Monday, March 30, 2015

And Another One Gone

Rt 9 Diner

I guess sometimes you have to destroy the village in order to save it ...


Hey UMass!

UMass Amherst:  Massachusetts flagship of higher education

As I pointed out on Friday students enrolled in the Amherst public schools emanating from UMass tax-exempt family housing costs Amherst taxpayers "over $1 million" annually to educate.  

Well now I have a more exact figure for number of students and their cost to the town:  56 students at a cost of $1,267,200.

Click to enlarge/read

Notice too that one student (at a cost of $18,200) does not even attend Amherst Public Schools, but that money still comes out of their budget for Charter reimbursement. 

Safe to assume that facts from this memo will be used by the Finance Committee in their report to Amherst Town Meeting concerning the school budget, so perhaps a long overdue discussion will take place about fair reimbursement from UMass for these serious costs.

The Amherst and Regional School Committees should also take a strong stand, and the Amherst Select Board should direct Town Manager Musante to use these figures to get a (much) better deal out of UMass in the next "Strategic Partnership Agreement" -- already almost three years overdue. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ice Ice Baby

Puffer's Pond this snowy morning

In addition to keeping the killer beast fire at bay, at the other end of the spectrum, Amherst Fire Department also deals with another potential killer for us folks living in New England: falling through ice into freezing water.

 AFD has a total of 6 protective suits (which are easy to spot against white background)

Wearing special suits that allow for submersion in freezing water pretty much all day long and using an ice sled with team members holding attached ropes, a three or four person crew can make short work of getting someone safely to shore.

 Captain Sterling (center) wearing one of the older red suits (not to be confused with Star Trek crew member)

This morning's drill was a make up for one scheduled five weeks ago when the ice on Puffer's Pond was too thick to cut through.  Most of Puffer's is still frozen except areas where tributaries come into the pond.
The ice sled, donated by the Amherst Rotary, folds up for easy transport

Firefighter Sarah Roe proudly shows off new turnout gear

Skill training can make a life or death difference. Not only for the victim, but the first responder as well.

Friday, March 27, 2015

High Cost Of Education (In A College Town)

UMass, with 27,569 total students, is Amherst's largest employer

"If in the future the town builds a new elementary school and vacates Mark's Meadow facility, the town Amherst Elementary Schools, ARPS and the University will negotiate a new agreement in which the University may reimburse the Town for a portion of the net cost of educating students living in University tax-exempt housing."

So declared the 2007 "Five Year Strategic Partnership Agreement" signed by Amherst Town Manager Larry Shaffer, UMass Chancellor John Lombardi and School Superintendent Jere Hochman.

That Strategic Agreement expired June 30, 2012 and a new multi-year contract has yet to be inked, even though Town Manager John Musante told the Select Board well over a year ago it was "very, very close."

The UMass campus generates 20% of Amherst Fire Department total call volume.  This year UMass will continue paying the annual $370,000 for AFD  (total budget $4.5 million) via the expired Strategic Agreement and another $80,000 for much needed extra EMS/fire staffing on weekends when school is in session (aka ambulance drunk runs).

By (embarrassing) comparison the University of Vermont with a total of only 12,000 students -- less than half the size of UMass -- paid Burlington, population 42,284,  $1.2 million in impact fees last year.  Or more than twice as much as UMass pays Amherst, population 38,819.

The town has not yet built a new elementary school -- although we're well on our way.   But we did, however, for budgetary reasons (saving $800,000) close Mark's Meadow Elementary School in 2009 and returned it to UMass. Yes, only two years after signing the 5 year Strategic Agreement that specifically talked about negotiating a new agreement should the town "vacate Mark's Meadow."

 It was even noted in the press release spun by the well funded UMass spinmeister PR department.

 Former Mark's Meadow Elementary School now undergoing major renovation

Currently the average cost of education per child in the Amherst Regional Public School District (grades 7-12) is $20,313 per student and for the towns three elementary schools an average of  $18,597.  State per student average is around $14,000.

 Town owned modular classrooms still sit on UMass property behind former Mark's Meadow school

Currently over 50 students attending Amherst public school system call tax-exempt UMass student housing their home ... or, just over $1 million dollars in educational service costs shouldered by Amherst taxpayers.

Let me repeat that:  JUST OVER ONE MILLION DOLLARS!

The upcoming FY16 Regional School budget, just to maintain "level services," required a $1 million cut resulting in the elimination of the equivalent of 16 full-time positions.

Let me repeat that:  A ONE MILLION DOLLAR CUT!

Do the simple but discouraging math: Time for UMass, our "partner," to pay up.

Do it for the kids.  Your kids!

UMass North Village, described as "family housing," is owned by Commonwealth of Massachusetts with an assessed value of $10.7 million. Thus, it would  pay $220,000 in property taxes this year IF privately owned

Should Everyone Get A Trophy?

