Showing posts with label amherst school committee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label amherst school committee. Show all posts

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Cost Of Unbridled Optimism

Amherst has 16,569 active voters so 18% is 2,983

The venerable Amherst Select Board will place the $67 million Mega School on the ballot for the annual town election scheduled for March 28.  This will make the 4th time it has been voted on by Town Meeting and The People.

Although, since it's a  rare special "Referendum" election to overturn a Town Meeting action, it has to be decided in a "Special Town Election" separate from the annual town election.  But it can still be held at the same time as the regular 3/28 election, so it will cost taxpayers "only" an extra $8,000 for poll workers and printing additional ballots.

In order for the Referendum to succeed a two-thirds super majority to overturn Town Meeting is required and the election must have a minimum 18% turnout.  Over the past 30 years only three such Referendum votes have taken place and none of them have been successful overturning Town Meeting.

In fact even the requirement for an 18% turnout will be hard to meet as Amherst local elections over the past ten years have averaged only a 15% turnout.

Although a stand alone $2.5 million Override for the schools on May 1, 2007 attracted a 31.5% turnout and was defeated by a narrow margin.  Interestingly the regular annual town election held four days earlier attracted a 21% turnout.

And in 2003 and 2005 the annual local elections garnered over a 30% turnout due to the controversy sparked by the Charter question to change our current Select Board/Town Meeting government to a Mayor/Council/Manager.

In 1998 the Parking Garage Referendum vote to overturn Town Meeting's hard won approval for the tiny $4 million Boltwood Parking Garage garnered a 22% turnout and failed by less than 1%.

At the time Town Attorney Alan Seewald had interpreted the law to say 18% of the voters had to vote to overturn in order for the question to count.

 Click to enlarge/read

As a result the pro-garage Town Meeting defenders did little campaigning, since getting 18% of the electorate in a local election to vote to overturn anything is all but impossible.

But the Mega School issue has generated plenty of passion from both camps, so plenty of private money will be spent over the next six weeks targeting voters.  Good money after bad.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Clear & Egregious Violation

I've seen and complained about many an Open Meeting Violation over the past 25 years but this one takes the cake.

For a quorum of School Committee members to not only deliberate but outright scheme to get their way is beyond the pale.  Especially when their endgame will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars for a concept they do not particularly like.

   Amherst SC OML Violation by Larry Kelley on Scribd  (reverse chronological order)

What kind of an example does that set for the children of Amherst when elected pubic officials flagrantly violate the law to win?  Although, since they cheated and still lost, it does reaffirm my Irish mother's motto, "Cheaters never prosper."

I hate to think what further violations are taking place now that the Mega School question will be voted on for a fourth time at the March 28th town election.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

One Miracle Per Season

'Twill be a cold day in Hell when a Referendum vote overrides Town Meeting

What are the odds of Amherst voters supporting a measure that would increase their already extraordinary high property taxes by another few hundred dollars per year on a controversial building project now needing a two-thirds super majority?

About as likely as the Patriots last quarter comeback from a 28-3 deficit.

 About 1,700 signatures submitted to Town Clerk yesterday vs 7,000 who voted no on November 8th

But Mega School supporters do not have a Tom Brady leading their team.  In fact main wine-&-cheese cheerleader School Committee Chair Katherine Appy has already announced she will not be running for reelection.

 Crowd of about 50 (less than 1% of town voters) turned out last night for SC meeting

Her going away present was getting the School Committee to vote last night 4-1 against withdrawing the Mega School project from the MSBA process which now kills the prospects of reapplying this year with a Statement Of Interest to get back in the pipeline for a new improved project with real majority support.

The only thing that ever wins in Amherst by a two-thirds margin is a Democrat for President running against the Devil, err, Republican and perhaps a pot resolution.  In fact no Override ballot question over the past 30 years has passed (and about half have failed) by a two-thirds margin.

