Monday, July 29, 2013

Fast Track Slowed

 Regional School District Planning Board  June 15

One of the stories that will get lost in the wake of the contentious Select Board decision tonight not to squander $6.5 million tax dollars for an "unremarkable" forest is the (formerly) head long rush to regionalize our pre-Kindergarten through 6th grade with partners Leverett and Pelham will now be delayed for a full year.

We of course already have a 50+ year old Region at the 7th through 12th grade level with Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury, so the mission creep to the lower grades is seen as a natural way to standardize education throughout the entire system.

But Shutesbury upset the apple cart by withdrawing from the about-to-be-proposed Region, although representative Michael DeChiara continues to attend and participate in meetings of the Regional School District Planning Board. 

One of the problems to overcome is the lopsided make up of the proposed Region -- at least as far as governance is concerned.  Even if all four towns agree to rationalize the way they do now for Middle and High School, Amherst still makes up 88% of the region for population.

Currently the Regional School Committee is governed by 9 members: five from Amherst, 2 from Pelham and one each from Leverett and Shutesbury.  Thus Amherst has 55% of the voting power to represent 88% of the people, and little old Pelham has 22% of the voting power while representing only 3% of the population. 

Daniel Shays would be so proud.

The problem (worth fighting over) is the RSDPB doesn't seem concerned about rectifying a balance of power that significantly shortchanges Amherst.

6/24 update to Amherst Select Board:  "Ugh!"


Walter Graff said...

Standardization... one more way of cheating children out of a proper education.

Anonymous said...

Are you against regionalization in general, or just the power sharing balance as you mentioned? Pelham should be annexed by Amherst in general, never mind bridging the schools. Besides, the Pelham school is better than Amhert's, anyway. Nothing to worry about.

Anonymous said...

In Amherst,

You may discuss zoning issues.
You may discuss how the town is governed.
You may discuss which trees should live and which should be cut down.
You may discuss which streets get repaired and which do not.
You may discuss who gets to march in parades.
You may discuss how and where we provide parking to people who come to Amherst.
You may discuss just about anything.......

But, you may NOT discuss how (and how well) our children are educated and the politics of how it gets done. That is absolutely forbidden.

And, in the past few years, residents have figured that out.

Walter Graff said...

If you are asking me I'm against regionalization. It's the equivalent of child custody. It serves a purpose not in the best interest of the child.

In the end studies show it does not save on costs. It does not do well for teachers, and not the best thing for students. It's simply a way of making every school into a worse place to get educated.

WORSE off such programs create issues of accountability. Last thing Amherst needs is any more lack of accountability.

It is yet another program created to create a mimic a business model out of school systems that merely dumbs down schools, twarts quality teachers and teaching, and creates status quo. And worst of all in the end the smaller schools actually lose.

The last thing we need to be doing is skimping on the future of our country. We need transparency, we need to pay teachers well, and we need to let them teach, not follow a rule book.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:50, can you describe how you are prevented from talking about issues around education? Do you go to these meetings as an advocate of your ideas, or do you just sit on the sideline and complain?

Anonymous said...

So whatever Amherst says goes. Even if the other towns all disagree. And you want more than that because??? In case an Amherst member becomes the swing vote and votes with the other side?

Anonymous said...

Thank you Larry for raising this important issue. During the regionalization process some Amherst residents have raised this issue to no avail.

Amherst residents have the constitutional right to have their votes count as much as the votes cast by our neighbors in Leverett and Pelham. Under the current elementary regional school committee being discussed, Amherst has 90% of the population but only 55% of voting power on the proposed school committee. If Shutesbury joins, that power will drop to about 51%.

Why would any Amherst resident consent to their vote having less than 3/5th's strength than the full votes of Leverrett and Pelham residents?

In the meetings I've attended, it has been the stated goal of many members of the RSDPB from Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham to reduce Amherst's voting power far below its 90% majority. It seems many RSDPB members from the smaller towns want the benefit of allying with larger Amherst without respecting Amherst residents' right to have full voice through the ballot box.

This makes me wonder why Amherst would give up its current Amherst Elementary School Committee -- with its 100% focus on the specific needs of our elementary school children -- and 100% control over our $21 million elementary school budget?

It is a good time to take a pause in the regionalization process.

Janet McGowan

Larry Kelley said...

Yeah CAN 12:34 PM, what she said.

Anonymous said...

It is critical that Amherst have its rightful 90% of the votes in any regional elementary agreement. There should be 10 members to the Elementary Regional SC composed of 9 members from Amherst and 1 member representing all the children from Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury. If the smaller towns insist on having one person representing the interest of each of the small towns then the Elementary Regional SC should be 39 members strong with 36 members from Amherst and one each from Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury. It will be important for Amherst to protect itself from the anti-education hill towns. We all know how little we have in common when it comes to educating our children.
In truth, I don't know why the hill towns would want to regionalize with us.

