Monday, December 17, 2007

Budget 2008/2009- Ground Zero

Tonight, at the School Committee meeting (6:30 PM, Room 118, High School), the Superintendent will be presenting two different budgets.

After scouring the current budget for any additional efficiencies, the Superintendent will present a level services budget. Although some have expressed a preference that the budget be constructed in a zero-based format, I've gone over in previous postings several reasons why we are dealing with purely semantical distinctions when we talk about zero-based budgeting in schools.

We start with zero; then add in those statutory and regulatory requirements, and zoom, quicker than mercury, you are suddenly looking at expenses that amount to about 80% of the budget. The rest is "discretionary spending"- like raises, heating, books, computers, classroom supplies.

You know, after thinking a lot about it; I might actually be willing to bring in a consultant and put together a zero-based budget with two stipulations. First that it is consistent with our vision and goals of promoting student achievement; and second if the City would agree to fund the differential between what we are operating the schools on now, and what it will really cost to comply with statutory regulations and meet our goals of promoting student achievement using best practices; which of course, would be the desired outcome of a zero-based budget practice. Spend more efficiently, get better results. Cut an explore teacher at the middle school, and you can then efficiently serve 102 kids in a gym class three or four times a week.

Because "zero-based" budgeting for this school system at this time is a red herring that prevents the community from looking honestly at the issues it faces, and the choices it has to make.

The Superintendent will then present a "value-added budget", which will consist of baseline recommendations that need to be met this budget year, in some cases restructuring last year's cuts, in other cases making critical building modifications to make the buildings more secure.

We will be presented both budgets tonite; we will then begin the process of reconciling them, which will involve numerous community hearings. The two documents, in the opinion of this particular School Committee member, and completely interlocking; they cannot be considered independently of each other.

Although we will not specifically be dealing with the revenue side of the budget tonite, we are expecting Mayor Moak to briefly discuss the city-side contributions to the next school budget.

The Mayor has asked the Revenue Task Force to hold off on giving an update to the community at this meeting.

This is the beginning of the discussion.
Then starts the wild rumpus.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Steroids Make You Stupid & Shrink Your Testicles

We bad.

Very bad.

Disappointed a lot of kids, even if they were Yankee fans.

But hey, we made a lot of money. And the most amazing thing of all? Dan Duquette was probably right. Maybe the Rocket was spent when he went to Toronto. I guess nobody figured a couple of bucks premium was all he'd need to augment his career.

This is a terrible time for baseball. Over fifty players were outed in the Mitchell report for steroid and HGH use; many because they wrote personal checks as payment for the goods. I told you that steroids make you stupid. At least none of the checks I've seen reproduced have the work "steroids" in the left hand memo line.

This is my solution to the whole era's problems.

Find some mechanism that would allow you to ask, under oath, the following question:

"Have you ever used, or are you currently using steroid XYZ, or HGH." Then round up everyone who has ever played baseball at the major league level since 1990, and ask them.

For everyone who says yes (not knowing whether you have evidence on them or not), I would simply put an asterisk next to their record. Simple. We don't know which of these achievements occurred through natural talent, or were enhanced, so we'll put an asterisk next to your name and records, your career stats.

That way, future voters for the Hall of Fame can make an informed choice.

Sure, some of the cheaters will get away. Blame their teammates for adopting the code of silence; by refusing to turn in the people whose enhanced gifts helped win games for you, or in many cases resulted in your replacement. Blame the owners for looking the other way, because the cash incentives for the team made doing the wrong thing a salve for the conscience. Blame the Union for somehow believing that protecting the rights of players translated into allowing them to ingest substances that enhanced their performance, but also killed some of them (probably Darryl Kile, Steve Bechsler, etc.)

Blame Bud Selig, who replaced Fay Vincent as baseball Commissioner. An owner appointed by other owners to ensure that their interests were protected. Selig is a guy who apparently believed that it was better to let juiced players swat at baseballs, than risk a strike by a union defending on privacy grounds the right of it's members to cheat. Yeah, that would've been a winning argument, don't you think? That would have been quite a risk, Bud. Heck, they could have stayed out on strike for a full three days trying to sell that crap to America, before they realized it lacked, hmm. Resonance. Yeah, resonance. But I'll tell you, it would have been the best thing you could have done for the kids in the Pioneer League.

Then, a representative from each of the above-named constituencies can explain to my son and daughter why the homer hit by Brian Roberts on July 31st, (Roberts made the Mitchell list for keeping a tab as a patron of the Juice Bar) beating Josh Beckett, should count. It was the first professional baseball game for one of the kids.

Perhaps one or two adults who could tell the difference between right and wrong, who could see through the collective fog of denial that this particular gathering of clans kept wrapped around themselves like a funeral shroud could have made a difference. I've misjudged the current Commissioner of baseball; I thought his legacy was going to be pandering and general incompetence. But for sheer cowardice and rooted self-interest, no one will be able to hold a candle to Bud. My hat's off to you. And I think when the Veteran's Committee places you into the Hall of Fame, you'll fit right up there with greedy, racist, cheap miserable SOB's already enshrined.

If you keep Shoeless Joe out of the Hall of Fame because he took money, returned it, and played his butt off; if you ban Buck Weaver because he attended two meetings of the Black Sox to argue how wrong it was, never took a dime, and played his heart out; then mocking this game by cheating deserves some sort of consequence.

An asterisk should suffice. It captures the exact measure of surprise and suspicion that should forever be attached to the records of these players. They cheated; maybe their entire career, maybe for two years, you just don't know since not a single one of the named players who wasn't indicted accepted the offer of the Mitchell Commission to come in and talk about the evidence and the allegations.

They cheated; they lied, and they lacked the testicles to own up to what they had done, and have been doing.

See? Steroids make you stupid and makes your testicles shrink.

Whether this particular generation of greedy bastards sees themselves as role models or not, they are.

Student athletes, gaze upon the faces of greed and arrogance in the picture accompanying this posting.

That isn't the thrill of competing at your highest level you see in their eyes. The dulled vacancy you see means that they have shed just enough of their moral core to take money for cheating, to take jobs from others who wouldn't otherwise have lost them; and to kick a game I grew up loving, warts and all, a few feet farther into the gutter.

Asterisk. Simple. Elegant. And just to be kind, we can let each of the players choose the color of the asterisk. Then, they can delude themselves into thinking it isn't an asterisk, it's a gold star.

That's the ticket.

Setting the Agenda for the Next Year

Summary: In which Menin briefly covers what the next several months will look like, from the perspective of the School Committee.

A lot of work. Like trying to juggle flaming torches while balanced ten feet above the ground on a pole with your stomach on a bed of nails.

But first some updates.

The Revenue Task Force

The presentation of the Task Force on Revenue, scheduled for the upcoming School Committee meeting on December 17th, has been canceled, at the request of the Mayor. Mayor Moak will be joining the Task Force at it's next scheduled meeting, Wednesday, January 9th at 7 PM (Superintendent's Conference Room, at the Nock) to respond to any questions we might have.