Now the rancor will continue until March 28th and in the end it will all be in vain.  Town officials fiddle while Amherst burns.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Sh*t Storm Indeed

$67 million Mega School

Over the past 20 years only two Town Meeting actions have been challenged by referendum (and failed) where enough signatures have been collected within the short five day deadline to force it on the local election ballot.

That alone is a major hurdle, requiring 5% of the registered voters to sign a petition.  But the most challenging aspect of the crusade is the state requires "the people" to meet the same standard imposed on Representative Town Meeting, in this case two-thirds support.

"A question put to the voters at large under the provisions of this section shall be determined by a vote of the same proportion of voters voting thereon as would have been required by law had the question been finally determined at a representative town meeting."
The other provision which sounds easy is the local election must garner a minimum turnout of 18% or the referendum vote is invalid. Now that may sound pretty easy but in overly politically active Amherst our local elections have garnered a pathetic average of 15% turnout over the past ten years.

Behind the scenes email exchanges, including elected officials 

The only local elections to attract over 18% turnout over the past generation involved Charter change (twice) -- aka replace Town Meeting/Select Board with Mayor/Council -- or pocketbook Override questions.

And none of those outcomes were decided by much more than a 55/45% margin.  And both of the referendum of Town Meeting attempts failed to pass after all the effort to get it on the ballot.

In fact this Mega School question already went to the voters on the November 8th ballot and only barely won a simply majority and even then by less than 1%.

It would be one thing if town officials were simply performing due diligence with no downside.  But that is far from the case, because in order to take this foolhardy desperate last stand we will lose one full year gaining Mass School Building Authority approval for a new and better plan.

The bigger the risk the bigger the reward I suppose.  Something I would expect from President Trump but not so much from our overly enlightened local government.

House on busy Rt 116

Thursday, February 2, 2017

3rd Time The Charm?

The town can submit both schools for MSBA funding

Kevin Collins, probably the most hated man in Town Meeting for his overzealous style, wants to collect 200 voter signatures to call yet another Special Town Meeting for yet another attempt at garnering a two-thirds vote needed for the new $67 million Mega School bond authorization.

While there's still time for that desperate Hail Mary to occur before the April 1st deadline the MSBA gave town officials for getting the needed Town Meeting approval another, however, more important deadline would be missed:

In order to get back in the MSBA pipeline immediately for funding on a new improved school plan, acting Superintendent Mike Morris must withdraw the original failed Mega School project by Monday otherwise we lose an entire year.

Click to enlarge/read

If the acting Superintendent wastes an entire year on this impossible dream gamble, an irresponsible lack of judgement, he should be fired.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fork In The Road

Vote was 123 yes, 92 no, 9 abstain (224 present)

Yogi Berra had the right idea although he could have been a tad more specific about which path to choose.  Perhaps he was suggesting how important experience and instinct are when making decisions, like that famous Supreme Court justice line about knowing porn when he sees it.

For Amherst Town Meeting last night the same path was chosen for a second time even though sternly forewarned it's a dangerous road.

In spite of unanimous approval of the Select Board, School Committee, Finance Committee (with one abstention) and a slew of vocal supporters the $67.2 million Mega School project failed to garner the two thirds votes necessary to pass a bond issue.

 Supporters rally at entry to Middle School last night

Perhaps the most devastating testimony came from member Russ Vernon Jones a retired long time Principal of Fort River School, which these days some folks try to portray as health hazard:

"The education plan (2-6) does not match what works best.  Grade configuration is BIG mistake.  Neighborhood schools build community.  This will dismantle K-6 for many years to come.  Of course teachers want a new school!  But previously they opposed it when other opportunities were available." 
And Maria Kopicki was her usual professorially articulate self, presenting persuasive statistics showing the wait for state funds on a new plan is not necessarily a generation away.

But the sooner Mega School supporters accept defeat and withdraw this project from the MSBA pipeline the sooner we can get started on a new and improved project that will attract widespread support.

A much needed step to make Amherst great again.

