My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Amhest and Pelham Joint Meeting, September 28, 2010

We had two separate SC meetings tonight -- at 7 pm, a joint meeting with the Pelham SC, and at 8 pm, an Amherst only meeting (so I will do two separate blog post summaries).

The joint meeting started with statements by Debbie and Irv, chairs of the two SCs. These statements generally expressed willingness to work together and find common ground in a positive way.

The floor was then open for general comments on two distinct topics - cost sharing of central office and governance.

In terms of cost sharing, the key information is as follows:

1. There is currently no written or standard formula determining how costs are divided between Amherst, Pelham and the Region. In contrast, all other superintendent unions seem to have written formula for how to distribute central office costs among member towns. For example, Union 28, in which Leverett and Shutesbury participate, computes enrollment figures each October 1st and then divides all central office costs based completed on enrollment for the next year (starting July 1st). I

2. There is substantial variation both over time and among items in the central office budget with respect to the assignment of costs. For example, last year the superintendent’s salary was paid 50% from the Region, 48% from Amherst, and 2% from Pelham, whereas this year the Region will still pay 50% but Amherst will pay 47% and Pelham will pay 3%. It isn't clear how decisions are made about how to allocate costs in any given year, or who makes that decision.

3. The rule of thumb according to our administrators (according to business manager Rob Detweiler) is that Amherst pays 94% and Pelham pays 6% of the elementary school share of central office costs. In actuality, however, Amherst is paying 96.5% and Pelham is paying 3.5%. Thus, even based on the rule of thumb calculation, Amherst is over-paying right now and Pelham is under-paying.

4. Pelham is paying far below its share of elementary school enrollment which is roughly 10% (not 6%). It is also not clear whether enrollment is the right way to calculate costs. For example, some districts allocate costs based on number of buildings or principals, which was suggested as the best solution in a memo sent to all Amherst and Pelham SC members yesterday by a member of CBAC (this would mean Amherst pays 75% and Pelham pays 25%).

The good news is that all members of both SCs agreed that we need to settle on a clear, consistent, and fair way of allocating costs between Amherst, Pelham, and the Region. I look forward to hearing suggestions from the Budget Subcommittee about such allocations in the near future, and to voting on a policy so that at least this aspect of Union 26 can be settled.

We also talked about issues of governance, and in particular the fact that Amherst and Pelham are in the most inequitable union in the state of Massachusetts -- and how according to state law, there is nothing we can do about changing the nature of the equal voting given to each town.

Steve, Rob, and I all expressed concerns about the nature of this governance, and the impossibility of doing anything about it while staying in the union. Steve indicated he would be bringing forward a motion on this issue in the future, and would like to get the state involved in examining alternative arrangements. I noted that an easy fix to this governance issue would be forming an elementary regional agreement with Pelham, in which case we could have a single SC that would jointly influence decision-making for all 4 elementary schools (a regional agreement would allow the division of representatives in some way other than 3 to 3).

Members from Pelham noted that they were currently studying (as part of a larger "visioning" process) options for the Pelham school moving forward, which they expected to bring to Town Meeting in May for a vote. They asked for the Amherst SC to give them time to complete this process.

Some members from Amherst expressed concern about waiting until May to move on a decision involving Union 26, and noted that it might be in Pelham's best interest to know if a given option (e.g., remaining in Union 26) was off the table before they had moved too far along in their consideration of various options. I noted that it seemed odd for Amherst to simply wait and do nothing, given the possibility that in May we could then learn Pelham wanted to exit the union.

There was also a fair amount of dialogue about whether bringing the state in to help advise on this issue was a good or bad idea. Some members of both SCs (Debbie, Irv) expressed concerns that the state would come in and take control and thus we would lose local control. Other members from Amherst (Steve, Rob) noted that the state would get involved if we chose to exit Union 26, and it would be better to have the state involved earlier so that we wouldn't pursue a path that ultimately would be rejected. They also noted that state law clearly gives SCs the right to make these decisions, and that asking the state for advice clearly doesn't change the state law about local control.

I think this is an important topic for both Amherst and Pelham to consider, and I believe there are solutions that may well benefit both towns. I look forward to a discussion at the next Amherst SC meeting (October) about potential steps for us moving forward on this topic.

One final note: I'd be interested in hearing what my blog readers think about this topic -- but will remind people to be respectful in their comments, which will help us have a more productive discussion about the content of this issue (not motives/personality/tone of those on either side).


