Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Is our children learning?

No disrespect intended, but I gotta share this with y'all.

It's hard not to notice the Kelleher signs parked around town. They are enormous, and simple in their message. Actually, eloquent in their simplicity.

The other day we drove past one parked at the end of Green Street, and one of my kids read the sign "Kelleher At Large", and asked if that meant he had escaped from prison, because he was "at large." I'd never thought of it that way. We explained the intent of the sign to the child, which resulted in an Emily Litella "never mind."

You can't make this stuff up.

Frankly, I kinda like the signs. They are bold, emphatic statements. But once your kid tells you what they think the sign means, and you have to explain it to them so that Mr. Kelleher isn't misunderstood, they lose a little luster.

It's Over the Rainbow, searching for that pot of gold

Summary Paragraph: In which Menin muses about Halloween on Lime Street, and matters municipal.

Although Lime Street has, for years, been the place to be on Halloween, we might have slipped slightly as Marlboro Street drew Harry Potter fans from across the City with what I hear was an astonishing recreation of scenes and characters from the series of Potter books and movies.

Our next door neighbors, the Lofaro's, have put on a haunted house for going on 20 years now. Their vestibule is black-lit, and they dress up; the house is draped with Mummies and coffins, and many RIP tombstones (thankfully, they removed my Menin for School Committee scene so it wouldn't languish amidst the headstones- it will be back tomorrow).

The last three years, we've averaged about 450 trick or treaters; tonight, I lost count after 480- they came in waves. We see a lot of neighbors; and a lot of people who don't live here, as well. Families from Salisbury, Seabrook, Haverhill, Boxford, West Newbury ring the doorbells and shout "trick or treat". It is really wonderful, in a way- to have our neighborhood be a destination for families that want their kids to trick or treat safely, in a place where they are welcomed.

There was a very heavy police presence along Lime Street tonight. I spent some time talking with a cop I've known for years, some about the GIC, some about other things. Although I am deeply disappointed about the decision not to go with GIC, I can appreciate the point that it was a lot to ask and a short time to consider it. I think that happened partially by legislative design, ("see, they never really wanted it anyway"); enacting legislation in July, promulgating regulations in August, and closing the door (originally) on September 30, with a 30 day notice to required to pull together a meeting of union reps to discuss the issue. But until I am convinced otherwise by getting direct answers to the questions I raised in my previous post, something that was noticeably absent from the Daily New Article today, I have to question how it was handled once the City was responsible for getting it done.

But the conversation with the cop was also very interesting in another way, and confirmed much of what I have been saying in this campaign. You cannot deal with the school funding crisis in isolation; you must deal with the entire way the City, the municipality, does it's business. Opportunities to get the kind of efficiencies and savings from other Department budgets that we have gotten from the schools exist, and in some cases are obvious; what we lack is the political will and leadership to get it done.

The municipal budgeting process needs greater transparency; at least as much as the School Department has created in it's own process. Significant cuts, hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings, can be made; if leaders will lead and the people make their views known.

Ironically, it has been the School Department, and the School Committee that has set the bar for extracting efficiencies and making the decisions that require will and strength.

After the election, maybe, somehow, we can create a comunity dialogue about the municipal financial crisis we face, collectively. Bring together Department heads, talk about what is best for the City, and make some of those hard decisions, particularly on the City side.

One can always hope. In fact, it may be our last best hope of stopping the hemorrhaging.
The great storm may not be over, but it is breaking, and we'd best be ready for a new way to approach the issue of sustaining Newburyport as a place for seniors, businesses, industries, tourists, and students.

It is a time for leaders, for listeners, for simple and eloquent discussions of budgets, of who we have become, and what we want to be. Leaders who tell you they are leaders often aren't; real leaders will have accomplishments that have brought people into common agreement. Choose people at the voting booth who have lead by example; have taken unpopular stands and have been able to articulate why; play a few hunches, like Kathleen O'Connor Ives.