Today's Gazette above the fold story (at least they used a question mark)

Well I guess now I know why the Gazette sent a photographer (but not a reporter) to the Amherst Regional School Committee meeting on Tuesday: Today's whiny front page soap opera piece about the supposed poisoned political climate in town.

Had the reporter attended the Regional School Committee meeting readers could have been informed about the one-hour discussion that took place concerning expanded Regionalization -- the most  important educational decision facing the four towns in more than a generation.

All the more important for print coverage since Amherst Media, although contractually obligated to, failed to cover it (too busy covering the town sponsored 3rd annual parking forum I suppose).

And where was the Gazette when former School Committee member Catherine Sanderson was being raked over the coals five years ago for telling it like it is on her blog?

The establishment went so far as to file a letter of complaint with the District Attorney about her outspokenness -- a clear violation of the First Amendment.   Thus sending the unmistakable message that if you question authority, you will be crushed.

Seemingly every year someone dies horribly while hiking in the White Mountains because they choose to set off ill-prepared for the journey.

Amherst politics is not a casual stroll along the bike path, but neither is it an ascent up Mt. Washington.

I would not have it any other way.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Back In The Race Again?

Do supporters really need to bring the card in the polling booth?

UPDATE: 4:55 PM

Lawrence O'Brien says if elected he will not serve.  (See his comment/statement 4:39 PM)


#####
Original Post 11:00 AM

So apparently Lawrence O'Brien changed his mind about changing his mind over the March 31 School Committee election.

 Lawrence O'Brien (right) is current member School Committee

First he was in, having collected the requisite 50 signatures of registered voters, then suddenly within 48 hours of handing in his nomination papers he withdrew within time to have his name NOT appear on the March 31 ballot.

But now he's back in. Joining fellow write-in candidate Victor Nunez-Ortiz and the two old fashioned candidates -- Vira Douangmany and Phoebe Hazzard -- who did things the normal way by collecting 50 signatures prior to the deadline so their names appear on the official ballot.

Well maybe Ms. Hazzard not so much"normal."

Unlike Amherst Housing Authority candidate Emilie Hamilton whose name does appear on the ballot but she has publicly stated she quit because AHA meetings are "too contentious."

Sarah Auerbach was Katherine Appy's campaign manager last year

Geeze, and to think I once considered this election boring. (But I'm still comfortable predicting an awful voter turnout, as in under 10%).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Regionalization: Not Dead Yet

Regional School Committee last night

Unlike the strong skepticism expressed at their meeting two weeks ago, perhaps brought on by the mad rush to seek approval in time for this year's Town Meeting season, last night the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee expressed optimism over the prospect of regionalizing the current grades 7-12 all the way down to preK through 6th grade.

Amherst School Committee member Rick Hood started off the one-hour discussion saying they should "keep working" on the project (after more than three years of committee work culminating with the Regional Agreement Working Group final report) especially if it allows a future "on ramp" for any town, like Shutesbury, who is not yet ready to make the leap.

In order for the educational expansion to happen all four towns via their Town Meeting must approve amending the current 60-year-old Regional Agreement but then one or two could vote not to join at the current time.

 RAWG member Kip Fronsh appeared at Public Comment period to lobby for Regionalization

Mr. Hood cited the $600,000 savings figure saying, "It's a big deal, if it's real."  A sentiment echoed later by other committee members.  Although Shutesbury member Steve Sullivan pointed out that financial projection "was old" and a study should be done for fresher figures.

Governance is still a major stumbling block with members expressing skepticism over a 13 member supersized Regional School Committee (7 from Amherst and 2 from each of the hilltowns).  Rick Hood suggested a RSC of seven member, four from Amherst and one each from Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury.

But other members thought that would be too much work and pressure on a lone town representative to the powerful new committee. 

RSC Chair from Pelham Trevor Baptiste said bringing financial sustainability to the Pelham Elementary School was his main objective but it was "debatable" if the money savings was worth it.  He liked the idea of district wide elections to the new super-committee because it would "reduce factionalism."

Amilcar Shabazz attending his final meeting via "remote participation" said confidently from Rick Hood's Mac computer:  "This can be done."

Committee Chair Baptiste then suggested for RSC meetings over the next year a major bullet point from the Regional Agreement Working Group report be put on the agenda for a 20 minute or so discussion.

And in the near future all three hilltown School Committees be invited in for a discussion. 

Marylou Theilman pointed out from the audience that it had been a good, long-overdue discussion but it was shame Amherst Media was not there to cover it, especially since a major criticism of the project has been the lack of public outreach.

The Chair, who has previously touted his respect for "transparency",  responded that maybe the reason the conversation/discussion went so well is because officials felt more comfortable without the cameras running.

Hmm ...