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.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Candidates speak on Amherst schools

Hampshire Gazette
Friday, March 12, 2010

AMHERST - From the Proposition 2½ tax-cap override to the search for a new school superintendent, the five candidates for two seats on the School Committee discussed a wide range of issues at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters Thursday night.

Incumbent Kathleen Anderson is joined by Ernest Dalkas, Richard Hood, Vincent O'Connor and Rob Spence on the ballot in the only contested race on the March 23 election ballot.

Anderson, of 19 Deepwoods Drive, said she would not take a formal position on the $1.68 million override, noting that the schools would like to have the additional revenue, but that she appreciates raising property taxes could pose hardships for some.

"What I want to say is we need the money," Anderson said. "We need the money."

Anderson said she comes from a family of educators that places a high value on the process of schooling.

She said a School Committee member's essential characteristic is being able to see the big picture and having a calm demeanor. "Engaging with people requires a lot of patience," Anderson said.

With the need for a new superintendent after the departure of Alberto Rodriguez, Anderson said a national search would be a priority so that a fresh set of eyes could examine the district.

Dalkas, of 170 E. Hadley Road, said he strongly supports the override. "If you look at the schools, you look at what's being cut," Dalkas said.

Dalkas said he is concerned about the loss of intervention programs and physical education classes.

He comes from a working class family in Holyoke and is a disabled veteran, having served a tour of duty as a Marine.

As a School Committee member, he said there is a need to hear what townspeople have to say. "I feel I have a strong ability to listen," Dalkas said. "I've bridged the gap in many areas of my life."

Dalkas said he wouldn't rule out an internal search for a superintendent, noting that there are likely to be qualified candidates who could step up from within.

Hood, of 69 S. Pleasant St., said passing the override is necessary for the functioning of the schools. "I do support changes in the schools, but I don't want the administration to use the excuse that they don't have the money," Hood said.

Hood came to Amherst in 2001, moving his family to be part of the school system. He said he has a passion to bring people together through collaboration to work toward a common goal.

"The process in which we reach decisions is more important than the decision, in some ways," Hood said.

He said he would likely support a national search for a new superintendent.

O'Connor, of 179 Summer St., Unit 1, said he got into the race because of the override and hopes to push for the University of Massachusetts and the other colleges to lend more support to the town and its schools.

"I'm for it, and I'm going to speak out for it," O'Connor said.

A 36-year resident of Amherst, O'Connor said he believes good programs are being sacrificed and that class sizes will increase too much without the override.

O'Connor said he wants to treat public and parent concerns with respect. "Had that been done, the outcome of the Chinese immersion school, and the founding of that school, might be different," O'Connor said.

O'Connor would not go out for a superintendent search right away, saying the dust needs to settle because having a superintendent stay for only eight months reflects poorly on Amherst.

Spence, of 16 Bayberry Lane, said he isn't taking a position on the override, noting that he supported the School Committee's idea of simply presenting cuts that will be made. "I really think it's up the voters to decide."

Spence, who works in the emergency room at Wing Memorial Hospital in Palmer, said he moved to Amherst in 2004 for its strong public schools.

As a School Committee member, he hopes to be an effective communicator, a deliberate decision maker, and "to work collaboratively as leaders and team leaders," Spence said.

In replacing Rodriguez, Spence said a search should be done far and wide so Amherst can land a transformational person to lead the schools. "I think we need top talent," Spence said.

Other seats

No other contested elections appear on the election ballot, but two newcomers are running for seats on the Select Board and board of library trustees.

Jim Wald of 454 Old Montague Road is running for one of the two open seats on the Select Board, along with incumbent Alisa Brewer of 5 Fairfield St.

"My goal is to guide Amherst toward a more sustainable future," Wald said.

A former chairman of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, Wald said residents should know what services are being lost if the override doesn't pass. He added that he supports economic development in the context of the master plan.

Emily Lewis of 15 Salem Place is seeking a three-year term on the trustees, joining incumbent Kathy Wang of 11 Dickinson St.

Lewis said she wants to maintain the Jones Library and the branch libraries as the heart of the community.

"They're a wonderful resource, a home away from home," Lewis said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


Anonymous said...

I don't understand the candidates who won't take a stand on the override, saying it is up to voters to decide on the issue. The candidates ARE voters and presumably will be voting one way or the other. I want to know: which way?

Anonymous said...

It's okay with me not to know how they are voting on the override. They are not going to influence me on that subject. What is going to influence me on that topic is what I've seen in terms of town services being cut if an override doesn't pass. On the other side, what also influences me is the knowledge that our school district has a bad track record in terms of being a worthy steward of tax coffers, in my view. I am especially concerned with how the SPED budget ballooned over the years, without any evidence that more money has meant better services or better educational outcomes for those children.

I am going to vote for School Committee candidates based on how they think our programs should be analyzed, whether they would welcome outside review, and whether they seem to be dedicated to our kids, and I have been especially interested to hear about why they are running, and HOW they would make decisions. I am interested in seeing some new members on the committee.

Thank you to all the candidates for being willing to serve this community is such an important way.

Anonymous said...

I can say that some of the younger SPED teacher hires I know of have been brilliant, at least in my building. They are bringing so much to the table! Worth every penny.

But their salaries are relatively minor expenses in the overall SPED pot.

And please, do not disparage/dismiss the work of the SPED secretaries. As I have posted before, they are run ragged by the mountains of government paperwork, forms, phone calls, meeting arrangements, record-keeping, etc that are legally mandated. Without them the teachers would be doing all this instead of teaching, conferencing about the kids with other staff, and lesson planning.