I anticipate that we will still try to hold to our time-frame for issuing a final report, which will identify the issues we face financially as a community, and explore the wide range of options that could potentially address institutional issues on a long term and short term basis.

I take the Mayor at his word, that his offer to attend the meeting is lend us his municipal experience, and not to change the substance of the report and options we identify, regardless of his previously expressed opinion.

The community is very welcome to join us; we should have a pretty good idea of what our options will be, and have some preliminary estimates of potential revenue.

Two Meetings, One Day

Nick and Stephanie have had a 'new members' orientation through the auspices of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees; I think the plan is that we will all have another session with MASC in January, sort of a refresher course. My recollection from previous trainings is that there a lot more "don'ts" than "do's".

The Inauguaration is scheduled for 10 AM Monday, January 7th at City Hall, y'all come on down. TheSC holds an organizational meeting immediately following swearing to identify a Vice Chair, vote on the rules for the coming year, and make Committee Assignments. Coincidentally, our first formal meeting is that night at the High School.

The Challenges, The Challenges

A tour meeting on December 17th, (next Monday), will set a tall agenda for the next year. The Superintendent will propose a budget designed to provide services at a level that will maintain the status quo; which effectively means that we will be losing ground (to cost increases in every area- from contracted services to utilities). Remember that the level services budget is a tool; in creating it, the Superintendent, staff and parents have had to accommodate any new statutory requirements, and have scoured each budget category and item for efficiencies. Utilizing the EQA report, and Dr. Lyons entry report, the Superintendent will then present a second budget, one we have called "the value added budget". The purpose of the second budget is to identify and prioritize critical needs in the current school system to improve student achievement; a long and short term goal of the system.

Thus begins the wild rumpus. We then begin the process of looking at each item in public session , encouraging feedback from the community in a further search for efficiencies that will not continue to compromise student achievement.

This is the earliest, by a good 2.5 months, that the Committee and the community have been presented with the prospective expenses. With regard to revenues, the state has projected no increase in local funding; the City did generate $300,000 more revenue through growth than projected.

Oh, Yeah

We have received notice from the Newburyport Teachers Association that are ready to begin the Collective Bargaining process; the SC will identify it's negotiating team and prepare for negotiations as early into the New Year as possible.

I believe that while the year has been painfully difficult for the entire community, the teachers have been extraordinarily adaptive, have created classrooms that are comfortable, and have fully embraced, and are deeply engaged in the focus on student achievement. We will all need to be flexible, but there is a tremendous opportunity to collaborate with teachers to reinvent our schools in a win-win framework.

Final Words

As we gear up, expect postings to be faster and more furious. Please keep in mind that anything that appears on these pages directly reflects the views of a single School Committee
Member; me. It is not intended to reflect the views of the Committee as a whole; often, it may not even represent my position on an issue, but rather a "devil's advocacy" posting.

Saturday, December 8, 2007



I can tell you exactly what I was doing 27 years ago tonight.

A close friend, living not far from The Dakota Building called me up to tell me that John Lennon had been murdered. I got the news from him about fifteen minutes before it hit the airwaves. For fifteen minutes, I hoped that my friend was wrong. He was right.

I didn't agree with everything John Lennon said and did; but I passionately believed in his right to say it. He challenged us to reshape our world and our community, to rethink our relationships; I listen to his music now, and I can't shake the sense that he was entering a new, incredibly thoughtful and productive place on his journey.

One can only imagine.
Over the past several days, an e-mail from Yoko Ono has been making the rounds. I offer it here as a posting. We are a nation at war with other nations, at war with itself; we are a nation that once was a beacon in a dark world, of freedom, of rights; and now we torture mentally ill "terrorists" to produce intelligence that is utterly useless. Suddenly, after all these years, we quibble over the definition of torture.

Lennon knew we could be so much better than that; he challenged us to be. And we can; we must.

On December 8th, 11.15pm (your local time) remember John by taking a moment of quiet reflection. If you would like to play or sing the song "Imagine" and imagine a world of peace, just know that we are all together at that moment in every time zone, as IMAGINE PEACE makes its way around the world - every hour for 24 hours. Send in stories & photos of what you did on December 8th to for us, the family of Peace and Love, to tell us and tell us of your experiences. That would be lovely!

With deepest love
Yoko Ono Lennon

Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

John Lennon December 9, 1940 - December 8, 1980
Rest in Peace John.

Image courtesy of University of California, Irvine, Film and Video Center

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Holiday Greetings Worth Hearing

Some of you may remember an earlier post about a friend of mine, (October 15th, to be more exact), in which I mentioned how the sweet and the bitter sometimes entwine; how on the first anniversary of our marriage, one of my best friends died from AIDS. Charlie could do and be anything he wanted, and he was and did a lot of things- theater, film, writing. He was eloquent and self-deprecating, sentimental and compassionate. In a very short time in the field he eventually chose, Meeting Planning, he succeeded brilliantly, serving for a year as the President of the Meeting Professionals International Greater New York Chapter. In that capacity, he wrote a holiday message to the membership in 1989; at his passing, the MPI felt compelled to reprint it when the next holiday season rolled around.

Charlie Stramiello (1989-1990)

Editors note: Because of Charlie’s untimely death, we have chosen an excerpt from his Metrolines “President’s Message” December ‘89/January ’90 issue which we feel best exemplifies the compassion and sincerity he had for life and for all those who knew him. RR

Below me lives a ninety-year-old German woman who fled to America after having lost her entire family during the War. For the past fifty odd years, she’s lived alone, surviving on little more than a fixed income, memories of her deceased husband and son, and memories of her native homeland.

Whenever I visit her (which admittedly isn’t often enough), I’m shamefully reminded how insignificant and inconsequential many of my personal “swipes at life” are, especially as they pertain to career, finances or self-aggrandizement.

With 1989 behind us now, I hope that you – our valued MPI member – will take a moment to give thanks for all the comforts you enjoy, and to carry the feelings of charity with

you in the days ahead.

Whether it’s through your continued involvement with an MPI-endorsed charity (such as City Harvest) or event (such as the “Cruise for Caring”), or through your personal support of a charity of choice, please do not forget those who are less fortunate than yourself.

Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year, all year, every year. Peace on Earth. Good will to all.

Written by Charlie when his personal health was long gone. The sentiments prevail, though. As we move into the next year, I find Charlie, as ever, setting a higher bar- for compassion, for gratitude, and for the ability to laugh.

From the MPI-GNY website.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Cow Pies and Sharing the Pain

Sorry about the little vacation. I've actually been quite busy over the past two weeks; much of it having to do with the School Committee, and the Revenue Task Force.

On the SC side, I have working through several iterations of the School Committee Goals for the coming year, which will be voted on at our next meeting, December 17th. The agenda for that meeting will be fat and sassy, and will include the goals, two budget presentations- the level services budget for '08/'09 and the Superintendent's Value-Added recommendations to that budget, essentially, what we need to do to improve our schools that would add costs to or require additional cuts to the Level Services budget. As well, we will go into Executive Session during the meeting for the purpose of finalizing the negotiated contracts with the Superintendent and the Assistant Superintendent, negotiated by Andrea Jones, Gordy Bechtel and myself; we will come out of that session to vote publicly and go over the specifics for the community.

