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.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Amherst superintendent agrees to leave

Hampshire Gazette
By NICK GRABBE Tuesday, March 9, 2010

AMHERST - Alberto Rodriguez, whose eight months as superintendent of schools started and ended in controversy, is now gone because of negative feedback given to the School Committee by senior administrators.

The upheaval in the superintendent's position occurs just two weeks before Amherst voters go to the polls to decide the fate of a tax override, which will have a large impact on next year's school budget. It comes a week before teachers are scheduled to vote on a proposal to give up some salary increases provided to them by their union contract.

Rodriguez, who was informed of the comments from staff members Friday, was not in his office Monday morning. He came to the Regional Middle School Monday night and signed a joint statement with the chairmen of the Regional, Amherst and Union 26 School Committees.

It reads: "After the committees' and Dr. Rodriguez's receipt of the survey results from employees, particularly the feedback from a majority of senior administrative personnel who report to Dr. Rodriguez, the committees and Dr. Rodriguez agreed that it was in the best interests of all parties for Dr. Rodriguez to leave his position as superintendent of the districts."

Farshid Hajir, chairman of the Regional School Committee, declined to answer questions. It was unclear what the senior administrators said about Rodriguez, what financial arrangements were made, and who would be acting superintendent. The committee meets tonight at 6:30 at Town Hall.

Following a report in Monday's Gazette saying that lawyers for the School Committee were negotiating the terms of the superintendent's departure, Amherst citizens reacted to the surprising news.

Karen Zilberstein said she's worried about the lack of consistent leadership in the schools.

"We really need a superintendent who will bring people together in a constructive way," said Zilberstein, who has children in the elementary, middle and high schools.

Rodriguez is the fifth superintendent to lead the Amherst schools in barely more than a year. A year ago, Zilberstein said she was "outraged" by the School Committee process that led to his hiring. On Monday, she was worried about how the turmoil at the top will look to capable people considering whether they will respond to an advertisement that Amherst schools are hiring, such as for its vacant middle school principal post.

"There seems to be a divide in Amherst," she said. "Things get polarized in an unhelpful way. We're all closer to the middle. Parents, administrators and teachers want the same thing, but somehow the conversation goes awry."

Still a good choice

Elaine Brighty was finishing nine years on the School Committee a year ago when she voted in favor of hiring Rodriguez. She said she still thinks he was a good choice, adding that it was necessary to pay him a high salary to get him to come.

"Amherst is a very challenging, very demanding superintendency, and you have to pay people to do it," she said. "We're an academic community, very hands-on, very critical, with people who are certain they know the right way to do things and have no hesitancy in telling you."

Former Principal Michael Greenebaum said he was "not happy with some characteristics of Rodriguez that I saw as a tendency to authoritarianism." He agreed with the superintendent, though, on moving the sixth grade to the middle school, he said.

"It's hard to be a public figure in this environment," he said, citing the ability of residents to post anonymous and often cutting remarks on blogs.

Greenebaum, who led Mark's Meadow School from 1970 to 1991, said the School Committee should not use the same consultant who located Rodriguez a year ago.

"Maybe there are some people here who can do the job," he said. "I'd like a more modest position, with principals and school councils and parents and teachers having more responsibility."

Sharon Vardatira, the parent of a 10th-grader, said she is worried about the impact of the Rodriguez flap on the override March 23.

"I hope people can separate this situation from the override," she said. "I trust the School Committee is trying to do what's right for the town."

Eileen Marasco, the parent of a fourth-grader, said the school system is "closer to a crisis point," adding that "the toxic nature of the blogosphere is counterproductive to forward movement."

"True leadership from elected positions is accomplished not by a mark on a post of #I'm right' this many times," she said. "It's earned by building consensus, involving many voices, and it comes down to doing what's right, not who's right."

Stan Gawle, an override opponent, said Rodriguez "was making some changes that needed to be made. There seems to be a serious attempt for the first time to go after efficiencies in the use of our tax dollars in the schools."

Rodriguez called himself a "change agent."

"A guy who comes into a system and wants to make change is going to make enemies," Gawle said.

Bumpy tenure

Rodriguez was the fifth person to head the Amherst schools since Superintendent Jere Hochman left in the summer of 2008.

In the fall of 2008, consultant Jacqueline Roy told the School Committee that the pool of potential superintendents was thin that year. Her firm, which had recruited Hochman, was paid $39,050 to conduct focus groups on what Amherst wanted in a superintendent and to locate candidates.

A year ago, seven Regional School Committee members voted to offer the job to Rodriguez, who was a principal in Hialeah, Fla., but three of them said they didn't think he was a good fit for Amherst. Committee member Catherine Sanderson voted for another candidate.

