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, March 31, 2010

Final Recommendations from the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee

Note: This email was sent to the School Committee, and I thought would be of interest to my blog readers (and it is a public document -- therefore I can post it). I want to express my thanks to all members of this group, including current School Committee member Rick Hood, School Committee candidate Ernie Dalkas, and the superb chair of this group, Alison Donta.

The Budget Advisory Committee reports that, with the posting of the composite report of questions and answers on, the Committee has fulfilled its current charge as written. It is our recommendation that the current committee’s work be concluded and that you create an expanded committee to follow up on this work. The goal of this new committee would be to inform not only the current budget process but also to inform budget-related decisions pertaining to the upcoming contract negotiations, the special education review, and the hiring of two key positions—a curriculum director and a superintendent.

We recommend that this new committee be formed immediately, soliciting volunteers from the public, and should focus on specific areas we have highlighted as having a large potential impact on our current and future budget situation. Those areas are:

  • Production of a line-item budget for each district
  • Increasing transparency and improving communication around this budget
Contract review
  • Salaries, including COLAs and STEP increases
  • Health insurance
  • Additional contractually-negotiated items
  • Outline of current structure
  • Understanding role of each administrator within system
  • Goal for system under new superintendent
Special Education
  • More thorough understanding of current special education budget and services
  • Liaison with outside evaluators currently conducting review
“Middle School Identity”
  • Explore context of two-year middle school
  • Investigate educational and budgetary implications of moving the middle school to the high school
  • Investigate educational and budgetary implications of moving the sixth grade to the middle school
  • Investigate educational and budgetary implications of expanding to a K-12 district
  1. Including all four towns
  2. Including Amherst and Pelham only
  3. Amherst only
  • Explore issues of
  1. Curricular alignment
  2. Transportation costs
  3. Current Regional Agreement

We further recommend that this newly-formed committee solicit volunteers to work on a specific item above, taking advantage of the different types of skills and interests of various citizens. Ideally, the committee would meet as a whole to create a plan to tackle each of these items and then form subcommittees of 2-3 citizens. Each subcommittee would work to investigate a specific topic, using data from our districts, data from comparative districts, conversations with the public, and information from town managers and school administrators. The goal of each subcommittee is to thoroughly investigate one area above and to produce reports that will inform the decision-making process of the School Committees and which can be posted on the web site for public consumption. The chair of the committee as a whole will help coordinate the work of the subcommittees and serve as the main liaison with the School Committee.

It is our recommendation that this work be commenced immediately and be concluded in time to inform these upcoming decisions facing our districts. Proposed timelines for subcommittee work are outlined below:

  • Budget—April 2010 through June 2010
  • Contract Review—April 2010 through August 2010
  • Administration—April 2010 through August 2010
  • Special Education—April 2010 through December 2010
  • “Middle School Identity”—June 2010 with preliminary report by December 2010, potentially continuing pending results of initial study
  • Regionalization—June 2010 with preliminary report by December 2010, potentially continuing pending results of initial study
The members of the current Budget Advisory Committee have expressed an interest in playing a role in this new committee but feel strongly that the School Committee should form a new committee under a new charge and issue a call for volunteers to serve. Members of the current Budget Advisory Committee could then be considered for membership along with any new volunteers coming forward.

We have appreciated the opportunity to serve our school districts and to provide useful budget-related information both to the public and to the School Committees.

Respectfully Submitted on behalf of the Committee,
Alison Donta-Venman, Chair, Budget Advisory Committee

Finalists Announced for Middle School Principal Position

UPDATE, March 31:

Mr. Paul Goodhind notified the Human Resources Director this afternoon that he is withdrawing from the finalist pool as Middle School Principal. The remaining candidates, Mr. Michael Hayes and Mr. Karsten Schlenter, will be spending a full day in the district tomorrow as previously scheduled.

Three finalists have been announced for the position of Amherst Regional Middle School Principal: Karsten Schlenter, Michael Hayes, and Paul Goodhind.

The finalists will visit the district on Thursday, April 1, 2010 and will spend the day on site at the Middle School in a variety of settings. Each candidate will begin his day with a building tour, followed by meetings with staff, students, elementary and secondary administrators, and Central Office administrators. The public forums will be held in the Middle School library on the evening of April 1 at the following times:

  1. Karsten Schlenter 6:30 - 7:15 p.m.
  2. Michael Hayes 7:15 - 8:00 p.m.

We invite all members of the community to attend the forums and provide input into this very important decision for our school district.

For more information about the search, see

Schools Try Elementary Approach To Teaching Foreign Languages

Note: This is an article from a few years ago -- but it touches on the issues other districts face in terms of teaching world language, so I thought it would be of interest to my blog readers.

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

School systems across the Washington area are adding foreign language classes in elementary grades in response to a call from government and business leaders who say the country needs more bilingual speakers to stay competitive and even to fight terrorism.

Educators say that the youngest brains have the greatest aptitude for absorbing language and that someone who is bilingual at a young age will have an easier time learning a third or fourth language later on. Compared with adults or even high school students, young children are better able to learn German with near-native pronunciation or mimic the subtle tones of Mandarin.

So last week, kindergartners at Fairfax County's Graham Road Elementary School, one of seven county elementary schools that reopen early in August, sang an alphabet song, learned how to stand in line -- and started Spanish lessons.

The 30-minute lesson, taught solely in Spanish, drew perplexed looks from 5-year-old Ngan Vo, who wasn't quite sure why classmates smiled and danced when they heard " bien " and pretended to cry when the teacher said " mal ." But teacher Yazmin Galloway says that by year's end, she expects Ngan and her classmates to have a foundation in Spanish.

"I'm pretty sure at the end of the year, I'll have speakers," Galloway said. "They will tell me how they're feeling that day. They will say, 'I can read this,' and tell me how to count."

Foreign language classes have long been a staple of high school, and several languages, such as Russian, Japanese and Arabic, have been added at that level. In addition, most Washington area school systems have offered a smattering of language programs at elementary schools for years.

But now, more and more immigrants from scores of countries are arriving in the region; in Montgomery County schools, more than 135 languages are spoken. So districts are making a concerted effort to offer instruction in more languages at more schools to even younger children.

Beginning this school year in the District, Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest Washington is planning to offer a pre-kindergarten French immersion program -- with some lessons in French and others in English -- and Thomson Elementary in Northeast is launching a Mandarin immersion class. Arlington County schools are adding a Spanish pilot program at two elementary schools.

And Fairfax is considering a long-term plan to expand foreign language instruction to each of its 137 elementary schools.

"The world is getting smaller and smaller, and I believe all students in Fairfax need to be able to speak a language other than English," said Fairfax County School Board Chairman Ilryong Moon (At Large). "As a person who came here as a teenager, I had a difficult time learning a new language. It's much better to start at an earlier age."

When Moon was growing up in South Korea, he started English classes in seventh grade. But nowadays, he said, children there learn English in elementary school. The U.S. Department of Education recently pointed out that more than 200 million children in China are studying English in primary school, but only 24,000 students in U.S. schools are learning Chinese.

Sam Hassett, 7, is part of an effort to change that equation.

At Wolftrap Elementary School in Vienna, Sam and his classmates started learning Mandarin last year. They made dumplings and read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" in Chinese.

"It's good because when you go to that country or something you'll already know how to talk to people there," Sam explained. "I can count to 100: y i , er , san , si , wu , liu , qi , ba , jiu , shi . . . "

Sam's not thinking of job prospects just yet, but his mother is.

"China is quickly becoming a dominant player in the world economy, and I want my child prepared for that," said Claire Hassett, a director of product marketing for Verizon Business. "There are a lot of countries not as rich as ours that are teaching their children a second language. I feel it's smart public policy."

So does Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who pushed for $200,000 in federal funding for Sam's class and a second Chinese language program for elementary students in Fairfax. And in January, President Bush -- citing the need for more speakers of so-called critical languages, including Chinese, Arabic and Russian -- proposed the National Security Language Initiative, a $114 million effort to support language instruction for children and adults.

"I think it's absolutely necessary for our country for trade but also national security," Wolf said.

Still, a shift toward adding foreign language for the youngest students is not easy. School systems are already required by the federal No Child Left Behind law to improve student achievement on math and reading tests. That makes it hard to find time to teach Italian, French or Arabic. Schools that have programs can find it difficult to hire qualified teachers. Plus, adding a program can carry a significant cost.

In Montgomery, a nonprofit group formed by the PTA offers foreign language programs for a fee at most elementary schools before the first bell rings, and about 5,000 children attend each year. Montgomery school board member Stephen N. Abrams (Rockville-Potomac) is a fan of the programs -- his daughters attended -- but he said young students need to concentrate on basics such as arithmetic and reading during the school day.

"Because of leave no child behind, we've decided in terms of curriculum to keep focused," Abrams said. "At least until we get everything done right, I wouldn't want to put another requirement into the day."

Prince George's County school officials expressed similar concerns about starting language instruction in elementary school. They said the district is focusing on expanding language offerings in middle school. This fall, Nicholas Orem Middle School in Hyattsville will offer Italian for the first time.