And before you go much further, I should explain that I have been pursuing my task as assigned for the Revenue Task Force, looking at the City budget; I've met with several City Councilors, and will probably meet with several more. I confess that I am somewhat frustrated; if I had a buck for every shrug I've gotten in those meetings when I've raised a question about budgeted expenses, we could bring foreign language back to the middle school next year. So if the tone of this post drifts into smarminess, or lets the occasional sarcastic inference creep into the text, mea culpa. I'm sorry in advance.

Three Simple Rules

For those paying attention, what we've learned from our recent budget history can be boiled down to three essential elements:

YOU CAN'T START EARLY ENOUGH- This year's budget process began four months ahead of last year's; and for the first time in a long time, possibly ever, the estimated level services budget (no changes in the level of services from this year to the next) will be delivered before December 20th. Past practice would put this into the hands of the Community and the SC around late February. We will also be receiving a second, "value-added" set of budget recommendations from the Superintendent that would identify additional spending that would immediately impact student achievement this coming year. And one more point to make, for all those aficionados of Zero-Based budgeting- both the level services and the value-added budget are adjusted to account for new regulatory conditions we face.

KEEP THE COMMUNITY INFORMED, AND THE MESSAGE COGENT- In every way, the SC will work with every constituency in the City to ensure that information is accurately disseminated, everyone is on the same page, and the entire community has every question answered.


Salem is Slipping...

For the second time in 3 years, the City of Salem has had a deficit in the School budget. Three years ago, an unexpected rise in fuel costs forced the City to lay off teachers in the middle of the School year. The deficit this year has already reached $1.8 million, with 6 months left to go.

Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem has issued a statement along the lines of "everything is on the table; the schools cannot bear the full brunt of this deficit."

Wow. You mean other City Departments will be asked to share the burden of re-directing revenue to the Schools, because Salem has suddenly realized that Schools have an intrinsic value to the community? I mean times are tight for every community in the Commonwealth, but to put everything on the table to ensure the Schools survive. Gutsy. Salem, which has a crime rate proportionately much worse than Newburyport (compare the 2005 statistics, and note that the formula used by the feds allows for the population disparity between the two cities).

In 2007, "The city (of Salem) spent $7.2 million funding the retirement system last year - more than what it cost to pay for the city's 83-member Police Department.

Compared to Newburyport

The City of Newburyport, with a police force of 38 (?), last year was budgeted at nearly $3,000,000. When you compare the crime rates between Salem and Newburyport, and then realize that they are funded proportionately about the same, you can only come to one inescapable conclusion.

You Can Always Find A Policeman in Newburyport When You Need One

The Police in Newburyport are clearly better at controlling crime than those of Salem. I mean, the numbers bear that out. The police overtime alone in the 2007 budget cost us more than it would have to keep foreign language in the Middle School for this year; but if you want a safe, peaceful community, you have to pay the piper. Really, when you look at the crime rates between Salem and Newburyport, you can only wring your hands in despair that the School Budget crisis might require every Department in the City to give up something.

I'm Not Listening

And to all of you people in Wards 4, 5, and 6 who told me you voted against the override because you think the City-side of the budget has become a pasture for sacred cows to graze, the Mayor disagrees. He said so tonight at the School Committee meeting.

I just wanted you to know, I've done what you've asked; delivered the message. The Mayor just disagrees with it.

Clearly, what we have here is a failure to communicate.
I'm not sure we can expect the Mayor to take a stand like Mayor Driscoll, although hope springs eternal.

Before we cut DPW again, let's make sure that we order more grass seed; unless things change dramatically and for the better, those sacred cows will still need their feed. As for the kids, well...

I remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, when, finally, he, and John Hancock, Jefferson and Adams had managed to pass the Declaration of Independence. In considering the magnitude of the deed, Franklin spoke eloquently.

"And so, my friends, we must all hang together now, for if we do not, we will most assuredly hang separately."

Community. A community that binds itself together is willing to make the sacrifices it needs to, to accomplish goals that it finds of great and future value.

There is a lot more to talk about folks, regarding the need for some sort of municipal response to the community crisis. Keep tuned.

Thanks to you, I'll be on the air here for at least four more years.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Magic is afoot...

Here it is Monday (Tuesday); I'm still jazzed from the School Committee meeting, with lots of good stuff to share- but I'll wait til tomorrow to do that.

On Saturday, the progeny and I ventured into the realm of magic. Twice, in one day. Actually, as Leonard Cohen said, Magic is afoot. It abounds, it is everywhere; we need only open our eyes, or in simply lift them up, and look skyward. Sometimes, with just the right amount of seed, faith and patience, magic will gently land right on our palm. My daughter Linnea, and her friend Sarah, equal parts faith, patience, and sunflower seeds were rewarded.

Later that night, the progeny and cub scout friends spend a few hours at the Plum Island Aerodrome, playing flashlight tag, making somors, and watching the skies for shooting stars.
Again, a football field of magic, of kids running and laughing in the dark, stalking coyotes and howling at the gibbous moon, and occasionally managing to catch a blazing meteorite, when they stopped playing to rest long enough.

We have problems to work out as a municipality. But faith and magic abound, and there will be solutions that will require us to make sacrifices.

Magic/sacrifice. The wonder on a kids face when a chickadee lands on their hand, when a star breaks free from the firmament and streaks across the sky; that is why we need to leave this world a better place than we found it. And there is only one way to do that, now. Ensure that we raise children who are critical thinkers, who understand that with rights come responsibilities. We need to ensure that our children are wiser, and smarter than we are.

Parents, the community and the schools can make that happen.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Wisdom, from a teacher in Virgina

Ken Bernstein teaches History and Governance at the High School level in Virgina. His posts on the Daily Kos blog often provide insight and wisdom into teaching and education. He has had three diaries at Kos over the past ten days that are worth reading. Particularly after the election we have just had, the GIC debacle (which I frankly think, based on my own exploration, should be not be laid at the feet of the city unions in general, and the teachers in particular).

Check out these three posts. They will help us to understand a number of issues that will be part of the coming dialogue over the next few years, including merit pay and how you create a basis for it, what should be done about poor teachers, and community partnerships.

The Importance of Teachers

The Education Question in the Recent Democratic Debate: What was Wrong With It

On the Measurement of Teachers

What's a Crummy Teacher, and Why Do We Have Them?

Ken's blog is at: Teacher Ken

Very thoughtful and provocative ideas, communicated honestly and succinctly.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The importance of values in education...

In addition to being highly entertaining, this You Tube segment finds Leonard Nimoy describing how his upbringing and education as an Orthodox Jew in Boston, and the values he learned, were very much a part of his role as Spock, and were recurring themes in the Star Trek series.

And along the way, it becomes clear that he is very intelligent, passionate man, for whom values are not something he takes out once a week. He lives them. Priceless.