His first controversy, over pay, started before Rodriguez even arrived. The committee offered to pay him $158,000 a year, plus $10,000 in housing and $5,000 in travel expenses. Hochman had received $134,583 a year.

Last September, Glenda Cresto resigned as middle school principal four days after classes started. In November, Rodriguez said he would ask faculty and staff to lead group recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, but backpedaled three days later after being advised of legal concerns.

In mid-February, he gave the School Committee a memo outlining his 40 days off between last Aug. 10 and this April 26, including nine days of future sick leave. He did not reveal until later that he had a medical condition that would require surgery in mid-April.

Note from Catherine: I'd like to refer all blog readers to the statement released unanimously by the School Committees and Dr. Rodriguez, which clearly states the reason for his departure: feedback from a majority of senior administrators who report to Dr. Rodriguez. This is NOT a case in a which a person who makes $173,000 a year can't stand a vocal community, parents with high expectations, or anonymous comments on blogs, and thus decides to leave 8 months into his contract. And if we spend time focusing on how this is such a demanding community in which to work, we will have failed to learn a valuable lesson about how to hire--and not hire--a superintendent. Dr. Rodriguez's CV was posted on line prior to his hire, and is still available on line at: If you read this CV, as I did a year ago, you can see that at the time of his hire, he was a principal of a high school (not a superintendent or assistant superintendent), that his entire career had been spent in Miami (a community about as different from Amherst as one could be), and that he has served four different stints in a superintendent-type role (and that each of these positions had lasted a year at most -- and often a matter of only a few months). Let's also remember that Dr. Rodriguez was chosen by last year's School Committee, not this years, and that of the current 9 members on the Regional School Committee, only one (Kathleen Anderson) initially voted for him (Andy and I both initially voted for another candidate, and Tracy Farnham believed we should have failed the search).


Just Curious said...

Wondering why the Gazette reporter wrote that three people voted against Dr R last year but then says:

"Committee member Catherine Sanderson voted for another candidate."

Why did he feel it necessary to point out to Gazette readers how only ONE particular member voted.
Kind of strange journalism there...

Just curious.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this Catherine. Very informative. I hope people read it and comprehend its content. Ali

Ed said...

Why did he feel it necessary to point out to Gazette readers how only ONE particular member voted.

If I remember correctly, I think that only one had the courage of her convictions all the way through and that the others got bullied into trying to present a 'consensus' vote.

So he is technically right (I think) but really ought to have been a tad more through. As well as indicating the number (and members) of the SC who weren't on the committee then...

ARod answered to a school committee quite different from the one that hired him. And he should have known that when he accepted the job...

Ed said...

Ed's Rant

First, "anonymous blog postings" being a new issue? I hate to confuse anyone with the facts, but what do you think the women were talking about when they organized the church events, or met afterwards? What do you think the men were talking about during lunch at the mill?

Of course they were anonymously gossiping about various political leaders - and all the blog has done is bring the early 21st Century back to the early 20th.

Second, Catherine Sanderson is an unapologetic reformer - and she voted against A-Rod. That, boys 'n' girls, is telling. She voted against him publicly - and had he been a true reformer, that would have likely not happened.

Third, if you don't want to deal with tough issues, you don't go into administration. There are competent teachers who refuse to leave the classroom (I am trying to explain to a friend of mine that having a "principal certification" doesn't mean you have to use it).

Fourth, I am increasingly of the opinion that the ARSD needs an Ombudsman. I am quite serious.

Fifth, I think people should stop using Catherine for target practice. She is being quite professional in this and should be respected for that. She *could have* sent out a press release to the effect of "I told you so" and you won't see her doing that.

Ed said...

part deux:

Sixth, I am not a fan of search firms. When I have to state that there is no way in h*** I am going to be involved in placing an ad in the _Chronicle_ that has as many grammatical errors as the proposed one does (I am not talking about content, I am talking about basic grammar) and have to rewrite it myself, well I am not a fan of search firms....

Search firms are like used car dealers, they have a few clunkers that they are trying to pawn off on you - and you have to fight to see decent candidates. Like auto dealers, they are on commission and they get paid a percentage of what the candidate gets for a salary, hence they want him/her/it paid a lot.

Seventh, your best talent is often on your own bench. Where did the new police chief come from? Folks like him? Didn't the same thing happen in the Fire Department? Some of the best districts I have seen have Superintendents who came from within.

For that matter, regardless of which candidate gets the job, the next Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at UMass is going to be someone who was a Residence Director here in the past. And are there folk who left the ARSD to become a principal somewhere and are now ready to move up and "come home"?

