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.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Regional school board ponders future of Union 26

Hampshire Gazette
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.

39 comments:

Rich Cairn said...

As school committee members, I hope you will stop spending time and money on district structure and get back to the many real issues that face our great schools.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Rich - thanks for using your name! The School Committee has to make decisions all the time that some members of the public won't like -- I can certainly point to the many parents this time last year who told us to stop examining whether to close Marks Meadow and then last fall who told us to stop trying to redistrict by equity. In both of those cases, the School Committee made unanimous decisions that weren't particularly popular (at least based on letters to the Bulletin and attendance at public forums) but I believe these were still the right things to do. I believe the single biggest influence on our schools is the leadership of those schools - and thus it is difficult for me to see how the process used to select a superintendent isn't one of these "real issues." Remember, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to request this information -- and we look forward to getting this information from our attorney so that we, and all parents and community members, can understand our options.

Anonymous said...

There is no comparison between closing Marks Meadow School (which was the right thing to do in this time of severe budget restraints)and redistricting for equity(which will have a big impact on the ability of all sudents to perform at their optimum in ES)and possibly pulling out of Union 26.

There is no reason to pull out of Union 26. Pelham wants an excellent Superintendent to oversee their district as much as Amherst does. The Union 26 Agreement is not broken. The Amherst SC does NOT have the support of the residents of Amherst for this course of action. And as Rich Cairn said, we have alot of real issues facing our great schools...and this is not one of them. The Amherst SC should turn their attention to how we can make our schools the best that they can be.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 9:20 - I'm not sure if you've been following this story, but let me be very clear: THE AMHERST SC HAS NOT VOTED TO END THE UNION 26 AGREEMENT. We have voted (unanimously) to get information on what our options are. That's it. Are you opposed to us getting information?

And to be clear -- there was no support (public) among residents for either closing Marks Meadow or redistricting. But we got information on each of these, and we discussed the options, and in both cases, voted unanimously to make changes. I still have no idea whether those decisions were or were not what most Amherst residents supported. Similarly, we are now getting information on our options in terms of the Union 26 agreement, and once we have those options, that information will be fully presented to the public and the public will be able to share any and all thoughts about the best course of action.

Abbie said...

I don't know where I stand on what might be the ultimate decision wrt to Union 26 but I also think its important to revisit the issue and get the relevant information. From what I gather, Union 26 was created 80 years ago or so. The population in Amherst has since changed dramatically. If we were to start NOW (de novo) and decide how to structure our SC membership that determines the Super Intendency for Amherst relation to the district would we do it the same way? I very much doubt it. If others think we would do the exact same thing and pair up with Pelham, then fine, your position is consistent. If others think we wouldn't pair with Pelham if designing a new model but also think we shouldn't even discuss the current model, then I find their position is contrary.

It is an important issue, and I am not thinking of it in terms of NOW (i.e. Ms Geryk, who a lot of folks are trying to change the issue to THAT) but long-term. What if Pelham all the suddenly became a creationism mecca and their SC became populated by like minded folks, would Amherst people be comfortable that their SC they would have EQUAL say in the education of our ES (as per their power in hiring a like-minded SupI)? This is a dramatic example, but ...

Anonymous said...

I think that the Yes! campaign is freaking out over nothing. Why not get information and examine our agreement. The Union 26 agreement is 100 years old for goodness sake! And, it is a valid point that our districts are so dramatically different in size. Additionally, I think that the Yes! campaign should stop claiming that they know that a majority of Amherst residents oppose the actions of the SC on this subject.

Anonymous said...

Why not get information and examine this Union that was formulated 100 years ago. I think the Yes! campaign should stop freaking out and claiming that there is a majority of Amherst residents who oppose the SC on this issue.

Anonymous said...

I have mulled over this whole Union 26 issue over the last few days. I think the thing I find troubling is the way the Amherst SC is going about their information gathering. Steve Rivkin stated he wanted the SC to go into executive session to map out their strategy, once they have gathered their information.

This says to me that he, at the very least, has already made up his mind on what he wants to do...even before the information has been gathered. And why all the secrecy? Can't the Amherst memebers of Union 26 sit down with their Pelham counterparts for a simple discussion...before hiring an attorney to determine their options? Amherst is being heavy-handed when they don't have to be. Why can't Amherst sit down with Pelham and say, we have x y and z concerns. How do you feel? Amherst is BEGINNING the process in a very adversarial way.