Leonard Nimoy and the Vulcan Greeting

And an important lesson in civics. We get very caught up in the struggle to fund the schools, and determine what our educational goals are and should be; and sometimes we lose sight that parents, schools and the community have a very common purpose and investment- ensuring that the next generation of leaders have become critical thinkers, and that they have created a value system that will sustain them, and the future. Nimoy speaks poignantly about his.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The road ahead...

Summary paragraph: In which Menin looks at the work to be done over the next six months, and reconsiders whether running for re-election to the School Committee was worth the $300 he spent...

Yeah. It was. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, onto the bountiful plate awaiting our meager silverware.

The Revenue Task Force: We have removed nothing from the table, which is now beginning to look like Grandma's house at Thanksgiving. We are looking at new revenues (fees, taxes, over-rides, debt exclusions), budget efficiencies on both the school and city-side, strategic lobbying of the state, a significantly better, more coordinated grant procuring procedure, how property in Newburyport is assessed, movement of the city into the GIF insurance program, the creation of an endowment/or partnership to provide for operating expenses... no decisions have been made, but my best guess is that the Task Force will issue a report suggesting a menu of approaches, calibrated and contingent on each other, to go along with a five year estimate of expenses and potential revenue projections; and that this menu will contain actionable short-term items, and also items that should help us in the future. It will be critical, however, for the City-side of the ledger to do the same or something similar, so that we can address this as a municipality.

Goals: The School Committee needs to adapt a set of goals for the year that are both do-able and measurable. Also, the School Committee needs to work with the Superintendent to set goals for him on which to base the next evaluation.

Teacher Contract: The School Committee needs to negotiate a new contract with the Teacher's Union. Negotiations should begin early in the year, if not before that.

FY '08/'09 Budget: The School Committee, using the Bechtel-Hooper Wicked Cool Forecasting Model for Expenses, will begin work very shortly on producing a one year, then a five year expense projection. That in turn will inform the entire budgeting process, which we have accelerated by four months compared to last year. This will be a difficult budget year; we will need to really look at innovative practices and community partnerships to stabilize our academic situation while we address funding to stabilize, improve and restore.

Ongoing Community Outreach Initiatives: We will need to continue and expand outreach to the entire community, and consider a range of ideas that will enable people to have greater access to the schools themselves, to re-establish them as active stakeholders.

Orient New School Committee Members: The Revenue Task Force has recommended cross-orientation- they send new City Counselors to our orientation, we send new SC members to theirs. We also need to repopulate Sub-Committees, and consider and act on a policy for the creation of a number of advisory Task Forces to help the SC look at potential options for enhancing our programs.

Task Force to Review School Administration: This has been a bugaboo for years; the perception that we are top-heavy administratively. We will, in December, convene a community-based Task Force to look at Administrative functions, how they are assigned, whether what we are doing can be done more efficiently, how our structure compares to other systems relative to their success in student achievement, whether we need additional administrative personnel, whether any additional personnel can be shared within the City or the region. This will require a lot of work over a short period of time; we are hoping to get a report back in time to work the recommendations into the School/City budget. We expect this to be an objective look, and are looking for volunteers in the community who have experience either consulting around management structure, or reconfiguring management structure to make them more efficient. Frankly, we hope this will be a balanced sub-committee; we expect the report will raise some eyebrows either way, but we have to put this issue to bed one way or the other. The parameters of the review are yet to be discussed; I will be advocating that it range from the Superintendent to the Department Chairs.

This is not the agenda for the year; this more likely covers the first 3 months of the year.

Lotta work to do. New energy, clarity and focus on the Committee. Combine that with leadership, and you've got a fighting chance. But let me reinforce a core principle to all of the above-- without a systemic and sustained effort to bring City-side Budget and decision-making processes more in line with those practiced by the School Committee, it's all hat and no cattle. This is a municipal problem, to be solved municipally. The School Committee has demonstrated, over the past five years a willingness to take cuts so deep that it has put the very core of our ability to meet academic needs in jeopardy; no City Department has even come remotely close to matching that willingness to deal with reality.

Municipal problem, municipal solutions. Transparency. Establishing City priorities across the City and School side. Looking for opportunities to centralize or regionalize functions where savings make sense and can be justified.

As one of my favorite guitar Goddesses, Ellen McIlwaine says, "everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Star light, star bright...

This Saturday night, I'll be nestled with a group of Cub Scouts, including my son Dashie, and a group of parents looking at the stars. Towards Leo, to be exact. If the sky is clear, we'll be snuggled in snowsuits and sleeping bags, stretched out on full beach recliners, waiting for the Leonid Meteorite Shower. Although the best viewing starts after midnight, and occurs just before dawn, when we expect the Scouts to be back home, they should be able to catch a few of the early meteorites, which tend to have a longer arc than the ones that pepper the sky later in the evening. These early ones are called "earth grazers", because of the angle they enter the atmosphere. The Cubs will be amazed to learn that often a shooting star is no bigger than a grain of sand when it begins to burn up in the atmosphere, 150 miles above us.

The most important lesson they will learn is that not all science comes from a book; that there remains mystery and wonder in the environment, even in the universe, that can be accessed at will. We need only open our eyes. If I was writing curriculum, I would take every second grader out of the classroom for a week every Spring, and walk them up to the cemetery or get them out to Parker River and teach them how to identify birds by sound, by size, by notable features, by color. I would teach them to observe in stillness, to use binoculars, to note details.

There are studies that show if you let a child explore nature, the woods, the parks on their own or in small groups between the ages of 5 and 11, you have forever altered their view of nature and the preciousness and wonder it brings to life- you cultivate a respect for it that is a lifelong asset.

I was lucky enough to be able to do exactly that- spending summers in the Catskill Mountains at my Grandfather's Bungalow Colony, on 50 Acres. Up at 6 AM, oatmeal by 6:30, then my brother and I were off into the woods, climbing trees, looking for salamanders, wading in streams. If we remembered, we came home for lunch; if not, we'd eat the blueberries and rasberries that grew on the property. As the sun set we'd return home, filthy, clothing sometimes torn, exhausted, scratched, but impossibly happy and ready to do it again the next
day. Sometimes, we'd wake up in the middle of the night and sneak out with our flashlights to watch the deer eat apples from the trees in the middle of the bungalow colony.

The picture above comes courtesy of the Japanese Space Agency, which put a satellite into orbit around the moon last month. The satellite is equipped with the first high definition cameras flown to the moon; it captured this earth-rise. You can't see the bungalow colony, which is no longer in the family, and is actually a bunch of caved in buildings. I will never forget the lessons taught to me, a city kid, by the the trees and insects, vines, plants and salamanders. I was open to learn, and nature provided.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Pragmatist's Manifesto? Part 2

Summary Paragraph: The second, prescriptive section of the Pragmatist's Manifesto, nailed to the cyber-door of this blog this morning by the late, but apparently not departed Newburyport luminary Lord Timothy Dexter. In which Dexter points out that labels don't matter any more when describing the political views of people, because of the appearance of a new type of Newburyporter, or rather, the increasing visibility of these folks.