And be ready to become part of the great dialogue that will set Newburyport on it's course for the next fifty years. That is what this election is about, nothing less.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Well, you can kiss that money goodbye...

Summary paragraph: In which Menin laments that one of the quickest fixes to the cash crisis affecting the Newburyport Schools in 2008-2009, the possibility of the City employees joining the GIC, the state umbrella insurance policy, was voted down by some of the unions. The estimated reductions in City expenses had the unions agreed to the change were between $300,000 and $800,000, according to estimates he had seen.

This isn't an anti-union rant. Let me establish that from the beginning. In fact, in my life, I have been a dues-paying member of two different unions, the New York State United Teachers, and the Communications Workers of America. My cousin served as Union Vice President under Albert Shanker. As a matter of fact, I was out on strike for seven weeks in the coldest winter in Buffalo history, 1977, when the wind chill while we walked the line was -64 degrees. Altough I am and have been perfectly comfortable negotiating a contract as part of management, I suspect that I'm the only person in the School Committee race who has actually been both a union member and been seated at the management side of the table.

For an immediate, desperately needed source of revenue, it was absolutely critical that the adoption, facilitated by the Mayor, of the GIC happen. In order to make that happen, the Mayor needed to post a meeting of all (7) of the unions that bargain with the City, giving them 30 days notice. Even with the extension of 29 days granted by the legislature, this meeting, which was to be called a Public Employees Council, we still needed waivers from each union to meet without 30 days notice. Although some of the unions refused to show up at the first meeting, a meeting was finally arranged after some of the unions begrudgingly filed waivers, artificially reducing the time left to cut the deal.

The next step was reviewing the available options under GIC, and then to vote on whether to enter the program. Each union was given a weighted vote, depending on their total membership; by my calculations, the teachers union represented around 55-60% of the vote, AFSCME represented somewhere around 35% of the vote, and the rest were divided between the two police unions, the fire department, retirees and the Teamsters (I think those were the seven at the table).

The threshold for approval was 70% of the vote. Do the numbers. They were eminently reachable through a number of combinations.

I have received an e-mail from the Mayor's office in the last half hour stating that the PEC voted not to go into the GIC program this year, but explore the possibility of joining in 2010.

I am disappointed, but not as disappointed as I am angry. Very angry.

Not the senseless, directed in every direction sort of angry, More the focused, disgusted, appalled kind of angry.

Knowing that we are facing a year as bad as last year, and knowing that we have already turned down an override, I would like to have a series of questions answered.

  • I would like an exact timetable of the actions taken by the Mayor to move this idea forward since August 30, 2007.
  • I would like to know exactly which unions attended and which didn't attend the first meeting of the PEC convened by the Mayor, apparently held sometime in September (this was before we knew about the October 29 extension).
  • I would like to know the exact dates the waivers arrived from the unions into the Mayor's office.
  • I would like to know how many PEC meetings were held, when they were and when the vote was actually taken.
  • I want to know which unions voted for, and which against entering GIC; if it was unanimous, what their issues were. Given the difficulty framing a short window for entry into the program (legislation passed in July, guidelines available in August, window originally closing September 30) I'm willing to give everybody the summer off- but I want a public accounting of sequence of events from September 1 to October 30. Who called what meetings, who showed, and when was the no go decision made.
  • For those unions who voted no, I would like to know within a half percentage point the number of members who are residents of Newburyport. I want to know the percentage of people each union represents who are actually residents of this City. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one could draw a conclusion that a union representing a considerable number of people who live outside of the City they serve might be less inclined to respond to the financial reality facing the city, the kids and the schools ("give a damn").

Somehow, somewhere, the kids of Newburyport just got royally screwed. I want to understand the exact circumstances of that sequence of events; more than that, I want to understand, really
understand the underlying principles, or lack thereof, that drove the unions to make the choice they did. I'm not looking for an argument, or a scapegoat; I genuinely want to understand what
the issues were that took a greater priority at that table than the needs of the schools, which have laid off or attritted in the range 60 FTE's in five years.

