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.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Importance of Art

Note: I'm posting this letter, with permission from Ben Sears (Chair of the Art Department at ARHS), which was sent to the Regional School Committee in January. I had been meaning to post this for some time, and it just got lost in the midst of other issues -- my apologies to the ARHS art teachers for this delay. My interest in posting it was to commend these teachers for this very thorough presentation of the importance of art, as measured by national and state standards (including MASS Core). In addition, these teachers gathered information on each of the 11 districts selected as our comparison districts, which I found really helpful. As you can read below, ARHS is the only high school without an arts graduation requirement and ARMS is the one of only two middle schools that doesn't offer arts in both 7th and 8th grade. I believe both of these issues should be considered in the upcoming year, and I want to commend Mr. Sears, Ms. Hartl, and Mr. Stauder for doing such an impressive job of conveying the position of art both locally and nationally.

To Whom It May Concern,

The information in this packet demonstrates why the Arts are a fundamental part of public education nationally, locally and in this district. The data that we are presenting addresses the following:

• The Arts are defined as a core academic subject by Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.
• Massachusetts is identified as one of only four states that do not have an Arts Education state mandate.
• Massachusetts is one of only ten states that do not have an Arts requirement for high school graduation.

• MassCore recommends that students in Massachusetts take one year of an arts program before graduating high school.

Amherst-Regional Schools
• Last year alone, the high School Art Department was reduced from 4.2 to 3.0 FTE.
• In 2006 the Middle School Art program was cut in half. As a result, students receive no Art instruction in the 7th grade.

Comparison Districts
• All of our comparison districts have Art for Middle School students in both 7th and 8th grade.
• Ten out of eleven of our comparison districts have an Arts graduation requirement.

These facts are important to take into consideration in planning for the future of the Visual Arts in the Amherst Regional Schools.

Thank You,

Ben Sears
Hannah Hartl
Jeff Stauder

Monday, June 28, 2010

Four-town panel sees little merit in wider Amherst-area school regionalization

This article describes the regionalization report (now posted on, which will be discussed at Tuesday night's Four Town Meeting (7 pm, middle school; also shown live on ACTv): As the report clearly says, moving to full K to 12 regionalization (which I continue to believe would be in Amherst's best interest) isn't likely any time soon ... and as of now, Shutesbury and Pelham are forming committees (including SC and SB and FC and community representatives) to study what is in their own town's best interest. I imagine Amherst will also choose to form such a committee, which the regionalization report recommends ... and I would be very interested in hearing from blog readers about this issue. Should we just drop the Union 26 discussion and continue being the only town with more than 1300 students in a union (which is certainly not a situation we would join in today)? Should we take steps to change the union in some way (e.g., ask Pelham to regionalize with Amherst)? Should we form a committee and have someone else study the issue and report back to the SC at some point later this year?

I am torn about the right path -- because I see the current situation as unfair to Amherst voters and thus feel it is my responsibility to do something to try to make it right (instead of passing the buck to a later SC), yet I also want to make sure we can continue making major progress on the many initiatives the Amherst SC has undertaken over the last year (e.g., the K to 5 math review, adding K to 6 Spanish, adding preschool classes). I'd like constructive, honest, and ideally personally owned feedback from blog readers at this very crucial time on what (if anything) we should do -- either through blog posts or to my private email (

Assorted Amherst School News

With the start of summer vacation and my kids out of school, I've had less time to update my blog recently -- though I hope to do better now that camps have started! So, I will respond to various questions/comments on my prior post soon (and do some meeting summaries) ... but for now, I wanted to alert blog readers to a number of timely issues/topics.

First, I wanted to commend ARHS student Darius Peyton for his OpEd in the Gazette describing some of his observations about issues of race in the Amherst schools. I believe many of his points merit future study and hope that the Regional and Amherst School Committees will consider his thoughts as we form goals for the 2010-2011 year. You can read his piece at:

Second, and relatedly, there is a piece in today's Gazette about some changes to the math program in the middle school ( I signed this letter, and attended several meetings with Principal Mike Hayes over the last month, in part because I believe that requiring extensions of all students will help address one of the issues Darius addresses in his piece: the relative absence of students of color in higher level honors math classes. I am encouraged that Mike Hayes was willing to make a change in the 7th grade math program for this fall, and look forward (as both a SC member and the mother of a rising 7th grader) to seeing its effects.

Third, at the most recent Regional School Committee meeting (June 16th) a report was presented involving per pupil costs (including comparisons to other districts). You can read this entire report (it is available on the homepage of, as well as the story in the Bulletin ( I am very glad to see this type of comparison, though I continue to be surprised and puzzled at the finding that the Amherst schools spend the same per pupil as towns in Eastern Mass (e.g., Brookline, Newton, Framingham), yet we pay teachers much less. I believe we need to understand why our costs are so much higher than those of other surrounding districts (e.g., Northampton, Hadley, Longmeadow), and I hope this will be a major focus in the upcoming year.

Fourth, there is also an article in today's Gazette on the goals that have been accomplished this year, and some tentative goals for the upcoming year (as presented by the superintendent at the last Regional SC meeting). You can read this story (, and also see information on the ARPS website (

Fifth, there is a Regional SC Meeting tomorrow night, starting at 6:30 pm in the middle school auditorium. This meeting will be followed (starting at 7 pm) by a Four Towns Meeting (including Finance Committee, Select Board, and SC members of Amherst/Pelham/Shutesbury/Leverett): the focus of this meeting will be the presentation of the Regionalization Report (which you can read on the website). It is clear that regionalization is a major topic at the state level, and I believe that Amherst's discussions regarding Union 26 fit right into this broader discussion.

Finally, I'd like to draw my readers to a somewhat unrelated but important topic -- and that is the Fresh Air Program, which brings kids from New York City to towns all over the Northeast to stay with local families for 2 weeks. You can read a letter about this program in last week's Bulletin (, and I'd strongly encourage interested blog readers to contact the Fresh Air Fund to learn more about how to participate. My family has welcomed a Fresh Air child for the last 4 summers (our child started when he was just 6-years-old, and will return next week for his 5th visit with us), and it has been a great experience for all of us. I'd be glad to answer any questions about this program on my blog or through my private email (

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Three (Somewhat Random) Updates

I am doing a quick post tonight to just update my blog readers on three things.

First, there is a Regional School Committee meeting tonight (Tuesday, June 22nd) from 6 to 10 pm in Town Hall. However, this meeting will consist entirely of interviews with law firms -- the first time we've conducted a review of legal services and interviewed different firms (including our current firm) in 15 or 20 years. Members of the public are welcome to come and see the interviews and provide feedback to the School Committee. I believe the next Regional SC meeting will be held on Tuesday, June 29th, and that the regionalization report will be presented this evening.

Second, I'm attaching a link to a Gazette story on an increase in athletic fees at ARHS I abstained from this vote because I am concerned that we continue to raise athletic fees (this is the third increase in three years), and that we seem to treat athletics differently from other extracurricular activities (e.g., music, drama, afterschool clubs, etc.).

Third, my interview with the Student News is now available to see anytime on ACTV ( I want to express my real appreciation to the producers of Student News for inviting me to interview, and for airing a very long interview with me (entirely unedited). I am always glad to talk about our schools, and the interviewer was professional, courteous, and extremely well-prepared. At the end of the interview, there is an additional piece in which two members of the Student News staff criticize a few of my statements and imply that I'm being a bit dishonest in some ways. I do wish that the producers had either asked me those questions initially, and/or invited me back to the studio to respond directly, so that I would have had an opportunity to clarify any issues with my interview. If any of my blog readers have questions about these issues that were raised, I would be glad to answer them here - so ask away!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Editorial: Extracting lessons from Rodriguez's parting shot

This is the Bulletin editors' editorial -- which I found one of the most thoughtful editorials I've ever read in the Bulletin. I believe my blog readers will find it interesting and thought-provoking.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Union 26 Agreement: FAQ

I've heard a lot of questions about the Union 26 agreement (and the Amherst School Committee's actions regarding this agreement) over the last month, so I'm doing something a bit different in this blog post: I'm going to list the Frequently Asked Questions I've heard (in bold), and my responses. I hope this post clarifies at least my view (again, I'm not speaking for the whole SC here) about this hot topic.

Why is the Amherst School Committee pulling out of Union 26?

The Amherst School Committee hasn't actually voted to pull out of Union 26. There hasn't been a motion to this effect, and not only has such a vote not occurred, but it isn't even scheduled (to the best of my knowledge) at any future School Committee meeting. What the Amherst School Committee has done is voted (unanimously) to seek information from a lawyer about our options regarding the Union 26 agreement.