Eighth: I don't know this Maria person who is acting as interim (again) but it seems to me that she has been Superintendent more over the past 2 years than anyone else has been. What about naming her officially as an "Acting Superintendent" the way it is done at UMass --

She is given a contract for a set period of time (say through the end of FY-11, or the next 15 months). During this period, the search runs without a time pressure (she can apply for the position or not as is her choice) and there is a smooth transition.

Ninth: You want someone who is less famous and younger. You do not want someone looking to retire to Amherst, there are far too many problems here.

Tenth: If at all possible, recruiting locally is good. On paper, South Amherst looks identical to North Amherst. Both have low-income apartment complexes, the racial demographics of the children (not adults) is about the same, maybe a bit more Asian in North Amherst, bit more Hispanic in South Amherst, but more or less the same.

And anyone who has spent a week on the ground in Amherst - in those two parts of town - knows that there are worlds of differences. And that is something that is important to know.

The advantage of recruiting from within is that you have people who know what the district is like, and who have enough ties in the community to not want to run home to Miami....

Eleventh: There is a very solid need for this to be a "spouse too" hire. There are enough people with contacts in the 5 colleges that the position ought to be advertised the way that Bates/Bowdon/Colby advertise faculty positions, the promise that they will find something for your spouse.

This is reality in a world where women have professional lives too. If you hire someone and the person he/she/it loves is not here too, his/her/its heart is not going to be in your town.

Twelth: The word "candidate" has the same Latin root as the word "candid." Whoever is hired for this position is going to have to know that he/she/it is going to be held up to extensive public examination. You don't want someone who doesn't understand this, someone who is going to freak out over anonymous blog postings.

I hate to ask anyone, but exactly how many of the fliers that litter downtown Amherst are signed? And how long have people been leafleting the town? And the blogs are different, how????

Anonymous said...

Current libel rulings on blogs and other computer lists assign the libel blame to the writer when the posting is signed. When anonymous postings are allowed, any libel responsibility and penalty is assigned to the individual or organization in charge of the blog.

Ed said...

One other thing: Look at the picture in the Gazette. Is that professional posture for a formal interview?

I don't know the man, maybe I am wrong, but you are saying something with body language when you sit like that for a professional picture.

And if you don't instantly notice video cameras and photogs, you don't belong in political life...

Carolyn B. said...

Thanks for posting this, Catherine. It's a lot to take in, and as you state, to learn from. - Carolyn B.

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with Ed's 7th and 8th points.

Also, if any SC member gets wind of a candidate choosing their father and Ronald Reagan as people most admired, do not hire!
Maybe their mother and Ghandi or Mandela?

Being a white, geriatric male, I feel that I can also recommend that the new Super be a female. Look at our recent Supers. Then look at our Principal pool (past and present). Haven't been too lucky going that route, so let us seriously consider a woman for a leadership role. This the 21st century.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else think Ed should get his own blog?

In case you hadn't noticed, Ed, the man is gone.

Move on.

Anonymous said...

Maybe... Ghandi... ?

Didn't you see the movie? Ghandi was merciless.

Let's all line up and be beaten unconscious by British soldiers.

I mean, Amherst voters.


Isolda Ortega-Bustamante said...

Part one:

This is my first year as a parent in the Amherst District and it is turning out to be a very disheartening one. For the School Committee to make this decision at this specific juncture reveals such a lack of leadership that I am moved to write for the first time on a blog with a troubling history. I can only hope that regardless of our disappointment in the timing of this decision and our continuing questions about several issues, those of us who strongly support the over-ride as in the best interests of all of the children in the Amherst Schools continue to make a strong case for it.

As others have stated, Dr. Rodriguez was in charge of making deep changes that angered people wedded to the status quo. Most parents I have spoken with are not active in the name-calling that passes for civil discourse in Amherst School politics. Many of these parents found the change agenda compelling, the specific proposals sound, and Dr. Rodriguez himself personable and reasonable, regardless of whether or not one agreed with him or shared his personal political views.

Did the SC take on the hard job of meeting with Dr. Rodriguez to discuss an improvement of his management style--if one were needed--or of providing a private forum for administrators to express their issues in focused ways that could then be concretely addressed? To let him go after such a short time rather than working through the issues gives the impression that the SC is following disgruntled administrators rather than leading in the best interests of all the children. If the situation were truly beyond repair, which is certainly not at all clear, the SC could have chosen a less disruptive time to make such a drastic change to the system.

The enthusiasm and energy of many parents has been greatly diminished by the personal nature of disagreements over policy changes and by the inertia and indifference of certain administrators to concrete offers of help and to specific responses to their invitations for suggestions. At this point, what little time we have outside of work and family time seems best spent bringing extra activities and support to our child's classroom and teachers in our school.