I don't expect we'll get answers to those questions until I raise them on the floor of the School Committee, or as a part of the Revenue Task Force; and doubt we'll get answers even then. You should know that the Task Force has as of three weeks ago sent a strong recommendation to the Mayor to make this happen. It didn't, and whether that was through the Mayor's action or inaction, the caution or intransigence of the unions at the table, this community deserves answers.

The community deserves answers. The unwillingness, or distrust, or misunderstanding of the PEC, and their failure to adopt a quick-fix solution to a crisis we have been facing for several years needs to be explained to the community. It's not like the GIC offered anything less than are getting now in benefits; it just offered a windfall savings that would have been available to save further cuts of teacher jobs, class size increases, and the introduction of support services to students to keep us competitive.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Communication and the Community

Summary paragraph: In which Menin recognizes that the School Committee needs to improve how it communicates with the community, and steps taken to improve that problem.

One of my favorite lyrics comes from a Greg Brown tune, and it goes something like this "...Dream on little dreamer, dream on; the world isn't what you think it is, it's what it is..."

After I was first elected to the School Committee, during one of the many meetings I attended before the inauguration, I had a chance to watch the SC evaluate itself. When it came to the self evaluation question about communication, as I recall, there was only one tangible, measurable goal: Did we get the newsletters out in a timely fashion?

I realize that newsletters are important; I've heard them extolled as a critical factor in the passing of the High School debt exclusion, the second time. As far as I'm concerned the jury is out on that; they were important, absolutely, but more important was choice to disengage and simplify the debt exclusion question itself- the first package had everything in it from the library to DPW trucks to the High School

Once they were teased out into two separate campaigns, they passed handily on their own merits.

Keep in mind that sitting on the SC at that time were two people who were professionals in communications. As a matter of fact, the first Committee Nick deKanter and I served on together, sometime in the mid-to-late 90's, was a Task Force convened to help the School Committee better communicate with the community.

It has been a longstanding problem.

Some of it is represents last remaining shreds of the old Empire. There was a natural bent towards withholding information, an almost pathological obsession for Superintendents and School Committees to take aim at their own feet and blast away. Secrecy, withholding all the information needed for informed votes, were pretty much par for the course.

During several of the years I served on the School Committee, we engaged administrators who were allergic to bad news.

Another aspect of the difficulty in transmitting information to the community is that aside from newsletters, community access television has been a non-starter for the better part of two years. Local radio is virtually gone; most of what we now hear on local radio stations is piped in from somewhere else.

The third, and perhaps most critical element in communicating is that we deal every day in the schools with education issues that cannot be reduced to pithy, third grade level sound-bites. The issues are complex, involve many variables, and our culture has succeeded in reducing our attention span to within the diagnostic range for Attention Deficit Disorder. Some of the people entrusted to report for local papers don't know the issues, and work with editors who need to cram every story into a five word headline, regardless of the nuance and complexity.

Few voices in the local coverage are sympathetic to understanding the issues. Few outlets exist beyond the traditional to get the "gospel" to people-- newsletters, letters home; mostly targeting constituencies who already have a stake in the schools.

We have tried doing regular outreach to residents who consider themselves outside our constituency base, lunch meetings, presentations, etc. Although it is difficult to gauge the success of this, it can be done more often and more effectively. Better yet, we should find ways to open the school facilities to make them more hospitable to these people- Saturday afternoon classic movies, or teas hosted by different classes. How about using the computer labs and volunteer students after school to offer seniors an orientation to the internet?

There have been significant improvements made to our website, with the focus on making more information accessible, and using it as a means of gathering feedback from the community as a way of informing decisions we are researching between meetings.

We have extended the maximum flexibility possible into our open meetings, allowing for public comment, public conversation, and a suspension of the rules to have members of the public comment on issues as they are being brought to the vote. At the same time, having all of the information we need now to make informed decisions, we are doing a lot more due diligence, and are a lot more deliberative-- which for many, translates to interminable boredom. Having experienced the good old days, when decision-making was a formality and an end-run around deliberation, I'll take boring.