The Knowing Ones have always been quick to label- conservative, liberal, progressive, reactionary; and the labeled were quick to accept those labels. And the final element of the critical dynamic preventing Newburyport from becoming a politically mature municipality was the willingness of the general populace to accept these short-handed, and ultimately meaningless descriptions.

I'd suggest based on my observations over the past 250 years, labels don't mean a damned thing any more, except to the unimaginative and uninspired. They are another way of keeping the people divided and at each other's throats, while the business of the City, and the businesses of the City become more intertwined. It is another artificial division of people; a silly way of typecasting a person so that you can feel good that you needn't listen to their message, because you are convinced it never changes.

We have recently seen the emergence of a new approach to the political dialogue here in Newburyport. It has been called the "bridge-building" phenomenon. I prefer to see it as "The New Pragmatism," practiced by the New Pragmatists.

In the end, it is the only political movement that will enable the City to save itself from it's own inefficiency, lack of vision, and unwillingness to live in the reality-based world.

The old labels just don't work any more. In a single election, one's position on the continuum of anarchist to libertarian (Hmmm. Perhaps it is better described as a circle), can change based on the other people elected to office around you. Take Menin, for example. He ran for office six years ago with reputation for pugnacity, and a pathological need to challenge the status quo, a bomb thrower; suddenly, in his third successful run at the office, he has become a sensible and prescient advocate for innovation and change. But nothing about his beliefs, his commitment to process transparency, and high regard for community engagement has changed in 7 years. Nothing has changed except the cast.

These new politicians and leaders, however, are the last hope for reasoned, empowering and consensual change. Newburyport has a rapidly growing population of Pragmatists. They can be easily spotted in the field.

First off, they seek pragmatic solutions to the problems we face. The pragmatic formula is simple. We acknowledge as a municipality that we have a problem. Then we seek a solution that is consensual, equitable, compassionate, efficient, empowering, measurable, and creative. That involves gathering ALL the information needed to solve a problem, designing a table and a process to engage the best thinking we can on the issue, and using the above criteria to solve it.

Labels beyond pragmatic no longer apply. Pragmatic principles themselves are redemptive and respectful; they require us to treat one another respectfully, and devise solutions that share the burden, or adjust the burden so that the impact may be better borne by those better able to handle it.

You can see the New Pragmatists popping up everywhere. They thrive on sunshine, and believe in building consensus, instead of pulling the wool over your eyes. They seem able to move beyond labels and evaluate ideas; they are sensitive to the inevitable tensions of a city where the demographics have changed so dramatically that now, fewer than half the residents were born here. The Pragmatists know that the wisdom of consensual-problem solving is not the domain of the smartest, it resides in the most thoughtful and compassionate.

They approach an issue from the perspective of what it will take to make it work, not why it won't work. They are honest in their assessments, they don't hold personal grudges, and they find ways to work together on what they have in common. And often, they discover a genuine interest in making this a more livable city, and cleaner and greener destination, a place where community policing is the rule and not simply a shadow exercise; where the schools themselves are community assets and the stakeholders are the entire community.

The Pragmatists on the current City Council will make themselves known soon enough. The same for the those on the School Committee; they are beginning to infiltrate Boards, and Task Forces and Commissions.

If you want to find the truest measure of what this whole treatise is about, look no farther than Gary Roberts, whose unexpected retirement from the City Council for the next two years, and his anticipated return two years from now, will bring one of the most decent, honest and pragmatic public servants back into the life of this community. Gary was relentlessly honest, and may have paid for that by being targeted by no less than 3 different "constituencies" in the past election. If this City is lucky, and we continue on the path of pragmatic problem solving, as opposed to our double-step back to the future, Roberts will find the heart to stay active and then return to the City Council, where his leadership will be critical to the Pragmatic Revolution.

I recently came across another publication on the web, that spoke about the growing need for bridge-builders in Newburyport. I accept that idea as a metaphor for the New Pragmatics.

Best of Luck, Newburyport
Lord Timothy Dexter

Y'know, Dexter makes some wonderful points. I couldn't have said them better, myself.

A Pragmatist's Manifesto? Part 1

Summary Paragraph: In which Menin reprints a manifesto that was nailed to his cyber-doorway this morning, regarding the hopes and aspirations for a new way of doing business here in Newburyport.

When I got back on-line this morning, I found someone had mailed a document to my cyber-front door, called "A Pragmatist's Manifesto." It was signed Lord Timothy Dexter, one of Newburyport's most peculiar and endearing characters. It was Lord Timothy, if you remember, who made a fortune selling bed-warming pans and mittens, gloves and hats to the West Indies, and did the same shipping coal to Newcastle. And while he never had schooling to speak of, and managed to write a pamphlet (A Pickle For The Knowing Ones"), some 8,600 words long, with purely phonetic spelling, without using any punctuation. Because so many people complained, in the second edition of the pamphlet, he added an additional page of punctuation marks, that his readers "might salt and pepper them where they would be most useful."

Dexter was considered a lackwit, and was scorned by the upper crust of Newburyport; but the man knew how to run against the tide very successfully. So if this Dexter's work, we might want to pay heed to it.

I've taken the liberty of correcting the spelling, restructuring the sentences, and adding the punctuation; some teacher's habits are hard to break.


by the Late Lord Timothy Dexter

In observing the governance of the municipality of Newburyport since my fortuitous arrival in 1765, I have made several observations over the past 250 years. Their constancy over that period of time leads me to believe that they are institutional problems, that is, they are built into the fabric of municipal governance, and for many years, people have been operating under the delusion that "this is the way things have always been done, therefore this is the way they should be done."

Of course, this is the antithesis of progress. It is also a very good working definition of insanity- continuing to do the same thing in the same way and expecting a different outcome. I'm not well-versed in the workings of the mind, but , having been called so many times, I daresay I do know crazy when I see it. I also know split personality when I see that. In this case, I would call it a curious case municipalitis divergence; in which the two major elements in the city governance process, the schools and the City-side of the budget could not be more different in their style, function, and level of accountability to the populace.

Using the knowledge gleaned from the Zen philosophical tracts that I have studied, the core of our municipal problem is fundlessness to accomplish civic goals, of course. But the way the City does things right now, in terms of identifying and meeting budgeting and civic priorities, leads me to believe that without substantive changes in municipal attitude and style, throwing money at problems will not solve them. We simply aren't ready as a mature and responsible municipality to do anything more than happily band-aid problems and hope they will stop bleeding. It would be farce, if so many weren't having their lives affected by it.

Don't get me wrong, friends. I believe that the City faces a funding burden for providing services that is the result from a convergence of poopy things: the disappearance of federal funds, shifting the burden to the state, the drying up of state funds moving the burden to the municipalities, and the straight-jacketing of municipalities by Prop 2.5, rising assessments, and frankly inefficiencies in the way money is allocated and spent.


