Oldham: ‘Far Away from the Kids’, in Amherst (2016/08/22)

Jim Oldham, published at Amherst Bulletin, Aug. 22, 2016 – http://www.amherstbulletin.com/Far-away-from-the-kids-in-Amherst-4146685

A majority of members of the Amherst School Committee have joined with colleagues on the Regional and Union 26 School Committees to vote to spend over $300,000 on a severance package for Superintendent Maria Geryk who is leaving her post abruptly, two years in advance of the end of her contract.

The funds will be drawn from the school budget, yet Laura Kent, chair of the Regional School Committee, was quoted in the Daily Hampshire Gazette saying, “That money is coming from funds very far away from the kids and staff.”

What does that mean? Isn’t the entire school budget intended to serve the students? Where does one find $300,000 that won’t be missed? How much more money in the school budget is “very far away from the kids and staff”?

Three months ago, that spare money was nowhere to be seen when Town Meeting had to intervene to prevent a 40 percent reduction in three school library paraprofessional positions from full-time to three days a week. These employees, one at each elementary school, serve students who visit the library independently — often around 75 a day at each school — while the head librarian is teaching classes. They do many other tasks to help ensure the libraries effectively serve the entire school population.

Had the cuts gone ahead, it would have been more difficult for students to access books. Library closures would have become more frequent since the paraprofessionals would not have been present two days a week to cover if the head librarian were absent for any reason.
These are significant impacts, particularly for students who don’t have opportunities to get to other libraries, and who may have limited access to books at home. Fortunately, an outcry from parents, staff and students led Town Meeting to vote overwhelming (133 to 12) to fund these positions fully.

Remarkably it only cost an additional $30,000 to retain these three positions at full time, about one-tenth of the payout now going to the ex-superintendent. That is because these school employees who work with so many children each earn around $24,000 per year, less than one-sixth of the salary Geryk has received, and between one-quarter and one-fifth of what many other school administrators are paid. One wonders at the thinking that led the majority of the Amherst School Committee to determine that this was a good place to save a few dollars.

Even more outrageous was the original budget proposal from the administration, which would have eliminated the library paraprofessional positions altogether. That proposal shows a school leadership itself very far away from the kids and staff and the rest of the community they are supposed to serve.

Unfortunately, “far from the kids and staff” is all too apt a description of how the schools have been run in recent years. I and others have written previously about the top-down imposition of teaching methods and curricula developed far from the kids and staff. Rather than engage Amherst’s talented teachers to collectively make the schools the best they can be, the administration has, as one former teacher described it last year, focused on ensuring “compliance and control.”

The plan for a new elementary school, for which voters will be asked this fall to approve a debt exclusion override to raise almost $60 million over 30 years, is another decision made far from the staff who are essential to making any school space an effective learning environment. The proposal to construct a single two-wing elementary school for all of the town’s second through sixth graders and to convert Crocker Farm to an early childhood school serving pre-K through first grade was recommended by the superintendent and assistant superintendent and selected by the School Committee despite being the first choice of only 4 percent of teachers surveyed and being seen favorably by less than a third of them.

There was compromise option that was the first choice of half the teachers, rated favorably by nearly two-thirds of them, and considered unacceptable by far fewer teachers and parents than the option selected. The School Committee could have worked with that option, perhaps tweaking it to incorporate goals related to preschool and redistricting, but they didn’t. That they valued the now-exiting superintendent’s views (or their own) so much more than the views of those who do the job of teaching every day, or the parents of the students they serve, says a lot about the state of our school system.

There is now an opportunity to create a different system, where teachers and staff are listened to, and empowered to apply their professional expertise in the service of our children. This requires, however, an administration, starting with a new superintendent, not so far away, in terms of power, pay scale, and attitude, from the kids and staff.

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.