By Sarah Marshall
Seven candidates for the Amherst School Committee – four incumbents and three challengers – answered a range of questions posed by Nancy Eddy of the Amherst League of Women Voters on Thursday evening. The challengers are Phoebe Merrian, Jennifer Page, and Irvin Rhodes, and the incumbents are Peter Demling, Benjamin Herrington, Heather Lord, and Allison McDonald. Surnames will be used below for brevity.
The first of the six questions asked how the candidates would ensure a smooth transition to a new grade configuration if the 6th grades are moved to the Amherst Regional Middle School. Demling noted that the move has not yet received final approval from the Regional School Committee, but that, assuming the move is approved, the school administrations and staffs have an extended time in which to plan, since a move would not occur until the the fall of 2023. The Committee will engage with students, families, and staff, and will be particularly mindful of the challenges facing the first grades to make that move. Herrington also named thoughtful planning, definitely with input from the educator and parents, so that the experience is a positive one. Lord urged outreach to families at apartment complexes. Learn if some of the elementary teachers will move with the students, helping to ease concerns. Perhaps the 6th-graders should have a day or two at the school by themselves to become familiar with the space and routines. McDonald endorsed the earlier comments and noted that the extensive work of the Grade Span Advisory Group would be a useful resource for planning the transition and communications to families. Merriam noted that a large group of families may not agree with the move and that their concerns need to be identified and addressed. Page agreed that engaging with families, particularly of the two grades that, in the first year only, will move to the Middle School at the same time. The Committee will also need to watch for unintended consequences of this grade shift. Rhodes said that the change will bring anxieties and concerns and that robust community engagement will be needed. Traditions will be lost – one grade (finishing 5th) will never get to be the top grade in elementary school, for example.
Candidates were then asked if they had ever looked through entire budgets for the elementary and regional districts, and were they comfortable making multi-year comparisons. Merriam has tried to become familiar with these documents and has many ideas, including how to bring back arts, music, and technology. Demling said the budgets, especially for the Region, are hard to understand and use unfamiliar terminology, so he reached out to the Finance Director and Superintendent for assistance. But understanding them is important so their meaning can be conveyed to the community. Page noted that she is a data analyst and former math major and enjoys exploring Excel spreadsheets. Multi-year comparisons are important. She is comfortable speaking up and asking hard questions. Rhodes said he had taken deep dives into budgets, and that a budget is the heartbeat of an organization – a document that demonstrates the organization’s values. Herrington noted that much of the Committee’s time was spent on budget matters, and that budgets are moral documents. Looking at changes in budgets over the years is important to understanding the district’s direction and whether the district lives up to its mission statement. Lord said she had read through them all, and that their complexity inevitable serves as a gatekeeping function, controlling who can participate in the conversation. She sought membership in the budget subcommittee because of its importance and hopes to make the budgets more transparent to the community. McDonald acknowledged that reading and understanding the budgets is a slog, and the Committee needs to make the finances clearer to the community. What the budgets don’t show – thereby presenting an incomplete picture of district finances – is all the various sources and uses of money. The budgets generally focus only on the funds that will come from Amherst (elementary schools ) or the regional towns (middle and high schools). Finally, level-service budgeting is difficult to explain.
The third question addressed how the district could improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in its hiring practices, staff, disciplinary procedures, and curriculum. Page stated that hiring directors should seek out communities that might not know about the standard job website. She noted that Amherst disproportionally disciplines BIPC students. Lord noted progress in hiring BIPOC staff, but just as important is supporting and retaining staff. Are new and/or BIPOC staff heard and seen? She also noted that all grade levels were working to address anti-racism in curriculum, and finally that she advocates a model of caring, rather than of discipline, for the student whose behavior perhaps indicates important underlying needs. Demling commended the work of Asst. Superintendent Doreen Cunningham with respect to incorporating DEI practices into hiring. He also noted that history teachers at all levels were thoughtfully addressing anti-racism, and, finally, that the restorative justice program has not been expanded as desired because of budget cuts. Rhodes said he co-chaired the DEI efforts of the Hampshire County United Way. Collecting data throughout an organization so that progress towards DEI goals can be measured is important. DEI must be a daily effort Herrington noted that what connects DEI in hiring, curriculum, and discipline is culture. He is pleased with the district’s progress, but we need to show the public that our BIPOC community, and their contribution, is valued. Amherst schools carry a stigma in the eyes of the BIPOC community. He also strongly endorsed a restorative justice approach to discipline. McDonald stressed the need to be developing new ideas to maintain progress. She agreed that, to meet DEI goals, improving hiring must be matched by improvements in retention, which is proof of success. Continuous self-evaluation is needed. Merriam endorsed being thoughtful in all the district practices, and noted the importance to students of seeing themselves in the adults in the schools. New hires might look at the curriculum with fresh eyes and have ideas for improvement.