One quick update: Here is a link to the Gazette story on this meeting:


Anonymous said...

I would just like to know how exactly Union 26 benefits Amherst. I get that it's good for Pelham, but what does Amherst get?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 1:47 - supporters of this union would say it benefits Amherst by covering some central office expenses (e.g., a very small portion of the superintendent's salary). What isn't clear, however, is whether these benefits are outweighed by the costs (e.g., do we have to pay the superintendent more to handle three districts and attend three SC meetings, do we have to pay the business manager more to manage three budgets and cut three paychecks for people employed by all three districts, etc.). It is very unclear that there is any net benefit to Amherst, which is probably why we are the only district in the state with over 1200 students involved in a union -- this just isn't a good situation for towns of our size.

Anonymous said...

I too am struggling to see how Union 26 benefits Amherst now that the student population sizes are so different. Are there elements of the agreement and relationship beyond voting for a superintendent and sharing administrative costs?

Could anyone give more information on how the Pelham and Amherst elementary schools work together? Do the schools order fuel and supplies together and does it create cheaper prices? Do the principals and teachers meet and collaborate? Do they investigate and plan curriculum together?

Janet McGowan

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Janet - good questions. The schools certainly work together in many of the ways you suggest (e.g., buying supplies, planning common curriculum days, etc.). But all of those benefits would also be seen in either a K to 12 district OR a K to 6 regional district (not just a union). But in a K to 12 or K to 6 regional district, expenses would be reduced in terms of central office because you would have 1, or 2, sets of expenses/costs/salaries divided, not 3. The entire benefit of a union is that a SC maintains total control over its own school policies. So, for years the Pelham school had Spanish language, but the Amherst schools did not, because that was a SC choice. Unions benefit small towns, because they allow towns to have their own control over their schools (curriculum, policies, etc.) AND to share the major central office expenses (e.g., superintendent, HR director, attorney, IT, business) which small towns could not afford on their own.

So, Pelham, like Shutebury and Leverett, could not afford to have their own central office just reporting to their own superintendent. They NEED to share these costs with other districts, and they prefer to do so in a union because that allows total control (unlike a regional agreement in which small towns each have relatively little power/control).

In contrast, Amherst could clearly afford to have its own superintendent and pay all central office costs on its own -- which is why we are the ONLY district of our size in the entire state of MA that is in a union.

So, does the union benefit Pelham? Absolutely, just like Leverett and Shutesbury benefit from being in Union 28.

Does the union benefit Amherst? I can't think of any way in which it does (other than the potential I addressed earlier in terms of cost sharing, which is unclear).

Anonymous said...

I think getting the state involved is a terrible idea. There's no rush on this -- not when there are so many more important issues to address. Just wait until the Pelham visioning committee delivers its report in May and take it from there. After all, the budget for this year is already set.

Anonymous said...

It seems that Pelham is just stalling for time by waiting until now to START conversations in regard to their school - and now asking that Amherst wait 8 more months for their conclusion(?!). It's frustrating and annoying when I think about how Amh has subsidized their school for this long. It seems disrespectful and inconsiderate of them to be expecting Amherst to wait around for them to call the shots and have complete control of the situation. Maybe if they paid us back for the years in the past when we subsidized the central office costs for them - then I would consider waiting. But since that most likely can't happen, I would say that we should vote to withdraw from Union 26. I don't see that Amh has anything to lose and only stands to gain more control over the upcoming supt decision.

If the state gets involved I know that they will say the best and most fair arrangement is regionalization with Amherst. So frankly, I welcome state involvement.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 2:19 - I'd like some clarity -- specifically, why do you think Amherst (which pays 96% of the bill and has 90% of the kids) should wait to hear what Pelham decides? What if we wait until May and then Pelham says "we like the current Union 26 arrangement"? What do we do then? I just don't see why Pelham gets to choose what they want to do but Amherst doesn't?

Anonymous 3:23 - I agree with much of what you said. I certainly don't see why Amherst should wait 8 months to decide, and that our decision should be held up until Pelham decides. But even more practically, I don't see how it helps Pelham plan if they don't even know what the options are (e.g., what Amherst would agree to, what the state would allow). It seems to me, and Rob Spence made this point well last night, that Pelham would benefit from understanding what Amherst would/would not allow earlier rather than later.

Anonymous said...

Why are you going through the pretense of soliciting opinion from your readers?