That is what disturbs me about the Union 26 issue.

Anonymous said...

If there is a problem with the Union, then it would behoove the Amherst SC to (1) clearly identify the problem, (2) open a discussion with their Union 26 partners about possible solutions to the problem, and (3) failing any satisfactory resolution, seek legal advice on additional options.

You've skipped steps (1) and (2), causing needless conflict and acrimony. That is irresponsible leadership, and a waste of time and money. I can't imagine a similar context in which calling a lawyer is the first step rather than the last resort.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Abbie - I agree with all you said, and thanks for reminding people that this isn't about Maria -- it is about the long-term viability of this arrangement, and indeed whether an agreement that was reached in 1903 makes sense today. According to Wikipedia, Amherst had a population of 5,038 in 1900 and now has a population of 34,047. In contrast, Pelham had a population of 462 in 1900, and as of 2003, had a population of 1,441. Thus, in the time since that agreement was reached, the population in Amherst has increased nearly 7-fold whereas the population in Pelham has increased 3-fold. I believe reviewing an arrangement that is 100 years old makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous 9:54 - well said. I agree completely.

Anonymous 10:05 - I really appreciate the thoughtful way you wrote your post -- thank you. So, let me clarify a few things.

First, I think it is pretty clear what the concerns are - we have two towns having an equal vote on hiring and evaluating the superintendent although the towns differ dramatically in size and budget contribution (and more so than two towns in any other union in Massachusetts). I don't think this is a subtle or hard to understand idea.

Second, we can't simply sit down and say "let's work out an agreement" because it might be that we work out something that in fact violates the law! So, several people said to me "why don't you just see if Pelham would agree to a 4-2 voting pattern, instead of a 3-3" -- and that on the face of it sounds like a really reasonable idea (again, different people might disagree with this split on either side, but at least it would be a possible point of discussion). However, the state law FORBIDS a change in the voting -- a town can't have more than 3 votes so this is impossible. But we wouldn't necessarily know this since no one on the committee is a lawyer. So, what if the two SCs sat down and discussed some option and agreed to it, and then found out this option was a violation of the law? That would be bad, and that is precisely what we are trying to avoid. The Amherst SC is therefore paying for a lawyer to research the options, which we can then share with Pelham and both sides can discuss what LEGAL options might or might not be (or both sides could decide there really aren't any better options than the current arrangement so nothing moves forward at all).

Anonymous 10:10 - I've just answered all of these questions in the above response. We certainly could have started by talking with Pelham and then reached a mutually agreeable solution that was illegal. We then would have needed to discuss the illegal agreement with a lawyer. Does that seem like the right order?

Concerned Taxpayer said...

Actually, I can see a scenario in which it would be best to consult a lawyer first. That scenario is one in which one party is pretty certain what the position of the other party will be and that position is in direct opposition to the position of the first party.

In this case, Pelham is at a distinct advantage and thus holds the cards. It has proportionally much more representation than does Amherst in the union. It also benefits much more financially from the current arrangement than does Amherst.

If the union were dissolved, Pelham would either have to join another union or pay their own superintendent. In the former case, unless it could find another large town to form a union with (like Belchertown), Pelham would suddenly find itself without as much influence votes-wise (for example, if they joined the union to which Shutebury and Leverett belong) in their new union. If they had to hire their own Superintendent, it would cost much more than the 6% of a Super's salary than it currently pays now.

Since Pelham has absolutely nothing to gain from the dissolution of Union 26, it doesn't make sense for Amherst to first try to "identify the problem" and then "discuss the problem" with Pelham before consulting a lawyer.

Of course, if I were a Pelham SC member, I would now be thinking long and hard about some changes I could volunteer before I found myself alone and needing my own Superintendent. Perhaps Pelham could enter into a regional K-6 agreement similar to the regional 7-12 agreement formed by the four towns? This could solve the financial juggling required when Amherst students choice into Pelham elementary school and give all four elementary schools more flexibility. Perhaps Pelham could offer to join a regional K-12 agreement with Amherst? This would then necessitate a new arrangement regarding both representation and financial responsibility that could benefit both towns. Perhaps Pelham could offer to amend the union agreement such that it gets proportional representation as well as the current proportional financial responsibility? Alternatively, perhaps Pelham could offer to assume equal financial responsibility to match their equal representation?

All of those solutions seem to be better for Pelham than to have it left without a Superintendent.

Anonymous said...