Arlington schools are fitting in a Spanish pilot program at two elementary schools -- Glebe and Patrick Henry -- by eliminating the traditional early dismissal each Wednesday. Starting in September, students in kindergarten through fifth grade will be taught Spanish for 90 minutes a week.

"The issue that we grappled with were instructional time and resources," said Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent of instruction for Arlington schools.

But Suzette Wyhs, foreign language supervisor for Loudoun schools, said you can teach young children a second language without taking away from such courses as math or science. Teachers can reinforce lessons the children have learned in other classes.

For instance, she said, third-graders who have studied ocean animals might read a book about dolphins in Spanish. "The only unknown should be the language," Wyhs said.

Loudoun County began a Spanish program in elementary schools in 2002. Now, all first- and second-graders have Spanish for 30 minutes a week, and third-, fourth- and fifth-graders get double that. This year, for the first time, sixth-graders will have a half-hour of instruction in Spanish every other day.

In Fairfax, schoolwide language programs for all 137 elementary schools would cost about $16 million a year. Today, seven Fairfax elementary schools, including Graham Road, run programs in which children are learning Italian, Latin, French or Chinese. A handful of schools also have more-intensive immersion classes.

Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator for Fairfax schools, said the idea is to have each school focus on one language. A task force of educators and parents recently recommended adding the program at 24 schools a year beginning in September 2007.

Several Fairfax County School Board members said they like the idea but don't know whether the district would be able to afford such a fast expansion. "I think it's the wave of the future," said board member Kathy L. Smith (Sully). "We just have to figure out how to do it."

At Graham Road last week, first-grader Heather McCall said Spanish class is "kind of hard because I don't understand."

But Heather is determined to learn. She is even trying to talk her mother into taking a Spanish class so they can practice together.

"I want to learn three languages," Heather said. "I want to learn Spanish and Chinese, and I already know English."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Amherst school board urges schools to limit required study halls

Hampshire Gazette
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
By Nick Grabbe

AMHERST- The Regional School Committee voted last week to "strongly recommend" that Amherst Regional High School students have no more than one required study hall over the next academic year.

Member Steve Rivkin said he wanted to "make a statement" that Amherst should use its high per-pupil expenditures to enable students to take full advantage of all their opportunities.

"It's untenable for school systems like Amherst to tell the community that as high the property tax is, we need two study halls after passing an override," he said.

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said she hasn't been able to find another high school that spends as much as Amherst and has two required study halls per year.

Now that the region is receiving an extra $950,000 from the override, teacher union givebacks and state aid, it should be possible to restrict study halls, even if class sizes have to increase slightly, she said.

Rivkin, an Amherst College professor, said he has 35 to 40 students in some classes. "We're not going to be a fancy private school and we can't have class sizes that are ideal," he said.

The vote was 6-3, with members Irv Rhodes, Rick Hood, Rob Spence and Kristen Luschen also voting yes. Chairman Farshid Hajir voted against the measure, as did members Tracy Farnham and Kathy Weilerstein.

Hajir said there could be "a cascade of consequences" if schedulers have to limit students to one study hall next year. He said the extra money should be used to restore positions that were at risk.

Parent and teacher Amy Brodigan said she favored keeping class sizes small, saying there is an "enormous difference" between having 21 and 23 students. "I'd rather see a child in study hall than in larger classes," she said.

Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk said the committee should "trust the people who are the experts to make recommendations." Principal Mark Jackson said he can use the extra money to reduce the number of students who have two mandated study halls, starting with seniors next year.

Alarm sounds on youth sleep needs

Note: This was published a few weeks ago but at a hectic time (e.g., SC race, overrides), so I didn't post it then. But a number of blog readers brought this to my attention -- and here it is!

Hampshire Gazette
Monday, March 8, 2010

NORTHAMPTON - If you knew there was one thing you could do that would help your children be happier, healthier, safer and do better in school, would you do it? What if it were a challenge to arrange?

This tension is at the crux of the debate about school start times in Northampton.

A wealth of scientific information about sleep clearly demonstrates how important sleep is to children's brain development. In their 2009 book "Nurtureshock," Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman summarize studies that show the major impact that losing even one hour of sleep can have on children's academic performance, memory, mood, safety and health. These findings have led many school systems to move back their high school start times to increase teenagers' sleep and improve their health and safety.

Now, less than 5 percent of American adolescents get eight hours of sleep on weeknights and 50 percent get less than seven hours sleep.

"In general, children - from elementary school through high school - get an hour less sleep each night than they did thirty years ago," write Bronson and Merryman.

Why is this a problem? Because we now understand that kids' brains are doing critical work during sleep. Loss of sleep has "an exponential impact on children that it simply doesn't on adults."

Recent MRI brain studies show that sleep loss seriously affects a child's ability to consolidate and store learning from the previous day. In addition, loss of sleep disrupts the prefrontal cortex, the site of executive functioning - which controls impulse control, planning and abstract reasoning skills. Thus, loss of sleep translates into lower academic performance, standardized test scores and IQ scores.

A study of fourth- and sixth-graders in Israel showed that one hour's sleep difference created a two-year gap in achievement scores. Many studies show correlation between sleep and grades. One found that students who got A's averaged 15 minutes more sleep than students who received B's, who averaged 15 minutes more sleep than students who averaged C's (and so on).

Researchers have also found a strong link between sleep loss and negative mood. One such study found that as sleep decreased each year of high school so did mood, and students getting fewer than eight hours of sleep had double the risk of a clinical level of depression. Quality of life and psychological health can improve with increased sleep.

A crucial point for many school systems, and ultimately for the Centers for Disease Control, is the issue of safety. We now know that in adolescence melatonin, the brain's natural sleep chemical, is released later in the evening and into the morning hours - unlike in children and adult brains. This difference leads to sleepiness in the morning, which correlates with driving accidents.

Districts that have changed start times have reported significant drops in teenage car accidents Lexington, Ky., reported a 25 percent drop. This finding ultimately led the CDC to recommend moving high school start times later because it can save lives.

Finally, new research points to the important role sleep plays in regulating hunger and eating behaviors. Brain research conducted by Dr. Eve Van Cauter demonstrates a complex neuroendocrine cascade that links obesity with sleep loss. Studies around the globe have found with remarkable consistency that children who got fewer than eight hours sleep have a 300 percent higher risk for obesity than those who got 10 hours sleep per night. A U.S. study showed that obesity rates increased 80 percent for every hour of sleep lost.

With this level of scientific backing, clearly the best decision for our children's health and education is to move the start time of the high school back to 8:30 or later (from its current time of 7:30). Unfortunately, in the current economic climate of recurring budget crises, issues of innovation and science-based change can get sidelined. We need to work together to solve the logistical problems in a creative and thrifty way.

A group of parents and citizens met Feb. 3 to discuss this issue. We brainstormed options that in combination might solve the core obstacle: transportation. If the start time were later, perhaps we could make use of the city bus system, and also use smaller buses that could be run for less money. Or it may be more cost effective to use a model in which smaller "feeder" buses bring students to central locations for larger buses.

The School Committee is planning to sponsor an open forum March 15 on transportation issues. Come and offer your ideas to make sure transportation problems don't stand in the way of a change that is a win-win choice.

We appreciate how beleaguered the School Committee and administrators have been because of repeated budget crises. We are interested in working together for the education and well-being of our students. The bottom line is, when we have overwhelming data that says this is best for all children, we can't respond, "But it's too difficult."

We have to respond, "OK, how can we do this soon?"

Karen W. Saakvitne is a clinical psychologist in Northampton and a parent of two middle school students. Carin Clevidence is a writer and a parent of a third- and fifth-grader. Renee Wetstein is an attorney and a mother of three sons in sixth, eighth and tenth grade.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Amherst School Committee, March 25, 2010

We had a brief (about 30 minute) Amherst meeting before our Regional Meeting on Thursday -- so this will be a quick update.

First, we elected new officers (given the election of two new SC members to Amherst on Tuesday). I nominated Irv Rhodes as Chair, which was seconded by Steve Rivkin. Then Irv nominated Steve as Vice Chair, which Rob Spence seconded. Both motions passed unanimously.

Second, we discussed new sub-committee assignments. Rob is going to serve (with me) on JCPC and Steve and Rick are going to serve on BCG.

Third, we discussed the next meeting dates/times, which will be Tuesday, April 6th, and Wednesday, April 7th (6:30 pm). It is not clear whether these meetings will take place in the HS library or at Town Hall -- Debbie Westmoreland is going to check on the availability of Town Hall (which then can be shown live).