Why is the Amherst School Committee working on the Union 26 agreement, instead of more important issues facing our schools?

The Amherst School Committee is devoting considerable time/energy to education issues, including implementing a new K to 6 Spanish language program, conducting a review of the K to 5 math curriculum, and providing additional support for struggling students (e.g., afterschool programs, summer school, intervention support). The Union 26 agreement is occupying a large amount of the media coverage, but a very small amount of our time/energy!

How can the Amherst School Committee waste override money hiring a lawyer to investigate the Union 26 agreement?

The total cost of the bill for the lawyer was $2,145, and we believed it was important for us to have legal advice with respect to this very new law allowing one town to pull out of a union. This School Committee also voted to close Marks Meadow (saving $800,000 annually), and thus has demonstrated its commitment to fiscal responsibility. It is also possible that pulling out of the Union 26 agreement would ultimately lead to far greater savings in the future (as could occur if our superintendent only had responsibility for two School Committees and budgets instead of 3).

Doesn't the Union 26 agreement benefit Amherst? Why would we even want to end this agreement?

The only tangible benefit of this agreement for Amherst is that Pelham pays 6% of the cost of the superintendent and central office. However, it isn't clear whether this is a net gain, since (as I noted before), it is costly to have central office run three different budgets and three sets of payrolls (some staff members in central office receive three different paychecks for their work in Amherst, Pelham, and the Region). Pelham also pays less than their proportionate share of the elementary expenses: Pelham has 10% of the elementary students yet pays 6% of the bill, whereas Amherst has 90% of the elementary school students yet pays 94% of the bill. This might be why the majority of towns with school enrollments between 1000 and 1500 (like Amherst) choose to operate their own K to 12 district, and not be in a union (17 of 20 have their own superintendent), and why of the 71 towns in MA that are in a union, only 3 of these towns have more than 1000 students (and Amherst is the ONLY town with more than 1300 students that is in a union).

Isn't this just because some members of the Amherst School Committee don't like Maria Geryk and didn't want her to be the superintendent?

In 2009, after Helen Vivian and Al Sprague resigned as co-superintendents, I vocally supported Maria's appointment as interim superintendent. I even suggested that we continue her superintendency for 16 months IF the search for our permanent superintendent failed (in March of 2009). I voted to conduct a search for an interim superintendent, which Maria certainly could have applied for, because I felt that the School Committees and residents of all towns should have been able to weigh in on the strengths/weaknesses of multiple candidates, given that we were hiring someone for 16 months to lead the district. But my vote at that time, and my interest in learning more about options regarding the Union 26 agreement, has nothing to do with Maria Geryk -- it has to do with making sure that Amherst residents are able to have more influence over the superintendent selection and evaluation in the future, which I believe is appropriate since Amherst pays 94% of the bill at the elementary level, and yet has only 50% of the vote.

Why is the Amherst School Committee being so mean to Pelham? If the Amherst School Committee pulls out of Union 26, what will happen to Pelham?

I have two thoughts here. First, I was elected by the Amherst voters to look out for the best interests of education in Amherst, and I don't believe that Amherst voters are well served by an agreement in which they pay 94% of the bill and have 90% of the population and have 50% of the say in choosing and evaluating a superintendent at the elementary level. Second, I believe that the Pelham School Committee needs to consider what is best for Pelham -- perhaps it is staying in the current arrangement, but perhaps it is forming a regional agreement with Amherst or perhaps it is forming a union arrangement with a town that is more similar in size to Pelham (e.g., Union 28) and thus would be more likely to have similar interests in a superintendent.

If this is such a pressing issue, why didn't School Committee members talk about this in the most recent election?

The possibility of exiting school unions is very, very new - following a change in state law in January of 2010. This change didn't become widely known until it was reported in the Gazette in March of 2010, and that was towards the end of the School Committee race. I believe the ramifications of this agreement really came to the forefront after the departure of Alberto Rodriguez, and the appointment of Maria Geryk as interim superintendent on March 9, 2010 (in a vote that was very divided, with 80% of the Amherst SC members opposing this appointment and 100% of the non-Amherst members in favor).

Isn't the action of the Amherst School Committee just a case of "sour grapes," after some members of the Amherst School Committee didn't get their way on the recent interim superintendent hire?

I believe that we would not be discussing this issue now if Superintendent Rodriguez was still our superintendent -- and that certainly the appointment of Maria Geryk for 16 months against the wishes of 80% of the Amherst School Committee led both members of this committee and members of this community to question whether this agreement was in Amherst's best interest. The vote at the Union 26 level was 2 against (me, Irv Rhodes) and 4 in favor (all three Pelham members were joined by Andy Churchill). I believe voters in Amherst questioned whether this appointment was the right way to go, given that only a single member of the Amherst School Committee favored this appointment -- and this member was not running for re-election (unlike potentially all other members of the SC). But this isn't about these particular Amherst SC members or this particular interim superintendent - this is about whether Amherst voters are comfortable knowing that they pay 94% of the bill but have 50% of the vote for hiring and evaluating a superintendent. And the vote on March 9th revealed that there are times in which this vote matters.

This is really just Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson hijacking the other members of the Amherst School Committee in a power grab.

I've heard this statement a number of times, and I find it really concerning for multiple reasons. First, on March 9th, Steve and I voted against hiring Maria for 16-months, but so did both Kathleen Anderson and Irv Rhodes (the only two SC members of color on the Amherst SC). I'm not sure why their votes are ignored. Second, the Amherst SC voted unanimously to hire a lawyer to look into options regarding the Union 26 agreement - meaning all three other members of the Amherst SC joined me and Steve in requesting this information. Rob, Rick, and Irv are smart men who have been actively involved in their fields of work (medicine/business/education) for years: they are not push-overs who automatically agree with whatever I say or Steve says. Yet the assumption is that they are being led against their will or through some tight of trickery to vote with me and Steve, which I really find insulting.

Third, I believe there was a power grab on March 9th: the 5 members of the Regional SC and Union 26 voted to hire an interim superintendent for 16 months against the will of 80% of the Amherst SC. That was absolutely a power grab, and it was a legal power grab -- in which the SC members representing three small towns grabbed the choice of superintendent away from the 80% of Amherst SC members who preferred conducting a search for an interim instead of simply appointing an internal candidate without any community input. The Amherst SC is now examining whether it is possible/appropriate/desirable for Amherst voters (who have 90% of the enrollment at the elementary level and pay 94% of the bills) to have more power to choose a superintendent than Pelham. This also strikes me as legal, and appropriate.

Why should we assume that Pelham SC members and Amherst SC members would seek different things in a superintendent? How has this agreement ever led to a problem in terms of hiring a superintendent?

I think we can look at the vote on March 9th to see how Amherst and Pelham SC members might have different preferences in a superintendent. I think the needs of the towns are very different for many reasons - Pelham is 95% white, whereas Amherst is much more diverse (thus they might differ in how important experience with diverse populations is); Pelham is one small school with a class per grade, whereas Amherst will have 3 elementary schools each with multiple classes per grade (thus they might differ in how important experiencing in bringing alignment across different schools/principals is); Amherst has many more kids struggling and all schools failing to make AYP, whereas Pelham has very few kids struggling on MCAS (thus they might differ in how important standardized testing is, or intervention support). It is pretty clear that the different towns/SCs face different challenges in their schools, and in turn might prefer different experiences and backgrounds in a superintendent. I'm also not sure what to make of the idea "there hasn't been a problem yet" -- is the suggestion that we wait until we are hiring a superintendent this winter/spring, and then see if there is a problem (at which point it would be too late to solve this problem!).

How has the Union 26 agreement harmed education for Amherst kids?

The single most important thing the SC does is hire (and evaluate) a superintendent, and if Amherst voters aren't able to elect SC members who can effectively choose a superintendent, that strikes me as harming education for Amherst kids. Perhaps the relative weakness of Amherst SC members in terms of selecting a superintendent has in fact led to some of the problems in our schools, as noted in the report by Dr. Hamer last July. Certainly the Union 26 agreement harms education for Amherst kids if we get fewer superintendent candidates than we should (since it is clear that superintendent candidates see working with three SCs and managing 3 budgets/payrolls/town meetings as undesirable), and if we have to pay superintendents more than other districts of a similar size to compensate for this additional work. This might be why the Northampton superintendent makes considerably less than the Amherst superintendent -- although they manage the same number of schools and approximately the same size population.

Aren't the efforts of the Amherst School Committee going to harm regionalization efforts? Why would the small towns ever regionalize with Amherst, after these aggressive actions on the part of the Amherst SC members?