First, I think it is pretty clear what the concerns are - we have two towns having an equal vote on hiring and evaluating the superintendent although the towns differ dramatically in size and budget contribution (and more so than two towns in any other union in Massachusetts). I don't think this is a subtle or hard to understand idea.

You still haven't clarified what you find problematic about this. Are there specific examples where Pelham's votes have negatively affected the education of Amherst children? Remember that we are talking about a body (Union 26) that only oversees the hiring and performance of the Superintendent, and does not decide any other issues -- the separate school committees do that.

So while there is some intuitive appeal to your argument about disproportionate representation, it does not bear any kind of more in depth scrutiny. Where are the FACTS that indicate this is an actual rather than merely theoretical problem? Especially since, based on your population numbers, the disproportionate nature of the representation has been in existence since the birth of the agreement. Why is it problematic now when it never has been before?

Joel said...

I have a couple of reactions to this debate that stem from me being a tax paying resident of Amherst and a historian and professor.

First, I am particularly surprised that Rich Cairn, who is a terrific person and active supporter of our schools, could have supported the override and thus higher taxes on the elderly on fixed incomes and people who have lost their jobs or faced pay cuts, but then not want to explore the possibility of saving money by updating or abrogating a 107 year old agreement.

I don't know Jim Oldham, but I read in the Bulletin that he also supported the override (and I believe he opposed closing MM). Again, how do we ask the people for more and more tax money and then refuse to examine every possible way to save administrative costs? People will post that Union 26 saves money, but they can't know that because it hasn't been studied. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. The SC should study the matter.

Next, how can any rational person oppose investigating the workings of a 107 year old agreement between two towns? The notion that the SC has too much on its plate is the sort of red herring we hear from Republicans who warn Obama to stop reforming health care, financial institutions, oil leases, etc. because "he's already got two wars to fight."

That isn't an argument, it's a stall tactic to protect the status quo.

Also, the comparisons with the US Senate are silly. The Senate is constitutionally mandated, so its unequal representation is, by definition, constitutionally sound.

Moreover, we have one SC. It is the only body that makes school policy. The Senate works in concert with the House and the President and the work product (laws, regulations, etc.) of those branches of govt. is subject to being overruled by the courts.

Finally, back to the 107 year thing, the US has amended the Constitution 12 times since 1909. Now, I think the 18th was silly and the 21st fixed the 18th (Prohibition and its repeal), but let's think about how the attitude of the folks in town who oppose examining a 107 year old agreement would play out nationally. They would have us deny women the right to vote (1920), have no Federal income tax (1913, this is, I believe, a plank in the Tea Party platform), never had the right to direct election of our US Senators (1913), wouldn't limit presidential terms to 2 (1951), wouldn't give DC residents a presidential vote (1961), wouldn't prohibit the use of poll taxes to restrict African-American voting in the South (1964), and wouldn't allow 18 year olds to vote (1971).

Luckily, we as a country often revisit our laws and regulations.

Educational policy has changed a great deal since 1903, so shouldn't we at least examine a 107 year old agreement?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Concerned Taxpayer - thanks for your thoughts. I think it is indeed clear that Pelham benefits tremendously from this arrangement -- the question is whether Amherst does as well. I don't know what modifications might be possible (hence the need for legal representation), but I agree that the Pelham SC should consider what changes it might consider (with or without its own legal counsel).

Anonymous 11:32 - I'll make three quick points here.

1. Hiring and overseeing the leader of a school district is hardly an irrelevant task. In the current system, the Amherst SC and the Pelham SC have an equal voice on K to 6 issues. Are the issues always the same? Maybe so, maybe no. As Abbie pointed out, what if one town became very different in its views politically -- would you then believe it would be appropriate to re-examine this relationship?

2. The representation was always disproportionate -- but it is more so now than before, and as I've noted before, it is more disproportionate than any other union in the state of Massachusetts. I do find that concerning.

3. Would you prefer to wait until there was an actual incident in which Amherst and Pelham SC members voted differently, and THEN examine the union? I guess I don't see that as wise (I mean, you buy life insurance in case there is a problem -- you don't wait until someone is critically ill and then sign up for life insurance). But we also have a clear example in March of the Pelham members all voting together, and differently from 80% of the Amherst members, on the issue of appointing an interim superintendent for 16 months without any public comment. That would actually be an example in which the majority of Amherst members (and all of those who would face re-election, since the lone person who voted with Pelham was Andy Churchill who wasn't running again) didn't agree with the Pelham members (who all voted together).