You've clearly made up your mind.

Does anyone locally ever really affect your point of view? If true listening involves opening yourself up to the possibility that someone else is right, or knows something that you don't, or can express something that would cause you to see things from a different perspective, do you ever do that? Can people who are convinced that they disagree with you ever see you doing that?

Nothing on anyone's mind that is of a compromising nature, that seeks common ground, really moves you. So, whether we're elected or merely voters, we're in actuality limited to two reactions: we either like your agenda or we don't. In short, we're either with ya or agin ya, and that decision seems to have become the first order of business locally in thinking about schools: are you for the Sanderson agenda or not? No blending of points of view or taking one from Column Sanderson and another from Column Not-Sanderson seems possible these days.

So nothing, no one, nothing that anyone could say, changes you, even a little. (To be fair, however, maybe I missed it.)

The result seems to be polarization. Would it exist without you, you with the powerful internet voice and the unlimited energy? I don't know.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 11:06 - I'm going to try to focus on the content of your message, and not your tone. I wish you had focused on the content of my post instead of engaging in an anonymous attack.

I've presented the facts as they are about Union 26. It isn't my fault that it is the most inequitable union in the state. It isn't my fault that the towns are such different sizes. It isn't my fault that the Amherst schools have been subsidizing the Pelham school (which also takes school choice dollars from Amherst).

But as a member of the SC, I have to make decisions that aren't always fun or easy or even in the best interest of my own three kids. I made a motion to close a school and endured I don't know how many personal attacks on my blog and in the newspaper. And I did listen to people - I frankly would have closed MM a year earlier, but I listened to people who said another year would give us a better transition. I voted to redistrict all the Amherst elementary schools into those with equitable populations, and I listened to a ton of people about how best to do that -- including changing my mind about how best to draw the lines (e.g., to keep all MM kids together which I initially didn't think was important -- and you can read these old conversations on my blog). I thought Union 26 was unfair to Amherst as soon as I found out about the very constraints it requires, and as of March, we could have voted to get out (I could have made a motion at any point over the last 6 months). I haven't done so yet (though I still may) because I'm waiting for people to give me a good reason to not get out of it -- which was one of the points of this blog post. And your post didn't help convince me at all that Union 26 is good for Amherst.

And, yes, many people have disagreed with me and convinced me of their view and I've changed. But those conversations don't happen between me and an anonymous poster on my blog. They happen when people take the time to call me on the phone (542-2438), email me (, or meet with me in person. I welcome you to do any or all of these to actually get to know me.

You should also know that I think lots of people (on this blog and elsewhere) agree with some things I've done and not others. I hear that all the time (e.g., I agree with the new Spanish but you still shouldn't have closed Marks Meadow; I agree with your concerns about the trimester system but I love IMP math; I agree that Union 26 is bad for Amherst, but I don't think we should do a superintendent search). That's all great -- because I can't imagine there is anyone who agrees with all I've done (or haven't done). There is no rule that supporting my efforts is all or nothing ... so, no, you don't have to choose!

One more thing -- isn't my suggestion of forming a regional elementary agreement between Amherst and Pelham precisely the sort of compromise you say I never make? This option -- which I proposed last night -- allows Amherst and Pelham to continue sharing the superintendent and central office staff as they have for a century, AND it allows for more equitable voting between the towns. Amherst doesn't need that arrangement (we could certainly cover the superintendent and central office expenses on our own), so, yes, my suggestion seems like precisely the common ground you suggest I can't find.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine what reasons anyone could give to continue the Union 26 agreement. If there are any reasons other than "we've always done it, let's continue"...come up with it. If it offends the hill towns, who cares? We're getting screwed. This is an unfair arrangement and no wonder they're up in arms that we want to discontinue it. They know what a sweet deal they've had all these years. Gravy train's over hill town folks. Carry your own luggage.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 7:46: Pelham is not a hilltown.

Anonymous said...

Apropos to the Union 26 agreement and the Superintendent search I made the following comment at the SC.

There has been much discussion about the Superintendent search. Good government requires the School Committee find the best qualified candidate rather than one her supporters point out is effective at planning PR events or whose comments have engendered enthusiastic support of the staff.

I’d like to remind (the SC) that the Superintendent works for you and the taxpayers of this town.

Taxpayers and parents are demanding a professional capable of optimizing the resources Amherst residents feed into the system each year. Our school district is a $48 Million juggernaught with hundreds of employees in need of seasoned leadership.

