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, October 6, 2010

More Feedback Wanted on Localocracy

I've just posted a new question on localocracy, because I realized from reading the responses (and in particular the reasons given) that my first question wasn't really clear. Once again, if you are an Amherst registered voter, you can go on this site and vote (and you can vote anonymously if you want) or you can ask a question to get more information ( I've pasted my entire localocracy post below, just FYI -- and I'd be glad to hear thoughts/questions here as well (though will look to localocracy to see how the tally of actual registered voters goes). As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

So, I have read through all of the very helpful reasons/questions given on my last issue, and realize that a number of people were confused about what precisely that question asked … hence this question will be similar, but a bit more direct to help voters learn about the key issue, and to hopefully provide more useful feedback. Much of the information I posted on the last issue is still relevant (e.g., Amherst is in a union with Pelham, votes are shared equally on hiring/evaluating the superintendent, there is currently no written formula in terms of how those costs are shared, etc.), but I’m also presenting some new information about an option that I’d love to get feedback on.

Basically there are three options – Amherst can stay in the current Union 26 situation (this has pretty mixed support — some feel it is fine, some feel it needs to be fixed), Amherst can form its own K to 6 district (although this might be possible, the state would certainly come in because Pelham would need to find some new situation, and that probably isn’t fast/easy), or Amherst and Pelham can form a joint elementary regional district (like the current 7 to 12 arrangement, but with 2 towns instead of 4). I’d like to get feedback on the desirability of exploring this third possibility, forming a regional elementary district, for three reasons.

First, many of the people who supported staying in Union 26 expressed support for maintaining a strong relationship with Pelham. Having a regional agreement would actually strengthen the current arrangement, as there would be a single SC making all policy decisions for the Amherst and Pelham schools (e.g., like we have 3 schools now in Amherst, this would just be 4). This would make curriculum alignment and sharing of resources easier (e.g., right now the Amherst schools have Spanish and Pelham does not, both SCs could adopt different math curriculum, etc.). It would also simplify the superintendent’s job somewhat (e.g., managing two budgets, not 3; reporting to 2 SCs, not 3).

Second, many of the people who supported getting out of Union 26 expressed concern about the inequity in voting (e.g., a town with 10% of the population having 50% of the vote in hiring/evaluating a superintendent). A regional agreement would mean the two towns could get a different number of school committee seats, and thus would not require equal representation.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it seems that it is impossible to know whether either Amherst or Pelham would like a regional elementary agreement unless these two towns starting talking to each other in terms of what the terms would be (so that we could see if mutually-agreeable terms could be reached). For example, the towns would have to agree on how costs would be divided, if students living in one town could attend school in the other town, the number of School Committee seats each town would have, and the rules (if any) governing major changes (e.g., closing a school could require the support of Town Meeting of that town). I’m sure there are other details, but these are the types of things that would have to be discussed before either town could know if a regional agreement was in fact a good idea. It might therefore make sense for such discussions to start sooner rather than later so that both towns would know whether a regional elementary agreement might be a viable option moving forward.

And one important point for all to keep in mind: because of the various details and logistics that would have to be worked out if and when a decision was made to change the current configuration in any way, such a change could not go into effect until next summer at the earliest (e.g., none of this could impact the upcoming superintendent hire either way).

So, my question is whether the Amherst School Committee should ask the Pelham School Committee to explore the the benefits of a regional agreement for both towns. A “Yes” vote means you believe this exploration should occur, and a “No” vote means you believe this exploration should NOT occur (meaning you could believe that the current situation is preferable to a regional elementary agreement and no discussion should happen regarding changing it, OR you believe Amherst should form its own district that doesn’t include Pelham). I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Hey, folks!

For more Adventures in Blindly Passionate Argument, check out the latest installment on

I draw your attention to the argument in favor of Union 26, drawing the analogy of Union 26 with our US Senate and its unique system of representation of 2 senators per state.

This is presented as an unalloyed virtue, ignoring several centuries of history, in which the US Senate, with its peculiarly disproportional rural composition, has been a significant barrier to Congressional voting representation for the District of Columbia, other civil rights legislation, and meaningful urban policy, and a boon to agricultural subsidies. The US Senate has been an American institution that has kept blacks and other minorities down for decades. To this day, we have no meaningful debate in this country about the state of our cities.

