Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back!

This is almost tooooo funny for words. Now I'm told from a reliable source that a cabal of local School Committee Chairs has filed a letter of complaint/inquiry with the District Attorney questioning the legality of a certain (perky, forthright blond) Amherst School Committee member having a public blog.

Key word of course of course being PUBLIC. The Open Meeting Law is designed to ensure public matters do not get discussed in PRIVATE. What are they afraid of?

Or maybe I should cite "Revenge of the Nerds?" Although... he did rate a red chili pepper for "hotness" at but you still have to wonder about the lumberjack shirt for a public meeting.

Regional School Committee (you know that four town alliance where little old Amherst comprises 80% of total student body) Chair Farshid Hajir showed up at an Amherst School Committee meeting the other night to take advantage of the 'Public Comment' period and harangue the Amherst board over the handling of the Union 26 battle, a union of two where Amherst funds 94% of the overhead to Pelham's 6% but only has a 50% say in administrative matters.

Interestingly Mr. Hajir at an earlier Regional School Committee Meeting trumpeted that recent emails reverberating between himself, Irv Rhodes Chair of Amherst School Committee, Union 26 Chair Tracy Farnham and Superintendent Maria Geryk had "clearly violated Open Meeting Law."

This is of course the same as poking and then throwing raw meat to an aging, overweight, sleeping Rottweiler, thus--even the Daily Hampshire Gazette--asked for copies of the emails and received them in record time.

Of course the emails do not violate the Open Meeting Law because a quorum is allowed to discuss in writing over the phone or at the local bar "housekeeping issues" which clearly this tempest qualifies. Yes, if the discussion veered into the pros and cons of leaving Union 26 that would be a violation.

Obviously Mr. Hajir thinks the emails make Mr. Rhodes look bad while Superintendent Maria Geryk comes out the Gandhi-like peacemaker (although he did not get $135-K annual salary.)


Anonymous said...

Obviously he thinks that he's doing something constructive by essentially admitting that he's ignoring the Committee and simply speaking to Amherst residents through the cameras.

But, by getting up in the Committee's grill and trying to force a debate/discussion/conversation, he seems to have forgotten (or never learned) something that anyone with even a half-decade's political experience in the Amherst area knows:

In Amherst, we are perfectly capable, by ourselves, of cutting each other up, impugning each other's motives, engaging in parliamentary derring-do, and obstructing change WITHOUT HIS HELP, or the help of anyone outside of the Town's borders. This issue has not yet fully entered the meat-grinder that is Amherst politics.

But he is succeeding in alienating people like me who are essentially on the fence about the wisdom of addressing the issue of Union 26.

If Abraham Lincoln had been this counter-productive in preserving THAT Union, we'd be driving through customs these days at the Mason-Dixon Line.

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

Yes Mr. Morse, the oldest (now outdated) saying in journalism is not to "mess with people who buy ink by the barrel."

And as a 25+ year attendee at all too many public meetings I would have been somewhat smart enough to know I was NOT on my home turf and not as President Reagan would say, the one who "paid for this microphone."

More clips to follow (Revenge of the Jedi)

Marcy Sala said...

You're committing the same mistake that Hajir is chiding the committee for; assuming it's all about Amherst. When we have as much at stake in common as we do, it is not simply all about Amherst (politics or otherwise). That's what has raised the ire of so many people. Not that our SC is seeking legal counsel on its options, but that it is refusing to be communicative with the other towns (particularly Pelham) about their motives and intent for doing so. So talk of of our lack of need for "help" from anyone "outside our borders" only functions to further the divide of self interest. Sure, each SC has a self interest constituency that they need to pay foremost attention to. But for a long while, we have also functioned in a way that acknowledged and showed respect for the existence of our mutual interests. That is what I have found lacking in this whole process and I think what Pelham and Region folks have been looking for: an acknowledgement that what Amherst chooses to do (and why) has huge potential ramifications for the other towns and that it is not unreasonable to expect that the representatives of those towns would like the courtesy of being publicly informed about it. The whole issue of whether or not the meeting was "forced" against the will of Amherst members matters little to me because I regret that the other towns were put in that position to begin with.

Anonymous said...

Or, in other words, Mr. Rogers would definitly NOT approve of the conduct of the members of the Amherst SC.

