on one line, whichever the case may be.)

There is true turmoil surrounding the Schools and a good deal of it is about issues that matter.

The Town and the Libraries should not suffer for this.

Alisa Brewer, who seems uniquely to have a grasp of what's happening in this situation, are you listening?

Rich Morse

Rick said...

I know Catherine doesn’t like the process and I appreciate her willingness to forge ahead anyways.

I think it’s too bad that the override entered so heavily into the conversation and “supporting the schools” got replaced by “supporting the override”. The reason it did is that this was determined early on:

Avoid massive cuts in the schools (and town) = Override.

I think those of us who are pro-override, like myself, are that way only because that was the one option given to us to plug the hole in FY2011. It’s not the override we want; its plugging the hole we want.

There are really only three sources of funds to plug the hole: override, reserves and union concessions. (BTW it’s annoying that we don’t know the union situation before having to decide on an override amount – that is a knowable thing whereas what exactly state aid will be is not in our control.) Of those three sources, the override and union concessions give the permanent “bump up” that is needed – using reserves doesn’t. Once we get that bump up, we need to stay at or below 3.5% budget increases going forward – but we need the bump in FY2011.

I know Catherine doesn’t like this because we don’t know exactly what the bump should be for the schools and she would like more time to determine that. I get that. But having the override be the only option means we have to do the timetable that works for that, which is not great but it’s just the way it is.

Abbie said this ”I think its critical to understand (at much as possible) what kind of money will be in the budget going into those negotiations.” We more or less already know that – its about 3.5% (prop 2.5 + 1% new growth). We cannot increase our budget going forward by more than this and since payroll is 80% of the budget, payroll cannot increase by more than this.

I say all this just because I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault that we are where we are with this schedule and that we are all in the same boat. So fighting about who is pro and con should stop.

Abbie said...


WRT to Union negotiations, we know that if an override FAILS that we might have ~3.5% increase over this years budget (could be less, depending on state aid). If an override PASSES then our budget amount going into negotiations is the amount of school portion of the overrride ($1.9 million) PLUS the 3.5%. I think this would be vital information to know. For example, if we were to try for world languages in k-6 in 2011-2012, then I think we need to drop early dismissal on Wednesdays so that "regular instruction" time isn't reduced. I imagine that this would be a very big change in the contract and I imagine knowing whether we are facing cuts or facing something like level services would be vital to the negotiations. I think the same argument would apply to trimesters/semesters.

Rick said...


I am not understanding. I think we want to ask for the minimum override we need to plug the 2011 hole and we don’t know what that is without knowing what the union is doing. Unless I am missing something, there isn’t any info the union doesn’t have to be able to say yes or no to concessions.

Abbie said...


I am talking about negotiating the NEXT contract with the union. If I understand correctly, CS and SR (IR?) want to add world languages (K-6), summer school for disadvantaged kids, and change to semesters from trimesters (these are just some of the adds/changes). If an override isn't passed this year, negotiations will begin (and end?) next year without having the funds in place for those things (some of which require substantial sums and some with implications for the next contract). Having an override NEXT year, even if it passed, is too late to affect those negotiations (I think).

This is just one consideration among many wrt to this year's override. But I don't see those things happening, which I think are great ideas, in the foreseeable future without an override this year.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rich - I agree that a menu override is the right way to go. I wish the SB had followed the advice of the FCCC and done this ... and I believe there is considerable (hidden) concern about voting to give more money to the schools right now, because the schools do NOT have a track record of spending that money well. There is also lingering feelings that after the 2007 override failed, NOTHING changed, and people remember that. I think it is a bad idea to lump schools with other things - lets let people vote for one, none, or all as they like.

Rick (at 9:06) - I think you basically summarized by position well - I don't like asking people to give more money to the schools when (a) I have no idea how much to ask for, and (b) I have no idea how it should be used. I would far rather work to figure out what schools we want AND how much that will cost, and THEN go to the community with a number. That seems not to be an option I have (hence my support of Steve's motion).

However, here's the other piece -- I do NOT think an override is going to pass on March 23rd, because I hear from many that they aren't going to support one (and that is NOT because people are following me like sheep -- it is because independently they have come to their own decision that they don't trust that additional money will be well spent). And whether you support a March 23rd override or not, I think it is obvious that an override that fails doesn't help anyone. I would rather have an override in a year (or in 6 months) that passes IF we need it (and for the amount we need) than have one fail now.

Rick, and Abbie, and others may believe it will pass now because people will say "let's give the schools more money, and that money will surely be well spent." But there are others who don't have this view, and thus aren't going to support it -- but they are going to be quiet about that because otherwise they are going to be attacked as school-bashing. That is my concern about an override this year, BEFORE we've had a visioning process of what our schools could be and what that will cost.

Abbie - I hear from many people that they are NOT supporting an override because they believe the SC "gave away the store" by signing 3/3.5% COLAs (which Jere did as he left town). I'm not saying teachers don't deserve this, or our teachers don't work hard (and I know MANY who also go out of pocket to pay for supplies now that our supply budget has been cut) -- it is just saying people fear that giving the schools more money will be used for bad purposes (e.g., paying unsustainable wage increases). Negotiations could occur next spring AFTER an override takes place - and these negotiations could still be informed by whether voters supported an override. Alternatively, negotiations could occur BEFORE an override, which could increase the possibility that an override would pass. But neither of these ideas requires an override this year on March 23rd.

And one more thing - CS and SR want to DISCUSS these things (e.g., with teachers, parents, community members) -- to see what we might want our schools to be. I don't know where the community would come out on these things or what their cost would be -- but I sure know that the cost COULD be greater than the amount in our budget (even if an override passes), which is why I'd like to have these discussions FIRST before settling on an override amount to ask for. We are really stuck if we pass an override in X amount and then have promised not to ask for more money but find that we do in fact NEED more money.

Rick said...


Ah OK I see what you are saying. Changes in work schedule may be wanted, if we have the money to do those things that require the change.