Larry Kelley said...

Or we could do it the way Southwick/Granville/Tolland does, where the School Committee is kept to a workable number of representatives but the Southwick reps have a much greater "weighted vote" (by a factor of 16.4)to account for their disproportionate make up of population.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone really believe the hill towns will want to regionalize with Amherst with Amherst holding 90% of the vote. They would lose all control over their schools. It will never happen with Amherst at 90%. The hill towns will not want it. Amherst will lose out.

Dr Ed said...

In addition to the issues of unfairness, remember that Amherst has a much larger African American population than the other towns. Hence this becomes "dilution of Black votes" as defined by the part of the Voting Rights Act that SCOTUS didn't overturn.

In other words, all it would take would be one upset Black Amherst resident and a 46 cent stamp and Eric Holder would come to town and shut the whole mess down.

And Google _Baker v. Carr_....

Anonymous said...

Sometimes in Dr. Ed's cartoonish comments there is a kernel of truth.

A regionalization plan in which Amherst votes in proportion to the other towns less than the proportion of its school population DOES disadvantage the representation of poor and minority families.

But expect that reality to be rationalized away in the process....or simply ignored

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:26

Where have you been the past few years, before the infidels were driven off?

Michael Jacques said...

I went to the draft meeting in late June and spent over 6 hours on a Saturday listening to the debate. The board was voting and modifying the draft agreement. The new version was going to be released by early July but never came to pass.

I have to say that all of the people who serve on this board are spending an enormous amount of time trying to make it happen and I wish them success in this effort. I do hope that with the delay it may change to a K-12 region.

Having said that there were a few things I am concerned with on the preliminary draft that I hope change in whatever future draft comes along. It would great to see Shutesbury come back to the table. It seems very odd to have them vote on an agreement that they may never join. I presume they are choosing to stay on the board with the hopes of joining in the future.

In the original draft a 2/3-majority vote would be required to both hire and fire any superintendent. This seems very unusual when a simple majority has been used without issue in the past.

The representative structure to me is still not fair to Amherst. In the original draft the committee would be made up of 9 members total, 5 Amherst, 2 Pelham, and 2 Leverett If Shutesbury joined it would have become 11 members, 5/2/2/2. The final draft was amended with the committee composition increased to 13 members, 7/2/2/2. I understand the concern from the others towns but is giving disproportionate voting power to the other towns really fair to Amherst residents.

Many parts of the agreement were good. The part I really liked was the criteria used to close an elementary school in any given town. To close a school the SC must have a super majority of committee members in favor. Additionally if even one SC member of the town in which the school will close opposes the closure the school cannot be closed. I think schools are a vital part of any community and closing one should not be entered into lightly.

Anonymous said...

I think schools are a vital part of any community and closing one should not be entered into lightly.

The only problem is what if you have a school but no students? Unless Pelham does something really dramatic like build a large housing development for families with young children, they are going to loose their elementary school.

They don't have the children.

So, like, umm, whom are you going to put into your elementary school? And at what point is the school an unfair burden on the district and other schools?

Anonymous said...

anon at 4:34:
what would Amherst elementary schools gain by regionalization? How would adding Leverett and Shutsbury better the the education of Amherst kids? I'm seriously interested in your thoughts and ideas.

Michael Jacques said...

Anon 11:06

I don't think you are wrong that we could have schools in a new region that may have a very low population.

The new region if it forms will never be perfect. I don't think it can be with the large differences in demographics between the 4 towns.

I do think if we believe in having a region for 7-12 then stretching that to K-12 and saving administrative time and reporting cost would be a valuable advantage. Likely any agreement will have some give and take.

While I agree that this could be costly for all towns in the new region if enrollments in one of the 3 smaller schools declines, it is a fair trade off in a regional agreement.

From the beginning two of the big issues have been control over elementary schools and governance structure.

I don't think giving control of elementary schools closings and giving disproportionate voting power is a good trade off. The disproportionate voting power needs to be corrected and has been done in others towns as Larry stated earlier. It should be done here as well.

Also the 2/3 majority vote for superintendent is just bad for every town. I don't know the motives behind this agreement though it seems another way to reduce the voting strength of Amherst. I think if the other towns are concerned about Amherst voting strength, than an alternative could be a simple majority with at least 3 out of the 4 towns in favor of the hire or firing. Just a thought.

Michael Jacqeus said...

