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.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Amherst explores end of Union 26

Hampshire Gazette
By Nick Grabbe

Published on May 07, 2010
School Committee members from Amherst and Pelham are differing over a longstanding agreement that spells out the structure of the Union 26 superintendency, and if changed, could have an impact on the selection of a new school leader next year and spell the end of the two-town board.

The Amherst School Committee presides over the Amherst elementary schools and the Pelham School Committee has authority over that town's small school, but they share one superintendent. This connection is called Union 26, and the committee governing it includes all three members of the Pelham committee and three of the five members of the Amherst committee.

The Amherst School Committee voted April 27 to seek an attorney's guidance on what the alternatives are if it elects to withdraw from Union 26. Withdrawal could mean the end of the Union 26 board, possibly sending Pelham out on its own for a superintendent's leadership. Irv Rhodes, chairman of the Amherst committee, said that, while seeking an attorney to do this investigation, he hopes that representatives from both towns can "sit down to begin a discussion on possible changes to the agreement."

This Union 26 Committee is separate from the Regional School Committee, which governs the secondary schools and also includes Shutesbury and Leverett. The Union 26 Committee must approve superintendent changes and other decisions, such as legal counsel, said Rhodes.

This little-known committee became important last March 8, when it voted 4-2 to have Maria Geryk serve as interim superintendent through June 2011. All three Pelham members were joined by Amherst committee member Andy Churchill in the majority, while Rhodes and Amherst committee member Catherine Sanderson voted no.

This vote "highlighted the disparity" between the two towns' representation on the committee and their school enrollments, Rhodes said.

Amherst committee member Steve Rivkin, who replaced Churchill on the Union 26 committee when he didn't seek re-election, said at an April 27 meeting that the agreement that outlines the make-up of the union may be out of compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

"Amherst has more than 10 times as many students and pays 94 percent of the elementary school component of the superintendent budget," he said in an email message. "I believe that proportional representation is an important principle, and that the current arrangement does not give Amherst voters anything close to proportional representation."

Tracy Farnham, chairwoman of the Pelham School Committee, said that Union 26 has been successful and worked well for more than 100 years.

"We are not aware of what prompted their decision to review the partnership at this time," she said in a statement. "Naturally, it would be our hope that the spirit of fair and balanced partnership with which the Union was created, rather than the politics of the day, would inform any discussion of the Union and its continued success."

Pelham Committee member Kathy Weilerstein said, "We're perfectly happy where we are."


LarryK4 said...

Yeah, why wouldn't Pelham be perfectly
happy with such an arrangement.

Curious observer said...

I would like to know more about the history behind this agreement. On its face, the agreement doesn't make sense to me. Were both town school systems small when the agreement was made? Have there been other votes that went against each other along town lines?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Larry - my thought exactly!

Curious Observer - the agreement was made in 1903 ... I don't know the size of the towns/schools at that time, but I imagine they were more similar than they are now. There are certainly other votes that have been along town lines. Interestingly, in 2009, both Pelham numbers voted to NOT hire Dr. Rodriguez (they preferred failing the search), whereas the Amherst members (a majority) supported his hiring. There were also votes by town in terms of his salary/benefits.

Anonymous said...

I'm just wondering, if Amherst decides to unilaterally pull out of the Union 26 agreement, will any one care that little Pelham is now left without a Superintendent? Will Amherst pulling out of the Union 26 agreement have any ramifications on the Regional ageement? Will the other small towns want to vote to get out of our region?

Trying to pull out of the Union 26 Agreement seems mean-spirited to me, as an outsider, and seems like school yard behavior, ie, well since Pelham doesn't vote the way we wish they voted we're just going to take our toys and go home and play by ourselves. We're not going to play with Pelham any more.

This feels like a power play to me and I, as a citizen of Amherst, am embarrassed by it.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 12:33 - I'll be glad to answer all of your thoughtful questions -- as soon as you clarify for me why you believe, as a resident of Amherst, why you believe that the appropriate voting proportion between Amherst and Pelham is 3 to 3 (given that Amherst is 10X the size of Pelham and pays more than 10X the salary of the superintendent). Do you believe it would be appropriate for Amherst to unionize with Boston and ask for a 3-3 vote as part of that Union?

Anonymous said...

Maybe the school committee should adopt a policy to review every compact every 100 years.

Anonymous said...

As I understand it, the Union 26 agreement only covers the hiring and oversight of the superintendent. All other matters are decided by the town school committees (for K-6) and the regional committee (for 7-12).

So I don't really see anything particularly troubling with equal representation from each town on that sole issue. It strikes me as a pretty minor governance issue.

The more pressing question is why any time or money is being spent on this at this particular time. What is so broke that needs to be fixed right now, given all the other challenges facing the district? I can see only two possible reasons for raising this issue at this time: frustration with having been outvoted on the interim superintendent issue, and a desire for Amherst to control the hiring of the next superintendent.