Other suggestions we have considered and implemented over time include a rolling series of forums, presented around the Wards; holding a School Committee meeting outside of the Schools once a quarter, working with Ward Councilors and PTO's to make Administrative staff and School Committee members available to meet on a more regular basis with both groups.

We have also had small group conversations with City Council members, to help them understand how we will be projecting budgets and forecasting expenses.

We have very far to go. We have come very far; none of us feel like the message is sharp, consistent, and strong enough to break through to the community, yet.

But we'll get there.

Big Beantown Baseball News!

Alex Rodriguez opts out of Yankee contract!

And Sox win World Series; MVP is 3rd Baseman Mike Lowell.

So, A-Rod, see you in Chicago, kid. You can help them not win a World Series for another ten years.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Education Innovation-- as inevitable as it is frightening

Summary paragraph: In which Menin tries to calm the roiling sea by advocating we all learn to tread water and have faith.

On some level, education is subject to the same fluctuation of focus and style as any element of American culture. New Math, phonics, basic literacy, multi-curricular approach; multiple intelligences, the list is endless.

Although this can be confusing and annoying ("what's the flavor this week?"), take solace in at least two things. All of these ideas and new approaches are backed by scads of research that show with whom they work and why. And the second thing is that if they don't work, there's still scads of research and some very concerned companies that will try very hard to figure out where they've screwed up.

In Newburport, however we have a special line of defense. Kevin Lyons. Angela Bik. And a cadre of teachers, newly inspired and becoming genuine, collaborative partners in academic progress and student achievement.

Lyons has already demonstrated that he is a consummate academic. I've never met anyone in thirty years with a sharper, keener ability to walk into a classroom, observe for thirty minutes, and walk away with a clear understanding of what is going right, what needs to change, and the best way to approach it.

If you have grown to appreciate Dr. Lyons as a transparent, straightforward advocate for the students; he has become much than that for the School Committee and School faculty. A quick case in point.

Last year, when the 3rd grade math MCAS scores were disappointing, he had the opportunity during a full day of inservices with teachers to discuss the issue. To summarize, he told the teachers that he had spent enough time observing them teach to believe this was not an issue of teacher competency- he was not scapegoating them. He told them he thought it was what we were teaching, or how we were teaching it. And rather than prescribe solutions, and he had some ideas, he asked the teachers themselves to form a study group and analyze every response by a Newburyport student to every 3rd grade math MCAS questions, draw some conclusions, and recommend some interventions.

So teachers from the Bres took on the job. After a great deal of analysis, they came to a very suprising conclusion, a conclusion that Lyons might have come to but any other Administrator likely would have missed. A conclusion that became evident to the teachers who took the time to deconstruct the answers.

It wasn't the operational math the kids were stuggling with.

It was literacy. We were teaching plussing and minusing; the test wanted them to do addition and subtraction. Literacy, which Kevin Lyons had identified as a critical need, I suspect, during the interview process. The teachers recommended a series of assessments given periodically in the MCAS format, and some changes to the language of math. We are seeing the benefit of those changes.

By empowering teachers to find solutions to questions like what and how, as opposed to why and why not, Dr. Lyons showed faith in the faculty and their competence.

Personally, after five years of happy talk, and pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, and nothing to see here folks, just keep moving, it was refreshing.

My final point is this, which I will repeat endlessly until election day. Yes, we are in crisis. We don't have any money to correct substantial problems with our curriculum and approach to education; we have been in academic hibernation for many years.

But if we can work out the money problems, and I believe that a package of options can ease the pressure now and in the long term, then we have a once-in lifetime chance to completely reshape our entire approach to the educational process, structurally, socially, and collaboratively.

Nothing is off the table. Longer schools days, allowing for more time on learning. Perhaps exploring a different school year schedule; the opportunity to run some credit-bearing programs (from PE to sailing, community service, ecology to engineering) in the summer, perhaps in collaboration with other local schools and colleges. There is no end to the creative collaborations with people in the community that could be attempted.