Finally, we turned to the one item on the agenda, which was a motion I had prepared. This motion was to provide Spanish language instruction in all elementary schools K to 6 starting this fall -- using the model now used for "specials" (e.g., once a week instruction, as we do for music, PE, art, library, computer now). This motion was seconded by Irv, and then was discussed at a fair amount of length. I pointed out that the Amherst SC had voted additional funds at our last meeting precisely because we wanted to have the flexibility to offer this type of new program, and I thought this would be a great use of additional funds. I also noted that this program could help families who may feel less welcome in our schools be more involved, particularly given the ending of the language clustering this fall, and would be in line with our district's commitment to multiculturalism. I also noted that Spanish is by far the language most spoken in this community (other than English), and thus this seems like the logical language to teach K to 6. Other members on the SC also spoke in favor of this motion, although wanting to understand the fiscal costs associated and how else additional funds could be spent.

The superintendent and several principals (Mark Jackson, Mike Hayes, Mike Morris) generally spoke in favor of this idea, but cautioned that it was quite complex to consider for many reasons. Mark Jackson noted that we should consider focusing on languages K to 12, and that languages like Russian/Arabic/Chinese would be more likely to be paid for the government. Mike Hayes pointed out the problems associated with having some kids have Chinese in terms of MS placement. Maria Geryk noted that there were many spending priorities focused on intervention and special education.

The SC then voted unanimously to request for the administration to examine fiscal and educational implications of adding K to 6 Spanish in all elementary schools at the start of the 2010-2011 school year. This information will be presented at the April 6th meeting, and voted on at the April 7th meeting -- so, if you have thoughts about this proposal, please email the SC ( and/or the superintendent (

Rob Spence also raised the issue of the costs associated with returning to instrumental music in 3rd and 4th grade as opposed to 4th and 5th grade (as happened this year in response to budget cuts). The SC also agreed that this would be useful information to have, and the superintendent said this could be prepared for the April 6th meeting as well.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Regional Meetings, March 24 & 25, 2010

We had two meetings this week (Wednesday and Thursday), so I'm going to summarize these two meetings together (since both largely focused on the budget and ended with a vote on the budget for 2010-11).


NOTE: This meeting was unfortunately not taped with audio, and hence will NOT be available on ACTV. I'm doing the best I can to summarize the meeting, but I'd encourage you to also check out the minutes once they are released for a fuller accounting.

First, Farshid and Irv both gave thanks (in their roles as Chair of Region, and Vice-Chair of Amherst) to Kathleen Anderson and Andy Churchill for their service on the SC, as did Maria Geryk. We also congratulated Rick Hood and Rob Spence on their election to the SC, and Kathy Weilerstein -- who will be taking Debbie Gould's place on the Regional SC while Debbie is away for the next few months.

Next, we had some public comment: Ernie Dalkas suggested that we try to move to one study hall (given the passage of the override), Tim Sheehan (teacher at FR and Chair of the Teacher's Union) said it was good to have Maria Geryk in place for the next 16 months to get the focus back on education, and Michael Silverstone (WW teacher) thanked Kathleen Anderson for her service/congratulated Rick and Rob on the election/expressed appreciation for Maria Geryk serving for the next 16 months.

We then turned to the Superintendent's Update, which was quite long (I believe 12 minutes), so I'm going to hit the highlights, which were basically initiatives that Maria is working on. These include working on completing answers to the Citizen's Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC), updating the district website, holding coffees with the superintendent, an anti-bullying initiative, announcing winners of the Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Award, coordinating the Special Ed review, working on hires for the MS principal and curriculum director, working on a district-wide safety initiative, visiting the two MSAN districts in MA (Brookline and Cambridge), working on K to 6 English Language arts curriculum alignment, creating an on-line system for K to 6 report cards, and working with Amherst and Regional data teams.

We then turned to the big topic of the night, which was budget. We had a pretty lengthy discussion about the budget recommendations and priorities, based on the new information of resources available: $175,000 in teacher givebacks (at the REGIONAL level), plus an additional $96,859 (moving from a 5% to a 4% cut in state aid), plus $678,141 (override funds for region). This amount got us to add back approximately $950,000, which was the amount agreed upon at the last meeting (e.g., the identified budget short-fall). In addition, the superintendent is recommending use of a TOTAL of $255,000 from reserves, which is an additional $175,000 in reserves than had initially been intended ($80,000 was initially recommended as use from reserves), which would allow us to bring back the following positions: 1.4 HS special ed, .2 HS librarian, .2 HS dean of students, .2 HS prep academy, $6,000 professional development in the high school, and 1 or 2 special ed teachers/paras at the MS.

The discussion by the SC centered largely on two issues. First, we discussed the level at which we should hire a person to head up curriculum. The superintendent has recommended a curriculum director, with an approximate salary of $90,000. Some members of the committee suggested that this person should be hired at a higher level in title (e.g., Assistant Superintendent) and/or salary ($115,000 - as the position was advertised last year). There was a fair amount of discussion about the advantages/disadvantages of each, and the superintendent is going to report back on her recommendation. Given that a budget amount needs to be voted very soon (24 hours), it was noted that one could use the money now allocated for program review ($20,000) to pay a higher salary, and thus additional funds wouldn't necessarily be required.

Second, we discussed whether we should go to one study hall in the high school, given the additional resources now available -- and in particular whether we should prioritize moving to one study hall (at an estimated $330,000) over some of the other things that are now getting funded (following the passage of the override and teacher givebacks). This was a pretty long discussion -- which continued on Thursday night -- but basically the committee agreed that one study hall was a good idea.

We then had a pretty brief discussion about admitting additional students for school choice at particular grades in the MS and HS, and tabled the vote for the next night.

We also had a brief update on the Beers report, which included information that the School Council is now working on a data-driven School Improvement Plan, and that Dr. Beers is willing to come back in May to see where we are with this plan. She believes hiring a permanent principal will help with the goals of consistent leadership and providing feedback to teachers. The MS staff are eager to discuss the challenges of being a two-year school. Maria also announced that she was going to continue with seeking bids for a K to 12 math review, and noted that extensions would specifically be a component of that review. She requested that SC members alert her to other topics to be covered in this review; I suggested reviewing the IMP program (an alternative to the traditional math program) in the high school (Farshid agreed this would be a good addition).

Finally, we discussed items for upcoming meetings: Irv suggested an update from the legal services committee, and Steve suggested an update on the district goals (with a particular emphasis on the high school science program).


This meeting started with an Amherst meeting (which I will summarize in a separate blog posting), and then turned to three items of Regional business: the quarterly budget update, the budget for 2010-2011, and the school choice vote.

The quarterly budget update provided information showing where we were in terms of budget lines at this point of the fiscal year -- basically we are on track.

Then we had a LONG discussion about the 2010-2011 year, which again focused on the two issues from the prior night: the curriculum director position and the number of high school study halls.

Views on the curriculum director position were very mixed -- some believed we should hold on this search since it may be difficult to find people who want to accept such a position given that they don't know who their boss will be in a year; others believed this is a crucial position and we should make every effort to hire someone; others believed that the pool of candidates will be smaller for a curriculum director than for an assistant superintendent of curriculum, and thus the search should be re-opened. Maria noted the search had already been posted, but she would think more about how to place it in the central office administration. Steve noted that we currently have several high-paid administrators in special education, and maybe attention needed to be paid to creating a different organization in central office.

Mark Jackson and Annie Leonard then presented information about the possibility of going to one study hall in the high school. They believed scheduling difficulties would make it impossible to only require one study hall for all students, but they believed they could try to require only one study hall for some students (others would need to take two study halls) and that they intended to start by offering seniors, if possible, the option to take an additional class.

Steve then made a motion that "the Regional School Committee strongly recommends that Amherst Regional High School students be required to take not more than one mandated study hall during the 2010-2011 academic year." I seconded this motion, and we then had considerable discussion. Steve spoke in favor of this motion, based on the numbers presented at the March 1st meeting by Assistant Principal Annie Leonard. Specifically, this presentation showed that if the override passed, it would be possible to proceed with certain cuts (e.g., HS copy paraprofessional, small decreases in Department Head time, 2.4 HS special ed teachers, .2 cuts to HS librarian/Prep Academy/Dean of Students, MS Adjustment Counselor) and add a few elective teachers and then move to a 14 block schedule (only one study hall) with average class sizes of 21 to 24 (almost the same as we currently have). I supported this motion, noting that we spend as much as (or more than) other districts, yet I can't find other districts that require any study halls in HS, so I don't understand why we need to require two study halls. I also thought it would seem odd to have some students taking two study halls and others taking one, and I just didn't know how that was going to seem to parents and students.

There was then a broader discussion, with basically everyone saying one study hall would be good, but people differing on the extent to which they believed this was worth giving up other things (e.g., is it better to have smaller classes by one or two students or an extra study hall; is it better to focus resources on providing more classes or on other services such as special ed or intervention).

We then voted, and the motion passed, with 6 members voting FOR this strong recommendation to the administration (Hood, Luschen, Rhodes, Rivkin, Sanderson, Spence) and 3 members voting AGAINST this recommendation (Farnham, Hajir, Weilerstein).

Next, we voted on adding Regional School Choice seats -- with seats being added at grades 7, 9, and 10 only.

