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 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.


FR Parent said...

I have no doubt that Hajir, representing the tiny town of Leverett, would want to continue to think of this as "one district" and want to keep everything together. Leverett, like both Shutesbury and Pelham, has everything to lose if Amherst is able to develop its own K-12 district (which would be the best thing for AMHERST kids and AMHERST taxpayers).

TomG said...

Hajir criticizes the "the way" Amherst school committee members talk about Union 26. You know someone has a poor hand when the best they can do is criticize style, not substance. Its a form of ad hominem.

I'd like to say "Dear Hajir, it's called blowback for engineering a vote for a 16 month interim superintendent as a fait accompli when it was quite clear that the people representing the Amherst constituency (you know the people we elected to represent our interests) is larger than the other constituencies combined." Fait accompli is the operative word here and the likelihood that this outcome was engineered BEFORE the meeting not as a result of it. Hello open meeting law! How ironic if Najir is hoist on his own petard.

Hajir is supposed to be pretty good at math but it didn't cross his mind when he and his fellow regional committee members installed Geryk as the interim for 16 months.

What I want to know is if, when meeting in advance of the regional school committee meeting in which that vote was taken, Hajir and other members planned that outcome and did so without consulting CS and Steve. I don't know but I'm willing to give odds if anyone wants to wager on it. And if so, there is no one to blame for the blowback but Hajir himself who subverted the influence of the biggest majority by cutting them out of the process.

Don't you wonder why Hajir defended his notes with such determination? They could not be pryed from his hands with a FOIA request.

Nina Koch said...

It might not be to Amherst's advantage to form a one-town K12 district. The high school would be smaller, and as a result would not be able to offer as rich a program. We have already seen a reduction in offerings due to budget cuts, where we lost courses like Shakespeare and poetry. The three small towns are actually helping to pay for our variety of electives. That's a benefit to Amherst.

LarryK4 said...

Well I have another Public Documents request in for Hajir's written "thoughts" to Shutesbury SC Chair on the evils of blogging and he will have a hard time using the old "personal diary" routine to get out of THAT request.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hajir continues to talk publicly as if Amherst School Committee members have a direct responsibility to the children and taxpayers of Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham. I would submit that they don't, at least not directly.

Rich Morse

TomG said...

Nins's conjecture about the funding for school K-6 programs is definitely worth researching. It goes to the precise questions of the pros and cons of participating in Union 26.

Michael Jacques said...

I find this conversation interesting in that we keep talking about Hajir. He in no way has authority over the Amherst SC or the Union 26 Committee. If he wants to have voice in this discussion wouldn't it be better for him to push a regional K-12 for all four towns or move to Amherst or Pelham? As an Amherst resident I did not have any option for voice on his decision about a 16 month superintendent. Why should he get any voice in the Union 26 discussion?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

FR Parent - I actually found Farshid's comment really weird -- I mean, clearly we are not "one district" with "one superintendent" since Leverett (his district) has one superintendent for its K to 6 elementary school and another for its 7 to 12 schools! I believe the current system works really well for Leverett ... I'm not sure how well it works for Amherst, and yes, I think it is clear that having a K to 12 district would be best for Amherst (which I think could include only Amherst, or Amherst and Pelham, or Amherst and Pelham and Leverett and Shutesbury).

Tom G - I think you raise a very interesting point here ... and I do know that on the day of the vote to hire Maria for 16 months, Farshid/Andy/Tracy all spent the day together with senior administrators at central office discussing Alberto's departure. I have no idea if they discussed appointing Maria for 16 months, but the three of them could in fact talk openly about this (or other issues) without violating open meeting law, since they all represent different towns and aren't a quorum of the region.

Nina - well, I think this is a tough issue, and it isn't clear what would and would not be beneficial. If Amherst had its own K to 12 district, it would be easier to move money from the elementary to the middle/high school (as would have been helpful this year, when the elementary budget was in MUCH better shape than the regional budget). Perhaps if ARHS was smaller, there would be less of a need for some administrative positions (e.g., could there be 1 assistant principal instead of 2), which also would be a cost savings. But regardless, it isn't easy to get out of the regional agreement at all, so I don't think having a K to 12 Amherst only district is feasible.

Larry - I would certainly be interested in hearing Farshid's concerns about blogging, since he hasn't shared those with me at any point.