The successful Superintendent candidate:

1) Must be a sophisticated financial manager capable of maintaining the quality of education while maximizing the resources provided by our cash strapped town;

2) Must have a demonstrated ability to manage personel effectively even during an era with shrinking enrollment. That means getting more from less.

3) Must have a proven track record resolving problems associated with special education and other similarly complex issues challenging K-12 systems nationwide.

4) Must have experience evaluating and inspiring curriculum development for excellence.

If Ms. Geryk can show that she has these qualities she should submit her resume for further scrutiny.

The responsible path for Amherst and the Region is to deliberate carefully over the choice of the next Superintendent. Our community deserves that effort. Should you be unable to effect such a hire with the Regional SC you must vote to exit Union 26 as a first step to healing and empowering the residents and students of our town.

Michael Aronson
Amherst Resident

Abbie said...

Hi Catherine,

I would find it very helpful in thinking about this if you could provide the votes from each town that contribute towards the Superintendent vote- how that works.

I am sympathetic to Pelham and was at the meeting. I thought it was collegial and folks got their views on the table. But I was disappointed that not a single Pelham member acknowledged their disproportionate representation in voting for Superintendent and legal representation. It was the enormous elephant in the room, and the one point that is difficult to address, unlike the finance issue.

I would have liked to have heard their ideas of how their votes might be more representative of their population on the future Sup hire. For example, maybe they could have said "we could consider a (single) Pelham member abstaining from voting in the Sup hire" or some other method that, at least temporarily, offers Amherst their fair share of representation, while Pelham decides what to do. I fear that they are asking too much of Amherst wrt to the Union.

Kip Fonsh (Leverett SC member) spoke at the meeting declaring that Amherst should include Leverett and Shutesbury in our deliberations because the decision affects those towns (he didn't say how). I would be very much like him to specify HOW Union 26 is ANY of those towns business. I am considering going to Leverett's SC mtg Oct 5 to ask that question. He also said that Leverett has lost any trust in Amherst's SC. I say to him, in reply, "My trust in Leverett's SC members has also been lost" and their continued efforts to get involved in Union 26 discussions *seem* misplaced and overbearing.

My feelings are that I would very much like to offer Pelham their 8 months to consider their options BUT what are we (Amherst) supposed to do wrt to the Superintendent vote. They are asking for a lot of trust on our part, without much to base it on...

Anonymous said...

If the Amherst School Committee wants to explore the consequences of leaving Union 26 waiting 8 months for Pelham to do its Envisioning process doesn't make much sense. It seems most Amherst school committee members see that the benefits of Union 26 are long past and by waiting, they will lose what they want the most -- the power to vote their own superintendent for its elementary schools. It makes sense that the Amherst School Committee isn't happy with having only 50% of this voting power, when 90% of the kids under Union 26 are from Amherst. I also imagine they want a elementary school superintendent that it 100% (or 90%) accountable to Amherst.

It also doesn't really help Pelham to spend 8 months in a process of exploring options if one of its options, staying in Union 26 isn't really on the table. Also, Pelham will need the information from Amherst, the hill towns and the state when trying to figure out its options. Why not get that info sooner rather than later?

It makes more sense for Pelham to know early what the state's views are and what other small school districts have done in similar situations. This information will inform their process and discussions.

Pelham also should be in preliminary talks with Amherst now over what a regional K-6 school system with Amherst could look like. Will Pelham keep its elementary school open no matter what the enrollment? How will it deal with the loss of the School Choice funds it gets from Amherst ($150K now-- even more)? What voting power would Pelham have on a regional school committee with Amherst? This information will inform the discussions inside Pelham.

It's also logical that Pelham should be talking now with Shutesbury and Leverett and the other members of K-6 grade Union 28. What would it mean if Pelham joined that union? How would admininstrative costs and votes be allocated? Who is the current superintendent and do they like him or her? This information will inform the envisioning discussions in Pelham.

Not knowing any of this information will make the envisioning process pretty abstract and ungrounded in facts....(more)...

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

...... I suggest that the Amherst and Pelham school committees proceed at their own paces and do what they see as best for their town schools. Perhaps they could form a joint Subcommittee of Two (one member from each committee) to collect information on options, keep information lines open between the committees open, and pass information along. The Subcommittee of Two could keep relations between Pelham and Amherst smooth and informed -- and avoid a series of bulky, formal meetings between the all the members of both school committees.