Finally, we made subcommittee appointments. Rick Hood was appointed to join the budget subcommittee.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Amherst Regional School Committee votes on budget tonight

Hampshire Gazette
Friday, March 26, 2010

AMHERST - Now that pressure on the regional school budget has eased, several School Committee members want to cut in half the number of study halls at Amherst Regional High School next year.

The Amherst and Regional School Committees will meet jointly tonight at 6:30 in the library of Amherst Regional High School. The Amherst committee will choose a new chair and set dates for its budget discussion, and the regional committee will vote a budget and decide how many students living outside the district to accept next year.

The regional schools could spend up to $678,000 more than expected because Amherst residents approved an override of state limits on property taxes on Tuesday. In addition, teacher union givebacks will provide an extra $175,000, the schools could spend $175,000 in reserves, and state aid is expected to be $96,000 more than expected.

School Committee member Steve Rivkin proposed at Wednesday's meeting that study halls be cut from two to one next year to increase instructional time. Members Catherine Sanderson and Rick Hood agreed with him.

"Having gone to the town (for the override) and having a budget of $16,000 per kid, we should provide an education where kids can take advantage of all opportunities," Rivkin said.

Sanderson said, "It's a shame that students are spending so much time in study hall." Hood, who was elected to the committee Tuesday, said, "A lot of customers are asking for that."

The cost of making the change is estimated at $330,000, mostly for elective teachers, or the committee could decide to increase class sizes. The School Committee must also weigh the importance of about $175,000 in programs, mostly in special education, that are still at risk.

But many potential cuts - including academic teachers, physical education, the Family & Consumer Science Department, and the technology/business/computer department - will probably not be made because of the extra money.

Note from Catherine: Steve made a motion to strongly recommend not requiring high school students to take more than one study hall as of the 2010-2011 academic year. This motion passed 6 to 3, with all of the Amherst members voting in favor (Sanderson, Rivkin, Rhodes, Hood, Spence), who were joined by Kristen Luschen (Shutesbury). The two members from Pelham (Farham, Weilerstein) and the Leverett member (Hajir) voted no.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hood, Spence Join School Board

Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

AMHERST - Richard Hood, who got the most votes for School Committee in Tuesday's election, sees himself as a bridge builder.

Robert Spence, who was also elected, said that as an emergency room physician he can bring to the School Committee his training in "using data to make decisions and taking care of patients at the same time."

Hood received 2,418 votes and Spence got 1,964. Incumbent Kathleen Anderson will leave the committee after coming in third with 1,475 votes. Vince O'Connor got 1,342 votes and Ernest Dalkas 597.

Six-year committee member Andrew Churchill was not seeking re-election.

Hood and Spence, who have been attending most School Committee meetings, will get started immediately. The committee has meetings tonight and Thursday night to discuss the budget for next year.

"My main thing is to bring people together and get away from focusing on personalities," said Hood. "We need to get back to the district's goals and what we need to do to accomplish those goals."

Hood, 52, is self-employed in Web site development and graphic design. He lives at 48 Farmington Road, has children who are 23 and 21, and moved to Amherst in 2001. He said the fact that he's no longer a parent of students in the schools will not lessen his sense of urgency.

"My kids got a good education, and this means I'll have more time to devote to it," he said. "I'm not on the committee to not get something done."

Hood has a blog at but it has been dormant during the campaign. He said he plans to revive it.

"I want everyone to be in love with the schools," he said. "There are parents who are not in love with the schools. I want teachers to be involved, and I don't want people to leave the schools; I want to attract them."

Hood said Amherst has good teachers and principals and he is happy with interim Superintendent Maria Geryk. "There's no reason not to go forward to make improvements in the schools and listen to parents and give the schools' customers what they want," he said.

Before the results were in, Churchill said that Hood would be an effective successor. "He has the temperament and experience at the high school and the interest in data," he said. "I felt like he'd be a productive member of the committee and get along with everyone."

While Hood supported the override, Spence did not take a position and received an endorsement from a leader of the "no" campaign. He had supporters on both sides of the override, and this created "a level of trust between people who felt strongly that I can work for everyone to make strong schools," he said.

School Committee members Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin were at Spence's victory party Tuesday. He denied that they will form a voting bloc, though all three are "vocal about academic rigor and using data to evaluate how to do things" and they want to compare Amherst's performance to other districts, he said.

The committee's first goal should be "to help hire a strong, experienced, excellent superintendent" after "casting a search far and wide and not settling for anything less," Spence said. Another goal is "to constantly re-examine whatever we do to make sure it's as good as it can be," he said.

Spence, 39, lives at 16 Bayberry Lane and has children who are 4, 6 and 8. He came to Amherst in 2004. As an emergency room physician at Wing Memorial Hospital in Palmer, he works a shifting schedule but said he can block off the nights he needs to for his School Committee work.

Sanderson said she's confident she can work well with both Hood and Spence, whom she's known for several years. "I have great respect for both of them," she said. "Rick and Rob both care about academic excellence."

Hood and Spence will join Sanderson, Rivkin and Irv Rhodes on the Amherst School Committee, which governs the Amherst and Pelham elementary schools. All five also serve on the Regional School Committee, which is in charge of the secondary system.

Update: Amherst voters OK override, elect Richard Hood, Robert Spence to School Committee

The Republican
Diane Lederman

AMHERST - Voters by an 897-vote margin approved a $1.68 million Proposition 2½ override in Tuesday’s annual town election and placed two newcomers to the School Committee.

Richard B. Hood garnered the most votes with 2,418. Robert A. Spence came in second with 1,964 votes in the five-way race. Hood was a strong supporter of the override. Spence took no position on the override to mirror the current School Committee, which had not taken a vote.

One-term incumbent Kathleen D. Anderson lost her bid for a second term. Incumbent Andrew M. Churchill did not seek re-election.

Anderson finished third, with Vincent J. O’Connor and Ernest J. Dalkas rounding out the contest.

This was the only town-wide race.

Hood, who worked for passage of the override, credited supporters’ success on work and organization. Hood said supporters modeled their campaign on the one in Northampton which saw the passage of a $2 million override in June.

He said he believes the committee needs to focus on district goals and that having an interim superintendent should not impede the committee on moving forward.

The Amherst Regional School Committee will meet tonight to review the budgets and vote Thursday night.

Unlike in 2007 when the override loss by 267 votes, this time supporters approved it by a vote of 3,058 to 2,189.

The Finance Committee and Select Board supported the override, which at its $1.68 million level would add about $264 annually for the average homeowner with a house valued at $334,600.

March 15, the teacher’s union agreed to give back about $350,000 in pay increases if the override was approved. Town officials said if additional revenue was found they would not tax to the full levy limit and would lower the annual increase to about $190 a year.

According the ballot question the money would be apportioned in the following ways: $452,252 to the town operating budget, $400,000 to the elementary schools, $739,195 to the regional schools assessment, and $88,994 to the library operating budget. But those numbers could change.

The Budget Coordinating Group is slated to meet Thursday morning to discuss the results of the override. The group is comprised of members of the school and finance committees, the Select Board and the Jones Library Board of Trustees.

Since Proposition 2½ was enacted into law in 1980, Amherst has passed two overrides - one in 1991 and the second in 2004. The money will save jobs 20 jobs in the schools as well as library and town positions.

Finalists Announced for Middle School Principal Position

Three finalists have been announced for the position of Amherst Regional Middle School Principal: Karsten Schlenter, Michael Hayes, and Paul Goodhind.

The finalists will visit the district on April 1, 2010 and will spend the day on site at the Middle School in a variety of settings. Each candidate will begin his day with a building tour, followed by meetings with staff, students, elementary and secondary administrators, and Central Office administrators. The public forums will be held in the Middle School library on the evening of April 1 at the following times:

  1. Karsten Schlenter 6:30 - 7:15 p.m.
  2. Michael Hayes 7:15 - 8:00 p.m.
  3. Paul Goodhind 8:00 - 8:45 p.m.

A profile of each candidate will be posted here shortly. We invite all members of the community to attend the forums and provide input into this very important decision for our school district.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Impact of an Override on the High School: Just the Facts

OK, here is my final posting describing the impact of the override on the schools. Again, I'm using the most recent data presented (February 9th SC meeting), and the only update since then is that our estimate of 5% local aid cut was too high -- legislature is now saying we will have a 4% cut at worst (so we have another $80,000ish to play with regardless of whether the override passes).

Here is what the HS will look like next year IF an override passes and IF it doesn't pass:

Administration - next year, the high school is projected to have 1 principal, 1 assistant principal, a school year only assistant principal, a school year only athletic director, 1 librarian, 2 library paraprofessionals, 2 nurses, 8.7 clerical, and 7.8 custodian. The only impact of the override is that the librarian will go to 80% time if the override doesn't pass.

Department Heads - next year, the projections is to have 3.6 department head equivalent positions. If the override fails, this will be cut to 2.3 department head positions, meaning less of a teaching relief for department heads, and some consolidation of DH positions (e.g., English and ELL under one DH, combining some electives under one DH).

