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.

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