Waiting for Pelham to sort out its options and desires over 8 months could be seen as a kindness. But it also would be a kindness to let Amherst out of the Union 26 agreement without complaint and allow Amherst to select its next superintendent. (Pelham would still have voting power on the Regional School Committee to select the superintendent for 7-12.)

The problem is that the timing will never be perfect for both committees. If Amherst leaves Union 26, selects a K-6 superintendent, then forms a regional elementary school committee with Pelham, Pelham will have lost out on a chance to vote on that superintendent. If Amherst waits 8 months, then Union 26 ends, Amherst has given up a lot of voting power to select the K-6 superintendent.

Maybe a candidate for superintendent will emerge that is unaminously supported by members from all three hill towns and Amherst. More likely the best we can have is both town school committees carefully start walking down a path, maybe at different speeds and to separate destinations, talking to each other along the way.

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

what are the costs and benefits of a regional agreement for Amherst/Pelham for Pelham? for Amherst?

Forming an opinion on this, for me, is not only taking into account what I believe is good for our town by ending the union agreement... but it's also about what we (our students) gain from a special arrangement with Pelham.

With the closing of MM, I see maintaining a connection with Pelham and it's small school with classrooms that have doors to be a plus for Amherst, because it gives us access to a small school which some students may benefit from. Is this true?

MaryAnn Grim said...


My understanding of how the voting for Superintendent goes is this:

The Region votes and Union 26 votes. At the Regional level, there are nine members, so a vote of 5 to 4 is enough to choose a Super.

At the Union 26 level, as you know there are six members, three Amherst and three Pelham. So a vote of 4 to 2 is needed to choose a Super. A vote of 3 to 3 is not enough to choose, and hence that particular candidate will not be offered the position. So, as you can see, not only does Pelham have veto power but Amherst does too. At least one member of either town needs to vote with all the members of the other town in order to select a Superintendent. Or, the vote could be 2 members of each town voting for a particular candidate.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 7:46 - it is clear the current Union 26 arrangement is very beneficial for Pelham. In fact, Pelham is in the most advantageous superintendency union in the state of Massachusetts. It is also clear it is disadvantageous to Amherst. So, the only choice now is whether we act to do something, or just acknowledge that it is unfair to Amherst and let it go.

Michael - thank you for using your name, and I agree that we need a full and open process in which the qualifications of all candidates are carefully considered (fiscal/budget, curriculum/instruction, teaching experience, service as principal, etc.).

Abbie - thank you for using your name and I share your thoughts about the meeting. It seemed odd to me that not a single member from Pelham acknowledged the massive inequity in voting, and how this might be concerning.

Right now, Amherst residents pay over 94% of the superintendent and central office cost at the elementary level and has 50% of the votes to hire and evaluate a superintendent (3 Amherst SC members get to vote; the other 2 do not). Pelham pays less than 6% of the superintendent's salary and also has 50% of the votes (and all 3 Pelham members get to vote).

Hiring a superintendent requires a vote by the Region (which can be 5 to 4, for example, if all Amherst members vote one way and the non-Amherst members vote a different way), and a vote by the union (which means either Amherst or Pelham could block a vote by the Region).

There are two key things to note here:

First, Pelham is the ONLY town of its size in the state that can veto a superintendent vote -- neither Leverett or Shutesbury can block such a vote in their union.

Second, Amherst is the ONLY town of its size that can have its vote blocked -- all other towns of this size aren't in a union.

And, no, it isn't legal possible for one Pelham member to agree to vote with Amherst or something else -- the law is very clear on this.

Now, it would be quite easy to form a regional agreement at the elementary level with Pelham, and that agreement would allow more proportional voting on a superintendent (e.g., 5 to 2 or something).

And I actually sent Kip an email yesterday asking why he felt Leverett should be involved in Union 26 -- I'm totally unclear about why it effects them! After all, I do not ever recall Leverett asking Amherst for their thoughts on Union 28. If you go to the October 5th meeting, please let me know! That sounds like a good idea, frankly.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Janet - thank you for using your name, and I agree with everything you said. It seems very clear that Union 26 is a bad idea for Amherst, and it seems very clear that there are two major options that Pelham should be considering (since I don't believe keeping the current Union 26 one is viable, as I've said repeatedly): they could form a regional agreement with Amherst OR they could move to a different union (e.g., Union 28). That is for Pelham to decide, obviously -- though I would hope it wouldn't take 8 months! I should also note that Amherst asked to form a joint visioning committee with Pelham in June to explore how the two towns might work on options together (e.g., regionalization) and they weren't interested in doing so. But knowing what the Amherst SC would agree to in terms of a regional agreement (e.g., could there be a commitment to keep the Pelham school open? what would the voting representation be?) should help Pelham figure out its options and how appealing they might be.