As an Amherst resident, I am embarrassed by the behavior of our School Committee. Decades of working together with Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury with mutual respect have been blown to smithereens in a few short weeks by the Amherst SC. And the most disturbing aspect of all of this is that the Amherst SC doesn't seem to care.

Anonymous said...

I think that you're missing my point, Marcy.

If there had been no Farshid-called recess, no Tracy filibuster in which she talked to herself, no Farshid attempt Tuesday night to drive a wedge between Amherst voters and their School Committee, the Amherst School Committee might have quietly met with their lawyer about the Union, and decided "Screw it", and the issue would have dried up and blown away. Like Punxsatawny Phil, it would have come out of its hole, seen its shadow, and gone back in its hole. Quietly.

But because we've had this ongoing confrontation precipitated by this insistence on dictating an agenda and demanding "sharing" and "communication", there's now a growing popular constituency in Amherst for leaving the Union. (For every action, there's a reaction.) You saw it in the person of Wolfe, Jensen, et al in public comment time Tuesday. Their position has far more traction town-wide than it had over a week ago.

So NOW there's a burden of proof that will have to be met for either course: staying in the Union or getting out. Great.

My fear is that this issue will grow and, like a big political oil slick, engulf the entire remainder of the agenda for the Amherst School Committee (which is more important to me than this) and crap up everything.

Rich Morse

Barbara said...


I usually agree with much of what you say and always appreciate the thoughtful way you write. This time, however, I disagree with you.

Steve Rivkin has had his eye on the Union configuration for some time now. He started making off hand comments about it months ago. Then in January the legislature passed an amendment to the Union act that opened a door to schools looking to leave a Union. Steve Rivkin is VERY politically astute. He waited until after the spring SC election and then, as soon as he could, made the motion to look into the Union.

Once Steve Rivkin or Catherine Sanderson decide on a way to proceed, NOTHING changes their mind or stand in their way. NOTHING!!! There is NO WAY that we are not going to attempt to pull out of the Union, if the lawyer says it can be done easily. And, I am sure that if the lawyer says it can be done but Amherst may be in for a rough ride of it because of a possible protracted legal battle, we will still forge ahead.

Joel Wolfe is a friend of Steve and Catherine's and I am sure they have already talked about it among themselves and no matter what, Joel would be joining them in urging this Amherst first, everyone else be damned, quest.

I would not lump Abbie Jensen in with Joel Wolfe. She seems more reasonable. I sometimes agree with her and sometimes disagree but she seems to arrive at decisions in a thoughtful way.

In a nutshell, Rich, I fear we are in for a rough ride for the next few months. And I am disappointed and saddened.

Anonymous said...


You make it all sound oh so sinister and conspiratorial.

Let me add to your web of deceit:

I'm a friend of Catherine's and I respect Steve.

I voted for them to be change-agents, to care about the schools and to try to make them better, not to be daunted by bureaucratic inertia, NOT to simply sit there and keep a seat warm. I am especially intrigued by Steve's alternative vision of our schools' finances, contradicted dutifully each time he expresses it by Ms. Geryk.

Was getting out of Union 26 what I had in mind? No. Can I be convinced that doing so is a good idea? Yes. Am I there yet? No.

Here's where we agree: if the lawyer says that it's easy, I suspect they will recommend to get out. And then they will have to overcome all of our strongest prejudices in favor of the status quo (which is where Mr. Hood becomes crucial); everything including the book and the plow will be thrown at that hateful SC. In Amherst, those prejudices in favor of changing nothing are VERY strong.

So this threatens to become a black hole, sucking everything else about education into it.

Rich Morse

Barbara said...

"I am especially intrigued by Steve's alternative vision of our schools' finances, contradicted dutifully each time he expresses it by Ms. Geryk."


I think its important for people who disagree on some things to find other areas where they agree. Nothing is black and white in this world!!!

So, I wanted to say that I also found Steve'e alternative vision of our school's finances intriguing. I'd like to see more detail and information along these lines. Perhaps when the CBAC is reconstituted this can be one of the areas they can look into.

I don't know if Steve's vision is correct or not but I would be interested in seeing a closer look.

Marcy said...