 Focus may shift from Wildwood (bottom) to Fort River School (top)

(And with the new 100 year flood plain maps, which FEMA may approve in the next two years, showing dramatic reduction in the overlay around Fort River that school site could get more buildable, although it would require Town Meeting removing it from Flood Prone Conservancy overlay.)  

Click to enlarge/read

Monday, January 16, 2017

2nd Time The Charm?

Town Meeting revotes $67 million Wildwood Building Project end of this month

Twenty years ago the $22 million Amherst Regional High School expansion easily passed Town Meeting but was defeated by the voters at the ballot box, although it did pass months later in the second attempt.

Around that same time the $4 million Town Hall renovation twice passed overwhelmingly in Town Meeting but was twice defeated by the voters at the ballot box.

So what are the odds Town Meeting will pass the $67 million Mega School bond issue on January 30th in this second attempt to get the required two-thirds vote?

About as likely as Donald Trump getting a rousing ovation from Democrats at his inauguration on Friday.

While theoretically Town Meeting is only voting on the financing of the project it's impossible not to be influenced by the education plan which restructures our entire elementary school system.

Maria's Folly of two co-located grades 2-6 under one roof will simply never have the appeal of the current system of three K-6 neighborhood schools.

A professional survey of parents and teachers taken a week before the School Committee approved the Mega School showed overwhelming support for two co-located grades K-6 under one roof allowing Crocker Farm to remain K-6.

Survey results

Of course now Town Meeting will be told that teachers have changed their minds and overwhelmingly support the current education plan represented by the $67 million Mega School.

Really?  Or is it simply this expensive plan is now better than nothing?

What about the obvious pressure employees must feel when someone asks them to sign a petition endorsing the wishes of your boss?  Especially when they come up to you with a clipboard and mention that you are "on the list."  Which is fine I suppose, if the person asking is named Schindler.

 Click to enlarge/read

The other pressure tactic used is to suggest Town Meeting will face retaliation for not upholding "the will of the voters." Except the will demonstrated by voters on November 8 was about as wishy washy as will gets:

Out of the 15,089 votes cast 1,571 (10.4%) left the Mega School question blank.  So the overall vote carried by only 45.21% in favor to 44.38% against or less than a majority.  So yes, it won by 122 votes, or less than 1%, which is light years away from a two-thirds majority.

And even then you have to wonder about the in-house audit of two precincts that showed 29 ballots double counted.

If/when Town Meeting fails to muster a two-thirds vote for the Mega School on January 30, town officials need to admit defeat and return to the drawing board with a hard learned lesson about what the people really want. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Replacing Maria

Maria Geryk at 3/31 Finance Committee meeting with Mike Morris, Sean Mangano (just before the fall)

A joint meeting of the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee and Union 26 voted unanimously to hire Ray & Associates as a head hunter search consultant to have a new Superintendent in place by July 1st, the start of the FY 18 fiscal year.

The winning bid was $17,000 but it was not the lowest one as the only other bidder (at $14,000) could not handle the ambitious timeline of the Request For Proposals.

Ray & Associates was founded in 1975 and currently has 170 "associates" who make up the firm.  Dr. Michael Rush put on a masterful homespun performance at the January 10th meeting  and assured committee members his company's final short list of candidates would not embarrass his firm or the Region.

Dr. Michael Rush presents to Region-Union 26 on January 10th

Which of course is a good thing considering how embarrassing the demise of Maria Geryk played out before a w-i-d-e audience, which of course will be available to potential candidates via a simple Google search.

So at least they will know full well what they are getting themselves into.

Dr. Rush will interview by phone all school committee members in the next few days and he will return to Amherst on January 23rd and 24th to hold stakeholder interviews with teacher, PTOs, Lions/Rotary Clubs, etc and his firm will also provide an online survey available for any member of the general public.

The deadline for potential candidates is March 3 and based on his firm's 40 year experience he initially expects 70 respondents, which they will whittle down to 8-12 for presentation to the School Committee via one way video and then narrowed down to two or three for a final in-person interview.