Anonymous 9:18 - good questions! So, Pelham clearly benefits from the union arrangement tremendously. Amherst really doesn't, with the POSSIBLE exception of having some small costs paid (and even then it isn't clear whether there is a net gain) -- and Amherst loses considerable control over hiring/evaluating a superintendent that ALL other towns of our size have. I think a regional agreement would allow a closer connection between Amherst and Pelham because there would then be common curriculum between all the four schools -- now, kids can choice into Pelham from Amherst, but then they don't have the same experiences necessarily (e.g., they don't have Spanish right now in Pelham but they do in Amherst).

A regional district would equalize voting more proportionally, create a unified district (which means some kids living in Amherst could go to the Pelham school without choicing in) AND reduce central office budget keeping -- because the superintendent/central office would then supervise TWO budgets (one region at elementary, one region at MS/HS). This seems like a real win-win.

MaryAnn - thank you for using your name. And you are right about the voting. HOWEVER, what I think we need to be clear on is that there is no other town in Massachusetts the size of Pelham that can veto a superintendent. And there is no other town the size of Amherst that can't control its own destiny in terms of hiring a superintendent. So, the idea that both Amherst and Pelham have equal power to veto seems silly, when one pays 95% of the bill and has 90% of the kids and the other pays 5% of the bill and has 10% of the kids! That is the big problem with Union 26 and there is no way to get around this without getting out of the union.

FR Parent said...

Anon 9:18: I think your point about "maintaining a connection with Pelham and it's small school with classrooms that have doors to be a plus for Amherst, because it gives us access to a small school which some students may benefit from" isn't directly pertinent to the discussion about Union 26. Even if Union 26 were to dissolve, Pelham would still have to rely on school choice to maintain its enrollments and, by law, Amherst students would still be eligible to compete for those slots.

Under a regional agreement, however, it might be that Amherst students can attend Pelham elementary and visa-versa, without any exchange of money between the two towns. Is that correct, Catherine? In this case, the benefit to Amherst is obvious since we lose over $150,000 per year in school choice funds to Pelham. I am not sure, however, that it would benefit Pelham. Certainly the current Union 26 arrangement is more of a benefit to Pelham than a regional one would be. I guess the question for Pelham is "would a regional K-6 agreement with Amherst be preferable to no K-6 relationship with Amherst at all."

For Amherst I think the choice is clear--either going it alone K-6 or a regional K-6 agreement with Pelham is much preferable to the current, untenable Union 26 situation. I hope this is resolved quickly and we don't have to wait until Pelham decides what it wants to do. Are you listening, Amherst School Committee?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

FR Parent - good points. So, if we had a regional agreement with Pelham, we could work out some system by which Amherst kids could attend Pelham (like we used to allow with the open enrollment into different schools within Amherst). Families that wanted a small school choice might prefer this option. The details of a regional agreement would have to be worked out (e.g., how would finances be shared between the towns? could the Pelham school be closed?), and that is why it is complicated -- and I wish Pelham was working with Amherst at an earlier point to see if there might be agreeable terms we could come to (and if not, I believe both districts should go their own way). The difficulty is that it is easy for Amherst to go its own way -- we can pay for a superintendent/central office on our own. Pelham can't so they would need to decide what to do (e.g., do they form a union with another town/set of towns). But I don't think Amherst can wait until May to learn what Pelham wants.

The Amherst SC would like to hear from Amherst residents about their thoughts on Union 26 -- what should we do, and when. You can reach us all at: It would be very helpful for us to hear from the community about your thoughts! Obviously I'm reading/responding to my blog, but this is not necessarily a source of information used by the other members, so the best way to get the same information to all of us is via email.

Anonymous said...

In regard to MaryAnn Grim's comment:

I see what you are saying about Amh having veto power for a supt candidate. However, as an Amh resident I'd like more than just veto power. Having only veto power allows us to fail a search - which is a ridiculously expensive endeavor.

I have a strong suspicion that the SC members who recently voted to immediately hire Maria - put off selecting the search firm - are going to stand firm no matter who applies for the position.

