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.

Friday, June 11, 2010

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)


Anonymous said...

Where is Tracy Farnham going? News of her departure is a surprise to me.

TomG said...

I think we can assume Irv passed the invitation along to the Pelham School Committee or at least the Pelham Union 26 folks.

And I think we can assume they think the first step for them is to get counsel from a lawyer, rather than attending this meeting and learning what a lawyer's research has determined.

Farnham is either kicking the can down the road or worries that the issue will end up in litigation. Still, they could go to the meeting, listen, have no comment and take it from there.

Irv' radio silence is disturbing.

Anonymous said...

TomG, why are you assuming the Pelham reps wouldn't want to attend the meeting? And why are you impugning Tracy Farnham's motives? That seems like an ad hominem criticism rather than something rooted in fact.

Anonymous said...

Tom G. said "And I think we can assume they think the first step for them is to get counsel from a lawyer, rather than attending this meeting and learning what a lawyer's research has determined. "

So, it's ok that the first step the Amherst SC took was to hire a lawyer but its not ok that Pelham may choose to hire a lawyer?

Seemes to me that the first step the Amherst SC should have taken was to sit down with the Pelham SC - instead of it being the last step.

Amherst should not be at all surprised if Pelham hires an attorney. It is Amherst who took the confrontational step of an attorney hire first. Pelham is simply fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility to their town and families if they also hire a lawyer to respond to Amherst.

I imagine Pelham would hire a lawyer to simply gather information on what their options are, so Amherst should not feel at all threatened. It's simply information gathering on Pelham's part.

Ed said...

Catherine - do you know?

A child goes from Amherst to Pelham via school choice, thus shifting the ratio between the two.

Is there any incremental shift from Amherst to Pelham in the shared cost of the central administration.

Look at it this way as to why it has to be adjusted:

Amherst has 90 kids, Pelham has 10 -- and thus as Amherst has 90% of the load, Amherst pays 90% of the central admin costs with Pelham paying 10%.

Then 40 kids "school choice" to Pelham, giving Amherst 50% of the load and Pelham 50% of the load -- but Amherst is still paying 90%. And further, Amherst has to pay the $5K on the 40 kids.

In short, Amherst gets screwed.

And what their accountant is warning them about is one other thing that happens a LOT in Maine: Amherst keeps all 90 kids, but instead of 10 Pelham kids, they bring in 80 from other (non ARSD) districts.

Then you have 90 kids and 90 kids and while I can't make the numbers match the percentages any more, each town would be using 50% of the central office -- yet Pelham only paying 10%!

But as to charging for the school leaving *and* also charging the central office to presume he/she/it is still an Amherst (and not Pelham) student, if that is happening, is gonna bust your budget!

TomG said...

I assume the first step for Farnham Etc is to get counsel from a lawyer, rather than attending the meeting because that was Farnham's response to the issue stated in the article.

Clearly I may be reading into that based on Farnham's response and on Catherine and the Gazette's inability to confirm Farnham et al.'s intentions to attend the meeting tonight. Its been a week since the invitation was extended and there is no public response yet ... but we wont have to wait long to find out, the meeting is tonight at 7.

"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." - CS, blogpost

>>> 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." - CS email to Irv

"by press time Thursday night, it was unclear whether they had an invitation." - Gazette article

"Amherst School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said Thursday she had recommended that the Pelham members be invited. The Amherst board's chairman, Irv Rhodes ,could not be reached for comment." - Gazette article

"Tracey Farnham, School Committee chairwoman, said her board would schedule a meeting with selectmen to see if the town should hire a lawyer.

"It seems to me that given (Amherst's hiring of an attorney), Pelham should also seek legal advice, so that if something comes out of this, we are prepared," Farnham said. She stressed that such discussions were preliminary and would center around how the town would pay for a lawyer, if one was needed.

Farnham, who is also the chairwoman of the Union 26 Committee, said Rhodes, the Amherst chairman, had asked her to schedule a meeting of the union. "
- Gazette article

TomG said...

On anonymous comments:

The news cycle of the last two days has been driven by an attack on organized labor from a "senior White House official" who was willing to express these views only while hiding behind the fetal wall of anonymity extended by Politico. Last night on The Ed Show, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard was asked about those comments and this is what he said:

I'm extremely disappointed that the individual would make that comment and not have the courage to let us know who said it. Anonymous comments shouldn't be given the kind of attention they've been given. I'm both disappointed and angry -- he's entitled to his opinion, but I don't think he or she is entitled to be anonymous if they want to articulate that.