Nevertheless, I am open to hearing what the SC and the District will be doing, with diminished resources, and now with the sudden departure of the Superintendent, around the following issues:

Isolda Ortega-Bustamante said...

Part Two:

1. Is the curriculum at every grade level in the district truly aligned to state standards? This was a concern for Dr. Rodriguez last fall and shocking to hear about.

2. Is the curriculum at every school truly aligned to every other school in the district? Teachers can obviously decide how to teach, but a child should be able to leave one school and smoothly transition to another school in town.

3. Does the SC or the District have a Strategic Development Plan designed to raise funds from public and private sources in an integrated fashion to meet agreed upon goals in a time of fiscal crisis? How does this plan connect with the worthy efforts of the AEF and of the PGOs?

4. What is the specific plan for raising the educational outcomes of low-income children, immigrant children, ELL students, and children of color who are not making adequate academic progress?

5. What is the specific plan for providing differentiated curriculum and instruction that engages and excites all learners, including one that challenges students who are above grade level?

6. What is the specific plan for engaging, integrating, and involving all parents that does not rely solely on parent volunteers? How does this plan address the specific needs of low-income parents, immigrant parents, parents of color, and LGBTQ parents?

In a time of fiscal crisis it may seem prudent to postpone change, circle the wagons, and cling to the past. However, at times like these the school system needs the energy, enthusiasm, and resources of parents and non-parents alike more than ever. Gain back the trust and excitement of most Amherst residents and I would wager that most of us would gladly give more time and resources than we ever thought possible.

In terms of this blog itself, in my opinion, opening up a public space for anonymous commentary carries a responsibility to monitor and exclude personal attacks and racist comments from such space. (Most newspapers follow such a policy). Dr. Rodriguez had barely set foot in town before anonymous and general comments were made about his supposed "machismo."

A much more direct example appeared on this blog recently, posted by a parent complaining about Crocker Farm being "a Spanish immersion school" because of the signs posted naming objects in the school in Spanish. It made me wonder whether our reading bilingual stories in the classroom could be resented by some families and it set this blog apart as a space where racist comments are permitted. Another way to raise the level of the discussion and to involve more parents might be to discourage anonymous postings and perhaps even to lessen the role of a private blog that seems to heavily influence media coverage of the schools.

Finally, expressing concerns and disagreement with the timing of this latest decision by the SC does not in any way argue against passing the over-ride nor dismiss the hard work that teachers are doing every day. Resources are desperately needed to continue to educate and support all the children in our schools. The scaled-down version of current programming in music, art, and physical education could not possibly bear any more cuts. Any further disinvestment would deteriorate the core educational programs in the schools.


Isolda Ortega-Bustamante
Crocker Farm parent

P.S. Lest anyone think otherwise, I wrote this at home and posted it during my lunch time.

Ed said...

Current libel rulings on blogs and other computer lists assign the libel blame to the writer when the posting is signed. When anonymous postings are allowed, any libel responsibility and penalty is assigned to the individual or organization in charge of the blog.

Citations, please!

The issue of comments to blogs is a very real concern to newspapers right now and I have discussed this at length with folks so interested and my understanding is that it is very muddied and very inconclusive.

So if you have valid case law, please post!

Ed said...

Being a white, geriatric male, I feel that I can also recommend that the new Super be a female

I am an evil conservative. I want someone who does the damn job and does it well. I really don't care if he/she/it has a desire to shave his/her/its head and climb up on the roof and howl at the full moon each month -- I really don't care as long as the person does the damn job.

I don't care, I just want the job done well...

Nina Koch said...

Hi Isolda,

I appreciate your thoughtful post and I believe you have asked some very good questions. I think we do have a ways to go with curriculum alignment in the district and that is why it is very important for us to be able to hire a curriculum director.

I think you're right that this blog sometimes serves as a place where commenters feel free to say racist things with impunity, things they would never say if they could be identified. This happened around the time of the language cluster discussion, especially. Some people have objected sometimes to the content but I think more of us could step up and say "Hey that's not okay." I regret the times that I have failed to do that. Ken Pransky has done so several times and he is to be commended for that.

Anyway, please stay around and continue to offer your thoughts.

az said...

Good comments all Isolda. One thing for me though is that "the timing of this decision and our continuing questions about several issues," may lessen my strong support of the over-ride. I feel its passage is in the best interests of all of the children in the Amherst Schools, but if the SC does not address itself to our legitimate concerns it is hard to trust that it will be a good steward of additional monies we may tax ourselves to provide. I'm not at that point, but I will watch closely tonight's meeting and the days ahead for how this latest development is explained and justified.

Amilcar Shabazz
ARHS & Crocker Farm Parent

Anonymous said...

Isolda for school committee!