He suggested the School Committees choose a new Superintendent by March 27 so they can give plenty of notice to their current District before relocating to Amherst for July 1st.

Salary is of course a major carrot so the Committee will have to quickly decide a range to be included in the nationwide search which is expected to cost an additional $10,000 to $15,000 in advertising.

Safe bet the proposed salary will continue to keep the Superintendent's position as the highest paid in town, even though they "do it for the kids."

Monday, January 9, 2017

Preaching To The Converted

From single Wildwood to co-located $67 million Mega School

Since the Amherst Select Board unanimously approved placing the $67 million Mega School Override question on the November 8th ballot as well as the Fall Town Meeting warrant a week later, where it failed to garner a majority vote, it's a forgone conclusion they will again unanimously recommend to the January 30th Town Meeting a yes vote. 

So I find it amusing that school supporters will pack the Select Board meeting tonight to ensure they give it another unanimous thumbs up recommendation.

Not so amusing is the clear violation of state ethics law regarding conflict of interest where an Amherst School employee, on company time, using a company computer, and internal listserve sent out a rally cry for the demonstration at tonight's Select Board meeting.

Click to enlarge/read

Steps of Amherst Town Hall 6:20 PM

Over 20 years ago the State Ethics Division found Town Manager Barry Del Castilho in violation because he used a town typewriter and four sheets of paper to write a column for the Amherst Bulletin supporting a $4 million Override to renovate Town Hall (which twice failed with voters).

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Story Of The Year

'Twas a story that played out over too many months, too many Regional School Committee executive sessions and a final payout of way too many tax dollars -- $309,000 -- before it came to an ignominious end.

The precipitous fall of School Superintendent Maria Geryk, the highest paid town employee, is a cautionary tale that serves to remind us of the old maxim about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Mike Morris, Maria Geryk, Amherst School Committee at Town Meeting May, 2016

Sure, there were grumblings over her entire tenure about failed academic programs, a seemingly revolving door for school principals, the high average cost per student driving our taxes skyhigh  and the steady stream of students choosing charter schools over our hometown offerings.

But over the course of five years nothing seriously challenged her throne until Ms. Geryk made one fatal monumental error in judgment:  issuing a "stay away order" to a single mother simply trying to get the public school system do something about the somewhat racially charged bullying of her 7-year-old daughter.

A story I first broke on April 14th and published over a dozen follow ups over the next four months. 

But that first story was my highest read (20,000+) and most commented story (210) of the year and it set off a slow rumble leading to a major earthquake whose aftershocks will be felt for a very long time.

For instance the failure of the $67 million Mega School can be directly attributed to Maria Geryk's insistence on having it her way even though the vast majority of parents and teachers preferred a different academic model to solving the physical problems with Wildwood and Fort River Elementary schools.

And after almost four years of deliberations the attempt to e-x-p-a--n-d  regionalization from the current 7-12 system all the way down to K-6 went front burner to back burner to dead & buried as well as the idea of merging the Regional Middle School students into the Regional High School thus freeing up that building for other productive uses.

Now the schools are searching for a another Superintendent and a couple of Principals.  And of course I will get the blame for bringing down Maria Geryk and creating a "toxic" atmosphere that no sane bureaucrat will wish to endure even for the overly generous salary the position guarantees.

Eric Nakajima was appointed to Amherst School Committee by Select Board and School Committee vote

But the recent appointment of Eric Nakajima to the Amherst School Committee and his quick election as Chair of the Regional School Committee to replace Laura Kent, a rookie who couldn't handle the pressure,  offers the best hope we've seen in a l-o-n-g while.

2017 promises to be an interesting year -- hopefully not in the Chinese curse sort of way.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

High Stakes Gamble

Amherst could apply to MSBA for Fort River Mega-School as soon as next month

The town already heard back from the Mass School Building Authority and as expected they rejected the idea of twin grades K-6 schools vs the just defeated concept of twin grades 2-6 schools as being a slight enough tweak to keep the current overall $67 million Mega School building plan in play.