Rich - good point. And I share your view that my responsibility is to Amherst residents. I also believe that it would be irresponsible for me to not gather information regarding issues that could impact Amherst students' education (which I believe includes the Union 26 agreement), simply because there may be cases in which the interests of Amherst are in fact different from those of Pelham's.

Tom G - and I hope that we will have some good information soon on what our options are with respect to the Union 26 agreement so that we can have a thoughtful discussion about whether to proceed, and if so, how.

Mike - well said. I also will note that I've never (even as a SC member) gone to a Leverett SC meeting to share my views about how their elementary SC should function and/or who they should hire as a superintendent (and I believe it would be highly inappropriate for me to do so).

Nina Koch said...

I can remember when we were a 10-12 school of 750, with two administrators and we were understaffed then, just in terms of getting all of the teacher observations and evaluations done. And there was a lot less federal and state paperwork in those days.

But, even if we were to save one administrator's salary, would that be worth the loss of course offerings? Look at the smaller high schools in the area and you will see much less variety. The hilltowns help to pay for things like all of the great performance ensembles that our students get to take part in.

If we had a four-town K-12 district, we could move money from elementary to secondary (and vice versa) when needed. I haven't heard any compelling arguments for a one-town K12 district. I do agree that these things are complicated and there are lots of factors to consider.

ARHS Parent said...

Nina, some of us don't send our kids to high school for electives, believe it or not. I think ARHS places too much emphasis on electives and not enough time or effort on core academics. I would much rather my kids spend the ENTIRE YEAR (i.e. three trimesters) in each of math, science, social studies, English, and foreign language rather than 2/3 of their time in each to make room for more electives. If becoming smaller and Amherst-only would force us to reduce our electives (presumably then to fill in the time with core academics), I would be in support of that!

Anonymous said...

ARHS Parent:

That is so short-sighted. Electives provide a well-rounded education. And many colleges, including the best colleges, actually look at what electives and other outside activities students have done.

I do want my child to have the opportunity to take electives...and, BTW,many of these electives are part of the core academics...English Electives, SS electives, math electives, etc.

Shakespeare was an elective .... which students, due to budget constraints, are no longer allowed to take. Is that what you want? More loss of electives like that?

Nina Koch said...

Hi ARHS Parent,

I think you misunderstand what the trade-offs are in this situation. If we became a smaller high school and reduced the number of electives, it wouldn't change the amount of time spent on electives. Instead, it would mean that kids had fewer choices when they went to select.

I'm not sure what you mean by ARHS not devoting time or effort to core academics. I think our core academic courses are demanding and that both students and teachers put a lot of effort into them.

In terms of the minutes spent in class, we run the equivalent of a 7.5 period day. Some schools have a 7 period day and some schools have an 8 period day (or its equivalent). The percentage of time that ARHS students spend in electives is very similar to that of other schools.

But, if you want your child to focus more on what you consider core academics, that is an option for you. For example, if your child is interested in math and science, he or she might choose an elective like Engineering and Technology. If space is available, he or she might choose to double up on an academic. For example, he or she might take Anatomy and Physiology as well as Physics. (I have to double check that, but I am pretty sure we started allowing doubling up when we added the 14th block this spring.)

And other families can make other choices, as 9:26 am indicated he or she would like to do. It's nice to be able to have the choice, because different families have different values. Smaller schools have fewer choices.

Anonymous said...

It seems like a waste of time to debate whether Amherst becomes its own k12 district - because it isn't going to happen. More students means more funding and more options - and of course it is good to offer a greater variety of electives.

But this article is about Union 26 not the region. And, Pelham takes students away from Amherst reducing our funding and causing us to cut staff and programs. A reliable source told me that Pelham has 5 kids entering kindergarten for next year. Why should we remain in a union with a school that weakens our budget through school choice?

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:37: Do you mean that there are only 5 kindergarteners TOTAL in Pelham Elementary next year? Or only 5 from Pelham itself with some additional numbers coming from school choice? If it is the latter, do you know how many of the additional kids are coming from Amherst? I heard that kindergarten registration at Fort River was very low this year. I wonder if they registered at Pelham instead. How can we find out things like this?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the disgruntled parent who wants more focus on core academics would prefer the long block model used in Northampton and many other districts? In this model, students have 4 periods/day. Lots of time spent on one subject.