You are concentrating on the should we or shouldn't we get out of the union. That's not what this current flap is about, or at least not what it's primarily about for me. It's about our committee being so adamant about being in absolute control of any discussion about it with the other committees, who also have a huge stake in what happens (and have constituencies that they represent that deserve to be informed about what's going on). There is no such thing as "quietly meeting with a lawyer", when the motion for doing so had to be done in public. All I heard the Union and Region chairs asking for is an explanation, in joint session, about what was going on. I'm disappointed that our members couldn't extend that courtesy and instead turned it into some kind of unfortunate power play. That's all.

Anonymous said...


What would such a discussion yield, in your mind? If this whole scenario had played out according to your vision, how would it have happened?

I see five SC members who were sand-bagged, i.e. caught by surprise, by a surprise recess called mid-Region meeting, and then confronted into a discussion. They pushed back in the meeting, and Ms. Farnham continued talking. I just don't see that as a "power play", as you put it.

Let me be clear:
The past references to past SC members' "mistakes"? I didn't like that.

The ad hominem back stories about disagreeing citizens or Regional SC members and where they choose to school their children? I don't like that.

But I'm trying to be fair, and I don't see what you see. And, most recently, I see a Regional Chair getting in front of the cameras and trying to drive a wedge between the SC and the Town's voters.

I believe that it is ALWAYS possible for citizens to invoke THEIR standards of proper public behavior (which you seem to be doing) in order to shut people down, without appearing to disagree on the substance, when all along the problem underneath IS the substance.

When can we move from the ettiquette to the substance?

Rich Morse

250th committee eat your hearts out said...


LarryK4 said...

Substance indeed!

I believe it was Abby who pointed out at the Amherst SC meeting about how if this 100+ year old agreement were only now coming up for a vote to form the Union would Amherst accept those terms? (paying 94% of the business overhead with only a 50% say in administration.)

Perhaps the Regional Agreement should also be looked at since the other three towns can force Amherst to accept a Regional budget even though Amherst represents 80% of the Region.

Anonymous said...

Amherst should just tell Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham to all take a hike!! We don't need them and we don't want to have anything to do with them.

We just want to be by ourselves and rule ourselves the way we want, without any interference from our neighbors. Just think how great it would be if we did not have to collaborate with anyone.

So, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury...hit the road! We don't need you and we don't want to have anything to do with you!

LarryK4 said...

Hmm...As I've said sarcasm needs a special font.

It's not that we don't want to have anything to do with our neighbors, it's just that we really do not NEED them.

And the Regional study committee supposedly coming back any day now with a report may actually say that. Or not.

But I can assure you, we do not NEED an agreement/union where Amherst funds 94% of the overhead and only has a 50% vote on how that $ is spent.

Anonymous said...

Sanderson and Rivkin are gearing up to create a high school filled with AP classes so their elementary aged children can somehow compete with all of those kids form the top 100 high schools in America. What makes them the top 100?

The only criteria are AP scores.

The last supt, arod, tried to force their game down the schools' throats but the teachers and admins had the courage to speak up against such an illegal move.

They couldn't win with arod and then they really took one on the chin when the collective sc appointed someone Sanderson doesn't like, someone who has the courage to stand her ground against the bullying Sanderson.

Sanderson and Rvkin's behavior at every school committee meeting is appalling. It is quite obvious to anyone paying attention that they meet in private all the time. They stumble over each other when they try to put forth motion, casting glances back and forth.

Sure let's tell our neighbors in the regional agreement to go to hell, and let's tell the administrators, the superintendent and the teachers to go with them.

Who needs any of these educators? What do they know about teaching children? After all, it's all they do every day, and we all know their main goal in life is to see how many young minds they can destroy.

History shows us that these schools suck. The graduates never get into any decent schools; they can't think for themselves; they never win any national recognition and every family in town hates all of the neighboring communities.

Right? Please tell me what to think. Is this the right answer? Will this be on the exam?

I'm guessing that the only students in this town learning anything are in Sanderson and Rivkin's classes. Oh, and how many academically challenged students do either of you teach?

Go ahead and get their back Larry. It's just like you to support the rich kids in their push to get their kids into the elite schools.

Anonymous said...


LarryK4 said...

