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 19, 2010

Schism widens between Amherst, Pelham, Regional school boards

School committee members from Amherst, Pelham and the regional board are at odds over the process followed to determine the future of their shared superintendent.

At issue is whether and how one of the towns within Union 26, which includes Amherst and Pelham, can withdraw from the 109-year-old union, according to emails circulating among committee members and subsequent interviews.

But what seems to be at the root of the brouhaha is trust.

Regional School Committee Chairman Farshid Hajir was scathing in his criticism of members of the Amherst School Committee attitudes.

"I am critical because I see the fabric of collaboration between the four towns that has existed for decades ... being frayed by unilateral action on the part of the Amherst School Committee."

Amherst School Committee Chairman Irv Rhodes said, for him, the biggest issue was the scheduling of the May 11 Union 26 without his input. He said the time and place of the meeting, as well as the agenda, should have been worked out together.

"You just don't go on and have a formless meeting on a topic like this of a sensitive nature without discussing procedure, process and format," Rhodes said. "All and all, the bottom line for me is that I was totally disrespected by the chair of Union 26, Tracy, the chair of the region, Farshid, and the superintendent, Maria (Geryk). It was if I was invisible, that I didn't exist, that I didn't count, like I was no one."

Testy, testy

Meanwhile, in a string of testy emails discussing the scheduling issue, at least one participant urged people to tone down the rhetoric.

The exchanges, which circulated among Rhodes, Union 26 and Pelham School Committee Chairwoman Tracy Farnham, as well as other members of the Regional School Committee, highlighted the stakes involved in the talks surrounding the fate of Union 26, a collaboration between towns sharing board and a superintendent. Amherst and Pelham each have three representatives on the Union 26 board from their respective town School Committees.

On April 27, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to hire a lawyer to examine the Union 26 agreement, as well as a new state law that allows municipalities to withdraw from a school union by a one-time majority vote. Amherst member Steve Rivkin argued that a voting system in which Pelham and Amherst had three votes apiece was unfair, as Amherst students make up a drastically larger portion of the Union 26 student population, while the town pays a greater share of the district's costs.

"I am a very strong believer in proportional representation. I don't understand and am very troubled by an arrangement that has Amherst voters having one-tenth the representation of voters in Pelham," Rivkin said.

The decision to seek a legal opinion occurred after some Amherst members expressed discontent regarding a March 9 Union 26 vote, in which the board's three Pelham members joined Andy Churchill, then Amherst School Committee chairman, in promoting Maria Geryk to the position of interim superintendent.

The emails between members of the Regional School Committee - comprised of representatives from school boards from Amherst, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury - began on May 8.

The crux of the exchange centered around a decision by Hajir to call a joint meeting of the Regional and Union 26 school committees at the request of Farnham and Geryk to discuss the acrimony surrounding the superintendency union.

In a subsequent email addressed to Hajir and sent to every member of the Regional School Committee, Rob Spence, an Amherst representative, wrote, "I think this is an inappropriate time to schedule a Union 26 meeting. ... I find this particularly inappropriate, especially that the Amherst School Committee chair was not consulted."

In the exchanges, Amherst member Rick Hood suggested that they might be in breach of state Open Meeting Law. A copy of the state attorney general's "Open Meeting Law Guidelines" posted on the department's website said that, "like private conversations held in person or over the telephone, email conversations among a quorum of members of a governmental body that relate to public business violate the Open Meeting Law." The Gazette had not received confirmation of the potential breach of law from the Northwestern district attorney's office as of press time.

Also on May 8, Farnham replied, "I would like to clarify that Irv specifically requested that I call a meeting of Union 26 and asked me to do this as soon as we possibly could."

Rhodes argued that contention, saying that while he had asked Farnham to talk to the Pelham School Committee about scheduling a Union 26 meeting as soon as possible, he had not wanted a Union 26 meeting without consultation with his town's full committee and its attorney.

"After reading this email I am shocked and saddened by your liberal use of what you consider facts," Rhodes wrote to Farnham in a message also sent to other members of the regional committee. "One thing is for sure, I will never ever meet with you without other witnesses present. ... Please stop spreading falsehoods and start taking responsibility for your misguided actions."