The hilltowns are happy because their white middle class kids do well under the current system - but Amherst has kids from many different backgrounds who may benefit from doing things differently - which may require some change - and many in the system seem to be resisting change.

Anonymous said...

I think Anon 11:17's comment is so important to think about.

Catherine, Steve, & Rob have been painted as elitist and worse, but the hill towns are bastions of white privilege. Why doesn't anyone understand that the Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham don't look anything like Amherst in terms of school age demographics.

Why are all the usual suspects in town who go on and on about social justice siding with the wealthier, definitely whiter hill towns over the interests of Amherst?

Anonymous said...

Another point involves who the superintendent reports to. If half of the performance review is based on 10% of the students, the superintendent could focus a disproportionate share of effort and attention to that 10%. Another way of looking at it is that 50% of your bosses are only concerned with how you are doing with 10% of your students.

Also sort of weird in that 50% of your bosses only pay 4% of your salary.

Anonymous said...

As a parent of a child in one of Amherst's elementary schools, and as a taxpayer and voter, I am just thrilled that the SC is taking up this issue and working toward getting out of Union 26 with Pelham. My child attends Crocker Farm and the interests and priorities for my child are just different than what they are in Pelham.

The sooner we get out of this agreement, the better it will be for Pelham because it will force them to look at their elementary school and figure out what is best. I think they have some tough decisions ahead and the sooner they get started, the better. There are not even enough kids in Pelham for them to support one elementary school, why should the residents of the town be given so much representation on matters that affect Amherst in such a significant way? My point is they don't even have enough students for one school, yet the town's representatives are weighing in significantly on issues that affect so many schools. It is just not right, it is not representative, and I agree, it doesn't seem right that such a small, privileged group is weighing in in such a disproportionate way. How many public housing projects do they have in Pelham? I don't think there is any comparison between Pelham and Amherst.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 11:17 - I think the key thing to remember is that Amherst pays 94% (or more) of the superintendent's salary, and has 90% of the population. WHY would Amherst be satisfied with 50% of the vote? That is no way this is fair to residents of Amherst. And I agree that members of the small towns may well be looking for different characteristics in a superintendent than those from Amherst. And if we are all looking for the SAME thing, then it wouldn't matter if Pelham has veto power anyway (which I don't think they should, given that the pay so very, very little of the superintendent and central office expenses).

Anonymous 11:26 - you raise a great question! I continue to puzzle about how Steve and I are painted as elitist when our major accomplishments have been closing a school (to improve education for all kids), redistricting (to increase equity in our schools), and pushing for the very diverse and lower income residents of Amherst to stop subsidizing education in the largely white middle class Pelham. I have no idea why the "social justice side" on this issue is pro-maintaining Union 26!

Anonymous 11:33 - I made this point repeatedly last year during subcommittee meetings in which we discussed the superintendent evaluation. The smart thing to do as a superintendent would be to REALLY please SC members of Pelham, which it should be far easier to do than please the SC members of Amherst (which must manage a larger and more diverse and lower achieving school system). This isn't just about hiring the superintendent -- it is also about evaluating him/her, and the current split just doesn't seem fair.

Anonymous 12:04 - I agree with much of what you said ... and I share your hope that the Amherst SC votes to make some change in the Union 26 agreement, which I frankly think is our responsibility to the Amherst tax payers.

Ed said...

I regret missing this meeting -- I was trying to help a family friend get elected to the General Court.

The more I think about this, I go back to thinking that Pelham should contract with Amherst for a Supt without any say in who the Supt is -- other than they can opt out if not happy. This means that (if Pelham is making a meaningful payment) Amherst will make sure that the Supt is acceptable to Pelham (lest they loose Pelham) while Amherst -- and Amherst alone -- gets to pick the Supt (which addresses Amherst's issues).

This is right-wing free-market thinking, I know, but doesn't it meet *both* towns most basic needs?

And as to percentages, let me throw out yet another approach -- square miles of municipality. It is more work to be the Supt of a rural district which is why the Supts of smaller rural districts are paid almost as much as those of larger but more compact ones.

Think of something as simple as conditions at bus stops - something that the Supt is responsible for (heaven forbid, but were a child to be assaulted by a child molester, everyone would hold the Supt responsible, trust me...).

Well it doesn't really matter if this is a stop where 15 kids get onto the bus, or where just one does -- there is the negative side of the economy of scale.

