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."
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.