The regionalization effort is being actively opposed by members of the small towns (at least in Leverett and Shutesbury), precisely because these towns want control over their schools (which one could describe as a power grab!). The regionalization committee was formed ONLY because it seemed as if the state were going to force towns to regionalize UNLESS a report was done showing this idea had at least been investigated, and I'm quite confident the report (due in about 10 days) isn't going to suggest a K to 12 regional system. Creating a K to 12 regional school system (which would be my first choice) requires votes at each town meeting, and this just isn't going to happen anytime soon. The towns themselves are looking at what options best meet their own needs (Shutesbury has already formed a committee to do precisely this), and I believe it is fair and appropriate for Amherst to also look out for its own needs (and failing to do this because it might offend the small towns seems very silly and short-sighted).

Why isn't the Amherst School Committee waiting for the regionalization report, before moving forward on discussions with Pelham?

As I noted above, the regionalization report isn't going to make any recommendations regarding moving towards a K to 12 regional system, and will likely encourage more talking/studying/evaluating of other options. Regionalization isn't in Amherst's control; however, changing the Union 26 agreement is in Amherst's control, and in fact, could simplify the regionalization process (e.g., if Amherst and Pelham formed a K to 6 regional system, which either or both of the other towns could then join at any point). Learning about Amherst's K to 6 options therefore seems like an important first step.

Why is the Amherst School Committee acting unilaterally, instead of talking with School Committee members from the other towns?

Changes to the Union 26 agreement don't influence the regional schools at all, and therefore there is no need to talk to Shutesbury or Leverett. The regional schools pay 50% of the superintendent/central office costs, and the elementary schools (Amherst and Pelham) may the other 50%. The elementary schools will continue to pay the other 50% of the costs regardless of what happens with Union 26 - maybe Amherst pays it alone (and Pelham forms a union with a different superintendent for their elementary school), maybe Amherst and Pelham combine into a region and pay it together (with some new proportion than occurs now), or maybe there are no changes. None of those options influence Leverett or Shutesbury at all. In addition, now that the Amherst SC has the information from the lawyer about options, we have asked to meet with Pelham to discuss next steps in considering our options. That is hardly a unilateral approach.

This isn't a decision that should be made by just the five members of the Amherst School Committee.

Well, technically it is (according to the law) a decision that is made entirely by just the five members (and actually, just three of them could make the decision, since that would be a majority). This is one of the decisions that is entirely in the purview of the SC, just like closing Marks Meadow and redistricting and implementing a K to 6 Spanish language program. However, I'm perfectly comfortable asking residents of Amherst to share their thoughts on this agreement, which would serve to guide the SC in our own vote; Rich Morse has suggested (on my blog and others) that we have a fall town referendum on whether Amherst should exit the Union 26 agreement, and would likely support this idea. If Amherst residents believe that it is in Amherst's best interests moving forward to have 50% of the vote for hiring and evaluating a superintendent while paying 94% of the bill, I would take this recommendation very seriously.

OK, the Union 26 agreement isn't fair or equitable to Amherst, but isn't focusing on changing this agreement now going to cost the Amherst SC members too much in terms of political capital? Shouldn't we just acknowledge its inequitable, but then not do anything about it, at least not anytime soon?

I have heard this point from several people I really respect, and I'm frankly kind of torn about this idea. On the one hand, I believe that elected officials should do what is RIGHT, even if it is politically costly. If I didn't have that belief, I certainly wouldn't have made a motion in March of 2009 to close Marks Meadow (obviously a costly political move) nor would I have voted in favor of redistricting by equity (another costly political move). One of the superintendent candidates told me last year that the hardest things School Committees do are close schools, redistricts, and hire superintendents - so, I've done all three. I'm obviously a lousy politician! On the other hand, it isn't clear to me at all what the average Amherst voter thinks about this -- I've heard a lot of criticism (as noted in the questions above) for even investigating the Union 26 agreement, but I've also heard a lot of praise (e.g., at soccer games, and birthday parties, and in coffee shops downtown, people say to me "that agreement with Pelham is crazy/how did we ever agree to this/you should definitely change this agreement). But I think it is hard for people with this view to speak out, as it seems less politically correct to not openly support our tiny little neighboring town, and maintaining an agreement that is so very, very advantageous to them.

Ultimately, I think changing the Union 26 agreement is the right thing to do ... and that NOT doing it now just means leaving it for some other SC to handle in the future (just like other SCs didn't redistrict, because it was hard, and meanwhile we created a school that was more than 50% kids on free/reduced lunch). But I'm not sure if this is indeed an issue that I want to take on right now -- which is why I'm looking forward to sitting down with the Pelham SC and hearing their thoughts about how best to proceed. It is, after all, possible that there is some type of mutually beneficial agreement that could be struck -- in which Amherst and Pelham form a regional agreement that saves both districts money and ensures the continuation of the now struggling for enrollment Pelham school. I would hope that residents of both towns could keep an open mind about the possibilities, and not automatically assume that gathering information about options for Amherst is inherently harmful to Pelham; it might, in fact, be precisely the opposite.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Amherst-Pelham officials pursue school union split

This article examines the Union 26 discussion held at tonight's Amherst School Committee meeting; I will do a blog post sometime tomorrow on the whole meeting, and will post Steve Rivkin's presentation. Overall, I think it was a good and productive meeting.

I'm not sure if this link is going to work (which I've heard from the Gazette), so they've now given me permission to post the whole story.

June 15, 2010
By Nick Grabbe
AMHERST - The prospect of severing the tie that binds Amherst and Pelham into one elementary school union got more definition Monday, but the ensuing discussion continued to be contentious.

Amherst School Committee member Steve Rivkin said Amherst is the only town in the state with more than 1,300 students that is part of a union. Most towns in school unions have student population ratios to their smaller towns of 3-2 or 5-3, whereas Amherst has 11 times the number of students that Pelham has, he said.

Yet Pelham can veto the hiring of a superintendent because of the union with Amherst, and it has equal say in the superintendent's evaluation, Rivkin said. The two towns have divergent interests, such as the 14 Amherst children who attend the Pelham Elementary School under the "school choice" program, he said.

Amherst schools have underperformed on standardized tests, and a growing number of the town's children are attending charter or private schools or schools in other districts, Rivkin said.

If Amherst withdrew from its union with Pelham, it could share its superintendent with the regional district, the two towns could form a regional elementary district, the four towns that comprise the regional district could extend that district to include the elementary schools, or Amherst could form its own district from kindergarten through 12th grade, Rivkin said.

Committee Chairman Irv Rhodes plans to schedule a joint meeting of the Amherst and Pelham School Committees to go over the options. This discussion takes place as a report on four-town school regionalization is due to be presented late this month.

"We're nowhere near doing any of this," said Rivkin.

Public comment at Monday's meeting brought some support for a change in governance but also some cautionary statements.

Ed Cutting of Amherst said the fact that the two towns have equal representation on the committee that oversees the union violates the "one man, one vote" principle. A voter's challenge to its legality could be a "potential land mine," he said.

Mike Jacques of Amherst said that under the current arrangement, the superintendent has three different supervisors, making it difficult for one person to satisfy all three if they have different agendas.

Andy Steinberg, chairman of the Amherst Finance Committee, questioned whether the four towns - Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury - can continue to support six elementary schools, considering declining enrollment and state aid.

Mary Keily of Amherst said Rivkin's report was too speculative, and she called his reference to the quality of the schools "misleading and irresponsible."

Andy Churchill, until recently the chairman of the Amherst School Committee, said the reason for the current discussion is the March vote to have Maria Geryk serve as interim superintendent for 16 months.

"A couple of members were outvoted on the superintendent and are trying to change the process so that doesn't happen again," Churchill said.

Pelham School Committee members Kathy Weilerstein and Debbie Gould attended the meeting but did not speak.

Rhodes said he hoped that there is "some modicum of trust that we're not out to destroy Pelham, that we're not Darth Vader, and we have the interests of children at heart."