That drew a response from Geryk on May 10, who wrote to Irv and the group, "Irv, this email is extremely irresponsible. I am embarrassed by the conversation you are pursuing and request that we all be mindful of the language and tone that we use. ... Please remember that (School Committee) emails are considered public record."

Geryk and Rhodes continued their back-and-forth, copied to the group, while Farnham never directly responded to the accusations.

A highly charged Regional School Committee meeting followed on May 11, in which Amherst members blasted Hajir for allowing Union 26 onto the regional agenda. At the time, Amherst members argued they could not discuss the matter of the union until they had time to consult with an attorney. Pelham members argued they just wanted to have a conversation about the Amherst committee's concerns.

Ultimately, the Union 26 committee voted to adjourn before even taking up the subject. Hajir argued that the two bodies share the cost of a superintendent and, as such, a change to one school board would impact the other.

"First of all, it is very commonplace to have joint meetings of region and Union 26, and the reason is that we cooperate together to hire a superintendent," Hajir said in a phone interview Tuesday. "If there are discussions to changes to Union 26 ... then that impacts the region because the region would have to share its superintendent with another configuration of school committees, such as the Pelham School Committee and the Amherst School Committee separately."

Hajir also argues that as the respective chairs of their committees, he and Farnham have the authority to call a joint meeting.

Rhodes disagrees. "He overstepped his bounds, and he knew it," Rhodes said. "Union 26 is Union 26, and it does not include the region."

Farnham said the meeting was scheduled quickly because the Pelham School Committee voted to authorize its Union 26 representatives to meet with Amherst's Union 26 representatives on May 6. To ensure that Union 26 was added to the regional agenda for the May 11, arrangements had to be made quickly to have the meeting posted in time, Farnham said.

Catherine Sanderson, an Amherst member, said she understands Rhodes sensitivity to the subject.

"Irv was trying to represent the Amherst School Committee's wishes, which is his role as chair, and Farshid, Tracy and Maria all knew that the Amherst School Committee members did not want to have this discussion during a regional meeting at this time."


Abbie said...

Let me start by saying that I believe
Farshid acted with the best of intentions. However, I am unpersuaded by his argument that as chair of the regional committee he is justified in calling a meeting of Union 26 because union 26 contributes to the shared cost of the Superintendent and thus any changes that may occur in Union 26 might impact the Regional committee. Union 26 and the Regional committee, to my understanding, are 2 legally separate entities. The Regional district will simply have to deal with whatever (if anything) is decided by Union 26 members. It seems to me inappropriate that the Regional Committee (or its chair) should play ANY role in this discussion.

Anonymous for my Kids said...

"Irv, this email is extremely irresponsible. I am embarrassed by the conversation you are pursuing and request that we all be mindful of the language and tone that we use. ... Please remember that (School Committee) emails are considered public record."

Wow! Superintendent Geryk had the nerve to rebuke Irv Rhodes in a group email? Apparently she has forgotten who she works for.

Michael Jacques said...

I pretty much agree with what Abbie said. Clearly everyone at that meeting was doing the best they could to represent the people that voted for them. It was messy and unpleasant. I am sure all sides wish things had been done or gone differently. It would be great if we could all move forward on this subject and let the Amherst SC, Pelham SC, and Union 26 sit down to various meetings and figure this out without further outside influence.

I for one would like to get back to discussions about K-6 Math, K-6 World Language, Science, and an ever decreasing general budget.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it sounds as if MG forgot that tone is important and that her emails were public too. Why does she think that it is appropriate for her to scold Irv Rhodes?

Anonymous said...

Maria Geryk works for the school district not the SC or its individual members.

Anonymous said...

I think its clear that Farshid DID NOT call a meeting of Union 26, Tracy Farnham did. Farshid recessed the Regional meeting so that the meeting of Union 26, that Tracy called, could take place.

Let's try to keep our facts straight here. Things are bad enough without making inaccurate statements.

Abbie said...

to anon@3:18:

you are correct and I was in error. Farshid placed it on the agenda of the REGIONAL SC mtg at the request of the Union 26 chair. Again, I believe this is outside his purview as chair of the regional committee and I believe the same weakness of his justification applies.

TomG said...

Off topic - Ben Storrow or his editor might pay more attention to news versus commentary. Saying "Testy, testy" goes beyond reporting Irv objections to characterizing them with prejudice (not racial prejudice but making the judgment of an over-reaction, which would be fine if they substantiated that judgment. Since they don't, it's a poor choice from a journalistic perspective.