Joel - I agree that I am puzzled by the resistance some people have to even gathering information. I just don't see why information is bad to have, and in particular why this information would be bad to have.

In fact, Jim Oldham raised a question at the last town meeting about administrative costs -- and it is very clear that it costs more administratively to operate a union than not (e.g., many people in central office get THREE different pay checks - one from Pelham, one from Amherst, one from the Region -- and it is hard to imagine this system is the most cost-effective).

Finally, I agree that examining a 107-year-old agreement makes a lot of sense. As you note, laws have changed considerably over time.

Anonymous said...

It's premature to even talk about the possibility of Pelham needing to hire its own supt -- however, I'd like to point out that I know of small school districts in MA that have a principal/supt rather than a separate principal and supt - so it's not like we would be throwing Pelham out into the cold world to have to hire a supt at $100K+/year in addition to their principal.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 4:06 - that's a great point re. Pelham options. I know Dr. David Sklarz, who was rejected from the Amherst-Pelham superintendency last year, is now working as a "half-time" superintendent in Marlborough, CT, of a K to 6 district. That could be another option for them to explore.

Again, I would think there are many options that might work well for Pelham and/or Amherst. Let's try to really understand what they are -- which clearly does require legal advice -- and then members of both SCs, and members of both communities, can weigh in and how best to proceed.

Curious observer said...

I knew almost nothing about Union 26 two weeks ago, like almost everyone else. But it seems clear that today Amherst would not sign up for Union 26 as it now exists.

Amherst would never agree to give Pelham 50% of voting power to hire and evaluate the superintendent when Pelham only has 10% of the students and financial contribution. It's hard to see what benefit Amherst now gets from Union 26. It would be easy to cut administrative costs and salaries by 10% if the agreement was dissolved, since there would be less work. In return, Amherst gets more votes, power and accountabliity from the superintenedentl.

If there are any current benefits to Amherst, someone please point them out.

I doubt Pelham would sign up for a Union 26 agreement that only gave Pelham 10% of voting power. Pelham would lose too much clout with a fair proportional 10% of the vote and could easily be outvoted by Amherst school committee member. Nor would Pelham choose to join up with a school system that is so much bigger, more complicated and with such a different student body.

It seems much more likely that Pelham would join the union along Shutesbury, Leverett belong to since they share the same size, issues and student body.

It might make sense for Pelham to merge its elementary school into the Amherst system. That option is probably not too attractive at this moment. Given the closing of Marks Meadow and Amherst's declining number of students, at some point the Pelham students might fit easily into Amherst's 3 elementary schools. With the heat and manuevering that fired up when the Amherst School Committee members just asked for a legal opinion on Union 26, the claim that school committee members basically agree with each other and get along is hard to believe.

Pelham parents may see joining in with Amherst schools differently. Pelham and Amherst kids go to the same middle and high schools, many Amherst kids are in the Pelham elementary school, and the kids all play on sports teams go to the same after-school activities. So it may well be easier to blend the Pelham and Amherst teachers, students and staff than the two school committees.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Curious Observer - I agree with all you said -- it seems clear that this agreement would NEVER be reached today if we were starting fresh (a point Abbie made yesterday), so I think it is fair to residents of both towns for us to examine it. If it turns out this is the best option for both towns, then obviously we stick with it. If it turns out it isn't the best option, then both Amherst and Pelham would have to think about the choices they'd like to make -- and hear from community members/parents about the pros and cons of different options.

If Amherst chose to withdraw from Union 26, it seems likely that Pelham could either join Amherst in an Amherst-Pelham district (one SC, 4 K to 6 schools) or join Union 28 (with Leverett and Shutesbury and the other towns already in that union). They may also have other options that they would prefer, and of course, this would be up to residents and SC members in Pelham.

I don't think anyone is near reaching a decision about how best to proceed -- but I continue to believe that finding out options and then informing the community of these options is the right thing to do, even if that request makes some people uncomfortable.

I remember a year ago, the Amherst SC asked for information on the pros/cons of closing Marks Meadow, and there was massive resistance to even getting that information. Yet without getting that information, and being able to weigh the pros/cons of that decision, we would have a much worse school system today (4 schools at a loss of $800,000).

Anonymous said...

Please stop comparing the closing of MM with unilaterally withdrawing from Union 26. That is like comparing apples to oranges.