Presentation: Background and Framework for Union 26 Discussion

Prepared by Steve Rivkin
June 14, 2010

Slide 2: District and Superintendent Institutional Arrangements

  • Town school district with own superintendent (e.g. Northampton)
  • Towns combine to form regional school district
  • Town school districts form a union to share costs of superintendent (e.g. Amherst and Pelham)

Slide 3: Governance and Financial Considerations

Town district with own superintendent

  • Town control over all aspects of school governance
  • Small towns may face higher costs per student

Regional school district

  • Town representation on school committee roughly proportional to town share of total population of all towns in regional district
  • Combining towns into single district may reduce costs per student and enable additional educational offerings

Slide 4: Governance and Financial Considerations

Town district in superintendent union

  • Town control over school policies
  • Towns have equal representation in a super-intendent union regardless of population
  • Union may reduce central administrative costs, particularly for small towns
  • Sharing makes administration more complicated, likely raising costs (e.g. processing payroll) as well as the salary necessary to hire a superintendent

Slide 5: Governance arrangements in Massachusetts

Town Districts with 1,000 – 1,500 students

  • 17 have own superintendent
  • 3 are in unions
  • Unknown number of towns in regional districts
17 superintendent unions with 71 towns

  • 68 have fewer than 1,000 students
  • Amherst is only town in union with more than 1,300 students

Slide 6: Representation in two town unions

  • Lakeville (742) & Freetown (533): 3 to 2 ratio
  • Williamstown (426) & Lanesborough (270): 3 to 2 ratio
  • Dover (572) & Sherborn (450): 3 to 2 ratio
  • Boylston (377) & Berlin (212): 5 to 3 ratio
  • Southborough (1,208) & Northborough (300): 4 to 1 ratio
  • Amherst (1321) & Pelham (125): 11 to 1 ratio
17 to 1 ratio (excluding students who choice into Pelham)

Slide 7: Amherst-Pelham Union 26

Town of Amherst

  • 35,000 residents (23% nonwhite; 20% poor)
  • multiple elementary schools with 1,321 students
Town of Pelham

  • 1,400 residents (4% nonwhite; 5% poor)
  • 1 elementary school with 78 students from Pelham and 47 choice students including 14 from Amherst
Amherst and Pelham Elementary Districts together pay half of central administrative costs (Amherst-Pelham Regional School District pays the other half)

Slide 8: Union 26 History and Governance

  • Union 26 was formed more than 100 years ago
  • By Massachusetts law the Union 26 governing body has 3 members from Amherst and 3 members from Pelham

Slide 9: Benefits and Costs of Union 26 arrangement for Amherst

Governance – loss of local control

  • Pelham can veto hiring of superintendent and reject a salary
  • Pelham has equal say in superintendent evaluation
Financial benefits and costs uncertain

  • Pelham pays 3 percent of elementary union share of central office costs. Question is whether costs would be 3 percent lower in the absence of central office having to administer an additional small district (likely small in magnitude in either direction)
  • Additional district and school committee (Pelham) likely increases salary necessary to attract a superintendent of a given quality
Slide 10: Possible Divergent Interests and Considerations for Amherst and Pelham

  • Pelham accepts school choice students including 14 this year from Amherst at a total cost of roughly $160,000
  • Multiple Amherst schools with diverse student body require curricular alignment, coordination with teacher/program evaluation, and decisions regarding allocation of students, teachers and programs among schools
  • Superintendent role more limited in town such as Pelham with single school, one class per grade and more homogeneous population
Slide 11: Evaluation of the effectiveness of Union 26: State of the Amherst Elementary Schools

Academic Achievement: Amherst schools failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) last year due to insufficient share of children passing math or reading MCAS tests (aggregate and in some cases subgroups)

Enrollment: Growing number of Amherst children attending charter or private schools or schools in other districts

Curriculum and Program Structure:

  • Lack of horizontal and vertical alignment within schools and between schools
  • Lack of systematic evaluation of teaching
  • Lack of systematic evaluation of programs and curriculum (prior to adoption and following a period of use)
  • Particularly detrimental to struggling and low income students (Roz Taylor)

Slide 12: Considerations and Budget

  • Lack of transparency (no line item budget)
  • Schools spend over $16,000 per student (far above state average for elementary schools)
  • Concerns about administrative structure and high administrator salaries
  • Concerns about negotiated contracts (substantial raise granted despite grim budget outlook; teachers given control over important working conditions; parents must now request spring parent-teacher conference unless teacher requests a meeting)

Slide 13: Alternative Superintendent Arrangements

Maintain current Union 26 arrangement

Amherst withdraws from Union 26

  • Amherst Elementary District shares superintendent with regional district
  • Amherst and Pelham form a regional elementary school district and share superintendent with region
  • Current 7-12 regional district extended to K-12
  • Amherst forms own K-12 district

Slide 14: Amherst Elementary District shares superintendent with regional district

  • Much greater control over governance
  • Cost implications uncertain but likely small
Slide 15: Amherst and Pelham form a regional elementary school district

  • Town representation of school committee proportional to population
  • Complex financial and structural issues
  • Other towns could also join
Slide 16: Amherst and Pelham form a regional elementary school district

  • Town representation of school committee proportional to population
  • Complex financial and structural issues
  • Other towns could also join
Slide 17: Current 7-12 regional district extended to K-12

  • Likely substantial savings from closing an elementary school
  • Towns would have proportional representation on school committee
  • Loss of local control over elementary schooling for all four towns (more important for smaller towns that would have less representation on Regional School Committee)
  • However, regional agreement makes it very difficult to change the current structure
Slide 18: Amherst forms own K-12 district
  • Enhances local control and flexibility for Amherst
  • Would likely reduce salary necessary for attracting a superintendent and possibly reduce central office costs
  • However, regional agreement makes it very difficult to change the current structure

Slide 19: Summary
  • Highly unusual for town as large as Amherst to be in a superintendent union
  • Extreme underrepresentation for Amherst voters in Union 26 arrangement
  • Serious concerns about performance and cost effectiveness of Amherst elementary schools under current structure: the effect of the Union 26 arrangement on quality of schools and efficiency of resource use is unknown
  • Alternative arrangements to Union 26 might be in the best interest of Amherst children and residents

Amherst board hears legal advice, will discuss breakup of school union

Note: The link to this story was not available on Saturday, when this story was published. Hence, I'm just posting the entire story, contrary to my typical practice, given that this story related to tonight's Amherst School Committee Meeting.

Hampshire Gazette
Staff writer
June 12, 2010

AMHERST - The questions of whether and how Amherst could withdraw from the union that links its elementary school administration with Pelham's will be up for discussion at Monday's School Committee meeting.

In a rare Friday meeting, the committee reviewed an opinion by attorney Sharon Siegel in which she answered questions about the union and its future. Some committee members had questioned the two towns' equal representation on the panel that governs the union while Amherst has 10 times the students that Pelham has.

A new law enables towns to unilaterally leave a union, but it "has yet to be interpreted and implementing regulations have yet to be drafted," Siegel wrote. If Amherst voted to leave the union, the state would "most likely exercise its review/approval authority," she wrote.

The attorney's advice cost $2,145, said Irv Rhodes, the committee chairman.

A breakup of the union would not save Amherst any money, but the issue is governance and the hiring of a superintendent, said committee member Steve Rivkin. Currently, the panel overseeing the union and the Amherst School Committee both vote on any decision to hire a superintendent.

The committee should consider forming a task force to look at the advantages and disadvantages of alternatives to the current union, and take public comments, Rivkin said. He compared the process to the one that led to the vote to close Mark's Meadow School a year ago. There's a policy that the union and the region agree to hire only one superintendent, said Farshid Hajir, chairman of the Regional School Committee. The discussion should take place in the context of the imminent report by a four-town panel that's been reviewing the option of extending the secondary region to the elementary schools, he said.

Parent Tracy Wolfe said Amherst must consider its options. "It would be irresponsible for the committee not to be investigating it,' she said.

Retired teacher Karen Dimock said the decision shouldn't be up to just the five members of the Amherst School Committee.

"The committee will act with openness and sensitivity, with extensive involvement of the public in multiple forums," said Rivkin. "We recognize the gravity of the situation."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Education Matters: Time to evaluate our math programs

Amherst Bulletin
Published on June 11, 2010

The Amherst Regional Schools pride themselves on offering students a vast array of electives. And based on public comment at both School Committee meetings and in the press, these choices are prized by students, parents, teachers and community members.

Offering students choices about which electives to pursue clearly has benefits in terms of keeping students engaged in and excited about school. However, requiring students to make choices regarding their pursuit of core academic disciplines also has some risks, especially when students may lack a full understanding of the longer-term consequences of making a particular choice. For example, the math departments at Amherst Regional Middle and High schools both require students to make decisions that may limit their ability to take higher level math classes. It is critical that both students and families make these choices with a full understanding of these ramifications.

ARHS students must choose between two distinct types of high school math programs: a traditional sequence (algebra, geometry, algebra II, trigonometry, calculus) and a reform-math sequence (Interactive Mathematics Program). IMP is an alternative approach to teaching math that organizes math topics in four to six-week units around a central problem or theme.