AnonM said...

As far as I am concerned, TomG, you are as anon as I am.

I suppose I could call myself AnonM.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 12:45 PM said..."Seemes (sic) to me that the first step the Amherst SC should have taken..."

Exactly but who in their right mind would take advice from a anonymous commenter who cannot spell the word 'seems'?

Anonymous said...

Hey Anon 8:25.

Seemes is a typo. But I hope you'll continue to be this blog's typo police and take the time and effort to point out every typo you see, including Catherine's.

AnonM said...

So we learned last night that the reason for a certainty last night that the reason the Amherst SC wants to pull out of Union 26 has nothing to do with money or financial considerations.

The sole reason for this $2,000 exploration is because Pelham gets an equal vote in choosing the Superintendent. Irv, Steve and Catherine came out on the losing end of the vote to appoint Maria Geryk as Interim Super for 16 months. And their attempt to pull Amherst out of long standing Superintendency Union is nothing but sour grapes.

It's all about power. It has nothing to do with educational excellence, saving money for our schools or making our schools better.

It's all about power folks! It's the equivalent of a child who does not get their way - they take their toys home and say "I'm not going to play with you any more."

I certainly hope that Amherst sets up a study group similar to what was done in Shutesbury to look at school governance in a global way. That may give the citizens of Amherst a way to balance the power grab by the current Amherst SC.

I support about 95% of the things that Catherine espouses and supports. I am thrilled that we are having a number of comprehensive reviews of various programs in the schools. I think we were right to close Mark's Meadow and I agree with the resulting re-districting. In general, I think the schools are heading in the right direction on many fronts.

But I am in total opposition to Catherine on the Union 26 topic. Let's look at the issue of school governance globally, and lets work with the committee who has been looking at this issue for some time. Amherst is wrong to pursue this issue in a vacuum, as they are doing now.

Anonymous said...

anon 10:02 - What are the pros and cons of the Union 26 arrangement and what value does it provide to you?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response to AnonM - thanks for the support for many of things I've pushed hard for!

In terms of whether getting information about the Union 26 agreement is a "power grab" (and I think that is an unfortunate word choice): Amherst has said we want the facts about our options of getting out of a union which is the most disproportionate in the state of Massachusetts. Do you oppose us getting that information? That is really similar to people saying we shouldn't have gotten the information about the pros/cons of closing Marks Meadow, and that strikes me as odd. If being in Union 26 is great for Amherst, than gathering information will demonstrate the benefits for Amherst and we won't make a change.

Is this about choosing a superintendent? Of course! That is the most important thing a SC does, and I believe we owe it to Amherst voters to do it well. I am the only current member of the SC (Amherst, Region, or Pelham) who participated in the last superintendent search, and it was CLEAR during that process that working for 3 different SCs and managing 3 different budgets was a BAD thing in terms of recruiting candidates AND it meant we had to pay them more. Simplifying the arrangement would be beneficial in both fronts, and it seems quite clear that we could move from hiring a superintendent who supervises 3 SCs/budgets to 2 SCs/budgets in two different ways (Pelham and Amherst combining, Amherst having its own K to 6 district and Pelham joining a different union).

Do Amherst and Pelham want the same things in a superintendent? I seriously, seriously doubt it, because the challenges and issues facing these districts have nothing in common. This isn't about Maria Geryk, or Alberto Rodriguez (though focusing on this as "sour grapes" helps detract from the absolute proportional imbalance by focusing on personalities instead). It is about Amherst voters having more say in choosing their superintendent than Pelham voters since Amherst pays 94% of the bill and has 10X the population. If you believe the current system is fair to Amherst, then simply say that. But I've heard from many, many Amherst residents who disagree.

Anonymous said...

"But I am in total opposition to Catherine on the Union 26 topic."

What does Catherine want to do on Union 26? What's the opposite of that?

Rick said...

Here’s my take:

First, I would not be raising this issue, because while I believe it’s an issue it’s not on the top of my list and is taking up time that we could be using on other things that are more important to me.

But since the issue has been raised:

Yes it is all about the 3-3 voting structure in Union 26 and it’s reasonable to question whether that makes sense or not. If the 3-3 makes sense, then the 1-9 for Leverett and Shutesbury makes no sense at all. Just use logic here and don’t worry about what motives are – we spend too much time on motives and not enough on logic.

This also has nothing to do with Amherst people choicing into Pelham which would he happening with or without Union 26 and there is no “conflict of interest” because it’s the school committee who decides on choice not the Superintendent.