It would be a disaster.

Anonymous said...

What I want to know before I vote, is it true? Is it true what they are saying on LK's blog about Admin and and I think a plumber being paid all this money and NOT having a license or credentials that require it? And, is it true, that from what I read/ and saw on ACTV, it looks like an "inside HIT" on Dr.Rodriguez, like he was getting ready to make some well needed changes (cutting some highly paid staff), but they beat him to the punch? The whole ACTV meeting, which was very informational, because most of the board looked liked they didn't communicate, listen, understand each other, had to go over and re-read constantly, they were arguing with each other, and some were rolling their eyes on camera.... and we wonder why the schools, town are are in disarray?

Anonymous said...

"The process in which we reach decisions is more important than the decision, in some ways," Hood said.

I find this attitude to be highly problematic and unfortunately, widely shared by other leaders in Amherst. This attitude has kept us stuck and spinning our wheels rather than actually improving so many things about our town and schools.

Making decisions is essential to moving forward and improving outcomes for our children -- and it is, at the very least, equally important to the process.

Rick said...

Just one comment on SPED costs:

We get partially reimbursed for SPED costs via “Circuit Breaker” funding from the State.

In 2005, the reimbursement was 75% of the amount over $30,340.

In 2009, it had dropped to 42% of the amount over $37,328.

That is just one piece of the (unfortunately) complicated subject of SPED costs.

This is yet another example of where cuts in state funding have hurt us.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm curious how all of the school committee candidates and all of the current school committee members will vote. They are public officials, or aspire to be, and they should tell the citizens why they think the override is important or not.

To avoid taking a stand on such an important issue is irresponsible. One cannot have it both ways, like so many politicians in our country desire.

How will you vote on the override, Ms Sanderson? Which camp are you in?

Rick said...

Since we are talking about the override here, here are some more thoughts:

As Election Day approaches and I start to think about the possibility of actually being on the School Committee, I feel really upbeat and excited about continuing down the path of self evaluation and improvement that the current SC has set us on.

But then I think about being on the SC if the override fails…

There are two reasons why the override failing will be a huge problem:

1. The obvious one, which is that all the cuts on the cuts list will have to be made (e.g. around $2.2 million cuts at regional, versus the $800k if the override passes).

2. A less obvious one, which is what I want to talk about here.

Like most if not all of you, I want to see us push hard to evaluate what we are doing and make changes as needed. What I fear is that a failed override will be used as an excuse to not do any of theses changes, because “we don’t have the money”. For example, think that after cutting somewhere around $3 million (regional + elementary) that we are going to get a new math curriculum? Think again.

On the flip side, the passage of an override will do just the opposite. We can say “hey, the taxpayers stepped up; we have to step up too and give our customers what they have now agreed to pay even more for”.

If I am elected, I want that leverage to work with. Sure, we can push for changes without that leverage, but I would rather have it.

Any of you who are on the fence or against the override, please consider this and vote yes for the override.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Rick. Your insight about being able to afford anything after cutting so much money from the schools makes sense.

This, of course, includes being able to afford time for evaluations of teachers and staff.

These observations and evaluations are the instrument by which teacher work is critiqued. If the volume of evaluations over runs the school's capacity to process them, we have lost a critical part of building and maintaining excellent schools.

Here's a vote for the override!

Anonymous said...

I think it is unfair to expect the SC candidates to take a stand. It's up to the voters to decide -- and they must represent those all of those voters. And some people may be voting no because it is an economic necessity.

Anonymous said...

I think that this override vote is harder than the past two because it's difficult to get enthusiastic about funding a Regional School administrative hierarchy that seems to have gotten pretty arrogant and resistant to change of late. I suspect that Tuesday night has crystallized that for many. And the Regional SC members from the neighboring towns seem pretty happy with the status quo (and less prepared for the meetings). Yes, all could use a good slap upside the head.

But I also think that a NO outcome will intensify the political take-down efforts directed at CS and then at Steve and Irv. They will get blamed by the pro-override forces if the override goes down. If you've signed on to the CS/SR/IR agenda of change, if you are worried about a growing exodus of Amherst's children from its public schools to charter and private schools, I'm not sure that an override defeat is going to be beneficial in the long term. It's not just about the raw numbers; it's about the politics.

Anonymous said...

Does Richard Hood have children in the elementary schools? If so, which school? Since there are only five seats on the Amherst Elementary Committee, electing another Fort River parent would give Fort River a majority on that committee. That doesn't seem like a good idea to me. What about Ernest Dalkas?


Anonymous said...

As soon as I saw Catherine's analysis comparing Amherst's school spending with Northampton's, I thought that the override had lost any chance it might have had of passing. Events since then have only strengthened that opinion.


ARHS Parent said...

Rick Hood has no children in our school system. Ernie Dalkas has a child at Crocker Farm and one at the high school. Rob Spence has two at Fort River. Kathleen Anderson and Vince O'Connor, like Rick Hood, have no children in our system. In my opinion, Rob has the most to lose if our schools lose quality. This, combined with his service in Town Meeting and School Council along with his apparently rational way of thinking have won my vote!

Anonymous said...

I disagree-I think that it's critically important that we have at least one member of the SC with kids who have been or are in the regional schools. And sorry- but an incoming 7th grader doesn't count in my book. It's obvious to me ( and this of course is only my opinion) from watching the SC meetings that CS and SR a have very little understanding of what really goes on at the high school and the Middle school or the challenges of raising a teenager these days.