I really would like to see a study of what percentage of the staff (not just Supt's) day goes to Amherst and what part goes to Pelham....

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:06!!! If you support Amherst staying in Union 26, tell us and C.S. your ideas for why it's beneficial to Amherst, Pelham, the universe. Talk about facts, history, logical ideas. You can't just sit there and say C.S. doesn't listen or change without giving any reasons for any position. What are you thinking of Union 26? Why?

Anonymous said...

There really is nothing wrong with being white and affluent -- or with living in Pelham. I don't think Pelham residents are sitting in their living rooms thinking they are pulling one over on Amherst by the Union 26 agreeement. I don't thin anyone has thought about Union 26 for 75 years -- and no one has been, it seems, thinking about what a fair share of administrative costs between the two towns should be. All this is why it's good to do a review of basically everything periodically. There are a lot of new people on the school committees of all the towns and no one should be demonized for bringing up topics and issues -- or for where they live, their skin colors, bank balance, job or opinions. Let's just keep talking, nicely and directly, and sort things out together -- if only for the reason that we will wind up running into each other in the grocery store, over and over and over.


Ed said...

There really is nothing wrong with being white and affluent -- or with living in Pelham.

I would agree except that I really am none of the three.

The Union was created when Pelham was physically twice the size it is now -- some 30 years before the Quabbin would chew up everything including Daniel Shay's Tavern. So it isn't just that Amherst grew in the early '70s, it is that Pelham shrunk in the late '30s.

Pelham is the only town I am aware of that doesn't have its own ZIP code (you use Amherst's) -- the real solution is to annex Pelham into Amherst and tax property at Amherst rates. LOTS of opinions up there would change real fast were that to happen....

if only for the reason that we will wind up running into each other in the grocery store, over and over and over.

HOW? Amherst has no grocery stores, they are all in Hadley -- and the one(s) in Belchertown are easier to get to and likely closer...

Pelham really should either be part of Amherst, controlled by Amherst or totally separated from Amherst. And this is the underlying Union 26 issue...

Ed said...

As to the "hilltowns", there is a much larger issue -- where are their low-income housing developments? Where are *their* apartment complexes? Where is *their* public housing -- owned by either the local housing authority or outfits like HAP? And where is their accessable rental housing (e.g 33 Pomeroy Lane development)?

Amherst has the low-income housing and thus has the low income children - who have needs different from the children of parents with six-figure family incomes who reside in their own homes.

We can bring race in because everyone likes to do that, but it more simply is (a) single mothers, (b) with unstable lives/frequent moves, and (c) low income that are the issues in Amherst -- and don't exist above 500 feet or so.

Of the 1,500 Sect 8 voucher-years I was responsible for (e.g. one voucher for one year), care to guess how many were in Pelham? THREE -- one apartment for one year, another for two. Yes, one/fifth of one percent!

Amherst is dealing with poverty, Pelham is not. That is significant....

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:26, the "hilltowns" are not bastions of white wealth as you imply. They may not be racially diverse but they have FAR more economic variety than you suggest. And let's not forget that this whole investigation into Union 26 was motivated by sour grapes. Catherine and Steve Rivkin were peeved that they didn't get their way last spring; after Rodriguez left in a huff they wanted to expend time on a search for an interim supt., which would have been followed one year later by a search for a permanent supt. The votes went against them and then, suddenly, Union 26 became a huge problem. This is not as high-minded a discussion as Catherine would like everyone to believe.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 11:26

I understand the the hill towns aren't Grennwich, CT, but they are very white and (and here's the important point) compared to Amherst, much less economically diverse.

Still, I agree with your basic point that Union 26 didn't become a major issue until Pelham's three Union members stymied the three from Amherst on the super vote. You're right and that proves the point of all the people who want to dissolve the Union.

The Amherst Union members represent literally thousands of Amherst voters. Each Amherst SC member spends a tremendous amount of time meeting with voters, going to voter forums, discussing these issues and hearing from voters for months. Like it or not, they represent the will of the much bigger town that pays the vast majority of the costs.

That's the point. A tiny minority (Pelham residents) stymied the will of the vast majority (Amherst residents). You'll say that the Amherst SC doesn't represent the views of all Amherst residents and that's no doubt true, but they were elected in free and open votes with plenty of vigorous debate to represent the interests of Amherst -- its school children, their parents, and all taxpayers.