On the latter point, what is so concerning to you all about the Pelham voices? Have the reps made bad or inappropriate decisions for Amherst in the past? Is there some indication that they will thwart the will of the Amherst members in the next hire?

If there are other issues that merit taking up this agreement at this time, then I'd like to know what they are.

Curious observer said...

I'm wondering why the Pelham school committee members didn't defer to the majority of the Amherst school committee members when it came to the interim superintendent vote. Not having an experienced superintendent for a small elementary school is pretty small potatoes, but not having one for a major reorganization, key hires, and curriculum reviews affecting a large number of elementary school students is not small potatoes.

I don't think the vote was mean-spirited nor is evaluating the agreement. But I wonder if the Pelham members had time to consider the effect of their vote on Amherst students or to think through why almost all the Amherst school committees saw the need for an experienced interim (or even just a quick look for one). It seems that too many decisions were made at the meeting without enough time to discuss and reflect.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 2:09 - good idea!

Anonymous 10:16 - I'm wondering why you are so concerned about the Amherst School Committee simply asking a lawyer for information about Union 26 ... we haven't decided to act, and we couldn't decide to act unless a majority of the Amherst SC wanted to. But why is information bad to have, in terms of what the options are (pro and con)? You express concerns about time and money -- but I don't think you are spending any time on this (unless you are a member of the SC and choosing to be anonymous) and the total cost is not more than $3,000 (as voted by the Amherst SC). In contrast, each year the Amherst schools lose $160,000 when students who live in Amherst choice into Pelham.

Curious Observer - well said. I agree completely.

Anonymous said...

Curious Observer:

Why should Pelham defer to Amherst? Are the Amherst SC members some how more intelligent than the Pelham members? Remember, Pelham sends their kids to the Regional MS and they have as much of a vested interest in good leadership as does Amherst. Because they have fewer kids in the schools does that mean that they somehow care less about the quality of school that their children attend?

I don't think the Pelham members should ever defer to Amherst. If they disagree with their Amherst counterparts they have the right to vote the way they see fit. How condescending to think that Pelham should defer to Amherst.

And, Maria Geryk seems to be doing a great job!!! I am very happy that the Pelham SC members voted the way they did. Perhaps in the future Amherst SC should defer to Pelham - they seem to have made an excellent choice.

Anonymous said...

"In contrast, each year the Amherst schools lose $160,000 when students who live in Amherst choice into Pelham. "

What does this have to do with anything? By us pulling out of Union 26, will Amherst students no longer be able to choice into Pelham? Is that was is behind this attempted move to leave Union 26? I always thought it was because you were upset that you couldn't get your way with the Superintendent vote.

Curious observer said...

I gently suggest rereading the article, reconsidering the facts (this is an elementary level agreement, not a regional one) and thinking about my actual comment. You seem to have entirely missed my point.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 4:22 - I certainly don't think anyone should defer to anyone on the SC -- voters elect people to make the best decisions they can, and I assume all members of the SC do that. However, to be clear -- the majority of the Amherset SC didn't vote against Maria -- they voted against appointing someone without any opportunity for a process that involved the public. I voted against appointing a superintendent that evening for 16-months because I felt a decision of this magnitude should involve some public comment (teachers, staff, and parents). Perhaps the Pelham SC members don't share that view, which is certainly their option.

Anonymous 4:24 - my response is that it seems odd to be so concerned about spending $3,000 to gain information about Union 26, given the relative magnitude of the money that is spent in our district on many different issues -- thus, I have trouble believing that you are truly concerned about the money (or, as I noted before, the time). Are you opposed to the Amherst SC having information about their options? That's all we are asking for -- I find the resistance to this quite puzzling.

Curious Observer - thank you for pointing out the key parts of your point (again). I continue to be surprised at the total resistance to simply gathering information.

Anonymous said...

As an Amherst resident, I am surprised that the school choice money has been raised in response to the concern for the $3000 expenditure re: the union with Pelham. The comparison makes no sense to me.

School choice supports Amherst students and their families who, for whatever their personal reasons, would prefer the Pelham elementary school. The $3000 lawyer allocation is using our tax/override dollars to create options that increase the power of the Amherst School Committee.

If this was such a big concern, I would have expected and hoped to hear about it during the recent Amherst School Committee election. It is very disappointing that it was not given any hearing during that time. As a result, it appears like the Committee is trying to sneak something through. Why was the discussion not raised in public during the election when voters could have asked candidates questions and learned about the issue? And, yes, I know you were not running in this election. But why didn't I hear your concerns, as a sitting member of the committee, about this agreement prior to the election?

Anonymous said...

