My second first meeting (Amherst School Committee Meeting: 1/11/22)

This blog post covers my observations, impressions, and comments on the January 11 meeting of the Amherst School Committee. It is not meant to represent meeting minutes, and will not include all topics discussed at the meeting. All opinions are my own and do not represent the school committee, the superintendent, or the district.

January 11 was my first meeting of the Amherst School Committee. (If you’re thinking, didn’t I already have a “first meeting,” check out my Amherst has two school committees? blog post.)

As with the Regional School Committee meeting last week, the first order of business was electing officers. Allison McDonald was nominated, ran unopposed, and was elected unanimously to chair. For the vice chair position, Irv Rhodes and I were both nominated, with Irv getting more votes. Voting for Irv were Peter Demling, Allison McDonald, and Irv. Ben Herrington and I voted for me. 

Finally, the secretary position. The secretary of the Amherst School Committee (along with the chair and vice chair), sits on the Union 26 committee, for the purposes of employing the superintendent, along with the Regional School Committee (see Amherst has two school committees? for more info on Union 26). Peter and I were both nominated, with Peter winning with the same votes as Irv (Peter, Allison Irv). (Ben and I voted for me.)

Observations

  • The Amherst School Committee is now allowing members of the public to make public comments in real time, by joining the Google Meet. This is a change to the past practice up until now, which was that people could only give public comments by voicemail or email. I’m pleased that the School Committee is now allowing members of the public to join the Google Meet and give public comments “live.”
  • I asked Allison, in her role as the chair, to consider varying the order that she calls on members when doing a roll-call vote. I have noticed that the Town Council president calls on people in alphabetical order, but varies who goes first. In the past, Allison as the school committee chair has called on members in alphabetical order, with the same person going first every time. She seemed amenable to the idea, and in fact did vary the order later in the meeting. I think this a more fair and equitable way to take roll-call votes.
  • In Superintendent Mike Morris’s update, he shared that due to last Friday’s snow day, the session that had been planned for collecting input from current 6th graders on moving 6th grade to the middle school had to be rescheduled. I’m very pleased that the process for figuring out the best way to manage and implement moving 6th graders to the middle school is starting out by going right to 6th graders. I think they will have some valuable insight into how to manage the move in the best way for students.
  • The committee discussed a draft document called “Amherst School Committee Norms 2022,” which summarizes the policies on School Committee Governance and Operations (Section B of the ARPS Policy Manual). This proposed two-page document lays out bullet points on how the school committee carries out its responsibility, with reference back to the specific policies in Section B. I questioned why we need a document that summarizes another document. Everything in the document looked reasonable, but I didn’t think we needed to spend time reviewing and approving a document that summarizes our existing policies. Peter seemed to agree with me on this, saying “I see no need to group wordsmith a summary document.”
  • Mary Kiely, ARPS coordinator of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and Stephanie Joyce, ARPS title 9 coordinator, presented the initial work of the K-5 Math Curriculum Review committee. This committee is tasked with identifying and recommending a new math curriculum for grades K-5.  After a selection process and a six-week pilot of two finalist curricula, they will make a recommendation to the superintendent around the end of April. I shared that I hoped that in choosing the new curriculum we would have an eye towards developing students who will grow up to be adults who are not afraid of math! As a math major myself, I have often been perplexed by adults who are afraid of math, or claim they are not good at math – I think it probably goes back to their own K-12 math experience, and I have higher hopes for the current generation of students! Ben shared a story about his son’s reaction to a clumsy attempt at “diversity” in a math word problem that his son said was “so corny” and asked if input would be gathered from students on the proposed new curriculum. Mary responded that the curriculum would be piloted in a 2nd grade class, with teachers trained on the new curriculum. “This is equity work” choosing a high quality curriculum.
  • Mike gave an update from the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC). Two workshops will be held this month, to engage the community about the education plan and vision for the new school building, as well as for elementary education in Amherst overall. The education plan will be developed and presented to school committee on February 8, then we anticipate voting on it on February 22 (at an extra/additional meeting). I asked if these two sessions are the only opportunities for members of the public to give input (yes), then suggested other venues for collecting input. I offered to contact Cathy Schoen (Amherst town councilor and chair of the ESBC) and Phoebe Merriam (ESBC member) to develop other ways for the public to give input. This education plan will be relatively high level, and there will be opportunity in the future for input on more detailed things, like building layout.
  • In the Safety and Health update, Mike shared that the district is making sure teachers can work from home on teacher curriculum/work days if they prefer, and focusing on lightening the load for non-teaching work, which he referred to as “non-core work” (the core work being teaching!).
  • We reviewed a proposed survey to be sent to community members about the school budget. I suggested it should have mostly open-ended questions, and that we treat it as an intention to gather qualitative information, not quantitative data. Asking something like “What creative ideas do you have for making budget cuts in a way that minimizes direct impacts on students?” could generate some new and fresh ideas. I also think it’s important that people can submit it anonymously.
  • I volunteered to be one of the two school committee representatives on the JCPC (Joint Capital Planning Committee), a body made up of representatives from the school committee, library trustees, and town council. The JCPC is tasked with producing a written report on recommendations for capital spending. Irv also volunteered.