Anonymous said...

In answer to the question about Pelham's kindergarten - what I heard is that Pelham, the town, only has 5 kindergarten-age children for next year. And, I assume, the rest of their kinder class will need to be made up of school choice children.

ed said...

"but the three of them could in fact talk openly about this (or other issues) without violating open meeting law, since they all represent different towns and aren't a quorum of the region."

And yet, if they are on your blog, that is a violation? Oh Brave New World....

When I have a chance, I am going to contact a friend of mine in DC who knows more about the Voting Rights Act than anyone else and she likely is going to tell me what I alrady know -- between the unequal electorial districts and the higher minority population in Amherst, any aggreived Amherst paret could put an end to this overnight...

Ed said...

There is another aspect to this that is being overlooked -- the building of the Quabbin in the 1930s really took out five towns, Pelham being the fifth. More than half of Pelham - everything on the far (East) side of Route 202 became part of the Quabbin, including the site of Daniel Shay's tavern. (Remember that 202 was built to replace the roads buried under the Quabbin, and there even was a railroad that ran up to Athol. And the Pelham road used to run down into Pelham and not just be the dirt path it is beyond 202.)

Which raises two points. First, if Amherst is going to go to the state for PILOT payments, Pelham ought to be doing likewise - and offsetting the regional school budget based on PILOT (payment in leiu of taxes) payments similar to what the towns that have state forests in them get.

And second, and this was probably political at the time, Pelham's charter ought to have been yanked the same way that the town charters of Prescott, Enfield, Grenwich and Dana were "discontinued." As it stands, it is too small to really be a town and hence ever since the 1930s has had the "little brother" relationship with Amherst.

And the real question in all of this, that no one has really answered in almost a century, is if Pelham really is viable as an independent municipality or if it should simply have been "discontinued" as well - with it being absorbed into Amherst & Shutesbury.

Ed said...

(1 of 3)
Nina wrote: But, even if we were to save one administrator's salary, would that be worth the loss of course offerings? Look at the smaller high schools in the area and you will see much less variety. The hilltowns help to pay for things like all of the great performance ensembles that our students get to take part in.

This, in a nutshell, is the issue of school consolidation. Which is good and bad - in multiple dimensions - and in which people of good intent disagree, and in which each generation attempts to do the opposite of what the prior generation did. (Amherst is unique in having student enrollment spiking in the 1970s and not 1950s and hence is half a generation out of phase in all of this -- remember that the Bangs Center is the old High School, there were 3 schools where it and the two apartment buildings are now.)

And it actually was lab sciences that first led the consolidation movement, instead of one teacher teaching bio/chem/physics (and only really knowing one of them) you could have three different teachers and also afford to have labs as well. So we aren't even talking electives here, we are talking stuff that today we would consider essential core curriculum that really wasn't offered pre-consolidation.

The argument for large schools is scalable -- and Nina your argument is scalable to the point where one could logically conclude that the biggest mistake the state ever made was not turning the then-structurally sound Northampton State Hospital into a mega-middle/high school for the entire county.

Seriously, think of all the electives (and if you folks would look at reality and not politics) ability grouping levels you could have with, what, 20,000 students in one multi-building campus. Think of all the peer mentoring and advantages to the staff, think of all the administrators you could justify, and think of the football team you would have.

And one very real issue is the gifted students - which, say, is 1% of the population as a whole so that would require a grade cadre of 2000 in order to have a viable peer group of 20 while a grade cadre of 100 (i.e. a 6 grade, 600 pupil school) will only have one gifted child and what do you do with him or her?

Ed said...

(2 of 3)
Now, I am keeping the numbers simple - and yes I know that the initial definition of "gifted" was IQ over 130 which is top 2% and not 1%, I know about "multiple intelligences" as well as de-facto racial disparity, as well as how learning differences and income and everything else makes determining who is (and isn't) gifted a muddled mess. Ignoring all of that:

My point ONLY is that there IS a small percentage that essentially are SPED in a different and often opposite way and that an argument for larger schools is being able to provide appropriate curriculum/social interactions for them.