Anonymous said...

This newspaper article, and a lot of the discussion around Union 26 hints at some unsavoryness associated with the hiring of Ms. Geryk. If there was anything unethical regarding the behavior of any member of group of members on the Regional Committee, let's hear that before we litigate what could only be a case of bad blood.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

A few key clarification:

First, I agree completely with Abbie - the region has NOTHING to do with Union 26, and thus this was entirely inappropriate to have on the agenda. Imagine if Irv said to Farshid that during the middle of a regional meeting he would like to have the Amherst SC spend 30 minutes discussing elementary school science in the Amherst schools. Now, Farshid could put that on the agenda, but it would be totally inappropriate to do so (and I'm sure he wouldn't). Let's say Amherst and Pelham joined forces and became one Amherst-Pelham K to 6 district -- they would then pay (just as they do now) 50% of the budget and have 50% of the say. It would have NO impact on the region whatsoever.

Here are my thoughts about what happened:

1. I believe Farshid wanted to hear Amherst's concerns about the Union 26 agreement, and hence he was delighted to put this item on the agenda at Tracy's request.

2. I believe it is possible that Tracy and Irv had some type of miscommunication regarding the timing of this meeting (e.g., whether it should occur during a regional meeting, whether it should be a Union 26 versus an Amherst and Pelham meeting, whether it should occur before/after Amherst received legal advice).

3. It was 100% totally clear to Maria, Farshid, and Tracy that no members of the Amherst School Committee were interested in having this discussion at this time in this forum, and thus useful information would not be gathered at this time (as was the supposed goal of Farshid and the Pelham members). That was made clear over the weekend, and I believe at that time, it would have been appropriate for Farshid to remove this item from the agenda. He did not choose to do so, and hence the resulting conflict emerged (which I found extremely unfortunate and entirely preventable).

And finally to respond to Anonymous 9:12 - this isn't about whether Maria is superintendent now, for 16 months, or for the rest of her life. This issue is about whether one town should pay 94% of the bills and have 50% of the voice on hiring an elementary schools superintendent. If you believe that this arrangement is fair to both towns, that's great. If you believe it isn't, then you should want to get information on what the options would be for changing this arrangement. That's it. This is not a subtle point, nor one that is hard to understand.

Anonymous said...

What stopped the Regional Committee Chair and the Union 26 Chair from picking up the phone and talking to any Amherst School Committee members individually about any of this -- the agenda or thoughts on Union 26?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 12:48 - obviously anyone could have called anyone PRIOR to putting this on the agenda. Irv Rhodes, Chair of the Amherst SC, wasn't called to ask if he approved. Catherine Sanderson, Vice Chair of Region (who attended a meeting to determine the agenda), wasn't called to ask if she approved. Rick Hood (who attended the Regional Agenda setting meeting that week) wasn't called to see if he approved. In addition, four separate emails were sent to the entire Regional SC and the superintendent by Amherst members that weekend ASKING for this item to be removed from the agenda - Irv, Catherine, Rick, and Rob (Steve didn't weigh in). Again, to go with my quote in the paper: Maria, Farshid, and Tracy all knew that the Amherst SC members didn't want this item on the agenda. This was 100% avoidable and preventable, so one therefore has to wonder why Farshid and Tracy allowed it to be discussed.

Anonymous said...

Why didn't the Amherst SC members get up and walk out when they realized that the topic was going to be discussed despite their stated objections?

As an Amherst resident, I am not comfortable with what is happening with the Union or what appears to be motivating the review. But, I ask with curiosity: Why didn't you all just walk out?

Anonymous said...

If you want to see the actual part of the meeting where the recess of the region meeting is called and where the Union 26 meeting starts - start watching around 8:21 pm on the May 11th Regional SC meeting.

The attempt to call a recess starts at 8:21, and the actual Union 26 meeting starts around 8:35. The Union 26 meeting ends at 9:09 pm.

A collosal waste of almost an hour of so many busy peoples' time.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 1:02 - I can't speak for the other members. I didn't walk about because I thought it would be rude, and that it would prolong the Union 26 meeting. I didn't know what to do, and I was upset that Farshid, Tracy, and Maria all allowed this item to be on the agenda, which I wanted to express (and I did). I believe the point of putting this on the agenda was to create a scene, which would result in precisely the type of newspaper coverage that it has (see today's Bulletin), and the assumption was that this would lead to bad feelings about the Amherst SC and thus pressure from the community for us to stop gathering information. As is clear to anyone who watched the meeting, no information was shared/gathered on either side, so there was absolutely no purpose to this meeting within a meeting occurring.

