Friday, February 27, 2009
Friday, February 13, 2009
By Mary Carey
AMHERST - West Hartford Superintendent David Sklarz has led school districts in Charleston, S.C., and Santa Cruz, Calif., places he discovered were "3,000 miles apart in geography and 10,000 miles apart in philosophy."
He would like to conclude his long and varied career in Amherst, he told parents and teachers at a community breakfast at the middle school Thursday. "Amherst is where I belong; I just have to convince you of that."
Sklarz is the second of three superintendent finalists to visit the district. Northampton Superintendent Isabelina Rodriguez met with parents, teachers, students and administrators earlier this week. Alberto Rodriguez, a Florida principal, is scheduled to visit the district later this month.
A new superintendent in Amherst will enter the system at a time when budgets will have to be slashed.
"The challenge is to say, what's important?" said Sklarz. "The only way you can find out is you ask people, #If we have to give something up, what do we keep, what do you stop? What do you want to change?'"
He said he is aware of a proposal to eliminate the elementary instrumental music program, and said he sees the arts as one of four pillars of a sound education, along with academics, athletics and social and civic responsibility. "Eroding one of the legs weakens the system."
Still, Sklarz said educators must "ask the tough questions."
"In an economic crisis like this, nothing can be sacred. Everything has to be held to the same litmus test. ... That's the hill I'm willing to die on," Sklarz said. "In the next couple of years, you're going to define the new Amherst for the decade. I think that's exciting."
Sklarz has been an elementary and high school teacher in his native Ipswich; middle school director in Ridgefield, Conn.; middle school principal in Marblehead; a principal in Concord, N.H.; and a superintendent in West Hartford for 14 years. He gave notice that he was retiring from that post 18 months ago and a successor has been named.
"I think seven to 10 years is when a superintendent is at his peak," he said. "After seven to 10 years, you start to get possessive about it, and you lose objectivity."
The average tenure of a superintendent in Massachusetts is under four years.
Sklarz said he would describe closing the achievement gap between black and Hispanic and white students as a passion.
When he accepted the position of deputy superintendent in Charleston, the district was under a court-ordered desegregation plan. Now the high school in the area ranks among the top in the country, he said.
Then he went to Santa Cruz as superintendent. He noted the contrast, saying that the joke out there was that people moved to Santa Cruz when Haight Ashbury became too conservative.
Asked by a science teacher to talk about his middle school vision, Sklarz said middle school teachers should want to work at middle schools rather than at a high or elementary school. Most educational programs don't teach people how to work with this age of student, he said.
In answer to a question about how schools can reach out to families who do not feel connected to the system, Sklarz said the West Hartford system rented a vacant Section 8 apartment and staffed it with teachers and guidance counselors with the idea of turning it into a kind of community and learning center. Only one family came at the beginning of the first year, by the end of the second year, it was usually filled to capacity until closing time.
Parents said they were impressed by Sklarz's breadth of experience and communication skills.
"He seems like a straight shooter," parent Laura Quinn said.
Amy Rose said she appreciated his "can-do attitude."
Michael Jacques said, "I feel like he can maximize the full potential of the Amherst educational system."
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
'Opening salvo' as Amherst schools eye cuts
But at least $800,000 in cuts must be made, school officials said, and another option on the table is closing Mark's Meadow.
Shuttering the smallest of the town's four elementary schools could save up to $687,000, according to preliminary figures school officials released for the first time Tuesday.
Proposed cuts that would save $799,000 involve eliminating not only the music program but cutting two English language learner teachers, two cafeteria aides, a computer teacher, math coaches and a custodian, among others.
About two dozen parents and others spoke out against both options, castigating School Committee members for lacking "vision" and focusing too narrowly on money.
Meanwhile, elementary school students played string instruments in the hall to call attention to the value of musical education and a group of Mark's Meadow students made a brief appearance to urge officials to "save Mark's Meadow."
It was just the "opening salvo" in the budget discussion, Amherst School Committee Chairman Andrew Churchill said of the evening's proceedings. The committee will consider the cuts in the budget school administrators presented Tuesday as well as two other plans under which more drastic cuts would be made. The committee is aiming to finalize a budget by the end of March to present to the Select Board and Finance Committee and then Town Meeting in May. Similarly deep cuts will have to be made in the regional school budget.
Seven teachers would be cut in the elementary school plan to meet the Finance Committee's request that the final budget amount to no more than 2 percent more than last year's total. An additional nine teachers would be cut under the plan that cuts $1.2 million from a level-services budget and eight more teachers for a total of 24 under the "worst-case scenario" budget proposed.