Yeah, spewed like a true blue Cowardly Anon Nitwit.

I'm shocked, shocked I say!

Anonymous said...

Ok, pretend you are seeing this in the sarcastic font!! Larry, we really gotta figure out a way to make a sarcastig font - goes:

I think we ought to set up a wrestling ring in the center of town...and let both sides have at each other!!! What great entertainment it would be.

Ok..back to our regularly scheduled programming...turning off sarcastic font now.

LarryK4 said...

I think Sanderson would take Hajir hands down.

Anonymous said...

Now that would be a great fund raiser for the schools!

Marcy said...

Hey again Rich,
At the risk of further belaboring a point that I've sufficiently belabored already (not to mention getting accidently mired in the fracas above), I'll take a stab at answering the questions you tossed my way. What I would like to have seen, is our Amherst members being willing to BRIEFLY acknowledge that the research they are doing to look into the Union 26 agreement has potential ramifications beyond themselves and to allow a BRIEF period of questioning or comments related to it. Nothing sensitive or decisive related to what might come of the inquiry needed to be divulged, as I agree that conclusions can't be drawn about what to do until information is gathered. I would have liked to have seen a spirit in which a joint meeting didn't need to be forced down anyone's throat, secretly or otherwise. And to me, that does have to do with substance. Because what we're talking about is the fate of a long standing partnership and our members were not acting in a spirit of partnership, even before any decisions have been made about whether to continue it or not. That may be too "peace, love and understanding" for you, and, if so, I'm sorry for getting all Elvis Costello on you. But to me, civility does matter. And as to your question about what the conversation would have yielded, I would say, greater transparency, a demonstration of collegial respect and a public acknowledgement of our intermingled interests. What was yielded instead, was a whole lot of unnecessary alienation and bad feeling. Good etiquette may not always yield substance. But bad etiquette sure can get in the way of it.

LarryK4 said...

What is so hard to understand about the state suddenly (2010) allowing towns out of these Unions--even ones that are over 100 years old?

Since the law is that new and we have not looked at this particular agreement since, oh, a hundred years or so--what is wrong with asking for an expert opinion?

The Amherst School Committee unanimously voted in a very public meeting to do that and you don't get those results overnight.

Until they do, their is nothing to say.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Marcy - just to clarify: I believe the Amherst SC members would have been MORE than happy to have the Pelham SC members come to an Amherst meeting (as Farshid did on Tuesday night) to answer questions Pelham might have. I believe Amherst members would have been perfectly willing to attend a Pelham SC meeting (if asked) to answer any questions. I know that Irv specifically called Tracy and said that the Amherst SC did want to sit down with the Pelham SC as soon as we had a sense of the legal options -- which would obviously influence the nature of the discussion (e.g., as Rich points out, if nothing was possible, then there wouldn't be much to discuss). I believe all of those things could have happened and indeed will happen.

What didn't feel good was the entire Amherst SC finding out that a special meeting within a meeting had been scheduled by reading the agenda of that meeting: Irv wasn't called (as Amherst chair) and I wasn't called (as Regional vice-chair, although I had attended the meeting in which the agenda was set), and 4 of the 5 Amherst members (everyone except Steve Rivkin) emailed Farshid over the weekend asking that this agenda item be removed (and it was not). In addition, the Union 26 meeting that Tracy called excluded Rob and Rick from participation, since they are not on Union 26. I pointed out at the meeting that if they really wanted to hear from all of the Amherst members, they would have set up a joint Amherst-Pelham meeting, NOT a Union 26 meeting in which only 60% of the Amherst members were able to share their views (and certainly then couldn't be representing the whole committee).

I don't believe anyone has said that what Amherst does is only their business or doesn't impact others -- all the Amherst SC has said is that we would (unanimously) like to know our legal options in terms of Union 26, which certainly is a necessary step.

Anonymous said...


I've read your comments before and you've made sense to me before.

But you are working at this way too hard.

There's something more than this episode, something more long-term that's bugging you about these folks.

I think that the Rivkin/Rhodes/Sanderson/Spence quartet are trying to do something incredibly difficult in elected office in this community. And that's be aggressive. I try to be aggressive (and honest)as a prosecutor: it means knowing that you MUST DO something as a public official, that simply talking about it or ultimately doing nothing will not suffice. And knowing that your time with the ability to do something meaningful is limited. It makes you impatient and perhaps a little less polite than you should be.