With local liberals drawing breathtakingly thoughtless analogies like this one, who needs Fox News?

Anonymous said...

I doubt Pelham would regionalize with Amehrst at all - and if they by some slim chance did agree to it, I'm sure they would want us to keep their school open. Amherst would lose even more money to Pelham than it is losing now if we agreed to keep their school open. It doesn't seem as though we need the extra space at the elem level and they don't have enough students to fill it. Also we don't take choice students at elem level - So we would have to change our policy on choice as well in order to generate enough revenue to keep their school open.

Anonymous said...

When you have systems of government that do not use proportional representation (one person, one vote), someone gets screwed to the benefit of someone else.

In America, that "someone" getting screwed has been urban minorities.

Gee, I wonder who that "someone" is in Amherst?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 6:59 - I'm all for people having blogs and sharing their views. But I continue to be astonished at people's ability to say that Union 26 is just like the Senate. As another person posted on localocracy, that is only true if there were no house of representatives and the Senate chose the president. They just aren't comparable.

Anonymous 7:32 - there may very well be good reasons for Amherst AND for Pelham to not regionalize. I think the question is whether we should explore this before making a decision about exiting Union 26. There are only three options, and this strikes me as at least plausible. Yes?

Anonymous 7:38 - intriguing point. Thanks for sharing your view.

Anonymous said...

The only way to explain much of this is that some people have gotten themselves so turned around, so incensed, so emotional, so worked up about Sanderson and Rivkin that they can't think straight.

We have an entire American city, Washington DC, without ANY voting representation in Congress. Would these folks find some way to justify that, too?

The bottom line is that all we want is a fair and open search for a Superintendent who can best serve all the children of the Region, including the poor, the disadvantaged, those who cannot afford tutors and private schools. Is that too much to ask?

Tom Porter said...

Anon 11:06: I've lived in Washington DC and I've lived in Amherst, and I'm not sure which is loonier.

In fact, DC has had representation in Congress for over 20 years now with Eleanor Holmes Horton, one of the most shameless and heavy-handed of pol's. She's in the House and serves on committees like other Representatives, as a "Delegate to Congress" - a quasi-Representative state that's less than other states have, but more than DC needs.

DC voters used to be able to stick it to the man by choosing license plates with the cheeky slogan "Taxation Without Representation." When it was revealed days before the 1990 election that EHN had failed to file taxes for several years and owed thousands of $$$, campaign manager Donna Brazile got Eleanor over the line by calling the charge "racist" and generating a huge voter surge.

With our new Representative in place, some suggested that DC should re-word the license plates to now read "Representation Without Taxation."

EHN will be re-elected for the tenth time next month of course.

Amherst can do better by continuing to model its governance on any place but DC! :-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Catherine for pointing out how lousy the Senate analogy is. Do people know how the federal government is set up constitutionally? That there is no decision the Senate can take unilaterally other than picking out the color of the rug in the Senate chamber and setting up their own internal rules?

Reading people repeating this false fact about the Senate is like watching Fox TV where the same false line is repeated by talking head after talking head until the false fact becomes truthy.

Whew, glad I got that out.

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

Here's how I prioritize the whole matter of getting out of Union 26.

If I could do only one of either killing Union 26 or killing the trimester system, I know which one I would pick.

Somebody, somebody on School Committee, please take that trimester system out behind the barn and shoot it.

HS Parent said...

I understand that the teachers at the high school are unwilling to give up the trimester system and that it was written into their current contract. Isn't this the last year of their contract? And is the School Committee going to make sure that the trimester system is NOT in the next contract? I agree with the previous poster that is it not in the best interest of the kids. I have one child who has gone literally a year without math because they didn't have it in trimester 3 of year 1, had the summer off, then didn't have math again in trimester 1 of year 2. This makes it difficult to keep math skills honed. It also goes against Amherst's work to close the achievement gap since students with fewer resources at home are more likely to lose skills over the summer (now compounded by a longer gap due to trimesters). Catherine, can you update us on the situation with the contract negotiations? Will the trimester system be on the chopping block?

Anonymous said...