Nothing is off the table, folks.
All you need is leadership. We've got that.
Collaboration. We have teachers feeling valued and respected by their administrators, we have, quietly, built understanding and bridges with the City Council since the Override.
And, all we need now is faith. After six years on the School Committee, I haven't lost mine; we'll solve the cash problem, we'll run even more efficiently, and we will be creative. 2-4 years from now, we will have the system Lyons envisions, and the students deserve.

I believe that more than anything.
Funny. I am more jazzed about being part of this new era that I was for either two previous runs. The system is close enough to turning things around that I can taste it.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Rudy, Rudy, Rudy...

Summary paragraph: a political venting of the spleen about a fellow New Yorker with the lowest ethical standard north of Tail-Gunner Joe McCarthy running for the highest office in the land. Feel free to skip this post if you have a weak stomach or are under the care of a physician.
In one of my rare forays into national politics on this blog, I felt compelled early on to share some vitriolic, visceral thoughts about the one candidate running for President who I feel is demonstrably, ethically, and pathologically unfit to lead the United States. That candidate was, is, and will always be Rudy Giuliani.

Now, to be perfectly honest, I have no horse in the Presidential race yet. Nor does it really matter to anyone. My comments about Mayor Giuliani are being provided as a public service, akin to alerting people in an apartment building about a fire, or posting signs alerting people about thin ice. It is my opinion that if you stuck a pin in Rudy's ass, after an astonishing rush of helium, you would be left with an eleven year old snot-nosed bully, who steals lunch money from other kids. Just my opinion.

And he makes pandering into a science that is tangible, visible and measurable.

Don't take word for it. Check it yourself.

Today, from a New York newspaper:

"Last July, The Providence Journal asked the former mayor this fateful question: If the Devil said you can be President if you become a Red Sox fan, would you do it?

"I'm a Yankee fan," Giuliani replied then. "I always believe it's a sign of my being straight with people, about not wanting to fool them, that I was one of the first mayors to be willing to say I was a Yankee fan."

He went on to say he had "great respect" for true Red Sox fans, but as for becoming a Red Sox cheerleader in a Devil's bargain, "Probably that's a deal I could not make," he said."

And today?

Yankee Fan Giuliani Backing Red Sox

Published: October 23, 2007, Associated Press

Filed at 7:33 p.m. ET

BOSTON (AP) -- Sounds like a baseball flip-flop. Rudy Giuliani, a lifelong New York Yankees fan, said Tuesday he's pulling for their most hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox, to win the World Series over the Colorado Rockies.

''I'm rooting for the Red Sox,'' the Republican presidential contender said in response to a question, sparking applause at the Boston restaurant where he was picking up a local endorsement.

You can't make this stuff up.

Hey, all you Newburyporters who watched TV in the 60's and 70's! Remember Flip Wilson?

"The DEVIL made me do it."

It comes down to this, really. Do you trust a Yankees fan to be President of the United States? I fully recognize that this particular line in the sand would affect people from both sides of the party equation.

Personally, I wouldn't.

Y'all can make up your own minds. I'd offer my encapsulation of the classic Reagan line, "my mind is made up, so don't try to confuse me with facts," but it isn't even appropriate when it comes to Rudy. There aren't any facts there. Nada, zilch. Rudy has been spinning the truth so long, he can no longer distinguish when the truth ends and his imagination begins.

I now return you the Newburyport Schools blog, which hopefully has much more relevance to your daily life than this rant.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Few More Thoughts For The Mother's Club

Summary paragraph: In which Menin takes advantage of being a blogmeister to clarify his remarks of last night, at the Forum.

First, let me say what I didn't say, and that is thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to all of you.

I didn't start off by describing myself and my background, for two reasons. The first is the gift and curse of incumbency; the second is that I wanted to get straight to some key points. So...