I was asked to clarify my first post. The initial document which I called a preliminary draft was a very very preliminary document and had not been approved or checked by the board. It had been generated by the attorney's office. The board had the document for less than 48 hours for review prior to the meeting, I believe. Some barely had time to review it.

I am being told that the initial numbers of representation of 5+2+2 and 5+2+2+2 should have always been 5+2+2 and 7+2+2+2 and were an error from the attorneys office. Either way in the end the board voted for a representative structure of 5+2+2 and 7+2+2+2 to correct.

Anonymous said...

How silly MJ, 9 doesn't equal 13 even in Amherst. Wait, in Amherst maybe it could?????????

Anonymous said...

Michael Jacques said: "Also the 2/3 majority vote for superintendent is just bad for every town. I don't know the motives behind this agreement though it seems another way to reduce the voting strength of Amherst. I think if the other towns are concerned about Amherst voting strength, than an alternative could be a simple majority with at least 3 out of the 4 towns in favor of the hire or firing. Just a thought."

I like this idea, Michael. Seems very straight forward.

Anonymous said...

Leverett & Shutesbury got stuck with a horror of a superintendent seven years ago. She's leaving, as we speak, for a position elsewhere. So, now that they've been freed from tyranny, Leverett & Shutesbury might want to reconsider the "cons" of regionalizing with Amherst, which not only will result in a loss of control over their schools but also the possibility of one or both schools being closed. Just look at what happened to Worthington when they regionalized with the Gateway district. Their school was closed much to their dismay, and they fought to leave the region but were voted down. Now they are good & stuck. Sometimes you get what you ask for but it may not be what you thought you were getting... The towns involved in this Amherst regionalization proposal really, really, really need to do their research. As an Amherst resident I don't particularly care one way or the other if Leverett and/or Shutesbury join up, but if I were a Leverett or Shutesbury resident with a child in one of those schools there's no question in my mind what my position would be. No way.

Anonymous said...

In terms of numbers, the draft agreement presented by Attorney Tate at the June 15th meeting had an elementary regional school committee of 9 -- 5 (Amherst), 2 (Pelham) and 2 (Leverett). If Shutesbury joined, Amherst would get 2 more members and Shutesbury 2, putting the elementary regional school committee at 13 members. Attorney Tate pointed out that this would create a very large, unworkable school committee while most regional school committees had 5, maybe 7 members.

If another town joined, the draft proposal had Amherst's members dropping to 5, with 2 more from the new town. So the smaller towns would have a total of 8 members and Amherst only 5. This seemed astonishing to me. RSDPB members insisted this was a drafting mistake by Attorney Tate, but I recall her saying, several times, this was the language she had received in an email from Mr. DiChiara of Shutesbury. This language was thankfully removed in the RSDPB's voting that day.

I left with the impression that the 9 and 13 regional school committee would be the largest in Massachusetts and that the 2/3rd's vote for superintendent, other supermajority votes, and one vote knockout on school closings are not used elsewhere. I may be wrong. The K-6 regional school committee being created looked increasingly unworkable to me and I am glad the RSDPB is reconsidering it. They have put in a lot of time and hard work-- and still more is needed.

In the meetings I've attended, no one on RSDPB has ever supported a governance option that gives Amherst its proportional 90% voting strength. Reasons given included: reducing Amherst's voting strength, the towns are really "all one," Amherst voters need to be protected from themselves and their own bad votes, and to protect the smaller town schools' existence, their curriculum choices, specials, etc. No one pointed out how unfair it is that each Amherst school committee member will represent 7,563 residents, while each Pelham member will represent 660 residents. This would be the most unbalanced regional school committee in the Commonwealth.

All this leaves me wondering what the smaller towns are afraid of in working with Amherst. Maybe Amherst is just too big and too different. Maybe it just doesn't work for them. The towns could form a region with each other or stay in Union 28 with its smaller towns. Maybe Pelham could also join Union 28.

If a new region forms, it should be based on mutual respect for each of our interests, voting rights, goals and ideas.

A K-12 regional school district makes sense to me--but not at the expense of my right to have my vote count as much as anyone else's. I wouldn't ask anyone else to give up that right and don't understand why anyone is asking me to give up mine.

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

While I agree that this could be costly for all towns in the new region if enrollments in one of the 3 smaller schools declines, it is a fair trade off in a regional agreement.

The simple reality is that at least one of them has to close -- there are not enough children to sustain all three.

Not unless you were willing to go to multi-grade classrooms where one teacher is teaching two grades concurrently, as is done in some private Christian schools, but good luck getting the BESE to approve that

Also you would have to have one principal responsible for multiple buildings, along with two part-time secretaries and the rest. Doubt that would happen.

