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.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Regional School Committee stalls on Union 26 talks

Hampshire Gazette
By NICK GRABBE
Thursday, May 13, 2010

AMHERST - A meeting called to address the reasons why Amherst is looking at alternatives to its current superintendency union with Pelham adjourned without the board discussing the issue Tuesday.

The Union 26 Committee is composed of the three members of the Pelham School Committee and three of the five members of the Amherst School Committee. The Amherst committee has questioned the fairness of equal representation between the two towns when Pelham has one-tenth the number of students.

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, three members of the 4-2 majority approving a 15-month interim superintendency were from Pelham.

On Tuesday, Amherst members said they did not want to discuss the issue before they had consulted an attorney. They said that when the discussion takes place, it should include all five members of the Amherst committee.

Tracy Farnham, chairwoman of both the Pelham and Union 26 committees, said she wanted to hold the meeting to clarify the changes that Amherst members are seeking and decide whether Pelham needs its own attorney.

The only real discussion of the issues took place in the public comments portion of the Regional School Committee meeting.

Amherst attorney Elaine Fronhofer said her research showed no legal problem in the make up of the Union 26. A new state law allowing one town to vote to leave a union has not been tested in the courts, she said.

Jim Oldham, of Amherst, said it was ironic to hear Amherst members talk about representation. "Where are the Amherst residents clamoring for a change?" he asked. "There's no evidence you're representing anyone but yourselves."

And Norm Page, a former Pelham member of the Regional School Committee, said the union has saved the school district "hundreds of thousands of dollars" over the years, mostly by enabling the sharing of space.

Note: I think it would have been appropriate for Nick Grabbe to acknowledge that Elaine Fronhofer school choices her child into the Pelham schools, and that contrary to Jim Oldham's assertion that "there are no Amherst residents clamoring for a change", the CBAC (citizen's budget advisory committee) report presented at this meeting specifically noted that members of the public had indeed raised questions about whether Amherst should be its own K to 12 district as well as whether it should regionalize with Pelham.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am an Amherst resident and I am clamoring for change. Clamoring for deliverance from the yoke of Pelham oppressors!

It is clear that Pelham has untenable, outrageously disproportionate representation and influence on the town of Amherst, under the current compact. It is the tail wagging the dog.

Amherst schoolchildren deserve social justice.

Anonymous said...

I would express what I suspect is on a lot of Amherst residents' minds: where does this controversy get us?

Except into more post-Alberto chaos.

So much that is bad came out of that first post-Alberto meeting, with elected members so fatigued that (I submit) they couldn't think straight.

I'm just sounding a note of caution here.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I can't tell Anon 10:34. Is this a tongue-in-cheek comment or a serious comment?

Curious observer said...

The controversy, if that's what you want to call it, gets people to gather informaton, reflect on the history and information, and to talk to each other about what they think.

Let's get away from the Stepford Schools model Amherst has been operating under for so long.

Let's start talking to each other and sorting problems out -- without attacking the people that raise issues. That's getting tiresome and, frankly, isn't working as a tactic. Let's engage in democracy, openness, thoughtfulness, leadership and good sense.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:34 - not totally sure of the intent of your comment so I'm going to pass on responding!

Rich - I think choosing and evaluating a superintendent is the most important thing the SC does, and I think residents of all towns should care a lot about this process. Right now, Amherst residents pay 86% of the cost of a superintendent (78% at the regional level and 94% at the elementary level) and has 50% of the votes to hire and evaluate a superintendent. Pelham pays 6% of the superintendent's salary (6% at both elementary and region) and has 33% of the votes. I think it is clear that the needs of Amherst and Pelham residents may at times differ in terms of what they want in a superintendent -- Amherst has more money so is willing to pay more than Pelham (so, different candidates may apply/be hired); Amherst has substantially greater diversity so Amherst residents may value superintendents with broader experience in diverse environments more than Pelham residents; Pelham residents tend to be quite happy with their elementary schools and thus may want someone who will largely maintain the status quo whereas Amherst residents may look for someone who is more of a "change agent."