Guidance - next year, the high school is estimated to have 3.9 caseload counselors, 1 Academic Achievement Counselor, a .8 Student Achievement Counselor, a .9 outreach worker, 1.8 deans, 2.0 campus monitors, and 1 college counselor. The only impact of an override is that one of the deans will go to 80% time.

Regular Education Teachers - next year, the HS is projected to have 65.3 teachers. If the override fails, 9.7 teaching positions would be cut (this includes 4.3 in regular academic departments, .2 by combining advanced Chinese sections, .5 by referring students who struggle in English to the Academic Achievement Center, .8 in PE, 1 in performing arts, 1.3 in tech/business/computers, and 2.8 in family/consumer science -- meaning the family/consumer science program would end). The specific classes this would impact have yet to be determined (this would be decided by Mark Jackson), but estimates are that 4.3 cuts to academic departments would increase class sizes as follows: 24 in English from 22 now, 22 in science from 21 now, 24 in math from 21 now, 25 in social studies from 22 now; no change in world language. NOTE: in 2003-2004, class sizes were 21.8 in English, 23.7 in social studies, 24.3 in science, and 23.2 in math - so even without an override, class sizes will be smaller next year in science than they were in 2003, and less than 1 student more per class in math compared to 2003.

Intervention Teachers - next year, the HS is projected to have 1.6 English language education teachers, .1 Project Challenge teacher, .2 Prep Academy teacher, 1 Math Academic Achievement Center Paraprofessional, and 1.4 ELL paraprofessionals. If the override fails, the .2 Prep Academy teacher would be cut and support would be provided instead in the Academic Achievement Center.

Special Education teachers/paraprofessionals - next year, the high school is projected to have 3 academic skills positions, 5.6 specialized programs positions, 1.6 psychologists, 1.2 education team leaders, 1.1 therapists (occupational, speech), and 33.6 paraprofessionals. If the override doesn't pass, 2.4 of these 48.5 positions would be cut (which ones would depend on student needs).

Non-Special Education Paraprofessionals - next year, the high school is projected to have 2.6 paraprofessionals (1 for copy service, 1 for computer lab, .6 for science lab). If the override fails, the copy service paraprofessional position would be cut.

Preschool - the high school preschool is projected to have 2 positions for next year (1 teacher, 1 paraprofessional). This staffing is not impacted by the override.

Note: Students will still take 13 classes a year and have two study halls in a trimester system (typically 10 academic classes a year and three electives of some type) regardless of whether an override passes.

The Impact of an Override on the Middle School: Just the Facts

As promised, here is the impact of the override on the middle school. Again, note that these projections were based on a 5% cut to local aid, and the legislature has now said that the cut won't be more than 4%, so there is another $80,000 or so that will be added.

Administration - next year, the middle school will have 2 principals (1 regular, 1 assistant), 3 guidance counselors (this is an INCREASE from 2.8 currently), 1 dean (same as now), 1 librarian, 1 nurse (same as now), 4 clerical positions (3 full year, 1 school year), 6.3 custodians, and 1 quiet learning center staff member. If the override fails the quiet learning center will be staffed by a paraprofessional (instead of a full-time faculty member), one of the clerical positions will be eliminated, one of the custodian positions will be eliminated, and the librarian position will be cut from 1.0 to .6 (the librarian will then teach reading intervention as part of her job).

Regular classroom teachers - next year, there will be 19.2 team teachers - this is an increase of 1.2 team teachers from current staffing (so that class sizes will stay the same -- 20 -- in 7th and decrease from 25 to 20 in 8th). There is no impact of an override on classroom teachers or class size.

World language teachers - next year, there will be 3.4 world language teachers (this is a decrease from 4.4 in current staffing, and means that we will no longer offer Russian and German at the middle school AND that class sizes in the other four languages will increase to 25). This staffing is not impacted by an override.

Exploratory/music/PE teachers - next year, there will be 5.0 exploratory/PE teachers (this is a decrease of 1.0 PE teacher from current staffing), and 1.6 music teachers (this is an increase from 1.4 of current staffing, and means that kids can have music every day). If the override fails, an additional PE teacher will be cut (and PE will no longer be taught as an elective, but will be combined with health and taught only as a one-semester course in one grade).

Intervention teachers/paraprofessionals - next year, there will be 3.4 intervention teachers (this is a cut of 1.2 positions from current staffing), and 2.5 to 3.0 regular education paraprofessionals (this is an increase from the current staffing of 1.5 positions). If the override fails, a .4 position will be cut (meaning Math Plus sizes will increase from 4 students to 8 students).

Special education - next year, there will be between 30.1 and 36.1 special education teachers (compared to 37.1 current teachers/paraprofessionals now). None of these cuts are impacted by an override.

Note: Regardless of whether an override passes, students in the middle school will have no change in class sizes (academic classes will be about 20 students, which is the same as current class size at 7th grade and a decrease in class size for 8th graders), and will have seven periods a day: math, English, social studies, science, world language, music (band, orchestra, or chorus), and an elective (health/PE, drama, art, computer).

The Impact of an Override on the Elementary Schools: Just the Facts

On February 18th, I completed a summary of all of the consequences of the override passing versus failing on our middle and high schools -- you can refer to that posting to see that summary again. However, since the time of that posting, which was based on a 5% cut in local aid, the legislature has said we won't see worse than a 4% cut in local aid, so add about $80,000 in increased funds to the "worst case" scenarios if you refer to that summary. Similarly, I've listed the summary below as given to us on February 8th, and that is based on the 5% cut estimate, which has now been revised to no worse than 4% -- hence, we will add about $60,000 to the worst case scenarios I've listed below. Again, I'm not taking a position on the override -- I'm simply laying out the precise cuts so that residents of Amherst can understand what will -- and will not -- happen based on tomorrow's vote.

Current Staffing Projections for Next Year WITH and WITHOUT the Override Passing:

Administration - each school will have a principal, a school-year assistant principal, a head secretary, a school-year assistant secretary, a special education secretary (part-time - .6 to .7 at each school), and 3.5 to 4 custodians. If the override passes, each special education secretary goes to full-time.

Regular Education Teachers - each school will have between 17 and 22 classroom teachers, a full-time librarian, a music teacher (full-time at WW and FR, .8 at CF, which has fewer kids), a .60 instrumental music teacher, an art teacher (full-time at WW and FR, .6 at CF), a PE teacher (full-time at WW and FR, .6 at CF), guidance counselors (1 at CF, 1.5 at WW and FR), psychologist services (.6 to .7 at all of the schools), computer instruction (.2 at CF, .4 at WW and FR), a full-time nurse. If the override passes, we add an additional .5 in a psychologist to serve all schools, and there will be a .2 PE teacher dedicated to the CF preschool program.

ELL/Intervention - each school will have ELL teachers (3 to 4.5, depending on school needs), and ELA/Math intervention teachers (3 to 4.3 per school). If the override passes, there will be an additional .5 ELL teacher and an additional .6 intervention teacher to serve all the schools.

Special Education - each school will have academic teachers (3 to 3.5), speech language pathologists (1.4 to 1.8), an occupational therapist (.6 to .9), a full-time therapeutic teacher, and paraprofessionals (6 to 13). If the override passes, we will add a .7 academic teacher and 3.50 paraprofessionals.

Note: There are also dedicated programs for special populations at each school (preschool at CF, Building Blocks at FR, AIMS at WW) - staff for these programs are NOT included in the above totals, and will not be impacted by an override.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

More politicians using social media -- including blogs, Facebook and Twitter -- to connect with constituents

By Patrick Johnson, The Republican
March 19, 2010, 5:10PM

AMHERST - Not long after her April 2008 election to the Amherst School Committee, Catherine A. Sanderson thought she’d create a simple, little blog to keep voters informed about what the committee was doing and to gain voter feed back.

“Those were my noble goals,” she said of the origin of her blog,

In a matter of months, her simple, little blog grew and grew to the point of becoming neither simple nor little.

Her two to three posts per month grew to as many as 20, the monthly visitors tally reached as high as 10,000, and individual posts could generate as many as 150 reader comments.

It's become a lot of work, but Sanderson said the blog has more than accomplished its original purpose. “I ran on a platform of more communication and more transparency,” Sanderson said. “It’s hard to not communicate and not be transparent when you’re on a blog telling people, ‘Here is how I am going to vote and why.’”

Sanderson is one of many politicians at the local, state and federal levels who are realizing the importance of using new media to connect with the voters.

The late media critic A.J. Liebling once famously declared, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” But the abundance of simple blogging platforms, such as Wordpress or Google’s Blogger, and social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, make it so anyone can be their own publisher.

“There’s no filter,” said Westfield Mayor Daniel Knapik, who maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts. “People can get their message out to people exactly as they intend without it being altered, shortened or taken out of context.”

Across the state, politicians at every level and party are using social media to schmooze with voters and constituents alike.

“I use (Facebook) to keep in touch with friends and constituents. Hopefully, they are the same thing,” said Rep. Donald F. Humason Jr., R-Westfield.

Other local politicians doubling as bloggers include Northampton City Councilor Angela Plassman and Holyoke City Councilors Kevin Jourdain and Rebecca Lisi.