Somehow, someone decided that the school budget and the city budget were irretrievably, irreconcilably separate. Different procedures emerged to develop the two sides of the budget, they were put together at different times, and only met at the point at which the Mayor, having met separately and privately with Department Heads, reconciled the City-side and the School-side budgets for submission to the City Council, which holds hearings (brief ones, at which public attendance is welcome but direct feedback is not encouraged., because the City Council can only make budgets cuts, it can't add to budget lines; it can suggest where the Mayor might better allocate funds.

In simpler words, the School-side of the budget is an open, transparent process. It starts by getting recommendations from the School Council (a parent student group at each school); moves through a dialogue with all the administrators, will this year and going forward result in all known variables being sussed out by a new forecasting tool, and a expense budget will be developed; once developed, it is completely open to public scrutiny through a series of public hearings where feedback and and changes are made before voting .

Simpler- schools, sunlight and community feedback, city-side darkness, one to one negotiations with the Mayor that are closed to public input; Mayor closes door, meets with Department head, pulls rabbit out of hat and voila! presents complete budget to surprised City Council.

Night/dark/ Open/closed. Yin/yang. Mom and apple pie- one and the same, two sides of the same coin.

Possible solution: How about opening up the City- side of the budget to the same process and public scrutiny that the School side is requiring of itself. That way, you don't end up with Department heads going mano a mano with the Mayor, and you get sunlight and fresh thinking; you get legitimate expenses justified and and questionable expenses questioned.

Why aren't we already doing this? Institutionalized anti-pragmatism. Good old boys. Good old girls. Because we can. Because Department Heads can. Because Mayors won't make the process a pubic one. A million reason why it happens; none of them particularly legitimate when you look at what the School Committee has accomplished with it's budget, nearly as large as the City-side.

The problem of school finance, one would assume, is one of inefficient, over-spending and complacent administration. The issue of the schools is symptomatic of several things: a disappearance of federal dollars, replaced by a crushing series of federal unfunded mandates; the burden shifting of funding sliding from the feds to the state, which managed to hold on for a year or two, before it, too, shifted the burden to the towns and cities, whose ability to replace literally millions of dollars in lost revenue was limited by Proposition 2.5, which has separated the ultimate responsibility for continuous student achievement from the only resource now available- the municipality.

But one thing is missing from this neat explanation, this deft burden-shifting of responsibility that has occurred like a super-sized domino game in every town and city in the United States over the past 8 years.

What has happened in Newburyport, the retrenchment due to revenue disappearing like witnesses after a mob hit, has happened all across the Commonwealth.

What many communities are doing, that Newburyport has avoided so far, is recognizing that this is also a municipal problem, and that there are some municipal remedies available even before the word "override" spills over the lips.

Municipal reform. Charter reform. Opening the "other 50%" of the City budget to the same sunlight and scrutiny as the School budget would be a great start. Don't justify every penny you want/need to the Mayor in private session, make that discussion as public as the one had by the Schools. Truth in advertising.

There may not be a penny to spare on the City-side of the budget, but until the budgeting process for them occurs with the same transparency as does the School, I would encourage you to remain skeptical; although I realize that many are already cynical. If a "sunshine process" forced the City-side to publicly account for and justify every penny they spend, I am of the opinion that far greater efficiencies could be created. The School Committee learned a long time ago that you cannot continue to operate the way they always have, because in light of all the changes in technology, educational philosophy, the economy, the evolving needs of students, you have to change.

Until the City-side opens it's budget process, there is too great a temptation to believe that the department budgets are being negotiated as they have been for fifty years. Heads may be instructed to produce an overall reduction of a certain percent, but they aren't mandated to come to the table, individually or collectively, with sweeping efficiencies. I would bet that the City-side of the budget has redundancies between departments that could be managed and budgeted for more effectively if it was done in daylight.

Fossils are nice to look at; they provide a lot of information. But they merely a snapshot of something that happened long ago. Public institutions cannot be allowed to fossilize, they cannot stay dinosaurs. As one of your guitar-player philosophers pointed out, "the world is populated by dinosaurs, large ponderous beasts. I am only a small furry mammal trying not to get stepped on. But it is getting a little colder and darker every day, isn't it?"

As one who has successfully run several businesses against long odds, (hauling coals to Newcastle, for example), I am well aware of how you can stash the cash in a budget, how you can make it appear in one column only to move to another when no-one is paying attention.

If the School issue is needing money to support increased student achievement and restore programs lost to witless cuts, then the Task Force on School Revenue is right to comb recent school budgets for possible efficiencies. It is equally right to do the same on the City-side, and make recommendations for change.

The issue is money; there is not enough of it. But antecedent to that is a question that the School Committee has consistently been asked, and has responded to; are we spending our money to achieve the goals we have in the most efficient way? It is a fair and important question. Until you have ensured that the City-side is answering that same question in an open process, you have not truly responded to an important element of the dynamic at play; about spending what you have wisely.

It seems that this Dexter fellow has a pretty good understanding of how the Knowing Ones, the ones who by their own modest admission are smarter than all of us, have been influencing the business practices of the municipalities.

In the next section of Dexter's Pragmatic Manifesto, he will identify the group that will change all of this.

Show me the money

Summary Paragraph: It's all a matter of priorities.

Whether you are for or agin' our efforts in Iraq, you have to appreciate that about .10% of all the money that has been spent there by the United States and cannot be accounted for would restore all of the education programs cut by Newburyport in the past six years, and enable the School system to expand offerings at every level.

You might find this piece from Boston.Com instructive.

To paraphrase one of my favorite groups, Bare Naked Ladies, we'll call it "If I Had $611 Billion Dollars"

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Update on Task Force $$$$$$$

As promised a quick update on the work of the revenue task force.

Brenda Reffett is looking at the School budget, highlighting questions she has and have been raised by the community; once she is ready, she will meet with Kevin Lyons and Deidre Farrell to have those questions answered; any potential efficiencies will be suggested and become part of the Task Force Report.

I will be doing the same with the City-side of the budget, working with Barry Connell and Gary Roberts once I have identified questions or potential efficiencies. Any suggestions remaining will go into the Task Force report.

The purpose of this exercise is two-fold, in my opinion. The first reason is to bring fresh eyes to help identify potential efficiencies and put to bed any misconceptions that may exist about what money is being spent on in the schools and on the municipal side. The second is to emphasize that like many other communities, we are dealing not with a school problem but a municipal problem, that will require municipal solutions. These could range from reconciling the two vastly different processes by which budgets are constructed- the schools do it one way, the city another. A municipal approach to finding solutions would lend itself to identifying new streams of revenue, moving funding between Departments, encouraging far greater efficiencies by avoiding duplicated services; and identifying mutual needs on the city and the school side that could be met by sharing personnel- such as a Human Resources manager.

We are beginning to look at alternative streams of revenue, ranging from new fees to setting up an endowment to fund operating expenses.

We are monitoring the state situation very carefully, and are developing an approach to getting some changes in state funding by adopting a 3S strategy- lobbying that is strategic (some change, not changing everything), surgical (this specific change) and selfish (this specific change helps Newburyport. I expect that the Task Force, under the indomitable spirit of Dr. Orlando, will provide the community with a very clear road map telling us who we contact, what we contact them about, and when. Dr. Orlando is a strong advocate of relentless, organized advocacy about specific issues; relentless as in 20-50 contacts a week, every week- so we'll all get a turn.