Again, there may be many times in which there is agreement, in which case it doesn't matter how the votes are divided. But there are also cases in which there are different interests, and that includes not only hiring a superintendent but also evaluating him/her. I believe Amherst voters should understand that in the current arrangement, they have less say on both of these issues proportionally than residents of Pelham, despite paying 86% of that person's salary versus 6%.

Anonymous 8:16 - I had the same reaction!

Curious Observer - well said. Thanks.

LarryK4 said...

Satire (or sarcasm) should have its own special font.

Anonymous said...

What I understand from this is that the benefit of a union is to save money. Amherst and Pelham currently share a superintendent and office space that each town would need to get on its own if there were no union.

It seems the problems have to do with disproportional representation and the different values of each town.

Is there some way that we could still have some kind of union but reform the representation on the Regional School Committee? It seems like this would allow Pelham to save the costs of paying a superintendent and at the same time allow Amherst to have a proportional voice on the Regional School Committee. If Pelham finds itself with a superintendent running its elementary school who doesn't share their values, they could always leave the union and pay for their own superintendent.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Larry - good suggestion ... sarcasm is very hard to read on line at times.

Anonymous 1:00 - this is the really tricky issue, for two reasons. First, the law requires that each town have no more than 3 representatives on the union ... so, we can't have (for example) 4 Amherst and 2 Pelham representatives. That would be illegal. Then at the regional level, Leverett and Shutesbury join, but they obviously aren't part of the K to 6 schools, as Pelham and Amherst are -- so these meetings don't discuss elementary issues (and it wouldn't be appropriate for those representatives to speak to elementary issues in other towns). I don't see an easy solution since the issue is largely (though not entirely) at the elementary level. The Amherst SC hasn't expressed concern about the Regional representation (although we have 5 votes of 9 -- 56% -- and pay 78% of the bill). The issue of representation is much more glaringly disproportionate at the elementary level, when we pay 94% of the bill and have 50% of the vote. But again, the way the law is written, we can't change this representation if we stay in the union. That is frankly why I thought getting a lawyer's thoughts on our options was the best way to go -- this is all very complicated.

Anonymous said...

Catherine,

I accept at face value the numbers you've presented Amherst v. Pelham.
I'm not challenging the accuracy of those.

But the rest of your discussion is replete with unexamined assumptions about a supposed divergence of interest between Amherst and Pelham. Maybe yes, maybe no. (On the other hand, if Pelham voters approve of Ms. Farnham's performance during the Regional Committee's halftime show the other night, maybe we DO have a problem.)

I recognize, for example, the problems in representative democracy in our US Senate in which a vast empty wasteland like Wyoming gets the same number of senators as an urbanized state like New York. But that does not mean that I want to blow up the entire system!

I see this dust-up as at least one degree of separation away from the immediate interests of Amherst kids. But I'm watching and listening, trying to keep an open mind.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Amherst has more money so is willing to pay more than Pelham (so, different candidates may apply/be hired); Amherst has substantially greater diversity so Amherst residents may value superintendents with broader experience in diverse environments more than Pelham residents; Pelham residents tend to be quite happy with their elementary schools and thus may want someone who will largely maintain the status quo whereas Amherst residents may look for someone who is more of a "change agent."

Do you have examples of how any of these assertions have played out in the past? Evidence, that is, that any of these speculative statements has a basis in fact?

I'd also like some support for your implication that the school arrangements Attorney Fronhofer has made for her children are any more relevant to her legal or policy analysis and positions than those that you and other members have made for your children.

Anonymous said...

Catherine-

I'm not writing to take a position on whether to secede or not, or how to get the increased representation that you clearly feel Amherst deserves on this board.

I was, however struck by one thing I wanted to comment on. In a previous post on a thread on this topic you said:

"I continue to be puzzled why there is so much concern about simply gaining information"

If all you did was make a call to your lawyer, or someone else,to ask some questions that would indeed have been gathering information. However this "gathering of information" was put out front in the newspaper and on the blog. That is a whole different thing.