School Committee FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)


These answers are my interpretation of facts, based on my research and experience. I reserve the right to be wrong, and I’m happy to be corrected. All opinions are my own and do not represent the school committee, the superintendent, or the district.

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions; these are questions that I used to have, and that you may have too. If you have a question I haven’t answered here, let me know! You can leave a comment or email me at jennifer [at] jenniferamherst [dot] org.

  • How many school committees does Amherst have?

Check out this blog post (Amherst has two school committees?), which addresses this question. Briefly, the committee that governs the three Amherst elementary schools (the “Amherst School Committee”) has five elected members. All five also serve on the Regional School Committee that governs the middle and high schools, along with two representatives from Pelham and one each from Leverett and Shutesbury.

  • Do School Committee members get paid?

Amherst School Committee members get paid an annual stipend/payment of $3,000, paid in bi-weekly installments. (The chair gets $4,000). This stipend only applies to the Amherst School Committee, not to the regional town members of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, because the latter is not under the purview of the Town of Amherst (see Amherst has two school committees? for a primer on the difference between the two).

The stipends for School Committee members (and Town Councilors) are dictated in the town charter (which is referred to as the Amherst Home Rule Charter). (Prior to the adoption of the new charter in 2018, School Committee members received no stipend.)

  • What does the School Committee do?

The way I explained it to my then-7yo the first time I ran for School Committee is that her teacher’s boss is the principal, the principal’s boss is the superintendent, and the superintendent’s boss is the School Committee. The School Committee has several specific responsibilities:

  • Hire, fire, evaluate, and make contract decisions about the superintendent.
  • Advise and consent on the hiring of several other district personnel, including the school business officer (finance director), director of special education, and assistant/associate superintendent. These positions do not report to the School Committee the way the superintendent does, but the School Committee does approve the hiring of these roles.
  • Approve and monitor the school budgets (there are separate budgets for the elementary and the regional districts). The School Committee approves the budgets that are sent to the Amherst Town Council, determines line items, sets policies linked to the budget, and monitors and approves “warrants” (payments of expenses, such as payroll).
  • Set goals and policies for the district. This includes things like the annual goals for the district, the academic calendar, attendance policies, class sizes, allowing school-choice students, and more.
  • Act as the employer of record in collective bargaining with employee unions. The School Committee negotiates with and signs collective bargaining agreements with unions in our district.
  • What does the School Committee NOT do?

Here are some things people may think the School Committee does, but which are actually the responsibility of district personnel:

  • Oversee the day-do-day management of the district.
  • Decide to close school due to inclement weather.
  • Hire teachers.
  • Implement policies
  • How do I find out about School Committee meetings (when they are taking place, how to join, what is going to be discussed, etc.)
    • The BoardDocs site is currently the best source of information for both school committees. On the home page you will find member names and contact info, as well as info for immediate-future upcoming meetings. 
      • I say “immediate-future upcoming meetings” because while the meeting schedule has been established for the academic year, that list of dates is not on the home page. To find the list of dates for scheduled School Committee meetings for the academic year, click on “Library” in the top right hand corner, then choose the School Committee you are interested in on the left. There may end up being meetings in addition to the ones on this list, and hypothetically the ones on this list could change, but this is as much information as there is on future meetings.
    • Some tips for the BoardDocs site:
      • The “Featured” tab brings you back to the home page of this site. (If you click on the icon that looks like a house, that will bring you to the ARPS home page.)
      • When you click on a particular meeting date (either from the Featured/home page or the Meetings page), you can then click on View the Agenda to see the individual agenda items. Each agenda item has its own page, and if there are documents/attachments for that agenda item, you will find them here.
      • The “Policies” tab opens up a library of all of the ARPS policies. You can use the search function to search for things like “school lunch” or “anti-bullying.”
      • Minutes from a previous meeting are added to that meeting’s list of documents after they have been approved. There could be some weeks between when a meeting takes place and when the minutes are uploaded to BoardDocs.
  • How do I watch a meeting in real time? As of the writing of this blog post there are two ways: 
    • In the BoardDocs posting for the meeting, click on the yellow “Video” button to access the Google Meet link.
    • Watch on Amherst Media via cable channel 15 or on the livestream page for channel 15
  • Is there a way for me to receive notification when meetings are posted?
    • As far as I know, there is no way for members of the public to be notified by email/text when meetings or agendas are posted. The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law requires that public meetings be posted a minimum of 48 hours (not including weekends/holidays) prior to the meeting start. Sometimes/often meetings are posted with not much more notice than 48 hours. So, if you want to really keep on top of things, you’ll need to check the BoardDocs site every two days (not including weekends/holidays).
    • You actually can be notified of new meetings posted for the Amherst School Committee (not the Regional School Committee) via the Town of Amherst website. The one big caveat is that you can only sign up to receive notifications of ALL town boards and committees; you cannot specify that you want notifications only for the Amherst School Committee. 
      • To subscribe to these notifications, go to: https://www.amherstma.gov/notifyme
      • You will need to create an account, or sign in if you have an account with CivicPlus. After you sign in, if it brings you back to the Town of Amherst homepage, just go back to the “notifyme” link above.
      • On the Notify Me page, scroll down to the Calendar section, then click on either the mail or text icon next to Boards/Committees. You will be sent a confirmation email or text (it may take a few minutes). Use that to confirm your subscription.
      • Note: You will now receive notifications for every town board/committee meeting. I typically delete notices for those Boards/Committees that I am not interested in following closely.
      • Notifications via the town website are not available for Regional School Committee meetings, because the Regional School Committee is not under the purview of the town of Amherst.

Four towns walked into a bar …

A “Four Towns” meeting was held on Saturday, January 8. This meeting was hosted by the Amherst Regional School Committee and invites individuals and bodies from the four towns (Amherst, Leverett, Pelham, and Shutesbury) to view, ask questions, and give input on the regional school district’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year. The folks invited are: School Committee, Select Board or Town Council, town Finance Committee, town manager.

Over 50 people attended the January 8 meeting, and I figured out how to see them all on my screen at once in Google Meet!

Screenshot of Four Towns meeting on Google Meet.

The regional school district (Amherst Regional Middle School and Amherst Regional High School) is funded by the four towns, with each town contributing an amount based on a formula. The commonwealth of Massachusetts dictates a formula that is referred to as “the statutory method.” This method takes into account each town’s “ability to pay” which is based on property values in the town. Despite the fact that “statutory” means required, a region can choose to use a different method, as long as all participating towns agree (it also needs to be approved by the commissioner of elementary and secondary education). The state refers to any other method as an “alternative method.” Here at ARPS we refer to our alternative method as “the regional agreement.” If a region uses anything other than the statutory method, it must be voted on every year (even if it’s the same as the prior year), and all four towns must vote in favor. This is a critical part of passing the budget.

For many years now there has been tension between using the state’s statutory method or our custom “regional agreement,” which is based on student enrollment (five-year rolling average of students enrolled from each town). 

Between 2008 and 2016, the “regional agreement” was used; in 2017, the four towns agreed to use a mix of the two methods: 30% by the statutory (ability to pay) method and 70% by the regional agreement (student enrollment) method. The goal was to slowly increase the % statutory method to ease the transition of changing formulas. For FY22 the formula is 65% statutory and 35% regional agreement.