Sanderson said her efforts to reach voters directly has not been free from critics. There are some people who like her blog and some who hate it, she said.

Entrenched in the “hate it” camp, she said, are her husband, who complains it is too time consuming, and some of her School Committee colleagues.

“There are people on the committee who think it gives me a disproportionate amount of attention. That is 100 percent true,” she said.

If they want more attention, they should start their own blogs, she said. “Anyone can do it.”

In the same way, the ease of conveying information to your own personal network of friends, fans and followers makes Facebook and Twitter a natural among politicians at all levels of government and on both sides of the aisle.

In Massachusetts, Scott P. Brown has only been a senator for a little more than a month, but he's tops among Bay State politicians in terms of social networking. Brown's Facebook page has attracted 211,00 "fans", and his number of followers on Twitter stands at 22,000.

No one else is even close. Sen. John F. Kerry, for example, logs in with 9,000 Facebook fans and 4,900 Twitter followers.

Gov. Deval L. Patrick has nearly 5,000 friends and over 12,000 fans on Facebook and 10,000 Twitter followers. That may not seem like much compared to Brown, but it's more than any of his opponents in the upcoming gubernatorial race.

A report issued in February by the Congressional Research Service concluded that members of Congress are rapidly and avidly taking to forms of social media that did not exist 15 years ago. The advantages for each are the distribution speed (immediate) and cost (minimal).

Not coincidentally, the report notes, bulk mailings from Congress have dropped by 50 percent during this time.

Recent surveys have 205 of 538 members of Congress on Twitter accounts and 349 on Facebook.

Among members of Congress, one study noted usage varied greatly. During a two-month study, 16 congressmen tweeted at least 100 times in a 61-day span, including one who alone tallied 290.

But there were also several other members of Congress who had few if any tweets. That would probably include Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, D-Newton, who on June 18 posted his first and presumably last tweet: “I have one ambition: to retire before it becomes essential to tweet.”

That day may be drawing nearer and nearer.

With the exception of U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, every member of the Massachusetts delegation has a Facebook page, but just five of the 12 are on Twitter, and only two, Brown and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., he of @Markeymemo, post with anything approaching regularity.

Among state legislators, those from Western Massachusetts have been slow to embrace Twitter, said state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield.

Downing, who has 142 followers and tweets regularly, said Twitter and Facebook are becoming essential tools for politicians.

Facebook is great for organizing supporters, rallies and events, while Twitter specializes in getting messages to supporters very quickly. Traditional means - including press releases, interviews with the press, and public appearances - are still important, he said.

“It’s not about bypassing the media; it’s about supplementing it,” he said.

But effective use of social media can be enough to boost a candidate over the top, he said. Downing cited how Brown, during the special Senate election, was posting on Twitter and Facebook constantly, and by doing so helped create a sense of momentum among voters that carried him to victory.

The Brown campaign, and even President Obama’s successful run at the White House, show “just how powerful the social media can be if you harness it,” Downing said.

Agawam state Rep. Rosemary Sandlin recently announced her campaign for re-election via Twitter and Facebook.

Although she called herself a novice at each, she sees both as good ways to connect with voters.

“I’m learning more and more about Facebook. It’s a slow process. Twitter is my next mountain to climb,” she said.

Humason said he logs onto Facebook once or twice a week, but he draws the line at Twitter.

He said he is not so full of himself that he believes people need to know exactly what he is doing at any given moment.

Although he has a Blackberry and is theoretically capable of walking and texting at the same time, Humason said he has no desire to start lest he walk face first into a wall at the Statehouse.

Humason also questioned whether all this access to politicians through social media actually creates more transparency.

“Why are we trying to be transparent by twittering all the time?” he asked “Why don’t we do something that’s really transparent?”

For starters, he said, the Legislature should discuss the budget out in the open and stop using parliamentary tricks such as scheduling votes late into the night, he said.

Also leery of social media is state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst. Although she represents one of the most Internet-savvy sections of the region, if not the state, Story said she places little stock in the social media. She is neither on Facebook nor Twitter, and has no plans to be.

“I don’t think it’s necessary and in many cases a complete waste of time,” she said. “I’m in meetings with people who are texting all the time. It’s annoying and rude.”

To those who say Story is inaccessible, she says, “My telephone number is in the phone book, and it’s in the newspaper.”

That’s her home number, she pointed out, not her regional office. She said when people reach her at home, they usually apologize as if they got through to her by mistake. “I have to say ‘No, this is the right number,’” she said.

Story said she prefers to do her social networking the traditional way: by actually going out and socializing with people.

“I like to go to events. I like to talk to people,” she said. “I see people in Stop & Shop and talk to them.”

Story said she even likes to talk to reporters.

“You’re the second one I’ve talked to today,” she said during a recent telephone call to her home.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

'Seller's market' for superintendents complicates search for school leaders

Hamsphire Gazette
Monday, March 15, 2010

NORTHAMPTON - Even as school superintendents remain in high demand, most of those working in Hampshire County earn salaries well below the state average, though a few are creeping closer.

Former Amherst School Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez, who left his post abruptly last week, was the only area superintendent earning more than $150,000 in base salary, a Gazette survey finds.

In addition, he is one of about 60 of the commonwealth's 277 school superintendents who leave their posts each year, a turnover rate that prompts some districts to offer more attractive compensation packages, according to education experts.

"Supply and demand has certainly been changing the landscape," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. "There are so few candidates out there compared to what there used to be. It's a pretty tough market right now."

Hampshire County is no exception to the revolving door for superintendents. Of 12 public school districts surveyed by the Gazette, four employ superintendents who have been on the job for a year or less. Two school districts have interim superintendents, while another two have superintendents retiring this year.

No current superintendent has remained on the job for a decade, though a few - Hadley School Superintendent Nicholas D. Young and Frontier Regional School District Superintendent Regina H. Nash - are close to that mark.

Many school administrators become superintendents near the end of their careers, so retirements are always a factor in job turnover. Others leave because they end up working with new school boards that did not hire them and wind up at odds over how to run a district.

Growing complexity

But the job of school superintendent also has become increasingly complex and demanding in a state with a highly regulated education system, which is another reason fewer highly qualified candidates emerge in superintendent searches today.

"Accountability is a much bigger factor than it used to be and the superintendency makes a lot of demands on people's time," Scott said. "A lot of people say, #I don't want to be a 24/7 person and the subject of public comment or the target of a particular issue.' I say to superintendents all the time, #You're only as good as your last act.'"

Scott said superintendent searches often yield about 20 or so candidates and only a small number of these job-seekers come with strong credentials.

Raising the stakes

Today's job market may largely explain why Hadley school officials last month reached a new six-year contract with Young, their superintendent. It provides salary increases of 5 percent or more over the next several years.

Approved by a split vote, the pact boosts Young's current base salary from $126,649 to $147,735 by 2012.

Hadley's school district is among the smallest in the county, though Young's latest contract features several new financial incentives. Those provisions include three $6,000 longevity payments, a $2,000 tax-deferred annuity and a full payout of all unused, accumulated vacation time when the contract terminates.

As they hammered out the deal, Hadley School Committee Chairwoman Tracy Kelley said school officials were "putting something together that ensures (Young's) success and longevity."

Rewarding valued school superintendents with more attractive compensation packages is a common feature in today's market, particularly when cities and towns can afford to pay for top talent, say those involved in searches.

"When districts have the ability to pay with this significant shortage, they're in a better position to attract the best people," said Scott, of the state superintendents' association. "I watch this statewide, and I see places doing exactly what Hadley did."

Higher in Boston

For the most part, compensation packages for superintendents are lower west of Boston, where school districts tend to be larger. In Arlington, for example, the salary for a new superintendent has been posted at $155,000 to $175,000 and in Andover from $180,000 to $200,000.

But there is evidence to suggest superintendent salaries in some areas of the state are trending up.

East Longmeadow, a school district similar in size to some districts in the immediate area, is advertising a hiring salary for its next superintendent at $130,000 to $140,000.

"We are seeing the superintendents in the Connecticut Valley getting closer to the state average," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

The association consults on superintendent searches for hundreds of school districts in the state and recently provided technical assistance to Easthampton's superintendent search. The association will be working with Granby as that town begins a search later this year. It charges $8,500 for those services.

"In this era, school committees don't want to lose good superintendents," Koocher said. "Districts want to lock up good, stable leadership."

When Amherst school officials hired Rodriguez last year, they said they were aware of the controversy his $158,000 base salary might stir up, but noted it was a seller's market.

"Unfortunately, we cannot wish away the laws of supply and demand and ignore the realities of the labor market," school officials said in a statement.

Area compensation

Apart from Rodriguez, the former Amherst superintendent, only David Hopson, superintendent of the Gateway Regional School District, receives total compensation that exceeds $150,000.

Hopson earns a base salary of $147,329, but also receives a tax-deferred annuity of $4,205, which is a common feature in school superintendent compensation packages.