Catherine, I too am puzzled by the opposition to this. One would think that proportional representation is something that goes without saying. I'm surprised it's taken this long to figure that out. But you'd think that even those who do not support proportional representation would be okay with gathering information... this is truly outrageous.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 6:22 - I actually have been concerned about the Union agreement since last fall, when it became clear that at the elementary level, the superintendent would be evaluated by 3 Amherst members and 3 Pelham members. I worried that this wasn't really a fair evaluation of his work, since there are 4 Amherst elementary schools (each with more kids than any of the Pelham schools, and of course that means 4 principals to supervise, not just 1). I raised this repeatedly in goals subcommittee meetings. As you note, I was not running for re-election this year, so obviously I wasn't campaigning on this issue. However, there are issues that come up all the time that we simply deal with -- I didn't campaign on a platform of "closing Marks Meadow" but it became clear that that needed to happen, so I made a motion to do it.

I was elected by Amherst voters to represent the interests of Amherst, and I'm doing my best to do that. Luckily, I am running for re-election next spring, so people who don't support my work in gaining information about the options Amherst has for its own school system can express their discontent at the polls.

Anonymous 7:06 - I agree ... it just seems very odd to me that there is such resistance, and even animosity, to a simple request for information. If the Union 26 agreement makes sense for Amherst, then getting this information will demonstrate why this is precisely the best arrangement Amherst should have and I'm sure we will vote unanimously to continue it for another 100 years!

Anonymous said...

Well, if my spouse contacted a divorce attorney, just to "simply gather information," my defenses would go up too!

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's time for marital counseling.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 2:50 - I'm not sure if comparing a union of school committees in two towns is really a good parallel to marriage. But since you've raised it--let's say that you were married and one person did 94% of the work (earning money, raising children, cleaning the house, etc.) and the other person did 6% of the work, but you each had an equal say in all marital decisions (where to live, how to spend money, how to educate the kids, etc.). Might you feel like consulting a lawyer to figure out if you had options other than staying in this marriage in the current arrangement?

The lawyer who spoke last night (Amherst resident who school choices her kids to Pelham) noted that the Senate gives the same representation to California and North Dakota ... although they differ dramatically in size. But what she failed to note is that we elect presidents based on electoral votes, which are tied to population. So, presidential candidates care more about winning California than North Dakota. We've set up a system in which we give equal weight at the union level to California and North Dakota. Amherst residents therefore need to recognize that because of this union, they have much less weight on hiring, attracting, and evaluating a superintendent than do residents of Pelham.

Anonymous 7:48 - I have every confidence that once the Amherst SC has some real information about the pros/cons of various options, we will indeed ask to sit together with the Pelham SC and talk about options (if in fact there are any options to even discuss).

Anonymous said...

"There are certainly other votes that have been along town lines. Interestingly, in 2009, both Pelham numbers voted to NOT hire Dr. Rodriguez (they preferred failing the search), whereas the Amherst members (a majority) supported his hiring."

And their perspective (in hindsight) was wrong HOW? A lot of time trouble and money could have been saved if our representatives in Amherst had been similarly opposed to that hire.

Concerned Taxpayer said...

Anon 7AM, I don't think the Pelham views on the hiring of Dr. Rodriguez were wrong (in my opinion, they were correct!) but the point is that the Pelham community (as represented by their SC members) often expresses a different opinion than the Amherst community (as represented by THEIR SC members). If they don't agree on matters of Superintendent, the union is not working. For either town, frankly. But Amherst has more to lose because they pay more toward the Superintendent and because, proportionally, they have much less say regarding this matter. As a taxpayer of Amherst,I don't like the fact that Pelham (much smaller and contributing much less financially) has an equal vote and thus a great deal of influence as to how MY money is being spent for a Superintendent. To be honest, I don't like the entire regional system where the small towns of Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury all have a proportionally greater say in ALL matters regarding the regional schools than does the larger (and financially more liable) town of Amherst. I would like to see both agreements revisited.

Anonymous said...

Just to set the record straight:

Electoral votes in the presidential elections are NOT tied strictly to population.

The formula for electoral votes in every state except Maine and (I believe) Nebraska is the number of Congressmen + the number of Senators, or if you prefer Congressmen + 2. This gives disproportionate influence in the election to the smallest states, especially those with one or two Congressional districts, like Vermont, New Hampshire, and Wyoming. A single vote in these states and Alaska and Montana has considerably more weight in the presidential election than a single vote right here in Mass. (Al Gore understands this better than anyone.)

BUT to support Catherine's point (I think), I suspect that you could make a case that there is some historic cause and effect between the disproportionate political power of citizens of rural American states and our continuing neglect of America's urban problems. How we structure our politics, how we allocate political power affects what gets done and what doesn't.

Rich Morse