Likewise this has nothing to do with voting Maria in for interim. BOTH Regional and Union voted for that and one Amherst Union 26 member voted for it. Union did not control that situation because Region voted for it too. I don’t know what would have happened if the Union vote had been 3:3 and that highlights a crazy situation where per this policy Union and Region are supposed to somehow agree to hire the same Superintendent:

What if we don’t agree? That’s what voting is for, to resolve disagreements.

This is a very simple issue. It’s about votes. I see all kinds of other things thrown in here that have nothing to do with it and are misinforming and confusing everyone.

Whether anything can or should be changed here is what’s being talked about.

Again, this is not a priority for me, but logically it’s not unreasonable to be asking.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

I agree with most of what Rick said -- and for me, the key issue is that while this is not a top priority, I feel like a lot of what the Amherst SC has done over the last 2 years has been about things that needed to be settled, EVEN when they weren't top priorities for any (all?) individual members. So, I ran for SC in 2008 trying to focus on improving academics in the schools, including increasing the focus on data/transparency/comparison. I had NO intention of closing Marks Meadow, nor did I feel that redistricting by equity was a top priority (though I was concerned about the imbalance in low income kids at the four schools, I didn't campaign on this and certainly wouldn't have put it high on my list of priorities). However, given the budget crisis, we needed to at least get the info on the cost savings involved in closing Mark Meadow, which in turn led to redistricting. Do I wish I'd spent a year doing both of these things INSTEAD of other things I wanted to do more? NO! But did they need to be done? Yes -- so we changed the priorities.

Similarly, if Alberto was still superintendent, we would not be looking into Union 26, because he was hired (and paid) knowing this situation. On the other hand, now that we are doing a superintendent search this fall, I believe it makes sense to look into whether there are simpler ways of structuring our district that will increase the number of candidates who are interested in this job and simplify their lives once they are here (and perhaps then be able to pay them less). This therefore seems like something that has to be done, although again, this isn't top of my priority list.

Here's what I'd like: a K to 12 district consisting of whatever schools want to be in it (Amherst definitely, and I really don't care whether Amherst is alone, or with 1/2/3 other towns). But Amherst can't control that: changing the regional agreement is really, really complicated, and I don't see any way that all of the three small towns would vote to change it to a K to 12 district (which is what is required). So, Amherst can't control that.

But what Amherst seems to be able to control is simplifying the K to 6 set up, and I'm definitely in favor of that: Pelham could join with Amherst in a K to 6 district (one budget/SC for the superintendent instead of 2), OR Pelham could opt for participating in another union in order to maintain more control.

One more thing: Rick, my understanding is that unless both Union 26 and the Region both agree on the same superintendent, we can't hire that person. So, if all three Pelham members opposed a superintendent that was endorsed by all Amherst members on Union 26 and a majority of region, Pelham could in effect veto that hire (because Union 26 wouldn't be in favor). Amherst also has the same veto power in precisely the same way, but this to me seems a lot more appropriate, since Amherst pays 78% of the regional bill and 94% of the elementary bill. On the other hand, Pelham has veto power and pays 6% at both the regional and elementary level. Neither Leverett or Shutesbury have veto power (in the Regional School vote OR in their Union 28 vote), although each of these towns are larger than Pelham (both in terms of total population and total students enrolled in our schools). People who feel comfortable with our current arrangement should be aware that Pelham's 3 SC members representing a town of 1,400 can veto any choice of superintendent preferred unanimously by all 5 members of the Amherst SC, who are elected in a town of 35,000.

Anonymous said...

As a kid raised on 50+ years of intensive advertising, I think I know a sales claim that exceeds reasonable expectations (and, therefore, probably shouldn't be made) when I hear one.

I hold out no hope that we will be able to find a suitable Super and pay her/him less based on eliminating Union 26 alone.

There may be other compelling reasons for doing this, including ones that affect whom we could attract and how effective she/he would be, but that particular claim seems like a stretch to me.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rich - you may be right ... HOWEVER, the complicated structure of the Amherst district has been used repeatedly by long-serving SC members to explain why we pay so much more than Northampton for a superintendent. I believe the current Northampton superintendent makes about $120,000. We paid Jere Hochman about $135,000, and Alberto Rodriguez about $158,000. Northampton has about the same number of kids as Amherst, and the same number of buildings to supervise (e.g., principals). Now, people say "well, Amherst is better than Northampton," but first, that isn't entirely clear (certainly not if measured in terms of drop-out rates, AP class offerings, number of required study halls in the HS), and second, it isn't clear if the higher pay of superintendent LEADS to a district being better. Do I believe that telling potential superintendents they will report to 3 SCs and manage 3 budgets helps us attract good superintendents? I don't think it does -- again, my preference would be to have a Northampton type K to 12 district ... but that isn't in Amherst's control.

