By Nick Grabbe Staff Writer
Published on May 14, 2010
Breaking up is hard to do, which may explain why Tuesday's School Committee free-for-all over a possible end to the Amherst-Pelham superintendency union was contentious.
While an hour of discussion among committee members produced little result, a public comment session earlier in the meeting was pointed. Several citizens criticized the Amherst School Committee's vote to seek legal advice on its alternatives regarding the union.
The little-known Union 26 Committee supervises the Amherst-Pelham union, which shares a superintendent for the elementary schools. The panel is comprised of all three members of the Pelham School Committee and three of the five members of the Amherst School Committee.
Issue of fairness?
Amherst member Steve Rivkin has questioned whether it is fair that the two towns have equal representation on the committee while Amherst has 10 times the number of students, hinting that this arrangement might be in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
The practical significance of the Union 26 Committee is that it votes on superintendent decisions - and an important one is coming up next spring. On March 28, the committee voted 4-2 to have Maria Geryk serve as interim superintendent through June 2011, with all three Pelham members joining Amherst member Andy Churchill in the majority.
On Tuesday, a meeting of the Union 26 Committee came up in the middle of the agenda for the Regional School Committee meeting, which was already running behind by 40 minutes. Amherst School Committee members Rick Hood and Rob Spence had to leave because they are not members of the Union 26 Committee.
Amherst committee chairman Irv Rhodes said he was not interested in meeting with the Pelham members until hearing from an attorney about options for ending Union 26. Member Catherine Sanderson said she was not comfortable with the exclusion of Hood and Spence. Rivkin asked if the Union 26 Committee should be "reorganized," possibly producing a different chairman.
Tracy Farnham chairs both the Pelham committee and the Union 26 committee. The Amherst committee first discussed a possible breakup six weeks ago, and the Pelham committee was "eager to have a meeting so it could clarify the changes sought," decide whether it needs its own attorney and communicate with constituents, she said.
Geryk tried to keep the peace, inviting Amherst members to share their concerns over Union 26. Rivkin suggested Geryk may have a conflict of interest, since she is responsible for both towns' elementary schools. Geryk responded that she was not taking a stand on whether the union should continue, but merely trying to bring about a resolution.
Rhodes called for the meeting to be adjourned before any actual debate about Union 26 began and to schedule another meeting for a mutually agreed-upon date. Farnham said one reason to call the committee together Tuesday was to set that date.
"We just want to know what the issues are," said Pelham member Nora Maroulis. "That is all this is about, so we can be prepared when we come together."
No point in discussion
Sanderson said there's no point in discussing the issue when half the committee doesn't want to.
"It feels like an ambush," she said, adding that she was "disappointed and puzzled about what has happened."
In the end, five members voted to adjourn, with only Farnham abstaining.
Earlier, attorney Elaine Fronhofer of Amherst said she had done some research and found no basis for saying the union is illegal based on its representation.
She compared its composition to the U.S. Senate, where California and Wyoming have two seats each despite their different populations.
"Union 26 benefits both towns," she said.
Jim Oldham said it's ironic to hear Amherst committee members complain about representation.
"Where are the Amherst residents clamoring for a change?" he asked. "There's no evidence you're representing anyone but yourselves. There's been a lot of rapid change in the school system, and we need time to work on a more consultative process."
Norm Page, a former Pelham representative on the Regional School Committee, said the union has saved the school system "hundreds of thousands of dollars" over the years, such as by enabling the sharing of space between the two towns.
"Hiring a superintendent is the only sticky area," he said.