Anonymous said...

"It might make sense for Pelham to merge its elementary school into the Amherst system."

If I was Pelham, there is NO WAY I would want to have my elementary school under the control of the current Amherst SC.

I do not have any problem with Union 26 in its current form. Why shouldn't Pelham have as much say about who the Super is going to be for their school as Amherst has in choosing a Super for its schools. If the voting power were changed, Pelham would NEVER have any say in who the Super is for their school. We hear alot of talk about fairness and lack thereof. How is it fair for Pelham to have no say in who their Super is?

Anonymous said...

just curious, do we know when we're getting this information?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 4:39 - last year, the SC requested information on the costs/benefits of closing Marks Meadow, and people were angry that we even wanted this information. I believe it was useful information to have, and prior to the SC requesting, no one had really been thinking this was even an option. Similarly, the SC this year has requested information on the options for Amherst in terms of Union 26. I believe they are similar in that in both cases, the SC has requested information that it believes will be useful to have. In the Marks Meadow case, we decided to act on that information (after hearing from the community). In the case of Union 26, we may or may not decide to act on the information (and obviously any action would occur after considerable community input). Go back and read my blog from a year ago -- lots of people were angry that we even wanted this information. I see that exact same process occurring again -- anger at a mere request of information by elected officials, which I continue to find puzzling.

Anonymous 4:58 - "If I was Pelham, there is NO WAY I would want to have my elementary school under the control of the current Amherst SC." So, if that is how the Pelham SC feels and Pelham residents, then merging with Amherst would be a really bad idea -- but that would be their decision to make.

You say "Why shouldn't Pelham have as much say about who the Super is going to be for their school as Amherst has in choosing a Super for its schools" -- well, the reason for that difference might be that the towns are dramatically different in population/enrollment in the schools and in budget contributed. Do you believe Pelham, a town with an elementary school population of 125 kids, should have MORE say in who their superintendent is than do Leverett and Shutesbury, who each have MORE kids in their elementary school than does Pelham? If a town wants complete say in who their superintendent is (e.g., like Northampton does), they should be a complete separate K to 12 district! Remember, at the elementary level, Leverett and Shutesbury have 1/5 of the say in who their superintendent is, because they pay 20% of the budget. Pelham pays 6% of the budget of their elementary, and has 50% of the say. Similarly, at the Regional Level, Pelham has 2 votes (22% of the say) and pays 6%, whereas Leverett and Shutesbury each has 1 vote (11% of the say) and pay more than Pelham. Does that strike you as fair? I'm just trying to understand -- you believe Pelham should have the SAME say as Amherst, and that Pelham should have MORE say that Leverett or Shutesbury in choosing superintendents? Can you clarify why that strikes you as the fairest solution, because it is difficult for me to see what that arrangement is indeed the fairest. And I'm not convinced that we should determine what is fairest by its existence since 1903 -- many things clearly have changed in Amherst/Pelham/the US/education over the last 100 years.

Anonymous 5:21 - I don't know when we will have this information, as I just don't know how fast the lawyer will work or how complicated the legal questions are. But this is on the agenda for the Tuesday (May 18th) meeting, and if there is any sense of a timeline by then, there will be an announcement.

Nina Koch said...

Catherine,

By your reasoning, people who pay more in property taxes should have more say in town government. I don't think that who pays what should have any bearing.

I also don't understand your characterization of people's concerns about these actions. You have described the opposition as "vicious." You had a lot of adjectives to choose from and I'm not sure why you picked that one. I don't see anybody being vicious. People are allowed to say that they are concerned about what is going on.

LarryK4 said...

So Nina,do you actually live and pay property taxes in Amherst?

Curious observer said...

There is a curious lack of interestby most in gathering information in Amherst. Then there is an even more curious anger at people who seek information about government and school operations. Most enraging is having public officials collect information, discuus that information and then take actions based on information.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Nina - first, I don't see where I've used the word "vicious" -- can you point me to my comment? I think I've typically used the words "puzzled" and "confused." But I'll be glad to clarify why I used the word "vicious" if you'll point me to the post in which that term was used.

In terms of your other point: do you believe that Wyoming and California should have an equal say in determining who the president of the United States is, or do you believe it would be fairer to have each state get the same two votes? I believe that it is indeed important for citizens of California to have more say -- not proportionate say -- but more say.