The fourth question noted the continuing anger and division caused by the defeat of the previous elementary school building project and asked how candidates would bring the community together around a new project. McDonald noted the extensive listening sessions and data collection that the Committee had undertaken a few years ago while developing its new application to MSBA. The goal was to develop a unified commitment to a new school that would provide a healthy environment for all. The School Committee will shortly begin to collaborate with the School Building Committee as the process moves along. Page agreed that sadness and frustration persist, and said one way to heal is to focus on moving forward. She will engage in genuine listening to students and families. Everyone involved needs to respect differences of opinion and keep an open mind. Rhodes said that he had served on that previous Building Committee and indeed it was an unhappy experience. They had tried hard to engage all parts of the community. But one can’t drive into the future by looking in the rear-view mirror, so listening, collaborating,and connecting emotionally are needed. Demling said he was first elected just as the building project was defeated so was plunged right into the aftermath. He made a strong effort to reach out to opponents of the project and learn to understand their perspective. As for the current project, he feels people are in more agreement about the need for one building and its size. Lord recommended slowing down the process, listening, and learning to disagree with respect. Merriam said people need assurances that they will be heard, their questions will be answered, and they will not be steered toward a particular solution. Herrington said that people won’t remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel. Respectful conversation is key. He has had v conversations with people he strongly disagrees with – it is hard but necessary work. The district won’t build a school without building bridges.
Fifthly, candidates were asked how the district might help achieve the Town’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25% by 2025. Lord mentioned installing solar canopies in parking lots, and noted that the new school building will significantly reduce GHG emissions. McDonald seconded that point, and added that the possibility of installing rooftop solar will be examined. She named the transportation system as the next target for emissions reduction, and that a Task Force will be tasked with exploring options. Electric buses can not be the entire solution as they make too many trips in one day. Perhaps routes can be shortened. Herrington thinks first about building operations and noted the very leaky buildings that waste energy. As for buses, idling times can also be reduced. Merriam endorsed the new school and changes to transportation as options for GHG reductions. Demling reminded the audience that the regional buildings, ARMS and ARHS, also need significant repair. But the Town faces fiscal restraints. He therefore encouraged listeners to vote for Town Council candidates who will expand the tax base so that more money is available. Finally, he noted that, next year, citizens will vote on a proposed state constitutional amendment, Fair Share, that will generate more money for schools and infrastructure. Rhodes’ professional experience includes many years developing capital for start-ups, and it has given him insight into evolving technologies. He said 25% reduction is doable, and the cost will be less than feared. Solid state batteries that can power buses for many hundreds of miles will be coming. He agreed that efforts to develop more local revenue are needed. Page advocated examining all investments through a climate-justice lens, and named students as an untapped resource for ideas about improvements to the schools.
In the final question, candidates were asked about the primary reason(s) for declining district enrollment and possibilities for mitigation. Rhodes noted that enrollments have been steady for the last few years, but declined significantly over the past decade. One factor is loss of students to charter schools; decreased funding for the schools may be another. Merriam noted that many people point to charter schools as a reason, but no one can control what is right for a family. However, we should be learning why families leave the district. Some BIPOC families have been disappointed in how their concerns have been addressed. McDonald noted population shifts within Amherst and competition with charter schools. The Caminantes program has reversed the declining enrollment at Fort River, and the Seal of Biliteracy program is also encouraging some families to stay. Such programs require commitment and resources. Lord named housing costs as a major factor. Racism is also sometimes a factor, leading some families to home-school their children. Page noted a decreasing trend in births, and lack of family housing in town. She encouraged listeners to vote for candidates who will create more affordable housing. She also encouraged holding exit interviews with leaving families to identify other actions the district can take. Herrington seconded the high cost of housing, and classism in addition to racism. He also said we should do a better job of championing what we get right. Demling noted that the district lost its communications director a few years ago to budget cuts, making it hard to trumpet the good news. He continues to prioritize revising the charter funding formula to halt the death spiral and continuing to oppose increasing the size of charter schools.
In their closing statements, candidates made these points:
- Herrington represents people who are not often heard from – not only because he is Black, but because he is a blue-collar worker and a single father. People ask him to speak up for them. He has shown that he is a collaborator and makes an effort to connect with folks.
- Rhodes noted his love for Amherst, his 40+ years in the community, his experience as an elementary school teacher, and his service on many town boards and committees. He immerses himself in school and budget matters. He pledges to work collaboratively because the Committee is stronger when it acts together.
- Merriam is a graduate of ARPS and has three children in the system. Membership in the Amherst School Committee is one of the most important jobs in town, and she brings a fierce commitment to the schools. It is important to include a diversity of voices, backgrounds, and expertise.
- Page environs a district committed to helping every child reach his/her potential. She will ask hard questions and bring attention to what is left out or ignored. Trust needs to be earned. She will look at all issues through an equity lens, noting obstacles to participation.
- McDonald noted the important, hard, but unglamorous work of the committee in the recent past to address how the committee meets, communicates, and enables public participation in the work of the committee, including the budget. The current committee works well together but is not a monolith – each member brings important ideas and questions and works hard to listen and learn.
- Demling is a strong believer in public schools. He has been an advocate for increasing, or protecting, funding through efforts such as limiting the sizes of charter schools, changing the costs to districts when they lose students to charters, and obtaining money for covid-related expenses. He has consistently called for a one-building elementary school.
- Lord continues to advance equity and to engage with all stakeholders. She speaks up for the marginalized and wants equity to be foundational to the district’s work. She, personally, will do all she can to heal children’s trauma from covid and from the societal injustices the treat people differently according to color.
[Please excuse any errors as there was no transcript or tape to review.]