  • Six years ago, I ran a campaign against the School Committee. I truly believed, and still do, that they were bright and committed people, with a wide array of skills. But they didn't know squatty-roo about what it takes to promote and sustain student achievement. They were builders, bricks and mortar folks, and there were none better. They promoted a Superintendent from within, 8 months before she would officially start, because they would not take the risk of the incoming majority finding a new Superintendent. They had issues with... let's say they had a familiarity with the use of control as path to getting what you want.
  • I was the first teacher to sit on the School Committee in a long time. In addition to being licensed to teach K-8 and Special Needs in two states, I have also taken Montessori training in teaching 6-9 year olds, and 9-12 year olds. I also had experience running two non-profits over a period of 13 years, one I took over with a $5,000 debt (on a payday, which I made up out of my own pocket, until I could get the books straightened out). When I left the agency as part of a merger, the budget was $1,500,000 and we controlled about $2,000,000 worth of property; anyone driving down or up Route 1 near Topsfield can drive through it; Nike Village. The second non-profit was a startup national association of Consumer Attorneys; in four years, I took it from 15 members to 500. So I brought a very unique package to the table- familiarity with education and curriculum, financial management, and administrative experience; and an abiding faith in sunlight and transparency. Quite simply, I believe if you give people all the information relevant to the decision you are asking them to make, most of the time, they'll make a good decision.
  • My first four years on the Committee were spent trying to push for process and document transparency, using new approaches to delivering curriculum, finding more ways to collaborate with groups on the community, and finding ways to engage the community in planning, assessment and the work of the schools and the School Committee. Those were difficult times; my strongest allegiance was with Dick Sullivan, with whom I had forged an agreement-- any motion he made, I'd second, any motion I made, he'd do the same. It forced the Committee to become more accountable and deal more publicly with yucky issues.
  • Although I have "evolved", my fundamental concerns and beliefs as a member of the School Committee remain pretty rock solid. I believe in complete transparency of process. Every now and then, Dr. Lyons will mention some trend he's noticed over several years, and a few of us will chat in the parking lot after the meeting- the conversation will go something like this- "Did you know that?" "No, they never told me", "and we voted on that issue?" Information is the currency of power; and I've had the opportunity to work with some real hoarders in my time in Newburyport.
  • I believe in fully engaging the community in every way possible. I introduced the idea of Public Conversation to the School Committee, extended Public Comment to two sessions each meeting; and have encouraged the use of suspending the rules to get feedback from the room before we vote on some issues. This has made the meetings a little more chaotic, more laborious; and while they could be run more tightly, I believe democracy is sloppy. I believe it is best to wear casual attire to events that celebrate the astonishing gift that the founders of this nation bequeathed us, because it can be pretty messy. Meetings lose focus. You can get overloaded with information. Believe me, it is far, far better for education to be overloaded with information, than asked to vote on issues with an underload of info.
  • I believe in accountability. I have participated in four Superintendent evaluations, and in fact, lobbied for a change in the scoring system that originally proposed that went from poor to very good as options; and have been a strong advocate of reviewing the five-year plan developed during my first year on the Committee. I requested a review after 12 months, when there had been a dramatic change in our finances, I requested a review at 2.5 years, I requested a review a four years in. The Administration and the School Committee have never reviewed the five year plan. It is also my opinion that despite the herculean effort that went into the five year plan, the unexpected cut in state revenue by 20% should have immediately caused a review of the document and adjustment of goals to reflect the new dynamic. That didn't occur. I now believe we need a new five year plan that has a greater degree of organicity to it, and can respond to the volatile funding realities.
  • I believe in collaboration. Although the NTA has chosen not to engage in collaborative bargaining for the last two contracts, I have always believed that the relationship between the union and the administration was frostier than it needed to be. Between changes at the Union, and changes in the Administration, there seems to be a mutual respect between the parties that I see as hopeful and promising.
  • I believe in innovation, and best practices. I believe that we have teachers who teach the fur off any subject, and have lacked resources to stay up to date.