Anonymous 1:20 - and that was precisely the point I just made. Nothing was going to get discussed, since the Amherst SC wasn't comfortable having this discussion in this place at this time (which Farshid and Maria and Tracy all knew). But they persisted in having this meeting on the agenda, knowing that nothing would be accomplish in terms of furthering understanding Amherst's position. For a great contrast -- watch the last Amherst SC meeting, which lasted 1 1/2 hours last and focused almost entirely on exciting progress in our district on education (elementary math, Spanish, elementary science, equity/social justice, intervention, afterschool programs, etc.). The contrast is stark.

Anonymous said...

I think you have all underestimated the relationship Farshid and Maria have, the relationship Tracy and Maria have... Does sharing the superintendency with Pelham result in a conflict of interest for Amherst schools? You better believe it.

Annoyed Taxpayer said...

Anon 9:45, I agree. You just have to watch the body language and frequent glances during the regional SC meetings to realize that!!

Anonymous said...

Whether you agree with him or not, Mr. Farshid is consistently courteous and thoughtful, two qualities lacking in nearly every other regional school committee member and most people who post on this blog.

Anonymous said...

To May 21, 2010 9:44 AM

Thank you for bringing that up. I see it too. It's very rude of Maria.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Maria is glancing at Farshid because he is the chair???? Just an idea.

I see her glancing quite often at Irv during Amherst meetings.

Methinks some folks are really trying too hard here and are reaching a bit!

Sam Clemens said...


The comments you choose to publish and those you choose not to publish show a clear bias on your part. You are controlling what you want to leak out of your blog.

For example, I notice that you are not referencing any of the letters or columns published recently in the local papers that disagree with your views of the union issue.

One writer states that not once in the 109 years of this contract has anyone blamed the union of these two towns for improperly educating any child.

In fact, you and your fellow union busters are not even advocating that.

I think you would even freely admit that the reason you want to break the contract with Pelham is because you didn't get your way in the interim supt decision.

You clearly have an agenda for the schools that includes transforming ARHS into an AP machine so that we can get on the lists of top 100 high schools.

Do you think it is possible for a high school to be great without conforming to the standardized model of the schools on the top 100 list?

Do you realize how obvious your intentions and actions are?

Good luck trying to sue your way out of the union. How much of our override money will that cost? You didn't support the override but you have no problem creating new costs for districts that are trying to find ways to cut costs.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Sam Clemons - so, go through my blog ... are you really not noticing all of the comments I'm posting that oppose my view? Also, my blog is MY blog -- if you'd like to start your own blog, you should, and then you can post whatever you want (you could call it "Sam Clemons' Anonymous Blog). I haven't traditionally published any editorials/letters in papers ... unless I wrote them. Go through the past year and see -- that has been my policy, since those are really just people's opinions (pro or con mine). There is also, on the Bulletin, a way to post your own comment on that if you'd like!

Three other quick points:

1. The superintendent decision 100% demonstrated that Amherst (which pays 97% of the bills at the elementary and has 90% of the enrollment) has the same vote. I think that is a problem - and I voiced that concern in subcommittee meetings all fall (because this vote also determines the superintendent's evaluation and goals). If you think a 50/50 vote is fair, just say so!

2. I do believe kids who attend ARHS should have the same opportunities as kids in other schools -- sorry for having that view. I don't know what an "AP machine" is ... but do I think it is bad we don't have AP chemistry, which all other high schools do? Yes. I guess that is why those AP machine high schools like Northampton and Springfield have AP chemistry. As a college professor, I see kids every year take intro to chemistry ... and this is a tough course (even for those good at science) - and those with a second year of chemistry are remarkably better prepared.

3. It is costing $3,000 to get information on our options for exiting Union 26. Given that it was my motion that led to the closing of Marks Meadow and will save $800,000 a year, I am totally comfortable with spending this $3,000.

Thanks for having the courage to write something anonymously that is so rude and condescending. You must feel proud of yourself, Sam Clemons.