Please get rid of the trimester system! It is completely detrimental to the quality of the ARHS educational experience. This is a much more crucial issue than Union 26.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses to Anonymous 11:13, HS Parent, and Anonymous 3:27 - alas, the School Committee doesn't control the HS schedule ... this is entirely up to a vote of the HS teachers (because the SC gave up the right to choose the schedule in contract negotiations some time ago). This was actually one of the reasons I voted against continuing with the use of our current attorney, who was our attorney when this contract was signed (apparently it is HIGHLY unique in the state of MA for a school committee to give up this right). I have no idea whether a change in having control over the HS schedule would be a term that changes in the new contract (yes, it is up for renewal this year), nor could I talk on a blog about anything occurring in such negotiations at any time.

However, the best way to effect a change (which could actually occur either through a change in the contract or through the teachers at the HS voting to change the schedule, which could happen at any time) would be to (a) write a letter to the Bulletin, (b) write a letter to the Regional SC requesting such a change, and/or (c) come to a Regional SC Meeting and speak in favor of such a change. You could also share your views with HS teachers and/or the HS principal. I agree that the trimester system has some distinct disadvantages for our students, as I believe I've discussed at other points on this blog, which is probably why most HS in MA and indeed in the US are on a semester schedule.

Anonymous said...

How far would one have to drive to get to the closest community geographically to
Amherst with a public high school system with a trimester system?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 3:57 - I believe Andover or North Andover high school are on a trimester system. That's the only school district I'm aware of in MA that uses this system. If anyone knows of others (or closer ones), please let me know. This is another way in which our HS seems very unique, but again, the schedule isn't able to influenced at all by the SC -- the HS teachers choose the schedule, and when they last voted (nearly 2 years ago), they voted 2 to 1 to maintain the trimester system. A report was done several years ago (2007 or 2008) on the trimester system, including surveys of parents and teachers (maybe students as well), but that report has never been released so I have no idea what it said.

Anonymous said...

The senate analogy is fine...The senate does have power, how about the confirmation of all Supreme Court Judges, the ratification of any treaties and more...

Anonymous said...

October 6, 2010 6:59 PM

Thank you for the funny post!!! I had a good laugh!!!

Anonymous said...

Stop! Stop!

Who nominates Supreme Court judges? The president, who is elected by a popular vote in each state muted by the Electoral College. Who negotiates, then signs an international treaty? Again, the president. How does legislation become law? Both houses of Congress must pass it, then it is signed by the president. If it is vetoed by the president, then both Houses must re-pass the law by larger voting margins.

There is no vote that the Senate can take that doesn't require the agrement of another, more representative part of the government to put into effect, be in the president or the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives is re-apportioned every 10 years to reflect population shifts.

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

To Anon 7:08

The Senate analogy is quite off. The senate does not NAME Supreme Court Justices. It plays the role of advice and consent. The Senate does not make treaties, it approves them and modern presidential power has demonstrated quite clearly how the chief executive can act with or without treaties, or even Senate approval of appointees (see "recess appointments").

The President has a great deal of power, the federal judiciary is appointed for life, so after "consent" they are completely free and the Senate is only one half of one third of the three branches of government in the US (again, these are not really equal branches in practice).

So, tell me again how Union 26, which mirrors the Senate but has no other countervailing force (no popularly elected House, no popularly elected president, no multi-branch vetted judiciary) is a legitimate way to represent the interests of Amherst citizens?

Ed said...

We have an entire American city, Washington DC, without ANY voting representation in Congress. Would these folks find some way to justify that, too?

I realize this is off topic but the Social Studies teacher in me is cringing and NEEDS to respond to this - and the US Senate issue.

We are a republic of 50 independent states - Washington was created for the sole purpose of being neutral (and hence NOT a state) and everyone was supposed to be represented through the states in which they resided.

Now times have changed, DC grew. And there are places - like Takoma Park, MD, where it is almost impossible to tell the difference between MD and DC, right on down to the police ignoring the state line through interagency agreements. And the fair thing is to give DC back to MD and let everyone vote as a Maryland resident, with MD getting the extra seats in the US House.

The US Park Service would still do what it does - and what DC was set up to be (government land/buildings) and the truly incompetent government would be replaced by the much more competent (although demograpically identical) MD govt.

And as to why VT is entitled to 2 US Senators (when we could instead give those seats to TX and have a few more Republicans) is because each state is soverign. That is what a republic is and the fact that people don't know this is truly scary....