The lack of a tax-deferred annuity in Rodriguez's contract in Amherst may help explain his $158,000 base salary. The state's recent pension reform act removes tax-sheltered annuities, among other benefits, from retirement calculations after 2012.

"What will likely happen going forward is (superintendents) would prefer to have most of their compensation in salary form," Scott said. "That salary is the only thing that can now be counted in the calculation of retirement."

The average tax-deferred annuity, or contribution to a retirement plan, for school superintendents around the state exceeds $10,000 annually, a figure no superintendent in Hampshire County receives.

The average pay for superintendents in the state was in the $140,000 range last year and hovers around $150,000, according to organizations that track those figures.

Fewer than half of the county's school superintendents receive a tax-sheltered annuity in addition to their salaries. Those amounts range from $1,980 to $4,205.

Wish to 'show leadership'

At least one superintendent, Isabelina Rodriguez of the Northampton public schools, has voluntarily given up her $2,000 annuity payment and negotiated salary increases over two fiscal years, joining other city and school employees who were asked to make financial sacrifices to save jobs.

Arthur P. Apostolou, superintendent of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, did the same by taking no salary increase in the current fiscal year.

"I just felt I needed to show leadership by saying I would start by not taking the negotiated salary increase," Rodriguez said of her decision to remain at $113,568.

Pay for superintendents in the Hampshire County region ranges from about $100,000 to $125,000, though at least two superintendents will move into the $130,000 range beginning in July, with Young in Hadley hitting $140,700 next year.

Apart from Alberto Rodriguez, whose contract with the Amherst regional schools provided a combined $30,000 in housing and travel stipends in the first two years of his contract, no other contract surveyed by the newspaper provides similar perks apart paying for college courses, use of a Blackberry, or paying for travel costs and expenses associated with professional development, the last of which is standard feature of superintendents' contracts.

The accrual and compensation for unused vacation and sick leave days varies from district to district. For most superintendents, the number of such days are capped with some receiving compensation for unused days and others waiving them.

Half the superintendent contracts surveyed allow administrators to do paid consulting work and a few provide disability and term life insurance policies.

Amherst teachers concede on wages -- if town approves override

Hampshire Gazette
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

AMHERST - The teachers union voted Monday to agree to concessions that will moderate their salary increases next year, but only if voters approve a tax-cap override March 23.

While the Regional School Committee chairman called the agreement "shared sacrifice," a leader of the group opposing the $1.68 million override called it "a public relations gimmick."

The 380 teachers in the Amherst Pelham Education Association did not give back any of the salary increases their contract entitles them to. They will receive 3 percent cost-of-living increases and about half of them will also get 4 percent "step" raises next year.

Instead, they agreed to turn three "professional days" a year into unpaid furloughs.

If the override passes, this concession would trim about $1,000 from the salary of each teacher next year, said Tim Sheehan, the union president. This would be the equivalent in dollars of giving back about half the cost-of-living raises, he said.

The teachers agreed to the concessions, which were negotiated with administrators and School Committee members, because they were worried about the impact of budget cuts, Sheehan said.

"Because the staff work with children, we can see exactly what the result of this magnitude of budget cuts would be, cuts that would make the schools unrecognizable," he said. "We're willing to do our part."

The anticipated cost of pay increases for employees in the Amherst and Pelham elementary and secondary schools next year was $1.3 million. If this concession takes effect, that cost would be reduced by about $350,000, said Farshid Hajir, chairman of the Regional School Committee.

"We appreciate the spirit of cooperation and shared sacrifice the teachers have shown," he said. "In these times of uncertainty and economic pain, the teachers have done their part in helping the school committees narrow the budget gap. They've shown that they have the best interests of the district in mind."

A similar ratification vote will be held today by the union representing school clerical employees, with a potential budget impact of $20,000.

Sheehan said the union made the concessions contingent on passage of the override because "it didn't seem fair for us to be the only ones doing something." The message is that "we're willing to go ahead and do this and we hope voters are willing to do the same," he said.

The vote Monday to ratify the agreement was not close and there was no debate, Sheehan said. Some teachers who voted against it said they felt "disrespected," he said.

On "professional days," teachers typically score exams and attend workshops for their professional development, Sheehan said. If they are no longer paid for these days, they will have to spend more unpaid time on these activities, he said.

The union agreed to this concession instead of smaller cost-of-living increases because of the pension system, Sheehan said. A teacher's pension is calculated based on the three highest salary years, usually the last three, and a salary concession would have negatively affected those retiring in the next three years, he said.

The agreement was the outcome of about 10 hours of meetings with school administrators and School Committee members, Sheehan said. It was not affected by the departure of former Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez, he said. The School Committee was represented at the meetings by Hajir and members Irv Rhodes and Steve Rivkin.

Override opponent Stanley Gawle said the teachers' concessions are not comparable to the ones agreed to by the fire and police unions. Those were "timely and commendable" because they were announced before Feb. 12, and thus enabled the Select Board to reduce the size of the override, he said.

The teachers have known about the fiscal crisis since October, and could have acted similarly, he said.

"This last-minute gesture isn't a giveback at all," he said. "It's a public relations gimmick designed to get taxpayers to vote for the override. The illusion may also be intended to distract taxpayers from the whopping 3 to 7 percent raises teachers are due to receive next year."

A NEW Update from the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee

Note: I received this email from Alison Donta, Chair of the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee, on Monday, and she has graciously given me permission to post it. The documents are now all available on the ARPS website, so I encourage anyone with an interest in understanding our budget better to review those documents carefully. Thanks so much to Alison and all members of this group for their VERY good work on behalf of our schools

Dear School Committee...

In fulfillment with our charge, the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee has submitted for posting complete (or as complete as possible at this time according to the ARPS staff) answers to our three rounds of questions on our web site at: We expect this to be available on-line by noon today. I have also attached here the documents themselves, for your records.

The Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee will be meeting again to discuss whether we have now met all aspects of our charge or whether there is still remaining work to be done. We anticipate meeting within a week and will email our liaision, Irv Rhodes, with this information and an invitation for any/all School Committee members to attend this meeting and weigh in on this topic.

We hope you are pleased with the results of our work to date and find the on-line availability of questions and answers useful to you and to the public and that this information can assist you as you move forward with the budget process.

Respectfully submitted,
Alison Donta-Venman, Chair, Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Staff criticism shaped case that ousted Amherst schools chief

Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

AMHERST - The chairman of the Amherst Regional School Committee provided new details Tuesday about last week's departure of Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez. He said officials orchestrated an affordable end to a bad hire - and promised a better search and selection process next time.

In an interview, Farshid Hajir said negative staff evaluations were among the factors - but not the only ones - leading to Rodriguez's sudden exit. He stressed that staff views did not appear to be based on resistance to change.

"Committee members had insight and direct knowledge of events of which the public is not aware - and took that information into consideration," he said. "When certain themes consistently emerge about operations of the Central Office, that's more revealing than complaints from individuals."

Further, he noted that Rodriguez left rather than face what would have been a public accounting of his alleged shortcomings in his months as the head of Amherst regional schools.

Hajir spoke cautiously and would not reveal specifics of the staff evaluations. However, he suggested that a close look at Rodriguez's leadership spurred officials to act to cut his tenure short.

"Through our supervisory role, we had access to a lot of information about the specifics of the day-to-day functioning of the schools," he said.

The committees had multiple sources of input on Rodriguez's performance, as well as members' own judgments, Hajir said. In addition to the staff evaluations, the committees reviewed feedback from community members, he said.

This month, Rodriguez was made aware of "a summary of themes" from the staff evaluations, Hajir said.

The superintendent was also aware that by law, his formal evaluation - scheduled for the day after he resigned - would have to be done in public, he said.

"No superintendent wishes to endanger his or her career or opportunities for other positions by having missteps or shortcomings discussed in open session unless he or she can adequately explain them," Hajir said.

"He was going to be evaluated, he walked away with a fairly small compensation package, and I want taxpayers to know their pocketbooks didn't suffer," he said.

The memo that Rodriguez gave the School Committee Feb. 9, outlining his 40 days of time away from work, was "one of many factors that formed the committee's preparation for the evaluation," he said.

Pay issues

Typically, when superintendents leave in the middle of a contract, they ask for at least half of the remaining financial commitment, he said. Rodriguez left eight months into a three-year contract paying him $158,000 a year in base salary, and he will be paid through May at a cost of $39,000, about one-tenth of his remaining pay over the three-year period, he said.

Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk, who had been making $109,000, started making $139,000 on March 9, Hajir said. She is expected to continue in that role until a new superintendent arrives in about 15 months, and some of her previous duties will be "reshuffled among other staff members," Hajir said.

The school committees hope to identify a better process for hiring the next superintendent, he said.

"We regret that the extensive superintendent search process yielded a curtailed superintendency and the larger question is how to avoid that in the future," he said. "A serious examination of ourselves and our process is warranted."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Gazette, Bulletin to host override forum

Staff Writer
Email this page
Friday, March 12, 2010

AMHERST - Voters here are on the cusp of deciding the fate of a $1.68 million override at the March 23 town elections.