"This budget scenario we're facing is like saying to someone, #Do you want your left hand or your right hand cut off?'" said Irvin Rhodes, who is running for School Committee.
Community members should "reorient" their thinking away from any cuts and talk to their friends and neighbors about raising taxes to support the schools, one parent said.
At least a dozen parents talked about how important Mark's Meadow is to the community, and about a dozen others argued to keep the music program intact.
The instrumental music teacher said it had taken decades to build the music program that Amherst takes pride in now.
Another music teacher suggested the School Committee find a way to keep some of the music program going.
Ninth-grade musician Tess Domb Sadof said her classmates at the high school were upset to learn that younger children might not have the same opportunities they did to learn to play an instrument. Some 387 students at the high school have already signed a petition asking to preserve the program, she said.
"For me, music education is part of our core," said Tess' mother, Mindy Domb.
Some speakers offered suggestions for saving money that the School Committee never considered, with Town Meeting member Vincent O'Connor, for instance, suggesting that the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School be folded into the district so that Amherst children's per pupil aid from the state would not continue to be diverted to the charter school.
Megan Rosa and Steve Rivkin, who are also running for School Committee, explained their positions.
Rivkin said he supports closing Mark's Meadow and redistricting the elementary schools, because there are vast inequities among them now.
"All of it sucks, it just sucks," Rosa, a Mark's Meadow parent, referring to the divisiveness she said talk of closing Mark's Meadow has caused. But if the school must close, the community will make it work, Rosa said.
Friday, February 6, 2009
The venue for the next very important Amherst School Committee meeting has been changed. The school committee will be discussing the various scenarios for dealing with anticipated cuts in the school budget during this meeting on Tues. Feb 10 at 7pm. According to the ARPS.org website: Location Changed for February 10th Amherst School Committee Meeting Home
In order to accomodate all interested community members, the location of the Amherst School Committee meeting on Tuesday, February 10 has been changed. The meeting is now scheduled in the auditorium at Marks Meadow Elementary School at 813 N. Pleasant Street on the UMass campus. Parking is available in UMass lots 66 and 44. Lot 66 is in front of Marks Meadow by the School of Education. Lot 66 is accessible by passing through Lot 44 and continuing around the left side of the Marks Meadow building. Both lots are clearly marked.
Also, please note that although I previously reported that babysitting would be available during this meeting, there will be no childcare provided. Sorry for any confusion! -- Ann McLaughlin
Candidate: Dr. Isabelina Rodriguez
Date: Monday, February 9, 2009 Time: 7-8:30pm Location: Amherst Regional High School Library
Date: Tuesday, February 10, 2009 Time: 8-9am Location: Amherst Regional Middle School Cafeteria
Candidate: Dr. David Sklarz
Date: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 Time: 7-8:30pm Location: Amherst Regional High School Library
Date: Thursday, February 12, 2009 Time: 8-9am Location: Amherst Regional Middle School Cafeteria
Candidate: Dr. Alberto Rodriguez
Date: Monday, February 23, 2009 Time: 7-8:30pm Location: Amherst Regional High School Library
Date: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 Time: 8-9am Location: Amherst Regional Middle School Cafeteria
Thursday, February 5, 2009
AMHERST - The Amherst School Committee has formally requested specific details from school administrators on potential budget cuts - as well as a change of venue for next week's meeting in anticipation of a big community turnout.
The board met briefly Tuesday so that Chairman Andrew Churchill could read aloud a memorandum to interim co-superintendents Alton Sprague and Helen Vivian requesting a prioritized list of potential savings, personnel cuts and the impact on classroom size under several elementary school reconfiguration plans. The board is also asking for estimates of the costs of redistricting and potential cuts in next year's school budget.
About 30 parents and community members attended the meeting, including all three candidates currently running for two seats on the School Committee. More are expected to come to the Feb. 10 meeting when the committee begins debating whether to close Mark's Meadow or otherwise reconfigure the four elementary schools.
Churchill said the committee would seek a great deal of public input before making a decision and probably would not narrow down the choices until a month or so from now, when more is known about how much state aid the schools can expect and how much money from the federal stimulus plan potentially will be targeted to the schools.
School officials have estimated that keeping the schools running would require an increase of 7 to 8 percent in the $20.6 million budget. The schools will instead be aiming to increase the budget by no more than 2 percent over last year. And there is a chance that the budget might have to be even tighter than that, Churchill said, which is why the committee is also asking administrators to outline "worst-case scenarios."