Anonymous said...

Team Maria -- read and weep!


Imagine having to actually be good.

Dr. Ed said...

I really would suggest that you all might want to read this -- from the US Dept of Justice:

"Section 2 makes it illegal for state and local governments to "dilute" the votes of racial minority groups, that is, to have an election system that makes minority voters' votes less effective than those of other voters." (emphasis added)

The thing to remember here is that it is not percentage of the children in the schools, but population of the town -- the potential voters even if they don't vote or aren't even registered to vote.

Remember too that in Amherst this includes the UMass students, hence:

Amherst: 37,819
Leverett: 1,851
Shutesbury: 1,711
Pelham: 1,321

Amherst: 37,819 87%
Everyone Else: 4,883 13%

When "rounding" is employed, this becomes a 9:1 ratio -- which means that Amherst would have to elect nine of ten for this to be considered fair -- four-of-five would still only be 80%.

A court would probably carve up the entire district into precincts ignoring town lines with (at best) the entirety of the other three towns and a chunk of Amherst collectively electing just one member of a 5-7 member board.

Another possibility would be the creation of multiple "minority-majority" districts -- one or more of the towns being paired with 2500-5000 mostly-minority Amherst residents to create districts where whomever the minority Amherst residents supported would inevitably win.

And the Voting Rights Act applies to Massachusetts -- ask Tom Finneran about that...

Anonymous said...

One other thing -- the statistics are from the 2010 census -- and do not include the 1,500 "Amherst residents" in the new Honors College Dorms -- which will eventually become 6,500.

That brings Amherst from 37,819 to 44,319 -- and assuming S/L/P don't all loose population (as they did 2000-2010), that brings the three towns COMBINED down to just 11% of the district.

In other words, as of this fall, the CommCol dorms will just about equal one of the three towns, and by completion they will exceed the combined population of all three. And while few UM students actually vote, the VRA requires they be counted as Amherst voters.

And I'm not even talking about The Retreat, Phase II of North Apartments (planed for the south/western end of Eastman Lane), the thing Eddie Hull doesn't know that I know about, and whatever else might be done on land Cindi Jones sells.

The *combined* population of the three other towns could drop below 9% -- which would make it hard to justify even ONE member for all three towns on anything other than a massive board.

Anonymous said...

So if the towns all form a regional school district and the 3 small schools have almost all white students and 3 large schools have 50% non-white students...and then on the school board the white towns with the small schools get extra votes?

Dr. Ed said...

the 3 small schools have almost all white students and 3 large schools have 50% non-white students...and then on the school board the white towns with the small schools get extra votes?

Essentially, yes -- and it's illegal.
(Not to mention morally wrong.)

It's not that they get to vote twice or something -- they don't (at least not legally), it's just that their votes count more because there are vastly fewer potential voters.

As I understand it -- and perhaps someone would be kind enough to post the actual statistics -- the *loosing* Amherst candidate for the regional 7-12 board often receives more votes than the entire *population* of one of the other towns -- because the winning Amherst candidate got even more.

This is what they refer to as dilution of votes -- an Amherst vote is diluted relative to that of a vote in the other three towns -- it takes the support of many more Amherst residents for an Amherst candidate to win.

Let me try to explain it this way -- presume there are two towns, aptly named Alpha & Bravo. Presume that Alpha is 100% Black and has a population of 10,000 adults. Presume that Bravo is 100% White and has a population of just one adult.

(I'm trying to keep the math simple -- and presume that everyone votes.)

In Town Alpha, it takes 5001 votes to win the school board seat -- the loosing candidate getting 4999 (or less, but the Town Alpha candidate could still loose with 4,999 votes.)

In Town Bravo, it takes just ONE vote to win the election -- because there is only one voter.

In each town, voters only get one vote -- but the votes of Town Alpha are "diluted" because there are so many more votes cast.

If this doesn't make sense, all I can say is take a statistics course -- and while in my hypothetical the diluted voters are 100% Black (with all other races being ignored), the reality is that the numbers get really messy quite quickly -- are you talking children or residents, and if the later, do you include the UM students in the demographics, and if so, do you include the races of the International students?

The simple reality is that anything arrangement that gives any real voice to the other three towns disenfranchises Amherst voters via vote dilution -- and since Amherst has a much higher percentage of minorities (regardless of how calculated) then this means disenfranchisement of minority voters (via vote dilution) -- and that violates the Voting Rights Act.

I have it on very good authority that the current regional board is in violation of the VRA and that the DOJ would act were there a complaint -- I'd take this like a police officer saying to the UM student staggering out of a bar "son, you've had way too much to drink, don't drive your car home."