Proponents say the override will preserve essential town, school and library operations; opponents believe that town government is already rife with waste, and that now is the time for belt tightening. The override would add about $264 to the annual tax bill for a resident who owns a $334,600 home.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Amherst Bulletin will help voters sort it all out, with an override forum slated for Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Town Room at Town Hall.

The forum is open to the public, and two panelists will field questions from the audience and from public at large via email and mail.

The panelists are Andy Churchill, override advocate and outgoing Amherst School Committee member, and Stan Gawle, override opponent and spokesman for Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change.

The event will be broadcast live on ACTV channel 17, and streamed live on A Webcast will be available on Wednesday at the ACTV Web site, and the event will be covered in the print edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette and on

The forum will be moderated by Gazette/Bulletin staff, and all questions from the public will be directed to the panelists by a moderator.

Questions for the panelists may be brought to the forum or emailed in advance. Send questions to, or call Bulletin editor Noah Hoffenberg at 585-5254 for more information.

Away for Three Days

I'm taking off today on a much needed family vacation, where I will have no internet access. So, posts won't appear until I return. Just FYI!

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Big Override Debate

I know there are lots of very strong feelings about the override on both sides -- those who feel it is "disgusting" if you don't support the override, and those who feel you are "idiotic" to support it. I disagree with both of these views -- I think deciding to vote for or against the override this year is very tricky, for many reasons. That is one of the reasons I haven't taken a position on this vote (like the majority of my Amherst School Committee colleagues) -- and I'm someone who can afford to pay higher taxes, has three children in the public schools, and works nearly a full-time volunteer job as a member of School Committee. I believe there are legitimate reasons to vote "yes" (concern about reduced electives in the high school, concern about a reduction in intervention/special education support in the elementary schools, concern about reduced police/fire services). And I believe there are legitimate reasons to vote "no" (concern about decision-making processes in our schools and how additional funds would be used, concern about whether providing more money will reduce the incentive to look for cost-efficiencies, concern about those in Amherst who really can't afford to pay higher taxes). I see both sides -- and I feel that many thoughtful, smart, and caring people are legitimately struggling with how to vote -- and I am sad by the attacks from both sides on those who feel differently and even those who are undecided.

I saw two letters in this week's Bulletin/Gazette that I think do a great job of expressing the ambivalence I hear from so many, and I'm posting those below (with thanks to Jim Brissette and Andra Rose for their contributions). These two letters are the most thoughtful views I've heard on the override expressed thus far, and although one is "pro" and one is leaning "con", they both are respectful of those who feel differently, which I really appreciate.

To the Bulletin: There are many voters in Amherst, such as myself, who are deeply conflicted about the coming override vote.

On the one hand, an override seems needed in these troubled economic times to balance our budget and preserve a decent baseline of services for all our community. The town has also taken great strides to promote sustainable development and find efficiencies throughout government. On the other hand, the town still hasn't taken on the fundamental basis of our structural deficit: that more than 70 percent of the town's budget is for employee wages, health insurance and pensions. From COLAs to the recent superintendent's salary, our "structure" still seems unsustainable to many in Amherst. This has nothing to do with job performance, as I have the highest respect for our town employees and officials; it simply is about finances and a sustainable town budget.

As an example of my frustration with our not tackling the structural deficit, please consider the following: As a member of Amherst Town Meeting for four years now, Town Meeting has passed without discussion for four straight years a $3 million or so appropriation for our town's employee/retiree pension obligations. We have also battled over the closing of the War Memorial Pool (yearly cost about $50,000), closing the Jones Library on Fridays (about $14,000), and the elementary school music programs (about $180,000). If we had reduced this pension obligation by just one-twelfth each year - perhaps by limiting the pension contributions we pay to higher-salaried employees - we might well have saved about $250,000 each year - or about $1 million dollars over four years (more than half the proposed override we now face). Even if we had been able to save "just" $250,000 over the four years, it would have been more than enough for this fiscal year to fund all three of the items cited above - services that most voters in Amherst hold dear because they benefit our children and our community as a whole.

Although I currently lean toward a no vote on the override, a very hard thing to admit to in Amherst, for the reasons stated above, I am still not sure how I will vote on March 23. I want to vote yes.

I hope in the coming days before the election, I and others who are undecided can be convinced to vote yes: by additional, concrete steps being taken by the Select Board and town manager to truly address the fundamentals of our structural deficit.

Jim Brissette

To the Bulletin: We only have two answers to choose from on the override question on the ballot March 23: yes or no.

Are you one of the many people who will vote yes, but reluctantly?

Yes, you want to keep music strong and electives varied in the high school, but you still have questions about the school budget.

Yes, you know the town has made a lot of cuts, but you don't want your vote to be taken as a blank check to be spent no matter what happens with state aid.

Yes, you want to save the elementary schools from the worst cuts, but you still want to see structural changes and transparency in the budgeting process.

Yes, you love Amherst, but the override doesn't solve Amherst's need for economic development.

These important issues still need our attention. So yes, keep pushing for change, but vote yes.

Andra Rose

School Costs Fuel a Revolt Over Taxes

Note: I'm pasting this piece from the New York Times because it struck me as similar to what we are experiencing in Amherst -- a divide between those who are strongly in favor of passing the override to support town services (including schools) and those who are fearful of struggling to pay higher taxes. And it raises tought questions about how we pay for education, and the link between school finances and quality, and the search for long-term solutions. These are not easy questions for anyone, and they are not questions that Amherst alone is addressing.

New York Times
Published: March 10, 2010

Columnist Page
In a village with a shot glass past and an increasingly white wine present, Vanessa Merton speaks both languages. She grew up in this river town back in the days when the streets were packed each morning with workers heading down to the Anaconda Wire and Cable plant. She’s now a lawyer of a liberal bent and a law school professor in a town increasingly populated by artists, investment types, writers and others for whom Hastings has become Westchester’s hip, artsy un-suburb.

So it made sense that in the torrent of agitated comments about the proposed school budget — one letter to the local paper accused antitax activists of “emotional terrorism” — she felt obligated to remind school board members of the class divide churning just beneath the competing narratives of catering to the needs of the schools and catering to the needs of the people who pay for them.

“There are a lot of people who move into this community,” she said at a noisy board meeting. “I hate to use the dirty word ‘money,’ but who have a lot more money and a lot more privilege and a lot better jobs, and you simply aren’t thinking about the reality that for some people, you’re making it impossible for them to remain in their homes.”

She added, “We’re not talking about desecrating the sacred Hastings schools.” But she argued that in the midst of the economic carnage, maybe the old rules of education finance no longer apply.

This seems an odd place for Round 6,753 of the tax wars. The Hastings district is one of the big draws for the refugees from Brooklyn and the Upper West Side who move here. Taxes are high, but 20 districts in Westchester have higher tax rates.

But another appeal of Hastings has been that it’s not an upscale monoculture but a diverse village, with working-class families who’ve been here for generations and newcomers staking their claim. It’s mostly the long-term residents, born here or not, who say the financial demands of the school are outstripping people’s ability to pay.

When you drive around town you see the antitax signs (Quality Education? Yes! $27,500 per student? No!). More than 800 people have signed a petition circulated by the Hastings Alliance for Affordable Taxes calling for lower taxes — a 5 percent decrease is a figure cited by speakers at public meetings.

Particularly among longtime residents, the unemployed and the elderly, there’s a feeling that they’re not getting any kind of annual raises — so teachers, administrators and the schools shouldn’t either.

John Brink, a freelance landscaper, said almost everyone he grew up with in town has moved away, and he’s worried the taxes will chase him off, too. “This used to be a blue-collar town; now it’s couples with two jobs in New York, a Volvo and a nanny.”

Hastings is hardly alone. After the national antitax uproar over the past year, it was inevitable that the next round would play out where suburbanites pay most of their taxes — for the schools. And truth to tell, plenty of relative newcomers with children in the schools are reaching the breaking point, too.

The local school board seems to have gotten the message, even if people argue over whether it’s gotten all of it. The school budget increased by 6.69 percent in 2007-8. The proposed budget calls for flat spending that will require a $1.26 million cut in current expenditures to compensate for cuts in state aid, new mandates and other costs. After the initial roar from the antitax faction, other groups have sprung up to support the board, call for a more temperate debate and look for long-term solutions rather than draconian quick fixes.

“WHEN times were good, we operated under the assumptions of rising income levels, rising property levels and rising retirement portfolios,” said Gabrielle Lesser, the school board president. “Then the recession hit and we’ve had to question all those assumptions.”

But the real question, still unanswered, is whether you can cut school taxes without damaging schools. The average teacher salary in Hastings is $96,597. The superintendent makes $228,000. There are AP courses with a handful of kids, kindergarten Spanish, rich extracurricular arts and sports.

The issues go way beyond isolated budget lines, to the demands of unfunded mandates, the overreliance on property tax, the logic of small independent districts. Still, there are lots of things no longer affordable. The old normal in public schools may be one of them.