It's a completely different orientation to elected office in Amherst than what we usually see: Guardian of the Status Quo. And because it's so different, many observers resent it (and them).

I think that they've made some missteps, perhaps in how arguments are made and in how they react back to others. But they, with more energy than I've seen in years, want to get things done for the good of kids in the schools, poor kids and not poor kids. And THAT for me in the end is more important than "civility", which I put in quotes because it has a different definition for each individual.

I think that, like a theatre critic reviewing a performance by her least favorite actress, you've loaded this argument against these folks. And I don't believe that they can EVER win with you.

I will say that you haven't been as mean about it as others. And I'm quite clear that they don't need our sympathy, because being loved in the community is not their first priority. That's a liberating thing for many of us.

Rich Morse

TomG said...

What are the features of Union 26 that Amherst residents recognize as benefits and what are the features that Amherst residents recognize as undesirable or arguably undesirable.

This question seems like it might best be answered by identifying and weighing pros and cons, more so than discussing motive, strategy and/or bureaucratic maneuvering.

Anonymous said...

I think a better question is how has being in Union 26 hurt Amherst school children?

Marcy said...

Thank you for your response. Particularly:

"I don't believe anyone has said that what Amherst does is only their business or doesn't impact others --"

I'm glad to hear you say that and hope there will be a mutually agreed upon public way for that to be acknowledged and acted upon.

In response to your statement:

"I think that, like a theatre critic reviewing a performance by her least favorite actress, you've loaded this argument against these folks. And I don't believe that they can EVER win with you."

You're wrong. Why can't you just take arguments at face value? I know and like some of "these folks" personally and there is a lot that has been initiated by them that I agree with. In fact, I'm not troubled by them looking into the Union 26 agreement. I may have issues with why and how but, as I've said before, they have a right as our elected representatives to carry out what they see as their fiduciary responsibility to the town. ( Just as the Pelham folks have a right to carry out theirs by publicly inquiring about it.) I also... (reluctantly, because of it's educational value to the community) supported the closing of Mark's Meadow, was in favor of redistricting, agree that preschool is a fabulous idea, support world language and after school enrichment in the elementary schools, think a K-12 math review is needed, have similar concerns to theirs with the extensions program in the MS, think a comprehensive special ed review is necessary, and could go on. It isn't as black and white, "you're either with us or against us" a picture as some people may want to paint. You say I'm trying too hard here, but perhaps you are as well. Why don't we just accept our differing opinions and move forward in the hopes that things really do get "done for the good of kids in the schools"?

And as an aside... It's funny that it's not only anonymous posters that get accused of being disingenuous. Apparently if the opinion isn't "right" non-anonymous ones do as well. If you really do wish, as you say, that more people were willing to attach their names to their viewpoints, you should consider the wisdom of that.

I'm officially done on this topic.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Marcy - thanks for the nice response ... and I will make a point of stating this sentiment at the next meeting. I'm also very glad to hear that you agree with so much of what the Amherst SC has been working on over the last few years. It would be really great to hear from you (and others) about things we are doing well ... I often feel as though letters get written to the paper and posted on blogs only when people disagree with our choices, and not when they agree ... which perhaps is human nature, but still, I think presents an inaccurate idea for the community of the overall support/lackthereof of various School Committee actions! I do agree that we've accomplished a lot of great things, AND that in hindsight, we could have used a somewhat different approach in bringing up the Union 26 issue (which I still believe needs to be examined). Thanks for giving me this opportunity to discuss this with you.

MaryAnn said...

For the record:

I want to echo Marcy Sala's comments. I agree with the following actions of the SC:

Closing MM
SPED review
K-12 math review
World Languages initiative
Attempts at horizontal and vertical curriculum alignament K-12
Preschool (which I hope can be expanded by one classroom per year until all low-income kids have the opportunity to attend preschool)
ES afterschool enrichment
ES science review

I also am concerned about extensions, with the caveat of having no actual experience with them, so my concern may not be warranted. I would love to see a math curriculum mapped out so that the goal is for every child to be ready for algebra in the 8th grade.