Since it is quite difficult to move from the IMP track to the traditional sequence, it is critical that students have the information necessary to choose the right program. Although there has been no evaluation of the IMP program since it began at ARHS, research reveals that students attending California high schools using the IMP curriculum have lower math SAT scores than those using a traditional math sequence. Moreover, there are also concerns about whether IMP serves as an adequate preparation for college math. One UC Berkeley mathematics professor who studies math education has therefore recommended against IMP for students intending to go to college, particularly those potentially interested in quantitative fields.

ARMS also offers a choice between two types of math programs in seventh grade, when 12 and 13 year olds must decide whether to complete advanced mathematics problems (extensions), whose mastery enables students to enter eighth-grade honors algebra. Completing algebra in eighth grade is necessary for students who want to complete calculus during high school, and offering the opportunity to complete extensions is designed to theoretically make advanced math available to more students (and thereby close the achievement gap). However, in practice, students with parent/guardians who understand the importance of taking algebra in eighth grade are much more likely to opt for completing the additional work, and to receive assistance with completing such work if required. Mathematically adept students without this family support may therefore limit their possibilities in high school by choosing not to do extensions.

Other districts have taken different approaches that actually give students fewer choices, but may yield better results. For example, in Rockville Centre (New York), a diverse suburban district on Long Island, the superintendent decided to require all middle school students to take eighth-grade algebra. The results were dramatic: the percentage of students completing trigonometry increased, scores in AP calculus for all students increased, and more than three times as many African-American and Latino students now take higher level and honors math classes, substantially closing the gap with the white and Asian students. Rockville educators believe that requiring higher standards conveyed the message that all students could perform at an advanced level, and that in turn, students (especially students of color) rose to meet these higher expectations.

Allowing students to make academic choices is empowering. However, it also magnifies the impact of inequality in family resources and educational backgrounds. As part of the upcoming review of the mathematics curriculum in Amherst, we need to objectively evaluate the effectiveness of both the IMP and extensions programs so that we can adequately advise students about both the benefits and costs of their choices, and ideally help all students make choices that expand rather than limit their possibilities.

Catherine A. Sanderson is a professor at Amherst College, and a member of the Amherst and Regional School Committees. This views expressed in this column are hers alone, and not those of the School Committees.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Student News Season Finale!

Just wanted to alert my blog readers that I was invited for my first ever interview by the Student News, and this interview will be shown next week. I haven't seen the final segment they will use, but we had a very interesting discussion (lasting about 45 minutes) with some very insightful questions.

Here is the blurb about this episode from the ARHS Parent News:

The June 2010 special hour-long season two finale of Student News will be airing this coming Monday, June 14 at 7pm on ACTV, for Frontier Community Access Television and Hadley TV-5, check your local listings. This special episode features an extended, in-depth interview with Amherst School Committee Member Catherine Sanderson, covering all the hot spots on town issues; from budget cuts, to increased testing, to Union 26, to the override, and some interesting information about school populations. And, you will - of course - get some great headlines and a Feel Good Story-of-the-Week.

You will also be able to view this and other past episodes of Student News online at: Just find Student News on the list and click on "view."

Student News is an independent, monthly half-hour news show produced by high school students in the Pioneer Valley. Since it first aired in February 2009, it has grown from a team of about 10-people to over 20 youth reporters, producers, editors, and studio crew from Amherst, Hadley, Pelham, Belchertown, Leverett, and Northampton. More information about how to join the team and clips of past shows are available at the website:

Pelham board hopes to attend Amherst School Committee meeting

This article is on tonight's meeting of the Amherst School Committee (7 pm, ARHS library), in which the letter from the lawyer describing the Union 26 agreement will be initially discussed. My understanding, however, is that our focus of tonight's meeting (which was initially scheduled for last Wednesday but had to be cancelled since it was not posted with the town clerk in time -- given the Memorial Day holiday that Monday) is simply to plan for what type of information we believe should be presented at our meeting on Monday, June 14th (7 pm, Town Room) so that that meeting can be productive and constructive.

As noted in the article, I do not know whether Pelham was officially informed of this meeting, but I did request last week that Pelham be notified. I've pasted my email (which was copied to the entire Amherst School Committee and the superintendent) below:

>>> Catherine Sanderson 6/4/2010 3:21 PM >>>
Hi, Irv,

I'm writing to suggest that you send an email to Tracy Farnham and the other two members of the Pelham SC officially notifying them that the Amherst SC will meet on Friday, June 11th, at 7 pm, and that the Union 26 agreement will be a topic of discussion. I think it would be good to officially notify them (IN WRITING) prior to that meeting, in case members wanted to attend; I assume that meeting will also be taped (though perhaps not filmed live). Given that members of the press may be there, it would be good to have Pelham be aware of this agenda item PRIOR to reading about our discussion in the Gazette.

I also believe it would be appropriate to request a joint Amherst-Pelham SC meeting sometime in June so that all of the Amherst members (not just the three Amherst members who are also on Union 26) can share their thoughts about the agreement, and any potential next steps. It would be good to set up this meeting rather soon, since June is busy for many with travel, and also since Tracy Farnham is moving out of Pelham and therefore will no longer be on the Pelham SC.

Please let me know if you'd like my assistance in setting up a meeting, or making contact, etc. My semester is now over, so I would certainly be glad to help if/when that would be useful, as I know you have a lot on your plate.


Catherine A. Sanderson, Ph.D.
Amherst and Regional School Committee
413 542-2438 (phone)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Constructive Criticism

Over the last year, comments on my blog, in the press, and at meetings have revealed two very different views about who I am, and what I’m trying to accomplish in my work on the School Committee.

On one side are those who believe that I am for some strange reason intent on making up (or at least highly exaggerating) problems that don't exist in the Amherst schools and thereby destroy the district’s reputation. People with this view feel my statements (on my blog, in the paper, at meetings) are inflammatory or overstated, and that I have somehow manipulated the results of the three outside reports published this year that are critical of our schools. Conspiracy theorists believe that I have somehow managed to convince not only Dr. Rodriguez of these imagined problems (although I didn't vote to hire him and wasn't a clear supporter), but also two independent consultants: Dr. Irving Hamer (although I have never met him, emailed him, or had any contact with him whatsoever), and Dr. Barry Beers (who I met only at the start of his presentation to the School Committee on March 9th, and have never had any phone/email/in person contact with at any other time).

On the other side are those who believe that there are some real and fundamental problems in our schools -- as clearly outlined by Dr. Hamer and Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Beers over the last year. In all of their reports, they recognize the dedication, talent, and commitment of our teachers. However, their comments on the school system reflect many of the concerns I and other parents and community members and even teachers have expressed over the last many years. The problem is not what happens in the classroom; it is the framework that turns teaching into education. These are structural problems in the way we deliver education, and include a weak elementary math curriculum, a middle school that has prioritized social/emotional development over intellectual/academic development, a high school that looks different from virtually all other high schools in many respects (including the unique and unevaluated trimester system, the unique and unevaluated approach to teaching English only in heterogeneous classes, and the lowest math and science requirements in the state), and an overall lack of curriculum alignment, differentiated teaching, use of data to drive decision-making, transparency and accountability. These are problems that I have highlighted attention to over the last 2+ years as a member of the School Committee, due to my belief that the first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have a problem.

For those who are still trying to figure out which of these sides is right, or at least more right, I’d like you to contemplate what I possibly have to gain from convincing people that an otherwise perfect school system is flawed. Do I have some type of fiscal arrangement with local charter schools? Do I secretly wish to start my own school district and hope to recruit dissatisfied parents to enroll? Do I prefer smaller class sizes for my own kids, as more and more families flee our district? Do I relish the negative attacks in the Bulletin and on my blog each week? It is truly hard for me to understand what my motivation could be for raising concerns about the district that don't actually exist, and it is even harder for me to believe how I could somehow convince three education experts from outside Amherst that problems exist that don't. The only motivation I have for persistently and consistently raising these problems (in the face of pretty hostile attack) is to try to get these concerns addressed. Given that years and years of polite complaining to teachers and principals about concerns in our district has had no effect, being public and loud seems to be the only potential way to get a response.

I truly hope those who are now leading our district, including interim superintendent Maria Geryk and the administrators and principals who urged the School Committee to appoint her instead of conducting a search for an interim, to prove that they are not simply defenders of the status quo. Show some leadership in acting on the very real issues identified by Dr. Rodriguez and the other two outside experts. Stop responding to outside criticism by providing defensive justifications of current programs and curricula, and stop focusing on how insulting any criticism is to the school district, how it was delivered, who said it, and/or the tone and style that person used. Focus instead on the substance and content of the criticism, which is highly consistent and specific, and therefore should be quite helpful in identifying an action plan for the upcoming year that parents, community members, and teachers can all embrace with enthusiasm and excitement.

