THIS CHARTER IS BAD FOR OUR SCHOOLS
The proposed charter will do much more than replace Town Meeting with a City Council. In the case of the schools, there are a number of significant impacts that have gotten very little attention.
Disruptive election cycle
Currently, Amherst’s five School Committee members serve staggered three-year terms, with two members elected in each of two years, and the fifth member elected in the third year. Three years provides enough time for members to gain experience and focus on governing the schools well before stepping down or having to run for election again. Staggered terms ensure that, even as turn-over takes place and new members are elected, institutional memory is preserved and that at any point in time there will be some members on the committee with several years of experience.
In contrast, under the proposed charter, terms will be reduced to two years, with all school committee members elected at once. This creates potential for sudden abrupt swings in policy and for loss of institutional memory. For more details and other impacts, see the recent column by Amherst Finance Committee chairwoman and former School Committee chairwoman Marylou Theilman. See also the analysis by School Committee member Peter Demling, which was ignored by the Charter Commission majority, as was the advice of other school committee members and the superintendent to retain longer, and staggered, terms.
Town Manager can amend school budgets
Under the proposed charter, the School Committee would no longer determine the school budgets to be presented to the Town Council for appropriation, as they currently do with budgets presented to Town Meeting. Instead, School budgets would need to be submitted first to the Town Manager who would incorporate them, with whatever changes he or she deems appropriate, into a final budget proposal (together with the town and library budgets) to the City Council. The Council would then adopt the final budget for the schools, library and town government. If the Town Manager chooses to reduce the budget from that requested by the School Committee, it would require a super-majority vote of the Council to reinstate those funds.
Threats to the quality of education
Read what Michael Greenebaum, retired principal of the former Marks Meadow School in Amherst, has to say about the connections between form of government and quality of schools. He highlights how relative rankings of Massachusetts school systems indicate clearly that communities in which voters have a direct voice in making decisions about budgets support their schools to a greater degree than communities where those decisions are delegated to a small council.
What about the vote against funding the proposed Wildwood co-located schools?
The failure to fund that building proposal was due to the state law requiring a 2/3 majority to appropriate the funds. When Town Meeting failed to reach this level of support, proponents brought the vote to Amherst voters who also failed to support the project sufficiently for it to go forward. For more details about these votes, read this letter from Ira Addes, and this blog from Michael Greenebaum, both of whom supported the school building project.
The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate, but they endure when people of every background and belief find a way to set aside smaller differences in service of a greater purpose. Barack Obama, 2009