For the past six months we've heard nothing but how extraordinarily bureaucratic the MSBA is, and that every i must be double dotted and every t double crossed.

Of course the only thing town/school officials really wanted is the extension from February 2 until March 31st to have another attempt at brow beating Amherst Town Meeting into giving it the two-thirds super majority it requires to pass.

 Town Meeting voted down Mega School 108-106

Considering it failed to even garner a simple majority last month, a Herculean task indeed no matter how much time the state gives them to lobby.

But that will not stop the Select Board from trying one last time to ram it through.

Considering how often they played the role of General Custer this past session with ALL of their unanimously supported major articles being shot down by Town Meeting, they better wear arrow proof shirts at that Special Town Meeting.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Sour Grapes

Amherst School Committee 11/15/16

Rather than accept the losing vote as an indication that something was not right with the exceedingly expensive building project, three-fifths of the School Committee chose to bitterly blame Town Meeting for not upholding the "will of the people" from last week's ballot vote.

But you have to wonder if those three are math challenged since the two votes mirrored each other almost identically ... except for the outcome.

In 1968 President Johnson beat challenger Gene McCarthy by 7% in the New Hampshire primary but not nearly the margin he should have won by.  So he quit the race.

A 50.47% margin is fine when only a majority is required but still, to quote Eric Nakajima, "indicates the town is deeply divided."  But when that same measure required 66.67% a razor thin majority is NOT EVEN CLOSE.

In fact even the "popular vote" last Tuesday they are so quick to cite the question DID NOT GET A MAJORITY.  Out of the 15,089 votes cast 1,571 (10.4%) left the Mega School question blank.  So the overall vote carried by only 45.21% in favor to 44.38% against or less than a majority.

Perhaps Mr. Nakajima is showing his experience with elections.  He told his fellow committee members that he voted for the measure in Town Meeting, "but was not surprised by the result".

And now it's time to move forward to address those two buildings shortcomings in a manner that will win broad support.

"Everyone in town owns the solution."

Marla reads SASS statement.  Select Board Chair Alisa Brewer sits behind her.  Rockwell Town Meeting iconic illustration top right

Marla Goldberg-Jamate read a statement to the Committee during public comment from the winning side, Save Amherst Small Schools:

Click to enlarge/read

Acting Superintendent Mike Morris told the Committee he has ten days to ask the state for an extension but will not since Town Meeting, "Emphatically said no."

And he would start the process to reapply to the MSBA as soon as possible but would do so under the "core program" and not the "accelerated repair program" since both buildings needs extensive work.

Since Wildwood has been updated more over the recent past it may very well be Fort River that will now step up to the plate for MSBA funding.  Fort River is in need of a  $1+ million roof replacement while Wildwood is in need of a $400,000 new boiler.

Ironically Town Meeting appropriated the $400,000 for the Wildwood boiler a few years ago but then that money was diverted into the $1 million schematic design that came up with the just defeated Mega School.

 Vince O'Connor tells School Committee the $350,000 Town Meeting will vote on tonight for DPW schematic design should be redirected to school building issue

Thursday, October 6, 2016

APD Did NOT Recommend Stay Away Order

Maria Geryk (rt) pondering how to spend $310K
Click to enlarge/read

Or not

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The $67,200,000 Question

League of Women Voters School Building Forum last night

Not sure too many minds were changed by the League of Women Voters forum on the new Mega School last night, which attracted parents, School Committee, Select Board and Town Meeting members in almost equal measures.

Although little to no college aged youth.  

Any yes surely the entire audience of about 100 will be voting on the ballot question on November 8th with probably the highest turnout in Amherst election history.

But continued status quo is not a good thing for proponents of the shiny new co-located school as recent school related chaotic events has eroded confidence in their overall administration.