School Committees seek Open Meeting Law ruling regarding online forums

The Republican
Published: Wednesday, June 09, 2010
Diane Lederman

NORTHAMPTON – Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Pepyne said she expects to respond early next week to the chairmen of five area school committees who have asked whether participation in blogs and other online forums could violate the state Open Meeting Law.

The heads of the Shutesbury, Leverett, Pelham and Amherst school committees and the Amherst Regional School Committee sent a letter to Pepyne last month asking for guidance. Those communities comprise the Amherst-Pelham regional district.

“Given that an increasing number of public officials operate blogs dedicated to the work of the committee or board which they serve, specifically school committees in Western Massachusetts, it is our perception that the commonwealth has not yet clearly provided guidance about this emerging form of electronic communication,” the letter stated.

The chairs wanted a ruling before July 1, when oversight of the Open Meeting Law will be transferred from district attorneys to the state attorney general.

The law requires state and municipal boards to conduct their business in public, with limited exceptions.

The question is, under what circumstances are officials who blog improperly conducting public business.

The letter cites the blogs of two people who serve on the Amherst and Amherst Regional boards, Catherine A. Sanderson, who has been blogging since 2008 the year she was elected, and Richard B. Hood, who was elected in March.

William C. Newman, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts Western Massachusetts office, and Thomas Lesser, cooperating attorney, wrote to Pepyne expressing concerns about limiting open discussion.

“The analysis necessarily must begin with the premise that the Web sites and blogging at issue are constitutionally protected political speech deserving the highest level of legal protection,” their letter states.

They wrote that although the Open Meeting Law is designed to prevent secrecy in the deliberation of issues on which public policies are based, it is not meant “to prevent or restrict public officials from communicating” with constituents and others prior to a meeting.

On her blog, Sanderson posts descriptions of meetings, her concerns, links to news articles and to other posts. She also responds to questions and comments.

Hood discusses school-related events and committee issues and provides links to Web sites and documents, as well.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ex-schools chief fires on Amherst; questions commitment to diversity, change

By Nick Grabbe
June 9, 2010

My Response to the Shutesbury School Committee Chair's Oped

Although I really hate devoting more space to discussing my blog (as opposed to discussing actual education in Amherst), I thought the oped in today's Gazette by Michael DeChiara (Chair of the Shutesbury School Committee) merited a response -- since it clearly implies that my blog might perhaps not be "fair and legal." You can read his full piece at:

Michael raises 6 points that call into question my blog (and indeed all blogs) -- I'll list and quote those points (in bold), and then give my response (in italics).

First, he notes that "While a few public officials have created their own blogs (driving into the rotary), many others are waiting for legal guidance before participating. This creates a partial, unbalanced and potentially illegal forum for discussion and deliberation."

I'll just note here that no one has said it is illegal for a School Committee member to have a blog -- which I checked with the head of the MA School Committee Association two years ago when I started my blog. So, if he, or others, would like to start a blog, they should feel free to do so.

Second, he states that "If we presume that every public official has a right to free expression, it is unclear how to balance this right with the need to comply with Open Meeting Law.
Let's assume that on a committee of five people, all the members have their own blog. Even if these blogs did not allow comments, each committee member would still be able to read the others' posts, thereby exchanging information among the committee members outside of a legal public meeting. Whether this is illegal deliberation is a valid question."

So, I have two responses here. First, I believe that learning other people's opinions is not the same as deliberating about those opinions. In fact, the point of a meeting is to have that deliberation in public, and that is precisely what occurs. Sometimes people's opinions (including my own) change as a result of that deliberation! Second, the point of the open meeting law is to make sure that people don't discuss issues in secret. Blogs are the opposite of secret -- so, people could know that whatever other SC members know about each other's opinions, they at least have that information!

Third, Michael writes "There is also a core concept in Open Meeting Law called "serial discussion," which is strictly forbidden. This occurs when official A talks to official B about an issue concerning their committee's business; then official B talks to official C. On a committee of five people, these three members constitute a quorum (they can vote and do committee business).

Their serial exchanges (A to B to C) result in deliberations outside of a public meeting. In the online world, if official A posts on a blog, official B comments on that post and official C simply reads what is posted (without anyone even knowing), this may be an online serial discussion. If so, it could be illegal."

If this is illegal, then so is the case that two School Committee members are quoted in the same article about a topic, and this article is then read by a third School Committee member. Similarly, it would be illegal for two School Committee members to post on anyone else's blog (e.g., a non-School Committee member, or a newspaper). It would also be illegal for two School Committee members to write a newspaper column, since if a third read their opinions, they would have committed this violation.

Fourth, he writes "If a public official allows comments on her or his blog, there is an assumption that all comments by others are visible. While private citizens who host blogs can determine whose comments may be accepted and seen by the public, there is no guidance for public officials? Is there an expectation that they are hosting a public discussion and therefore all comments must be visible to the public, similar to a "public comments" at physical meetings?"

At a public meeting, sometimes there is not enough time for all members of the public to talk, nor is there any obligation that equal time (or any time) be given to members who want to talk. A blog operates precisely the same way.

Fifth, and related, he writes, "At a public meeting, people who comment must identify themselves for the minutes. Is there a similar expectation that comments on blogs should be identified with real people's names?"

Although people are asked their names for the minutes, these names are not verified in any way, and are sometimes misrecorded in the minutes. Similarly, a blog could require people to give a name (as masslive does), but that doesn't mean it is a person's real name.

Finally, how about the content on a public official's blog? Is "reporting out" about past meetings qualitatively different than sharing opinions about topics for future deliberation by the committee? When does sharing information or opinions by a public official regarding an upcoming issue become influencing debate outside of a public meeting?

The ACLU speaks to this point very clearly (and based in already established law): "An elected official has the right to express his or her opinions and convictions prior to, and after, a scheduled open meeting. The Massachusetts appellate court decisions are clear that the Open Meeting Law does 'not require elected officials to maintain a vow of silence before a hearing on a hot subject." Indeed, elected School Committee Members, prior to a vote, may express their convictions on the precise public policy point that will come before the meeting." I don't think it gets a lot clearer than that.

Understanding the Complexities of the Amherst-Pelham Relationship

One of the main goals of my blog has been to provide information to the public about issues impacting education in Amherst, and I think it is clear that the association between Amherst and Pelham is quite complex. In particular, the Pelham school is entirely dependent on school choice in order to continue to exist, and 30% of the school choice kids in Pelham come from Amherst.

Here are some key numbers:

As of May 1, 2010, the Pelham school enrolled 126 kids, including 79 Pelham residents and 47 school choice kids. Of those 47 school choice kids, 17 are from Belchertown and 14 are from Amherst. The district with the next highest enrollment by choice into Pelham is Sunderland (4). So, the vast majority of kids choicing into Pelham are from Belchertown (which has just amount the same number of students K to 12 as does Amherst, but of course Belchertown has its own superintendent) and Amherst (which shares a superintendent with Pelham at the elementary level).

As of May 1, 2010, the Amherst elementary schools lost 29 kids to school choice, and of those 29, 14 went to Pelham (virtually half), making Pelham the district that by far takes more Amherst kids. The second most common districts for Amherst kids to school choice into are Hadley and Sunderland, which each take 4 kids from Amherst.

Pelham began taking school choice kids in 2004, and since that time, Amherst has lost an increasing amount of money to school choice. In 2004-2005 and 2005-2006, Amherst lost 15 kids a year to school choice. In 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, that number climbed to 23. This year, it is 29.

Now, that is a serious amount of money, since we lose $5,000 per kid when they go to another district ($5,000 X 29 = $145,000). However, we also have to cover any additional special education costs for students who choice into another district, so the number is actually higher than $145,000. Last year, we paid $248,000 in total to other districts; and of that $248,000, $161,665 went to Pelham (65% of our school choice tuition is paid to Pelham).

So, the Amherst elementary schools actually pay 12.3% of the Pelham elementary school's budget (their total budget is 1.31 million, and Amherst pays $161,665 of that). And in turn, Amherst loses the equivalent of three teachers -- meaning as of next year, an extra teacher (intervention, or music, or Spanish) in each building.

