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: http://www.gazettenet.com/2010/09/30/amherst-pelham-schools039-connection-still-vexing-town-boards.
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.