Proponents of the $67 million project cited equity, health & safety, streamline efficiencies and of course the state's contribution to a little over half the project cost, while opponents zeroed in on the the high overall cost of the building and even higher cost of "grade reconfiguration" which  breaks up the neighborhood school concept in favor of a two grades 2-6 schools in one.

The Finance Committee presented facts that will make the average homeowner break into a cold sweat especially considering the other three building projects waiting in line behind the Schools.

The ballot question will not even have a number attached to it but the School Building Committee announced the state had approved the project at $67.2 million with the town share of $33.7 million.

 Click to enlarge read

The Finance Committee also pointed out that should the ballot question fail or Town Meeting turns down the authorization, the School Building Committee can try again with the same concept as happened in 1996 with the $22 million High School expansion that passed the second time around.

Or they can downsize the project and/or combine it with a renovation of one school and much smaller new school and resubmit a statement of interest to the MSBA.  The state agency does also fund two projects in one town (Granby for instance) as long as one is completed before applying for the second.

Necessity is the mother of invention.  Voting No on November 8 will certainly stimulate a little inventiveness from town officials and send a message about the other major projects lining up in the queue. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Finally: Secret Documents Revealed

Regional School Committee meeting September 7

After a nitpicking hour and a half that seemed like FOREVER the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee voted 5-3 to release the executive session minutes spanning almost 15 hours of behind closed doors meetings, culminating in a $309,000 payout to former Superintendent Maria Geryk. 

But then member Vira Douangmany Cage changed her mind and switched to "abstain." Either way clearly Ms. Cage, Stephen Sullivan and Trevor Baptiste were unhappy with the release of the minutes and associated documents.

The key puzzle piece missing, however, are the Pelham School Committee minutes of the executive session that Maria Geryk used in her initial demand letter claiming breach of contract and defamation of character, which led to "emotional distress".

Mr. Baptiste said her characterization of what went on in that meeting was wrong, and she uses that to trash his good name as well as Dan Robb and Vira Douangmany Cage.

But at least we now know most of the real story:  Maria Geryk panicked after issuing a stay away order on March 17 to Aisha Hiza  without due process, realized after the May 5th Pelham School Committee meeting that she would not get away with it, so then desperately decided to hit the road in a new Mercedes.

And who better to know how to game the system than someone who once led that system?

This is a pretty good intro to the documents package below

Friday, September 2, 2016

Who Shot J.R.?

Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee

Well, maybe not the equal to TVs most famous cliffhanger but this confirmation that tell-all documents will be released Tuesday at the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee should dramatically increase viewership.

Although I doubt Maria Geryk will be in attendance.

 Click to enlarge/read

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Get The Lead Out!

Crocker Farm School, built 1974 but renovated 2002 to a total of 90,800 square feet

As if our public schools were not already in enough chaos with classes scheduled to start only days from now, Crocker Farm, our South Amherst neighborhood elementary school, tested positive for lead in the water.

When it rains it pours.

Click to enlarge/read

Note worst result came from a drinking water bubbler

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A BOLD Evening Indeed

President Obama, Katherine Appy, Laura Kent

Well at least Amherst School Committee Chair Katherine Appy will be able to write off the wine as a campaign contribution (cheese as well).  And considering the current chaos the public schools find themselves in, it's gonna take a LOT of wine to sell this $67 million dollar Mega School.

As a private individual Ms. Appy has every right to advocate for the November 8th Override question, but if a quorum of School Committee members (only two more) or three Select Board members attend the party, then it is a violation of Open Meeting Law since it has not been publicly posted.  And no, this article does not count.

And you also have to wonder if tax dollars are being expended to bring in lead architect Jim LaPosta to "give us updates and answer questions." 

 Click to enlarge/read

UPDATE:  As mentioned by Ms. Appy in comments this is a private gathering for like minded individuals, which rules out the vast majority of my readers.  Especially the beer guzzling or wine-from-a-box crowd.