This extreme reliance on school choice to maintain the Pelham school, and in turn its drain on the resources for the Amherst schools, may be why Rob Detweiler, the business manager for the Amherst, Pelham, and Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, recommended that Pelham take fewer choice students. Here are the Pelham Select Board Meeting Minutes of May 11, 2009 (which you can google and find in full on line):

School Committee: Huber reported that the committee will be presenting a budget at Town Meeting of approximately $1.64 million, of which Pelham will be responsible for $1.31 million. He further reported that Rob Dettweiler, Director of Finance and Operations for the Amherst Pelham Regional Schools, has advised the committee that Pelham needs to make a decision regarding school choice students. Dettweiler recommends “weaning off” of the number of School Choice students accepted by Pelham Elementary. The Committee, however, voted to raise the number of school choice students so that now forty percent of students educated in the Elementary school will be from out of town. Dettweiler projects that by 2012, Pelham will have 76 students from Pelham and 80 School Choice students. Huber suggested that the Selectmen should consider meeting with the Finance Committee to determine “where we’re going” in the next five years in regards to funding for the Pelham Elementary School. Fred Vanderbeck, of the Finance Committee, told the Board that the FinCom is scheduled to meet on May 21st at 6 p.m. at the Rhodes building and that the School Committee has been invited to attend.

As you can see in these minutes, the Pelham SC rejected the advice of the business manager, and instead opted to increase the number of school choice kids. Given the very clear information on where increases in enrollment come from (Belchertown and Amherst), it seems clear that the Amherst schools will continue to pay an increasing amount to maintain the Pelham school. If Rob Detweiler is correct, and 80 school choice kids will be in the Pelham schools by 2012, Amherst kids will presumably make up 30% of this total (or 24 kids), which would cost the Amherst schools well over $100,000 a year (and very likely considerably more).

ACLU against restrictions on public officials' blogs

Note: In the continuing discussion about whether School Committee should have blogs, the Gazette has a front page story today about a letter by the ACLU supporting the rights of elected officials to have blogs. The entire text of the letter (which I would say includes a strong defense) is available within the article.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Monday, June 7, 2010

Four towns to discuss regionalization report

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Here's a story about the regionalization report, which will be presented soon. Although I haven't read the report yet, I certainly would support a K to 12 regional school district, since the current system really works against vertical alignment K to 12 and clearly increases administrative complexity (and cost). However, my understanding is that the small towns would likely oppose regionalization, out of a desire to maintain autonomy over their schools, and creating a K to 12 regional system requires a vote not only by each SC, but also by town meeting in each town. I find it unfortunate that both Andy Churchill and Farshid Hajir oppose the Amherst School Committee's simple request to get legal advice on our options involving the Union 26 agreement -- it seems kind of ironic that Farshid is concerned about the small town's loss of autonomy if regionalization occurs, yet he opposes a large town's desire to explore the potential of greater autonomy?

The (blunt) force behind state’s education standards

Note: This is an article about the board of education for MA, and I thought was really interesting in a number of ways (e.g., a discussion about whether boards should be collegial versus questioning, a discussion about appropriate education standards in our state, etc.).

By Lawrence Harmon
The Boston Globe
June 6, 2010

BOARD OF Education member Sandra Stotsky can be abrasive, blunt, and overbearing. She’s also the best defense Massachusetts has against a decline in educational quality as state officials contemplate adopting national academic standards in place of the strong state frameworks now in place. Stotsky’s term ends June 30. If Governor Deval Patrick reappoints her, it will signal his commitment to no-nonsense education. If he doesn’t, the welcome mat is out for educational faddists.

Being prickly didn’t disqualify previous members of the Board of Education. Former Boston University president John Silber and charter school advocate James Peyser also rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But their actions reflected a passion for education reform in a state that ranks at or near the top of national and even international measures of student achievement.

A big shift occurred two years ago when Patrick created the position of state education secretary, placing greater responsibility for long-range planning and policy making in the hands of Paul Reville, former chairman of the education board. Patrick started packing the board with deliberate and usually low key types, including IBM executive Maura Banta, former insurance executive Beverly Holmes, and social entrepreneur Gerald Chertavian. The governor’s one controversial pick — Ruth Kaplan — is an anti-MCAS crusader who shares Patrick’s amorphous “whole child’’ philosophy of education. It didn’t take long for a culture of collegiality to replace a culture of questioning on the 11-member board. With two notable exceptions: Stotsky and Thomas Fortmann, a mathematics expert. Both are holdovers from the Mitt Romney administration.

“I’m good at asking people for information that they don’t want to give,’’ said Stotsky,whose career has ranged from grade school teacher to seasoned academic, including deputy commissioner for the state’s Education Department. Now in her 70s, Stotsky still has the energy to stir things up at home while commuting to her job as a professor at the University of Arkansas.

She decries the diminishing concern for academic content on a board that is focused on softer, so-called 21st-century skills such as global awareness and media literacy. Reville and other supporters of the new agenda insist they are meant to complement, not replace or dilute the state’s strong curriculum and high-stakes MCAS exam. But Stotsky doesn’t buy it.

“They’re going to wipe out everything,’’ she predicted.

Stotsky has been fighting against educational decay for decades. She is a veteran of the late 1980s battles in Brookline, where residents rose up against flaky social science teachers and administrators who tried to purge advance placement European history from the high school curriculum in the name of multiculturalism. The experience gave her a healthy suspicion of educational trends that has carried over into her analysis of the so-called common core national standards in math and English.

Stotsky combed a draft of the new standards in a recent Pioneer Institute white paper, finding them “vague’’ and “empty of markers for specific literary and non-literary content.’’ Grade level standards, she noted, even lacked effective examples to guide teachers and test makers.

If the state adopts the national standards, it will enter into a multiyear period of refinement and creation of new student tests. Stotsky’s presence would be invaluable during that process, especially in reading, her academic specialty. Stotsky would also serve as a check on any backsliding in teacher quality. In 2000, she helped create new, tougher licensure standards for the state’s K-12 teachers.

“No decision has been taken yet,’’ Reville said, in regards to Stotsky’s reappointment chances. “It’s the governor’s prerogative.’’

Reville is feeling pressure from various groups over the two expiring seats. He could look for a middle road and recommend the reappointment of the more agreeable Fortmann as a nod to the standards movement while tossing Stotsky overboard. But the best interests of students in Massachusetts demand the reappointment of both Stotsky and Fortmann. It’s fine for Reville to promise that education officials won’t adopt any national standards that do not “meet or exceed the rigor of our current state standards.’’ But the real test comes in whether he will abide those who hold him aggressively to that promise.

Stotsky wouldn’t just prod Reville and the education department. She would turn their world upside down if they were to retreat on standards. And that’s exactly why Patrick should retain her on the board.

The Future of One Small School

This is an article that appeared in the Gazette last fall, and I didn't post it on my blog at the time -- but as I've been thinking more about the unique Union 26 arrangement (in which Amherst and Pelham each have an equal vote about the superintendent), I thought this article would help educate my readers about some of the complexities of this relationship. This article notes that as of this year, Pelham has only 76 elementary school students living in their town, and thus is entirely dependent on school choice students for continuing to operate (and it is pretty clear that Amherst is the likely source of many of these students, at $5,000 per student).

Thursday, June 3, 2010

States Receive a Reading List: New Standards for Education

New York Times
Published: June 2, 2010

The nation’s governors and state school chiefs released on Wednesday a new set of academic standards, their final recommendations for what students should master in English and math as they move from the primary grades through high school graduation.

The standards, which took a year to write, have been tweaked and refined in recent weeks in response to some of the 10,000 comments the public sent in after a draft was released in March.

The standards were made public at a news conference on Wednesday in Atlanta.

Leah Lechleiter-Luke, a Spanish teacher from Mauston, Wis., who is that state’s 2010 teacher of the year, said at the conference that the new standards were preferable to her home state’s. “It’s not that the standards in Wisconsin are so bad, it’s just that there are so many of them,” she said. “These are more user-friendly.”

The Obama administration hopes that states will quickly adopt the new standards in place of the hodgepodge of current state benchmarks, which vary so significantly that it is impossible to compare test scores from different states. The United States is one of the few developed countries that lacks national standards for its public schools.

Students whose families move from New York to Georgia or California, for example, often have difficulty adjusting to new schools because classroom work is organized around different standards. The problem has become worse, since many states have weakened standards in recent years to make it easier for schools to avoid sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The new standards were written by English and math experts convened last year by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They are laid out in two documents: Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, and Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects. With three appendices, the English standards run to nearly 600 pages.

Under the new math standards, eighth graders would be expected to use the Pythagorean theorem to find distances between points on the coordinate plane and to analyze polygons. Under the English standards, sixth-grade students would be expected to describe how a story’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes and how an author develops the narrator’s point of view.