And at Monday's meeting, Steve Rivkin is preparing a presentation about the Union 26 agreement options -- I strongly encourage you, and other interested citizens, to come to the meeting OR watch it live on TV!

TomG said...

We have a complicated leadership structure that has three serious drawbacks,
1) it makes the job of superintendent more complicated and more expensive,
2) it makes curriculum and other educational reforms related to curriculum alignment harder to attain, and
3) it unreasonably allocates voting control on a small but important number of issues to the people representing Pelham's interests while disproportionately diluting the influence of the people representing Amherst's interests.

Is that a good summary of the cons? Did I miss something? What are the pros?

Rick said...

Tom G:

It is Amherst and Region that is 95% of the complication; a K-12 region would be great if we could pull it off.

Pelham probably takes less than 5% of the Superintendent's time.

There is a ‘pro’ to the Union for Amherst – Pelham contributes something to the cost of the Superintendent and central office, which cost would not be reduced if the Union did not exist.

The ‘con’ is the voting situation, as I said before – it’s really the one and only con.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

TomG - I agree with all of your cons -- though I think the voting con is the biggest.

As to your first point: I think it is a con that the superintendent has to attend another SC meeting -- and the Pelham SC meets just as frequently as the Amherst and Regional SC. That's an extra meeting, and an extra Town Meeting.

As to your second point: I think it is a con that it interferes with curriculum alignment. Amherst will now have K to 6 Spanish; Pelham won't. Amherst could vote for a reform math curriculum and Pelham could vote for a traditional math curriculum, and then all of those kids enter the MS with very different backgrounds.

As to your first point: I think it is clearly a con in central office, in which many people get paid out of three separate budgets.

Does the fact that Pelham pays 6% of the cost at elementary make up for that added complexity? Perhaps ... but it also might be a wash.

I hope that we can have a fruitful discussion on Monday about the pros and cons of this arrangement, and about alternatives, and that we can think about next steps in gaining information AND involving the community in this discussion.

Anonymous said...

Catherine said "As to your second point: I think it is a con that it interferes with curriculum alignment. Amherst will now have K to 6 Spanish; Pelham won't. Amherst could vote for a reform math curriculum and Pelham could vote for a traditional math curriculum, and then all of those kids enter the MS with very different backgrounds. "

And how is pulling out of Union 26 going to change any of the above.
Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury children all attend the regional schools, coming from different elementary schools with different curriculum right now. How does pulling out of Union 26 change that?

Also, my understanding is that Spanish is right now taught in the Pelham Elementary school. So, they do have Spanish now and I assume will continue to have Spanish next year.

I continue to wish that Amherst would make this discussion part of a larger conversation in conjunction with the regional study commiittee that has been working on these issues for some time. I do not understand why Amherst is so adamant about going it alone on this topic.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 4:17 - I can't do anything about the choices Leverett and Shutesbury makes about their elementary schools. I wish I could because I do not think having kids come into 7th grade from 4 different districts with different curricula is a good idea. But it is clear that the Amherst SC can influence the Union 26 agreement, which at least has the potential to increase alignment at that level (e.g., if Pelham and Amherst formed a combined K to 6 district, which is clearly one possibility).

Pelham doesn't have Spanish at the intensity level that we will have in Amherst, meaning Pelham students aren't able to skip a year of Spanish in 7th -- this is just one example of a lack of alignment (but there could be many, since the broader point is that right now, Pelham and Amherst can make totally different decisions about all things).

The regional study committee looked at the issue from the point of view of the entire region -- and what is quite clear is that the interests of Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham are DIFFERENT from the interests of Amhrest. You can say "well, Amherst's interests shouldn't really matter" in which case you should just write that. I don't agree with that, but it is a view people can have. But the regionalization study committee did NOT look at the Union 26 agreement in terms of its costs/benefits to Amherst, nor did this committee focus on what might be best for Amherst that is not necessarily best for the other towns -- and I think that is important information to have. Do you not?

Finally, how is Amherst "going this alone"? We've asked a lawyer to give us our legal options. We have those. We are meeting on Monday to discuss how to proceed next. We are gathering information, hearing from the community, and ultimately making a decision.