Confused yet? Me too. Basically, the way I think about this is that for some towns, it’s better for them if they pay an amount based on their property values, and for other towns it’s better for them if they pay an amount based on the number of students they send to the regional schools. Right now, the assessment method (that is, the formula used) is a combination of the two (65/35).

Doug Slaughter, the ARPS finance director, presented various formula options, from 55% statutory to 100% statutory. Representatives from each town had the opportunity to speak and give their input. 

Andy Steinberg from the Amherst Town Council said that in the last five years (during the period that the % statutory portion of the formula has gotten bigger), Amherst’s contribution has gotten bigger while the contributions from the other three towns has gotten smaller. He implied that moving towards a greater % statutory is not sustainable for Amherst. He went on to say that people view Amherst as the big town with plenty of resources, but that 50% of property in the town is owned by UMass and other colleges, and another 30% is not taxable for other reasons, so a huge portion of town real estate is not taxable, and yet we have a sizable population that the town provides services for. This is not news to me, but I appreciated hearing it stated so simply. People think that high property values in Amherst mean that Amherst has plenty of money, but in fact a huge proportion of real estate within the Amherst borders does not bring in any property tax revenue.

A representative from Shutesbury said that their goal is to move to the 100% statutory method, which they believe is the most fair and equitable because it factors in the “ability to pay.” Interestingly, this is the option that would result in Shutesbury paying the least amount, among all the options. A representative from Leverett said that they prefer the regional agreement method because it is based on a dollar contribution per student from that town. The Leverett person said they feared if Amherst could not shoulder the burden of the statutory method, that the quality of education would suffer. Similarly with Shutesbury, Leverett’s preferred option is one of the lowest in terms of the total amount Leverett would pay.

I spoke up and suggested an exercise whereby representatives from each town would pretend to represent another of the four towns, and go through the process of determining the optimal formula from that other town’s perspective, in an effort to get people to see things from someone else’s perspective. 

This discussion will continue as the budget process unfolds in the coming weeks and months.

Visioning of elementary education in Amherst

There are two Zoom workshops coming up that will allow community members to give input and participate in the visioning of the future of elementary education in Amherst, including goals and priorities for the new elementary school building.

Email me for the Zoom link (jennifer [at] jenniferamherst [dot] org).

See the January 7 Superintendent’s update email, or check out the event listings below:

Jan 13, 8:30 – 11:30 AM
https://www.facebook.com/events/4449258331866533?ref=newsfeed

Jan 26, 6:00 – 9:00 PM
https://www.facebook.com/events/494635375355611?ref=newsfeed

Amherst has two school committees?

I thought it would be helpful to have a short primer on school committees in Amherst.

Every two years (in odd-number years), Amherst voters elect five School Committee members to two-year terms. All five seats are up for election at the same time, in the same election as other town offices, such as Town Council and Library Trustee.

These five officials make up the Amherst School Committee, the body that oversees Amherst’s three elementary schools: Crocker Farm, Fort River and Wildwood. This body meets around once per month, and has a chair, a vice chair, and a secretary*. (The Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury elementary schools are not under the purview of this body; those towns have their own school committee for their elementary school.) The Amherst School Committee is sometimes informally referred to by people as “the elementary school committee.” (To further complicate matters, there is also an Elementary School Building Committee, which is a different body.)

The five Amherst School Committee members are also members of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee. This body oversees the Amherst Regional Middle School and the Amherst Regional High School. Because these two schools also draw students from Leverett, Pelham, and Shutesbury, the Regional School Committee also includes members from those three towns (one each from Leverett and Shutesbury, two from Pelham), for a total of nine members. This body meets around twice per month, and has a chair, a vice chair, and a secretary (the secretary is typically a note-taker who is not a member of the committee).

The Amherst School Committee makes decisions on issues affecting the three elementary schools, and the Regional School Committee on the middle school and high school. For district-wide policies that affect both the elementary and middle/high schools, votes may have to be taken in both school committees. That’s why sometimes you may hear about an upcoming vote taking place and you think, Wait didn’t that vote already happen? It may be because it was voted on in one school committee, and then has to be voted on in the other. The school committees hold separate meetings.