Why would the simple "gathering of information" require a newspaper story at all? If done correctly and discreetly it would not. But to do this "gathering" in public and to announce it in the press seems like something entirely different.

I think that is what inspired the clever poster who compared it to one's spouse "gathering information" from a divorce lawyer.

I can totally understand the reaction at the meeting the other night from the non-Amherst reps who were asking for some explanation to better understand the positions of the Amherst crew. I know you complained about being blind-sided by them, but I think the Pelham folks must have felt pretty blind-sided by seeing this in the newspaper, when it should have been/could have been done way more discreetly and in a spirit of good communication and collaboration, rather than with media grandstanding and shock effect.

Sam I Am

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rich - so, I think the single most important thing a SC does is hire a superintendent, and I believe it is essential for voters to get to elect SC candidates (whether that is me or not me) who they believe will represent their interests. In Amherst, it is pretty clear that people vote for those they want to serve -- elections are quite competitive (we saw 5 candidates for 2 seats this spring), and there is a lot of information available (e.g., candidates go to debates, there are interviews in the Bulletin, people do signature ads/lawn signs). In Pelham, the situation is rather different -- think about the last time you saw an article in the Bulletin about a SC race in Pelham (or Shutesbury or Leverett, for that matter). In addition, the attention focused on the SC is much greater in Amherst - meetings are televised (live), and there are frequently articles in the paper. The Regional meetings aren't even televised in the other towns, and there is virtually no newspaper coverage of what occurs (the Pelham SC minutes for this entire year aren't even posted on the website). So, I see a lot of differences in how accountable SC members are in Amherst versus the other towns -- and I think, given the fact that the Amherst-Pelham enrollment gap is larger than that in any other union in Massachusetts, most other towns of Amherst's size have their own superintendent who reports only to SC members elected by residents in that town. Although Pelham contributes only 6% of the elementary and regional budget, Pelham can block the appointment of a superintendent that SC doesn't support. Leverett doesn't have that right (at the regional level, or in their elementary union), and nor does Shutesbury.

Are the interests necessarily different? No, of course not. But are they necessarily the same? I'm not convinced at all that they are.

But all that being said -- what I want, and I believe what the Amherst SC wants, is information about options. We will then have that information presented at a public meeting, and all residents can weigh in on how to proceed. If staying in Union 26 is the best option, obviously that's what we will do. But I think we owe it to residents of Amherst to at least get the facts on what our options are (and their pros/cons), and not simply say "well, it's been this way since 1903 so it must be the best choice."

Anonymous 6:42 - I prefaced each of those statements with the word "may" -- because I think any of these "may" be true. Or none of them "may" be true. They also seem plausible to me. Do you believe that in all cases Amherst and Pelham SC members will have identical views? But if you do, then I imagine you'd support decreasing the Pelham representation on the region -- after all, if Pelham and Amherst SC members always feel the same, surely it would be fine for Pelham to move from 2 seats on the region to 1 seat, right?

I believe Elaine Fronhofer's arrangements for her children are relevant for two reasons: first, she clearly has a vested interest in the success of the Pelham school (which is different than if she were simply an Amherst residents whose kids attended the Amherst schools), and second, she has complained about the Amherst SC wasting money on an attorney yet her choice for her kids -- which is 100% within her rights -- costs the district $10,000 a year.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Sam I Am - what you are suggesting would be a violation of the law -- I could not, as a member of the SC, request information from a lawyer without the consent of the whole SC. And the whole SC can't meet in secret to discuss whether to get a lawyer. That would be an opening meeting law violation, and I'm pretty sure that would be seen as a serious, serious problem. In order to get this information, we had to discuss it in public - and in Amherst, when you discuss things in public, they get mentioned in the newspaper and obviously people watch the meetings on TV. Discrete is illegal when it comes to SC deliberations in Massachusetts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation.