Finally, once we have looked at the budgets, have had a chance to see the School Committee projections for the next 3-5 years, we will look at the alternatives we have identified, and consider where and when the need exists for the community to consider tax overrides or debt exclusions.

In effect, not speaking for anyone else, I expect that the interim and final reports of the Revenue Task Force will offer a multi-pronged, calibrated approach, that is mindful of where the burdens will fall, and how they can be mitigated.

This is hard work, but it is being done collaboratively by a pretty diverse group.

The next Task Force meeting is November 14th, 7:00 PM in the Nock School conference room in the Superintendent's office. If that room becomes crowded, we will move to the Library.
At some point, when is a little unclear to me, we will hold a meeting to actively solicit ideas from the community on potential funding sources or mechanisms to address school and city needs.

You can forward these ideas to the Task Force e-mail box at:


Not the same old garbage

Just a few of the news articles that have floating around the Task Force for School Revenue, as we consider how other communities are trying to address the same problems facing Newburyport. These pretty much relate to Newburyport.

Editorial in the Dartmouth Newspaper

Dartmouth Raises Money for Schools by Trash Pickup Fee

Ideas Offered by Community After School Override Fails in Dartmouth

The state DEP Program Guidelines for Fee for Trash and Upgraded Recycling

I'll give y'all an update on the work of the Task Force a little later; including an invite to the next meeting.

Signs of the Times

For those of you brave and generous souls who put Menin signs on and around your property, I'm cruising around trying to pick them up. If I haven't gotten to you yet, please take the sign down and leave it on your front porch or somewhere I can see it without arousing the neighbors' suspicion that I'm breaking and entering. And finally, if I haven't gotten the sign, call the cell at 978 270 4595, or the home phone 978 499 3883 and simply leave a message and address.

Later tonite, when I can catch my breath, I'll post my thoughts about the election, and the challenges ahead.

I plan to keep the blog active for a number of reasons, and will be changing the look of it somewhat (removing re-election references, etc.) although I will not remove any posts. I will be adding some new links, both local and national, and figuring out how to post a steady stream of national articles about education.

Again, to those of you who held signs- and I can count'em on one hand- Nancy Earles, DeDe Allen, Frank Moore, Julie, Noah and Linnea Menin, the dynamic duo of Margaret and Merle Forney, someone over in Ed Cameron's campaign, Kris and Katy Van Dine, Jack Murphy- if I've forgotten someone, and you actually want to get credit for it, let me know by e-mail.

Because of having the privilege of serving the last two years of Vickie Pearson's term, I have run three city-wide races in six years. I don't know how the At-Large councilors do it.

Me, I'm going to stick where my skill match is best suited to the challenge- the School Committee. I've no interest in running for City Council or Mayor; which I believe directly correlates to the feeling in the community about my suitability for those positions. The next step "up" the ladder would buy me a window seat on the Peter Principle express; and I get travel-sick way too fast for that.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

And the results of the SC election:

Stephanie Weaver, who worked hard on this campaign, set the pace with 2,538 votes.

Menin, who won re-election for a four year term, garnered 2,371 votes; that will make ten consecutive years on the School Committee with no time off for good behaviour; not that Menin knows what good behaviour is.

Nick deKanter will occupy the third seat, finishing with 1,742 votes.

Worth noting is that there were 5,675 blanks; which would indicate a lot of "bullet voting," where you vote for only one or two candidates, or none at all. This occurred most heavily in Ward 2, Ward 4 and Ward 6. More analysis on this tmrw; I will also put in a little time redesigning the page.

I will continue to blog about educational issues and Newburyport Schools over the next four years.

Thanks, voters, thanks.


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

One thing is for sure...

I'll be glad when the Mayoral race is over....

Last Minute Campaign Products Available

Available for a short time only. K-tel products, three payments of $19.99. Make all checks out to the Newburyport School Department.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Time to decide, folks

Tomorrow is Election Day. I have to agree with Mary Baker Eaton; there is a lot at stake in the upcoming election. On the City-side, particularly At-large, the choices are fairly evident. You have candidates who are pretty fed-up with the lack of accountability and failure to create municipal solutions to municipal problems, who recognize that the school/city dichotomy is just another way to keep from making hard decisions. You have candidates with good hearts, who couldn't craft a municipal, community-based solution to a problem like street-sweeping without convening an advisory group to make recommendations that can be ignored.

This election finds Newburyport at a fragile, yet tremendously exciting point. We can no longer deny the problems we face; economic shell games don't work any more. We need new strategies to deal with these issues we, we need leadership that understands a good leader listens, and doesn't make decisions in a vacuum.

Folks, we're in the economic poop so deep, that if we don't find a way to help each other out of the dung pit, we're here for good.

So, I won't vote for the polarizers, the politicians who promise you things they can't deliver, who pander to the worst in a person. Here's an example of what I mean.

Will there ever be a need to pursue an Override to meet basic City needs? Maybe. Probably. But anyone who tells you to your face that "if you vote for me, there'll never be an override in this City again," is lying through their teeth. It may feel good to hear them say that, but a politician who uses the word "never" to describe any option to resolve a municipal crisis, without anticipating what that need may be, regardless of how distasteful that option may be, is blowing smoke up your tailpipe. There may places in government reserved for this particular brand of moron, but my preference is frankly to keep them at the federal level, and not let them get anywhere near a vote that could affect my family directly.

Let me clear. Do I want an Override? No. Would I support one if I felt sure that every efficiency had been wrung out of the city and the school side of the budget, and that all other options in place would not meet immediate needs? Uh. Yeah. I would. For a simple reason, one I've shared with y'all before.

This is the first generation to pass on a world, an environment; a culture that is so much worse than the one we inherited, that our kids better get the best education they can, better than the best. Because they'll have to clean the mess up. I doubt that I'll live to see my great- grandchildren; but I surely want them to benefit from the rigorous education it will take to solve global and local problems. I'm not ready to have my great-grandchildren turn the world over to beetles and cockroaches. I got a pretty good education; I want theirs to be ten times better.

In a crisis, everything is on the table. In a crisis, you can approach resolution two distinct ways. You can list the reasons why something won't work- that is the simplest approach- or you can spend a little time entertaining what it would take to make the resolution happen. You might end up at the same place; but if you take the shortcut, you burrow a little deeper into that box that you never leave.

I will cast my vote for those candidates who offer a vision of what we can be, and how we might become that, as opposed to those who will continue to apply the same metrics to solve new problems that don't even work to solve the old ones.

Get out and vote, friends. We're all in this together.

We are at a crossroads, we people of Newburyport. And the people who have moved here recently, and the families that go back five generations need to find that vast expanse of common ground, that 85% that we actually agree on, and not let the the 15% we disagree on paralyze us. We can take care of the needs of seniors, of students, of those in need of affordable housing. We can become a greener tourist destination that protects it's history like the treasure it is; we can attract business into the community that will contribute. Leadership, common sense, sacrifice, transparency, and political will is all it takes.