But then we argue that all children are special and deserve an individualized education. Which is why people then talk about the advantage of small schools. We heard some of that in the Mark's Meadow debate although that was really about three very different issues (unequal resources per child, an unviable dinosuar after the elimination of undergradute K-12 certifications and Bailey Jackson's decision to refocus the UM SoE, and "redlining" children living in public housing to "other" schools).

Bill Gates has been spending his Microsquish fortune over the past decade with his "Small Schools Initiative" and his theory that schools under 400 students (with a largely minority pupil cadre) will do a better job of educating minority students. I know some people who are very much opposed to this - and it goes beyond just the concept of size.

UMass has tried the same thing thrice - first with the Orchard Hill Residential College, and then with the Southwest Residential College, and now with the Freshman Residential Education Program (of which they are currently on the third attempt) -- and all of these have been failures for a variety of reasons, but the principle of having a smaller cadre and the advantages of that remain.

A friend of mine, who works in the Dean of Students office at one of the four colleges told me once that if I knew it was one of their students and had a photo, the person could pass it around the office and someone would be able to identify the student. By contrast, UMass uses facial recognization technology and the digital pictures in the student ID database - the place is too big for people to personally know most students.

Students (of any age) get lost in the bureaucracy and sheer volume of big schools.

Islands off the Maine Coast still have one-room K-6 schools. And there are some very clear advantages to this, although many very clear disadvantages. I know people who taught in the pre-consolidated high schools and there were a great deal of advantages. Teachers personally knew most of their students and their families - and often had known the children since birth, if they didn't know the parents socially, they knew someone who did.

And as to sports, anyone who wanted to play likely could make the team, it was not uncommon for coaches to recruit people who had never thought of playing, and sports kept a lot of kids from dropping/flunking out -- it was not uncommon for the entire school to encourage and help tutor kids so that they could play as there simply were not enough people to otherwise have a team.

I once taught in a high school that had something like 35-45 students per grade, the total four grades then were less than 200 (now it is 200 for grades 7-12 with 2/3 of the students on free/reduced lunch, which is the untold story of Maine beyond Portland). Everyone knew everyone to the point where in place of lockers were wooden cubes for coats & stuff to be stored, and theft was not a problem. And the students got a very individualized education as you only can have with a student/teacher ratio half of what Amherst High has.

Ed said...

(3 of 3)

On the other hand, I was teaching two different core subjects and the concept of electives (or even effective SPED) was nonexistent. And there is no way that you can prepare for six completely different classes in two different subjects the way you can teach six (or in Amherst what, four/three?) different classes of the same thing.

By contrast, an ARHS of 1219 students, or a mega-mega-regional school of say 10,000-20,000 students would have me possibly just teaching one grade level of one subject - and if I am only preparing for one class being taught six times in the day, I can do a lot more prep & enrichment work.

You can have the electives that Nina keeps mentioning, you can have a police resource officer and a specific child protective intake officer assigned specifically to the school and whom the teachers/students/parents know & hopefully trust. You can do something for the gifted other than just babysit them. And imagine the sports teams you can field - with college recruiters attending your every game.

But you also have enough of a student body that only the gifted athletes get to play - where the coach (and school) isn't trying to recruit the person who never would have considered trying out for the team. Where a lot of students can get lost in a variety of ways. In a variety of ways, it is the difference between (academics aside) Amherst College and Planet UMass.

And Nina, this is the issue that will never be answered in anything other than a balance -- the smaller the school, the more individualized attention each student gets, the larger the school, the more specialized attention that some students can get.

In other words, in a small school, the special needs of some students won't get met. In a large one, the general needs of some students won't get met. Hence at best we have a balancing act between special attention for some and individual attention for all.

You could cut that school in half - bring your student body down to 600, eliminate all your electives including music, sports and everything else other than basic core subjects, and SOME students would not only thrive but do a whole lot better than they are now. Others wouldn't. And yet others more wouldn't notice much of a core difference either way.

Hence I think that both Nina and Bill Gates are wrong -- big isn't inherently better and small isn't inherently better. We need to look at the balance.

And as one who just won an award for proposing the consolidation of something else, I can caution those who want to advocate big-is-good because other states have county-wide school districts and the concept of the mega-consolidated district is becoming the reality in Maine due to fiscal pressures on the state budget - and the local communities are beyond irate but loosing the fight.

And it is about a whole lot more than electives...