But most importantly, you are a teacher, so I'm certain you are in favor of information and education, right? So I assume you support the efforts of the Amherst SC to get more information on our options so we can educate the community.

Larry - this seems like a fair question to Nina. I look forward to her response.

Curious Observer - those public officials who "collect information, discuus that information and then take actions based on information" are the worst: I agree. (I would be using the saracsm font here if Larry had invented it yet).

Anonymous said...

And then there is the curious anger at reasonable people who disagree with the actions of the SC.

The SC is creating a problem where there wasn't one. Information gathering is one thing. What really galls me is that it is quite evident that the majority of the Amherst SC has already decided what they are going to do once they are done with their "information gathering." What a smoke screen!

And the people with their eyes open, whether they support the SC or do not support the SC on this topic, also know that the die has already been cast.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 7:46 - the current SC did not create the current Union 26 agreement, so for those who think this current agreement IS a problem (e.g., believe that this deprives Amherst voters of equal representation, believe that Amherst would never enter into this agreement today, believe that a town that pays 94% of the bill should get more than 50% of the votes) understand that it existed prior to the current SC (since no current members of the SC were serving in 1903). If you don't believe this agreement is a problem, then you see the SC as creating a problem -- and that is your right, but again, for those who see the current representation as a problem, the current SC is totally not to blame. We have just identified the problem that already existed.

And I have no idea which members of the Amherst SC you've talked to, but you haven't talked to me -- because I have no idea what I want to do since I don't have any idea what the options are. Asking any current members of the SC what they want to do without having any information about what we could do or what we could not do or what the consequences/implications of any decision seems silly.

Nina Koch said...

you said this on May 13 at 11:14 am:
"I agree. I mean, in this very liberal town, asking for information in this case is being viciously opposed and the people who want the information are being attacked."

I apologize; I had remembered it as an adjective when in fact you used it as an adverb.

As for where I pay taxes, I am not sure why that matters. I care about the town that I live in and I also care about the school system that I work for. I, for one, have seen a lot of benefit from the inclusion of Pelham in our district. Staff members from Pelham participate on district committees and in professional development activities. It's a successful school and they have a lot to offer us.

This is supposed to be a conversation. I don't think anybody should be trying to control who is or is not allowed to join the conversation. That is why I was troubled by your suggestion that a parent who opts for school choice somehow doesn't have the right to question how the school committee is spending money. The same logic could apply to Larry, who "costs the district money" by sending his kids to charter school. Yet I haven't seen you suggest that he should not be part of the conversation. You seem to reserve that for your critics. I think Larry has a right to join the conversation as does any other person, no matter what individual choices he or she has made.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Nina - I think the opposition to the gathering of information on an agreement that is over 100 years old has been pretty vicious -- that is my experience of it as a member of the SC.

I don't hear anyone saying that Pelham isn't a good school or that we don't care about their feedback or collaboration. I also haven't heard anyone on or off SC say "we should not have Pelham in our district." What people have questioned is whether the Pelham SC should have 50% of the votes (and veto power) over the selection/evaluation of a superintendent, since they pay 6% of the bills. Since you have so valued Pelham's contributions, and its success, I assume you would be in favor of officially combining the Amherst-Pelham schools into one elementary district (K to 6), which I too would support. This would reduce administrative costs and increase cohesion between all the elementary schools and simplify work for the superintendent.

I have never said that anyone can't participate in the conversation -- hence I have this blog and answer virtually all posts (even anonymous ones). What I have said is that I think it is appropriate for people to acknowledge particular situations in which they may have a vested interest that is not obvious to others - as Ms. Fronhofer did when she made her remarks on Tuesday at the SC meeting. I would certainly call out Larry (or others) who suggested the Amherst schools could save money by doing X, Y, or Z ... and if Larry came to SC meetings and opposed the Chinese language program at Wildwood, I would call him on that in 1 second, since it could be seen as an attempt to decrease competition for the school his child attends (a very vested interest). I continue to believe that it would be appropriate for Ms. Fronhofer to be identified (in the paper and at meetings) as someone who is concerned about how the district spends money investigating the Union 26 agreement (although that investigation may reveal ways in which the Amherst schools could save money), while choosing to school choice her children into the Pelham school (which clearly benefits from the Union 26 agreement tremendously).