I think the current 9th grade science course is great AND I also think that those who want to take biology in the 9th grade should have that choice.

I am for adding an honors chemistry class.

My opinion on trimester vs semester is not as strong as some on the SC so I guess you could color me neutral on that one.

Where I part ways with the Amherst SC is on the Union 26 issue. I do not think being part of the union has harmed Amherst students in way so I do not think there is any reason to be exploring this at the time. I am very much opposed to spending override tax dollars on studying the issue and also very much opposed to spending time looking at the issue. I am also very much opposed to the way the Amherst SC went about looking into Union 26 options. I am also dismayed at the actions and behavior of the Amherst SC members in recent meetings.

I also have a different opinion from Catherine vis a vis her new target - Professional Development. Not all PD is created equal and I think it's wrong to paint PD with such a broad stoke and say that studies have proven it has not affect on students educational outcome and so we should not spend any time or dollars on PD for Amherst teachers.

So, as Marcy says, its not black and white. Nothing in this world is black and white. People can be pleased with alot that the Amherst and Regional SCs have done in the past year..and still disagree strongly with the Amherst SC's Union 26 position and behavior of its members in recent meetings.

LarryK4 said...

The issue is not whether Union 26 has done "harm to the children of Amherst," the issue is can we do it better?

Did hiring A-Rod for $25 or $30-K more than he was worth in part because of his minority status do harm to the children of Amherst?

Probably not. But it sure as hell harmed the taxpayers who fund the bloated system.

A.N.W. said...

Marcy "It isn't as black and white, "you're either with us or against us" a picture as some people may want to paint. "

This is the most accurate description of the new Amherst SC response to the public as I have seen.

Ed said...

There is a voting rights act question here folks -- does an Amherst vote for School Committee count the same as one from the other towns. It doesn't and that is simply illegal....

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to think that a town-wide advisory referendum on the November ballot on this issue would be a prudent way to go, if that can be accomplished.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I think you are 100% wrong, Ed.

Each town having three votes to decide on a Super is to prevent tyranny of the majority. If Amherst had 4 and Pelham had 2, then Pelham would NEVER have any say in who their Super was.

A thought about all of this crosed my mind over the weekend. Has there ever been a time when the vote for a Super was 3 to 3. Amherst used all their votes either for or against a candidate and Pelham used all their votes opposite to Amherst's? What does the agreement say about tie votes?

I am also wondering how many times there was a unanimous vote for or against a candidate. Has someone looked at the history over the life of the Union Agreement to see if there has been much controversy over votes for the Super? Seems like that might be helpful in the analysis.

Also, its important to remember that the Regional committee also votes for the Super. So if we had a 3 to 3 tie at the Union level and a majority vote for a candidate at the Regional level, what would be the outcome of the vote?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100%, Rich. Before the Amherst SC unilaterally decides to leave the Union they should have the backing of the town.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

A quick thought for Rich Morse and Anonymous 8:45 - I'm totally comfortable with a town-wide vote on leaving Union 26 (IF, of course, the legal opinion indicates that this is even a viable option, which it may or may not be). But I want to throw out the key question: what if the Amherst SC and administration believe staying in Union 26 is in the best interest of education for Amherst kids, and yet the town votes to exit Union 26? Are you then comfortable with us withdrawing, since "the town has spoken"? I believe both comments are based on the assumption that the SC wants to exit (which is NOT the stated position of anyone on the SC, to my knowledge) and that the town would oppose this ... but based on my conversations around town about this agreement, it is not at all clear to me how such a town-wide vote would go. Remember, there were also calls for a townwide vote on whether to close Marks Meadow ... again, I believe with the (mistaken) belief that the town would overrule the misguided beliefs of an overly activist SC.

Anonymous said...

My comment is based on no assumption about how anyone would come out on the issue. A decision to leave Union 26 strikes me as the kind of purely political and momentous decision that the Amherst SC should NOT make on its own. We are talking about a structural change in how we order our educational affairs between two towns.

On the other hand, if a majority of the Amherst School Committee decides to stand pat, that's the end of it. (Although there IS that contingent in town that would feel forced to reassess its position IF Catherine Sanderson surprised them).

Rich Morse