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.
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.