“The standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach,” the introduction to the new English standards says. “They do not — indeed, cannot — enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”

In keeping with those principles, the English standards do not prescribe a reading list, but point to classic poems, plays, short stories, novels and essays to demonstrate the advancing complexity of texts that students should be able to master. On the list of exemplary read-aloud books for second and third graders, for instance, is James Thurber’s “Thirteen Clocks.” One play cited as appropriate for high school students is “Oedipus Rex,” by Sophocles.

Five English texts are required reading. High school juniors and seniors must study the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Also, said Susan Pimentel, a consultant in New Hampshire who was lead writer on the English standards, “Students have to read one Shakespeare play — that’s a requirement.”

In a joint letter, Joel I. Klein, the New York Schools chancellor, and 54 other big-city superintendents who are members of the Council of the Great City Schools urged adoption of the standards.

Just how many states will adopt them remains unclear. Texas and Alaska declined to participate in the standards-writing effort. In the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, states that adopt by Aug. 2 will stand a higher chance at a piece of the $4 billion in federal grant money to be divided among winning states in September.

“I’m hopeful that a bunch of states with crummy standards will end up with better ones this way,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education who has long called for national standards. But the Obama administration is pressing states to adopt them too fast, he said. His recommendation to states: “Don’t rush to judgment.”

Smooth shifting: Plans falling into place for Mark's Meadow transition

Amherst Bulletin
By Nick Grabbe
Published on June 04, 2010

Mark's Meadow School in North Amherst will close for good in two weeks, but art created by hundreds of current and former students, staff and parents will be a memorial to the learning and growing that's taken place there over five decades.

The school's Community Tile Project was to be dedicated Thursday. The art covers all four sides of five 8-foot pillars outside the school, said art teacher Diane Travis. The tiles were handmade from clay that was rolled, glazed and fired at the school, she said.

The tiles will create a permanent installation that will remain when the Mark's Meadow building is reused by its owner, the University of Massachusetts. There are plans for extensive renovation of the building for use by the UMass Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning in several years.

The Amherst School Committee's decision to close Mark's Meadow was very controversial a year ago. The committee wanted to save money by consolidating elementary students in three buildings, since the enrollment has declined from 1,526 in 2000-01 to 1,268 this year. The committee also wanted to eliminate the disparity between the schools in the percentage of children from low-income families.

But there was much opposition to the planned closure from parents who valued the smaller size of Mark's Meadow, the feeling of community, and the leadership of Principal Nick Yaffe. The School Committee also came under fire because it failed to get UMass to pay, as part of the Mark's Meadow closure plan, for the approximately $675,000 it costs to educate children living in tax-exempt housing but attending public schools. There were questions about whether the closure would save as much money as expected.

It appears that much of community outrage over the change has dissipated as redistricting plans have fallen into place. Extensive debate over redrawing the maps showing which student attends which school resulted in most of the current Mark's Meadow students staying together at Wildwood School next year. And, after the school's principal resigned last month, Yaffe was appointed to the position, and Linda Gianesin, a guidance counselor at Mark's Meadow, will be assistant principal at Wildwood. Several teachers are also moving there next fall.

Parent Tracy Hightower, quoted last year as saying that closing Mark's Meadow would "rip up the community," said at last week's open house at Wildwood, that many Mark's Meadow parents are happy Yaffe will continue to be their children's principal.

She noted that Yaffe is the most senior elementary principal in Amherst and praised Yaffe's compassion and ability to work with a team. "It feels like he's bringing a piece of Mark's Meadow here," Hightower said.

She said the school district "has done a great job" organizing the transition, offering virtual tours of the buildings, organized by the technology teachers.

Parent Ludmilla Pavlova said at a School Committee meeting on the Mark's Meadow closure a year ago that there was "no thorough and careful analysis of how this decision affects the school system."

This week, she said that Yaffe's transfer to Wildwood is "unqualified good news." But she said she "will wait and see how the school year goes" before deciding on the best option for her son, who will be in second grade at Wildwood next year.

"The community aspect of it will be lost," Pavlova said. "In the rush to close, there wasn't enough understood about the value the community brought to the town and UMass." For example, she works at UMass and had been able to walk to the school, but it will be more difficult to get to Wildwood because her family has only one car.

Pavlova is also concerned that Wildwood was built for the open-classroom model, and plans to advocate for changing the way the space is used, she said.

At last week's open house at Wildwood, Yaffe spoke to the parents and children, saying he prefers that everyone call him "Nick." He acknowledged that "when you go to a new place, you're often a little nervous." Yaffe asked children entering each grade to stand up, and everyone applauded as they did.

He introduced some of the teachers. Third-grade teacher Sally Crawford said that although it's been "a difficult and tumultuous time," the new students will enrich the school. Sixth-grade teacher Maury Bohan said she's been a Wildwood student and parent as well. Librarian Elaine Donoghue said, "I'm sure you won't run out of things to read."

Yaffe arranged for different age groups to tour the school together.

"Next year will be a great time to make new friends, and tonight is a good time to start," he said.

He led one of the tours himself. When the group got to the locked school offices, Yaffe said, "I'm not the principal yet, so I don't have a key." He said he'll continue the Mark's Meadow practice of having a letter box outside the office where students can put notes to him.

Brenda Bushouse, who is moving to the Wildwood district from Belchertown, said she was impressed that class sizes are smaller than in her children's previous school.

Meg Kroeplin's son is at Fort River and will be a third-grader at Wildwood next year. She said she was impressed with Yaffe.

"It seemed like he could pull all the kids together and make everybody comfortable," she said after the open house. "It felt like I was joining a community, and that felt really nice."

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Amherst Regional School Committee concerned Pelham representatives have too much power

By Diane Lederman, The Republican
May 31, 2010, 9:05PM

AMHERST – The School Committee is hoping a lawyer will provide some answers Wednesday night regarding its more than century-old relationship with Union 26.

That relationship has stirred some tension among the three committees involved in the Amherst Regional District last month and officials are hoping that they will move past those disagreements.

There is the Amherst Regional School Committee, which is composed of the five member Amherst School Committee, and representatives from Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham and Union 26, which is composed of the three members of the Pelham Committee and three of the Amherst Committee. The Union and the region vote on the hiring of a new superintendent.

But with a law change earlier this year, the Amherst School Committee wants to look at the agreement. Some feel that Pelham has too much say in the hiring of a superintendent.

The disagreement grew from a March meeting when the Union in a 4 to 2 vote approved the hiring of Maria Geryk as interim Amherst Regional School Superintendent for a term of 16 months. The regional committee approved that hiring but when the Union voted – the three Pelham members supported the motion, while only one Amherst member did. Opponents wanted to appoint her for four months and then conduct a search for an interim leader for a year.

That vote raised questions about Union 26 for the Amherst members: Just what is the union agreement and can it be changed.

Members are concerned about representation – why Amherst, which has the largest percentage of students in the district, has the same number of votes as Pelham, said Amherst School Committee chairman Irvin E. Rhodes.

Rhodes and other Amherst members were upset that the regional chairman Farshid Hajir and Geryk placed a discussion about the future of the Amherst-Union 26 discussion during a regional committee meeting May 11 meeting. Rhodes said he was never consulted.

“I do believe (there was) a lack of consideration and courtesy to the Amherst School Committee members and me in particular because I wasn’t consulted,” he said.

He also was angry with Hajir because he said the item should not have been on the region’s agenda and with Geryk for not taking it off. Hajir disagrees. “Any change to Union 26 affects the region.”

Rhodes, meanwhile, had asked Hajir to resign. Hajir, who was elected chairman by the committee, said he plans to remain.

Hajir is upset the way Amherst members have talked about the union and wishes the questions about the union were brought forth in “a more collegial less secessionist” way.

“I’m trying to make sure that people know what their roles and responsibilities are and know what the boundaries are,” Hajir said. “There are some things the School Committee can’t control. It’s one thing to be a very active policy-making committee; it’s another thing to be going after a power grab.”

Member Catherine A. Sanderson, however, believes the committee is being responsible to the town by looking at the union agreement. She said out of the 71 towns that are in a union Amherst is the largest, Pelham the smallest and yet only has 50 percent of the say.

“It seems very clear this is advantageous to Pelham.”

She said the change to the law, which went into effect earlier this year was initiated by the Shutesbury School Committee chairman and no one criticized that move but people are critical of Amherst for looking into its agreement. She said the way is structured is Pelham gets a 50 percent say in hiring a superintendent but Leverett and Shutesbury only have a 25 percent voice.

Hajir, meanwhile, said the regional committee has been looking at the creation of a regional system for the entire district kindergarten through Grade 12 and that report is expected to be ready for a June meeting. That report also looks at the governance of the region.

“My perspective is we are one school system, one superintendent, once central office.” He believes that a spirit of cooperation benefits the entire district.