* Further confusing this issue is the Union 26 School Committee, which is made up of the chair, vice chair, and secretary of the Amherst School Committee, and three officers from the Pelham School Committee. The Union 26 School Committee is tasked with employing the superintendent jointly with the Regional School Committee.

Clear as mud, right? If you’re confused, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Everyone finds it confusing at first; it took me several years of reading news, watching meetings, and asking questions, before I figured it out!

I Feel Lucky to be in Amherst (Regional School Committee Meeting: 1/4/22)

This blog post covers my observations, impressions, and comments on the January 4 meeting of the Amherst Regional School Committee. It is not meant to represent meeting minutes, and will not include all topics discussed at the meeting. All opinions are my own and do not represent the school committee, the superintendent, or the district.

Tonight was my first meeting as a member of the Amherst Regional School Committee. The first order of business was “Reorganization” which refers to electing a committee chair and vice-chair. This is typically done after an Amherst town election. The chair is an important role, because that person puts together the meeting agenda (with input from committee members), and manages the flow of the meeting (calling for votes, calling on speakers, etc.).

Superintendent Mike Morris facilitated the election of the chair. I nominated Sarahbess Kenney from Pelham, but sadly she did not accept. Gene Stamell of Leverett nominated Allison McDonald (the out-going chair) but she asked to pause on accepting or declining. She then nominated Ben Herrington. Ben accepted the nomination, and then Allison declined her nomination. Ben was elected as chair unanimously.

Ben then took over facilitation of the meeting, and we went on to elect a vice-chair. I nominated Sarahbess Kenney again, and she asked to pause on accepting or declining. Gene asked about the duties of the vice-chair and there was discussion on this topic. The school committee’s policies don’t say a lot about what is included or excluded in the duties of the vice-chair; the one thing that is clearly stated is that the vice-chair runs meetings if the chair is unavailable. Aside from that, the vice-chair can be as involved or uninvolved as the chair and the vice-chair decide. There were no other nominations, and Sarahbess accepted. She was elected unanimously.

I was pleased that Ben, in chairing his first meeting, asked if we could use first names when addressing each other. All agreed. I had always found the use of titles (Dr., Mr., Ms.) to be overly stiff and formal, especially given that the Amherst Town Council decided early on to address each other by first names.

Following are random/meaningful/stray observations:

  • In the agenda item “School Committee announcements,” Allison announced some upcoming meetings of the Policy subcommittee. I asked what is typically shared during this agenda item, and what the intention of this agenda item is. There was discussion that subcommittee updates and future meetings are often shared, as are other announcement-type items that are not on the agenda. Mike mentioned that if an item is not on the agenda, it’s fine to mention it, but it should not be discussed or deliberated, in order to comply with Open Meeting Law. The “School Committee announcements” agenda item should be taken literally as announcements.
  • In Mike’s Safety and Health update, he emphasized the importance of communicating with families about the district’s multi-pronged approach to safety: testing, masking, ventilation, distancing, and vaccination. He repeated that we have thus far seen no community spread in schools. That is to say, there are positive cases among students and staff, but no evidence that COVID is being spread in schools. We have seen an uptick in participation in pooled testing, with around half of students now opting in. The Amherst Board of Health gave the district enough COVID home test kits to distribute two to each student and staff member. I thought it was particularly meaningful that, even though these were Town of Amherst tests, all students (even those from other towns) were included. Mike shared that we are “one district” even though students are from many towns. Thank you to the Amherst Board of Health for choosing to distribute test kits via the school district, something that other towns did not do with their kits.
  • The strategy of having staff get tested on the Sunday before school started up again after the holiday break worked well, as several asymptomatic staff who tested positive stayed home on Monday. Similarly with students, Mike reported that families told him they were grateful for the at-home tests that were given out, because they could test before coming to school after the holiday break. Of course I’m not happy to hear about the positive tests, but grateful those cases were caught before school began again.
  • The district is in the process of requiring KN95 or surgical masks, not cloth masks, and is easing students into this new rule/guideline. KN95 masks are available for staff, and will be available for students in the coming weeks. I personally was caught off-guard by the emerging news that cloth masks are now deemed unacceptable. I had just purchased 100 kid-sized disposable masks for my ARMS student, and information seems to be unclear about disposable masks.
  • Regarding ventilation, windows are opened in cafeterias while students have masks off and are eating (it’s so chilly that students need to wear jackets), and students are instructed to have masks on when not actively eating or drinking.
  • Mike shared that staff are encouraged to meet virtually for adult meetings. Some members of the public have questioned why adults are meeting virtually but kids are in person, and Mike said something I found very meaningful – everything we do is in the service of keeping students in in-person school. If we can lower risk by having adults meet virtually, we should do that so that students can stay in in-person school.
  • ARPS will hold their 13th vaccine clinic on January 5, from 3pm to 6pm. The clinic is open to anyone (not just ARPS students/staff) for first shots or boosters. You can sign up for the vaccine clinic at this link.
  • Sometime this week, kids 12-15 may be eligible for the booster shot, and while it will be too late to get them in at the January 5 ARPS clinic, you may be able to bring your 12-15yo to the Amherst clinic on Thursday January 6.
  • Allison asked if there is any plan or process for moving to remote learning if COVID numbers get worse. Mike responded that any plan to go remote would need to be approved by DESE (department of elementary and secondary education), and that Governor Baker has made it clear that only in-person school days count; if a district wants to close school buildings they would need to take “snow day” and make up the day in-person later. I got the impression that there is no plan or intention to move to remote learning.
  • Mike mentioned that he feels very fortunate to be working here in Amherst where we have seen no masking protests, and where in fact we are now specifying what types of masks can be worn, and the community has been supportive. I feel the same way! I’m so grateful that we don’t have a strong presence of anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers in Amherst.
  • Next Mike brought up the idea of requiring students who participate in extracurricular activities (like sports and clubs, or anything school-based that takes place outside of the school day), to do pooled testing. At first I liked the idea of requiring participation in pooled testing in order to do extracurricular activities. The US is seeing far more breakthrough cases with the Omicron variant (more vaccinated/boosted people are testing positive) than with the original or Delta variant. If we can get more people into pooled testing, all the better! That said, I agree with my fellow committee members that I would like to hear more about how this would work, how it has worked in other districts, and what the benefits would actually be. If almost half of students have already opted in to participate in pooled testing, and if we are not seeing community spread in schools, then what are the benefits to requiring more/some students to do pooled testing? The committee members agreed to refer this to the Policy Subcommittee to look at research and data, and make a recommendation to the School Committee.
  • We got our first look at the proposed FY 23 budget from Finance Director Doug Slaughter. The “Central Administration” line shows a sizable increase (20% or $42k), which is attributed to legal expenses due to an increased need for legal counsel on issues regarding labor negotiations. I interpret this to mean that because there have been more labor issues regarding the COVID pandemic, the administration has needed legal advice more than in past years.
  • The English Learner Education line, while relatively small, shows a decrease of 36% or $9,550. Doug shared that this was due to changing the model of how we deliver English learner education. While in the past we have hired tutors ad hoc to work with ELL students; now we are shifting that work to staff, so the spending has shifted from the ELE line to the staff salaries line. I think this is a positive shift, to have school staff doing this work instead of ad hoc tutors.
  • I asked about the Special Education line, which has been quite volatile from year to year. A big portion of this line is spending on out-of-district placements, some of which is reimbursed by the state the following year via a circuit breaker mechanism, which is the reason for some of the volatility. I mentioned that in the future I would be curious to see that line broken out into in-district spending and spending on out-of-district placements.

We were notified by Amherst Media that the sound was not working on their feed. In order to comply with Open Meeting Law, we needed to pause the meeting until the issue was fixed. We decided at this point to move into Executive Session, while awaiting the sound fix. Because Executive Session topics are confidential, I won’t be writing about them.

When we returned from Executive Session, it was after 10pm, and we attempted to continue with Doug’s budget presentation. However, the Amherst Media feed had trouble again, and given the late hour, we decided to meet again on Saturday, January 8, 30 minutes prior to the Four Towns meeting, to finish the budget presentation. All other agenda items that we didn’t cover will be pushed to the next School Committee meeting, on January 18.