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

School Unions

So, there has been a lot of discussion at recent School Committee Meetings, in the paper, and on my blog about the role of school unions. And clearly school unions make a lot of sense in some circumstances - namely those in which each individual school could not afford to hire a superintendent (and business manager, and IT person, and HR person, and special education director, etc.) on their own.

Union 28, for example, is a 700 pupil school system with four elementary schools that serves five towns (Erving, Leverett, Shutesbury, New Salem, Wendell). Each of these towns has one K to 6 school (ranging in size between 140 and 170 students) and each school has its own local school committee. These communities are all quite similar in terms of demographics (they are largely White -- ranging from 83% White in Leverett to 94% White in New Salem-Wendell) and also in terms of size (the smallest, New Salem-Wendell has 144 students and the largest, Erving, has 174 students). Each of these school committees is represented on regional issues (such as hiring central office staff, including the superintendent).

Now, let's contrast that to Union 26, which consists of only two towns: Amherst and Pelham. These towns differ dramatically - Amherst has 4 (soon to be 3) elementary schools serving 1,321 students, whereas Pelham has 1 elementary school serving 125 students. These towns also differ dramatically in terms of their populations: Pelham (like all of the towns in Union 28) is largely White (83.2%), whereas Amherst is considerably more racially diverse (53% White). As with Union 28, each town has the same number of votes in terms of hiring and evaluating the superintendent and the district lawyer (although Amherst pays 47% of these salaries at the elementary level and Pelham pays 3%).

If you examine all of the union associations in the state of Massachusetts, two things become very clear:
  • The elementary school population in Amherst is larger than any other district in the state that is part of a union. The second largest town is Southborough (1208), and the third largest is Kingston (1180). There are no other towns with school populations larger than 1,000 who are in unions in Massachusetts.
  • The gap between the largest and small town is greater between Amherst and Pelham (1196 students) than in any other union in the state. There is a gap of 900 between Northborough and Southborough (this is the second largest), and a gap of 419 between Westhampton and Southampton (this is the third largest). The majority of union relationships have relatively small differences in size (e.g., like with Union 28).
I'm not taking a position on whether Union 26 does or does not make sense for Amherst now, or in the future. But I believe that it is certainly worth examining the pros/cons of this relationship for both Amherst and Pelham -- particularly since this union seems rather unique in the state of Massachusetts (both in terms of the size of Amherst and the gap in size between Amherst and Pelham).


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the informatio, makes the situation clearer. What are the benefits of these agreements?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 4:46 - glad this is helpful. These unions are really called "superintendency unions" and serve to pooling money to share a Superintendent and/or central office between two (or more) separate school
districts -- but the districts are otherwise independent. So, very small districts (again, districts with fewer than 1000 students) are unlikely to be able to afford a superintendent (and lawyer, and business manager, and HR director, etc.) on their own, so the districts pool together to buy like 25% of a superintendent (or 20% or 33%, or 50%). The benefits are very clear for small towns--Leverett, Shutesbury, Pelham, etc., wouldn't be able to have a superintendent without such unions. The benefits for larger districts (e.g., those more than 1,000) are less clear. I hope we can get some answers about the pros/cons of such relationships for Amherst and for Pelham over the next month so that at least all members of both SCs have all the relevant information.

Michael Jacques said...

I don't really know what the best answer is for all 4 of our towns. After watching the confusing meeting last night I believe that some sort of change is necessary. We have 3 different committees that in some way cross over each other from 4 towns. To make that worse after reading the blog it looks like Shutesbury and Leverett have a different super for K-6. This seems patched together over many years. If the Amherst School Committee would like some time to review it, they should. Then they should talk to Pelham and figure out the next step. I got the impression this was the plan all along but it feels like everyone around the School Committees is jumping in to stop something that is only just a discussion and not even a plan or defined agenda yet.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Michael - I too don't know what the best answer is ... and it is also possible that the best answer for one town is NOT the best answer for another town. And you are right - Shutesbury and Leverett have a different superintendent for K to 6, meaning they have different curriculum days than the Amherst schools and even potentially different curriculum (making work on horizontal alignment leading into 7th grade harder). Shutesbury and Leverett are also in a different country than Amherst and Pelham. I agree that this unusual arrangement (not in terms of the existence of the union, but in terms of the disparity in sizes of Amherst and Pelham -- which is quite unusual in a union) deserves some review, which of course would be followed by discussion with Pelham. I continue to be puzzled why there is so much concern about simply gaining information (is information ever a bad thing to have?).

Anonymous said...

Information is bad to have when it doesn't support your preconceived notion. Then it is to be suppressed or rejected, most definitely!

TomG said...

The unions can be entered into, and these unions can be revised and revoked.

I would say the die was cast when Pelham members conducted a coup and installed the interim without consulting the Amherst SC. Yes, absolutely I want my elected board members to have the authority to choose the super.

" law hasn't been tested in court" perhaps a consideration, perhaps entirely irrelevant.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:54 - 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. It leads me to believe that some would prefer this information be suppressed, and I find that concerning.

Tom G - I certainly heard from Amherst residents who were highly concerned that a superintendent could be hired when 80% of the Amherst members opposed that hire (and again, this isn't about Maria - it is about choosing a person for 15-months without any opportunity for public comment).

And if Amherst chooses to exit Union 26, Pelham would certainly be able to go to court to oppose that departure -- and that would allow a test of the law.