Sam I Am

Alice said...

Kudos to the Amherst School Committee for doing the right thing in looking out for the interests of Amherst. By doing their homework in advance so they can participate in an informed discussion about Union 26, they are simply doing their job!

And through this process, they do not need to be publicly (or privately for that matter) disrespected by the chairman of the Regional School Committee. An apology is in order.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Sam I Am - no problem. That's the great thing about this blog - I get to explain!

Alice - thank you for the kind words, and I agree that the Amherst SC is in fact doing our job. And I agree that an apology from the chair is in order. It was a very unfortunate meeting.

Nina Koch said...

Catherine,

I am very troubled by this comment from you:

"she has complained about the Amherst SC wasting money on an attorney yet her choice for her kids -- which is 100% within her rights -- costs the district $10,000 a year."

Are you saying that if someone decides to send their child to charter school or to another district via school choice, that person ought not question the actions of the Amherst or Regional School Committee?

Are you going to start calling people out for costing us money? I really don't think we want to go down this road.

Barbara said...

I beg to differ with Alice.

"Kudos to the Amherst School Committee for doing the right thing in looking out for the interests of Amherst. By doing their homework in advance so they can participate in an informed discussion about Union 26, they are simply doing their job!"

Pelham was also trying to do their homework with the chair of Union 26called a meeting for Tuesday. They are trying to understand what Amherst thinks the problem is so that when AMHERST DECIDES they want to have a meeting they will be prepared to have an informed discussion. As it stands now, the Pelham members of Union 26 have to read the newspaper to find out what Amherst perceives to be wrong with the Union Agreement. Does anyone else think this is a disrespectful way to treat Pelham.

Alice further says,"And through this process, they do not need to be publicly (or privately for that matter) disrespected by the chairman of the Regional School Committee. An apology is in order."

I watched the meeting live on ACTV. I did not see anything that Mr. Hajir said that was disrepectful, either in his words or his tone. I was, instead horrified at the disrespectful tone used by some Amherst SC members toward the chair.

I do agree with Catherine, however. An apology is in order.

Not from the chair to the committee, but from the committee to the chair.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Nina - I think when someone calls out the Amherst SC for spending $3,000 on a lawyer to investigate potential changes to Union 26 it is highly relevant that that person is also costing the district some money (and it seems that the personal investment in the Pelham schools is quite clear for her in a way that it wouldn't be for another Amherst resident without such a vested interest -- hence my concern that the article didn't identify this connection).

I would certainly welcome anyone's thoughts on concerns about the Amherst or Regional schools -- that is precisely why I supported the adoption of an "exit survey" policy in our schools so that we can learn precisely why parents are sometimes choosing other schools. However, prior to the discussion of Union 26, Elaine Fronhofer had never come to an Amherst meeting to share her concerns about our schools that led her to choose the Pelham schools. If she is interested in doing so at any point, I would welcome her thoughts on this issue.

Barbara - I think the issue of why Amherst might want to seek advice on options has been well discussed in the papers, and I doubt any Pelham SC members have actual questions about why changes might be desirable. But regardless, the Amherst SC clearly stated that they did not want to discuss this issue until they had advice from a lawyer, and that is in fact our option.

I'm curious as to what you believe was said by Amherst members that was disrespectful. Can you please identify the speaker and the comment?

Barbara said...

It was not the words that were said but the tone and behavior. Rob Spence was shouting, Irv Rhodes's tone was loud and condescending and he constantly interrupted. Steve Rivkin was unnecessarily combative and condescending. These members did not display the decorum we normally expect from an elective body in Amherst

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Barbara - just to be clear; Irv was upset that he, as Chair of Amherst, had not been consulted on the scheduling of this meeting within a meeting; Rob was upset that Farshid called a recess during the middle of a meeting to have a meeting that had not been discussed with a single member of the Amherst SC had agreed to have prior to seeing it on the agenda. I believe, as I said at the time, that the scheduling of this meeting (unwanted by the Amherst SC which Tracy, Farshid, and Maria all knew) during the middle of another meeting was a stunt designed to embarrass the Amherst SC. And yes, that led to some strong emotions.