But the real issue here isn't whether the paper should state whether Ms. Fronhofer does or does not use school choice into Pelham, or how I use word vicious. The issue is whether you are in favor of the Amherst district getting information on the Union 26 agreement - and I'll return to my earlier question, which you didn't answer: you do, as a teacher, support getting more information so that the community can be educated about the Union 26 agreement and the options for Amherst moving forward, right?

Fort River Parent said...

While some posting on this blog may not think there is a problem, many of us who have been watching the SC meetings for the past few years realize there is. Pelham has too much power to decide the fate of our kids, both at the Union and at the Regional level. Pelham is a lot different than Amherst (less diversity both of race and of income) and as a taxpayer of Amherst I don't feel as if their SC members represent my views or the needs of the children of Amherst. I appreciate the Amherst SC for taking this on.

Joel said...

I have a couple of reactions to Nina's comments.

First, I had always assumed she was an Amherst resident given how vociferously she lobbied for the override. A district employee lobbying to fund her raise by calling for the elderly to pay higher property taxes from their fixed incomes is so inappropriate, that I just assumed that only teachers who would also pay those higher taxes chimed in. Until she says otherwise, I'll just assume Nina lives in Amherst.

On the Union issue, if Nina doesn't live in either Amherst or Pelham, her comments are particularly worrisome. As CAS pointed out, we're talking about a system that right now gives a tiny minority the same voting rights as a much larger group (the Wyoming v. California metaphor). Having non-Amherst, non-Pelham folks weighing in, which is their right, is a little like Portugal lecturing the US on how its elections should work. This doesn't concern other town's residents. So, again, until we hear otherwise, let's just assume Nina lives in Amherst.

Next, on Nina's claim that reforming or abrogating the Union agreement is some sort of attempt to give more votes to individuals who pay more in property taxes (i.e., undermining the idea of one person, one vote), I say Nina has it exactly backwards. The worry about the current system is simply that each Pelham resident has been given substantially more power than each Amherst resident.

The issue is clarified using very rough math. If Amherst has a population that is 25 times larger than Pelham's (using 2000 census numbers), then each Pelham resident gets 25 votes for each Amherst resident's 1 vote in terms of choosing the Super.

Why on earth would any Amherst resident or any member of the Amherst SC ever stand for such a system. I, for one, am pleased to see the SC studying this.

LarryK4 said...

Nina: So I take it that is a "No" to my question about whether you live and pay taxes in Amherst.

Slight correction: I send my kid Kira (singular) to the Chinese Charter School (which I was one of 15 original founders). Jada is too young at the moment.

And if the Amherst School system spent as much on average as Charter Schools did statewide last year it would have saved the town about $12 million.

Anonymous said...

South Deerfield

TomG said...

Anonymous said...
"... That is like comparing apples to oranges."
(May 15, 2010 4:39 PM)


Asking someone to stop using a metaphor seems silly. The point of using a metaphor is to highlight and characterize an aspect of the situation in a discussion. If you think a metaphor is not apt, its probably becuase you see the situation differently. Talk about that and you may get somewhere.

TomG said...

"I appreciate the Amherst SC for taking this on."

Me too.

I was dumfounded when the interim super was installed for 16 months without the consent of SC members who represent me and who should be making these decisions.

Anonymous said...

I am an Amherst resident and I am very happy with the appointment of Maria Geryk as our 16 month interim Superintendent. I think it was a wise choice.

TomG said...

"I think it was a wise choice."

While she may well have been a good choice there is clearly something wrong with the process when Amherst's elected School Committee has to accept that decision made by others rather than decide it for ourselves.

TomG said...

I want to be represented by a school committee that I can vote for not by one elected in Pelham that controls 50% of votes representing only a small fraction of the total school population (and there taxpaying parents.)

If Union 26 is not reformed so that Amherst residents' representation on the school committee is more proportional to the student body so that it allows allows the Amherst school committee and school administration to align curriculum from bottom to top then what we have is taxation without equitable representation.

Here's CS take from a subsequent thread:

"the interests of those elected to serve Pelham might well differ from the interests of those elected to serve Amherst. And given that these interests were quite divided (100% of Pelham SC members voting to appoint an interim superintendent for 15 months without any public comment; 80% of Amherst SC members -- and all of those potentially running for re-election -- not wanting to make a 15-month appointment without any public comment), it then seemed quite odd that at the Union 26 level, both Amherst and Pelham had 50% of the votes. I heard from a number of parents who were really concerned about this, and felt that their voting for candidates they supported in Amherst was basically useless, since ultimately, Pelham could block any superintendent hire."