Or we can continue to allow polarizers, demonizers, to keep us barking at each other about the 15% we haven't come to an understanding about, and let them take us away from the things that we agree on.

Personally, I'm done with that, I'm tired of it. That dog doesn't hunt any more for me. Time to grow up, and be a responsible adult. Time to quit the name-calling, acting out of self-interest; time to move over onto that common ground we all share to mutually, respectfully find solutions that work. There is plenty of room for everybody, including those who think they are smarter than everybody else, or those who are thought to be dumber. Come on in, the water's fine. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, he's just blowin' smoke.

Get out and vote, friends; vote as if your kids, your grandkids, your neighbor's kids, your neighbors, and your grandparents matter. Vote as if whoever is living in this town 50 years from now matters; vote as if those future residents will look back on this time as the point when we faced reality and rebuilt a community.

Thank you, all of you for the support you've shown over the last six years. Thank you for giving me the chance to advocate for our students. Thank you for your well-wishes, your votes; thank you for letting me run a campaign on the cheap, but based on honestly discussing the issues we face. I guess I broke the rules about campaigning. You're supposed to knock on a door, introduce yourself, and have a brief conversation. I found there were afternoons when I'd spend two hours and see five people; but engage them in a discussion about the issues, learn, help them to see another viewpoint. In the end, I probably didn't convince many of those folks to vote for me; but they sure as hell better understand what is happening in the schools, why it happened, and what we need to do.

I have never forgotten, nor will I ever, that public service is both a privilege and a responsibility not taken lightly.

I'll post the election results tomorrow as soon as I can.

Catch y'all on the other side.

What a difference a day makes

Tonight is the last School Committee meeting before Election Day, which is tomorrow. Please expect the following: a long agenda, filled with action items that really require discussion- goals for the School Committee for the coming year, an explanation of the forecasting tool we will be using to make expense projections over the next three years; there will be an update of the Molin and Nock Schedule. It will also provide one last irresistible opportunity for candidates running for School Committee to make their case to those in the room and those watching at home why they should be elected. For me, it is another challenging night of making decisions that will affect the lives of all of our kids, all of us in for the community.

I'll have some final thoughts about the election tomorrow later on after I get back from the School Committee meeting.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Learning outside of the classroom...

Summary paragraph: In which Menin shares some knowledge gained in two close encounters of the out of classroom kind.

Sometimes, when I tell people that I'm the only candidate to run for re-election in ten years, they look at me like I am really stupid, or a glutton for punishment. I don't think I'm either.

I spent a great deal of time talking with two people over the past two days who have no intention of voting for me; and probably will cast no ballots in the School Committee race at all this year. Both are parents who have children in the schools; both recognize that the cuts of the last 6 years have had a drastic impact on the quality of education and additional services their children receive.

Both questioned the reconfiguration; one from the creating another layer of bureaucracy perspective, the other questioned the wisdom of the groupings of children and the long bus rides.

There are no easy answers to these questions; nothing glib, or fatuous. The truth is, as the Superintendent and the School Committee enter into a budget cycle focused on student achievement, and insist on a greater degree of scrutiny and accountability, we will eventually be in a position to know. Certainly, the trends will become clear by the end of this year; and they will be scrutinized by the Administration, the SC and the community.

The heartache of the chaos of the last few years has compounded the level of mistrust built up by previous administrations and SC's both have a basis in reality. There were previous Committees and administrations who did not practice transparency. As one of a few voices demanding it, and challenging the status quo, I believe the combination of this crisis, and the arrival of a thoughtful, focused set of administrators things, in this crisis, have changed the whole deal.

The other candidates running for School Committee have raised a number of points that deserve clear and direct response; probably from me, as the only incumbent and the only one seeking re-election.

Have we been the most effective communicators of the change and new level of accountability that we hold ourselves to?

  • No. We need a far more strategic and multi-pronged approach to communicating with the community, and a sharply tailored message so they can get the sense that business as usual went out the window two years ago. We also need to have a strategic approach to bringing various community members who don't currently identify themselves as "stakeholders" into the schools, and creating value for them. This is a fair criticism.

How will we hold ourselves accountable for improved student achievement?

  • By setting goals for the SC and the Superintendent that are public, specific and measurable. By assessing progress on these goals in a timely (quarterly, bi-annually, etc.) fashion, in public session, with public input.

Is it possible to make constructive changes in the schools that will impact on student achievement in positive way, even in the midst of a budget crisis?

  • Yes, but it will be impossible to take the schools to the next level without an influx of cash. This is a time of crisis, and a time of opportunity-- we have the responsibility to reconsider every aspect of how we educate our children, and think about that in new, dramatic ways. It is almost exactly as Dickens said, "These were the best of times, and the worst of times." These are the times we live in, and we are challenged to do better than we have.
Is the idea of reconfiguration on the table?

  • Speaking only for myself, we need to look at every program from the point of view of how it promotes and sustains student achievement, and have a clear, understood and communicated framework for determining whether or not we are accomplishing what we set out to do. I know the School Committee and the Administration will analyze every scrap of data available to help us understand what is working, and develop strategies to change what isn't. From this point forward, no idea should be dismissed out of hand without considering it from this perspective.
Are meetings conducted efficiently, and with focus?

  • To be fair, have to say that when I started, SC meetings were conducted efficiently, had focus, and lacked transparency and any genuine mechanism for encouraging community involvement. I can remember many meetings when there were more people on the payroll of the schools than citizens sitting in the room. With greater transparency, there has been a very interesting transition occurring- we no longer have to scratch for facts, information is available that allow us to actually accomplish due diligence around an issue. Where in my previous experience, to put it diplomatically, the information available to the Committee never made it all the way around the table, and what was made available always seemed to limit our options, that is not the case any more. We get what we need, and because of that, spend much more time than before in deliberation. We also, especially in the last 12 months, with the budget crisis and the reconfiguration, made a commitment to hear every single opinion of every single person with an opinion before deciding. We did. We may very well be one of the few elected bodies that uses the option of suspending our rules to take public comment or engage in a public conversation before a vote.

Can the meetings be more tightly run? Yes. More efficiently? Probably. More democratic, more accessible to the public- I don't think so. The School Committee will likely adopt some goals that will outline another important mechanism for utilizing the talent and the input of the community to help us make informed decisions.

It won't be easy. The most difficult part, I think, won't be setting attainable student achievement goals, and reaching them. It will be communicating clearly to the community two important things: this isn't the School Committee and administration of four years ago, and that's a blessing; and that what we have here is a truly municipal problem, that can only be solved by the City changing how business is done. There is so much more sunlight at the Administration Central Office than there ever was. At City Hall, the nooks and crannies of the public process, particularly around creating non-school budgets, live in the shadows. Until that changes, we'll keep trying to treat only the symptoms, the schools; and ignore the real problem-- that we are a municipality operationally stuck in the 1950's. In many ways, I think the Schools, which still have a long way to go, have set a good standard over the past two years for an open and transparent budget process.