In addition, the Chair of Union 26 (Tracy Farnham) violated policy by not starting with a motion to reorganize, which is required as soon as a meeting of Union 26 occurs following town elections. Steve made this suggestion, which she then ignored.

Barbara said...

Catherine,

I do understand that everyone was upset. I imagine the members of the Amherst SC were not the only ones who were upset. And yet, they were the only ones who exhibited such bad behavior. There is no excuse for the bad behavior I witnessed at the SC meeting. Especially, when you consider that there were students in the viewing audience. How do you think that looked to them. I think the lesson they learned that night was that if you are upset about something it's ok to act in a boorish manner.

I believe the people of the town of Amherst have the right to expect their elected officials to conduct themselves with decorum while they are representing the town of Amherst, no matter how aggrieved they may be during a meeting. That is all I a saying here.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Barbara - I agree that tone and behavior is important and that it was not all that it could have been on many sides during the meeting. I also believe that Amherst SC members and Pelham SC members were in very different situations. First, two of the Amherst SC members (Rick and Rob) were not included in the meeting, which I think is inappropriate and probably upsetting. Second. the Pelham SC members wanted to have the conversation; the Amherst SC members did not. However, and most importantly, I believe Amherst voters should expect that their members will be treated with respect, which includes respect in planning agendas, by the chair. Farshid did not consult with me (the vice chair) before putting on this agenda, nor did he consult with Irv (the chair of Amherst). Moreover, once SC members raised concerns with him about these agenda items, he did not remove these from the agenda. I believe that act was extremely disrespectful to all Amherst SC members and to all Amherst residents.

Anonymous said...

Once it was clear that the Amherst SC was not ready to engage in an impromptu discussion about Union 26 or to be forced to "share", the oxymoron that Maria Geryk suggested, what was left for Chairperson Farnham to do?

Well, I guess she really had her heart set on reading the detailed timeline she had prepared on the issue. So we had to listen to that.

And I guess that she needed to tell us that she wasn't going to engage in any "he said, she said" stuff, and was going to be above the fray. Which I found unconvincing.

I've looked at that part of the meeting twice now and I still have no idea what she thought she was accomplishing.

So I disagree with Alice: no apology is necessary. Ms. Farnham just came off as tone-deaf. She gained no advantage for either herself or for Pelham.

Remember: this is the Regional School Committee member who has been most vocal in the past about the meetings running too late. But this was her filibuster, and the rest of the room had to sit there so she could get through it.

Actually I find the analogy of the Union to a marriage to be quite apt (I play the role of Pelham in my marriage). Both parties can talk meaningfully when both sides are ready and not before.

Using the operative word, it was clear that the Amherst School Committee was "sand-bagged" the other night by Farshid's halftime show, a little breach of meeting decorum in its own right.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rich - I agree with much of what you said ... but I believe Alice thought an apology from Farshid (chair of regional) was in order (not from Tracy, chair of Union 26). Farshid was the chair of meeting, and he chose a stunt (calling a recess in the middle of a meeting) to force a meeting that all Amherst members had said they didn't know about and didn't want (and Farshid was at the meeting in which this intent was made very clear). We had a 4-hour meeting on Tuesday, which included a 20 to 30 minute HS presentation (which is supposed to take 5 minutes), extended public comment (including a speech WAY longer than 2 minutes by Elaine Fronhofer), a long discussion of a SC evaluation in which it became clear that Farshid's recollection of the prior meeting differed from virtually all other members (as I read from the minutes), as well as a 30 to 45 interruption in which absolutely nothing was accomplished by trying to force the Amherst SC to share. I believe he owes the Amherst SC and Amherst residents an apology for running a meeting like that. Think about what got accomplished at this meeting -- very, very little, which I find very, very depressing.