  • I believe that the educational model we used for five years, which treated every child the same, was wrong. I was vocal about this for five years. I believe in Howard Gardener's ideas about multiple intelligences, that each of has ways we best process information and express ourselves; I believe now as I did then that we should be academically challenging kids who need to be challenged to stay engaged, and support those kids who need strategic support. With the change of Administrations we have moved away from the "one size fits all" approach. It will take several more years to fully implement a leveled approach to curriculum, but we will get there.
  • I believe that we should be looking at innovative ways to generate revenue from the schools for the schools; that we should be making the school system more "user friendly" to groups that do not feel they have a stake in them through school-based or student/teacher community based interactions.
  • As a member of the Task Force on School Revenue, I believe that we should and will have a long-term and short term plan for addressing revenue needs that will not be totally reliant on an Override. I believe that the forecasting tool developed by Committee members Dana Hooper and Gordy Bechtel will provide much needed direction and integrity to budget projections for the next 3 to 5 years, and will go a long way towards encouraging an informed, community-wide dialogue about how to address revenue shortfalls. I would support, unequivocally and strongly support an override, with specific abatements for seniors on fixed incomes who own property that would only be collectible once their home is sold, as part of a package of measures to address school revenue needs.
  • After six years, five spent opposing cuts to programs that were not accomplishing the intent with which they were being made (leaving a skeletal framework so that programs could be restored when revenue was better). I believe that simple program restoration should not be the basis for moving forward; that student achievement, multi-curricular approaches and best practices, and multiple ways of assessing students learning to help us understand their needs, (and the how and what we need to do to tailor curriculum to meet their needs), is the direction to go.
  • I believe that we should be talking about longer school days, re-framing the school year, and encouraging more community-based learning for the students.
  • I believe that the schools are not simply a budget item to be argued over annually; I believe the schools are an ongoing discussion that touches the very heart of a community; it is about who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. It is about preservation and legacy, it is about preparing children for a future in which it will be up to them, literally, to undo the damage we have done to this fragile planet. I believe, literally again, that the future depends increasingly the education we are providing today. Schools are a public, civic, ongoing conversation, a give and take of ideas, a thoughtful, intentional movement towards informed citizenship.
  • I believe, that this is a remarkable, painful and transitional time for our schools. As an educator and parent, I believe the silver lining to this dark cloud is that for the first time in generations, the old ways of doing things cannot be relied upon, mediocrity is not good enough any more. And within this new paradigm, with the support of the community and collaborating as partners with teachers, we have an unprecedented opportunity to completely reshape how we are educating children, to try pilot projects in areas like extended school hours, offering credit courses in the summer; there literally are no limits to our ability to reshape the basic package to get better value for the money we are paying, and identify new money based on innovation we seek. I am extraordinarily excited about this.
  • I believe in apple pie, I believe in motherhood, and I don't think fatherhood is such a bad thing, either. I draw the line at the Yankees, though. Even as a New Yorker, born and bred, my revulsion for those arrogant SOB's began in the womb. In my entire life, I have refused to read a Yankee box score; and as an eight-year old kid, sharing the 'hood with Mary Carrier, I gave as good as I got in those inevitable "scuffles" that would occur about favorite baseball teams as part of growing up. And I will always remember this- it was never only one kid; Yankee fans would travel in groups of three- two to hold you while one pummeled you. Those bastards get the fans they deserve. Grrrrrrr.
It's late. Nose around the blog a little; you'll find that I'm more than happy to share my thinking on issues affecting the schools. Feel free to post your own comments, e-mail me with questions, or call me.


Vickie Pearson

Summary Paragraph: In which Menin remembers a hero of his.

On Mary Baker Eaton's blog today, she has written about as fair a representation of who I am as I could have asked for.

One point that could bear some clarification is that normally, School Committee terms are for four years. This is my third city-wide election, after having served six years. The School Committee elected four years ago experienced an unusual, and tragic event that had longer term implications than anything I've seen in Newburyport politics in the 19 odd years I've observed.

Topping the ticket (as I recall) was a force of nature by the name of Vickie Pearson. Towards the end of the campaign, she was diagnosed with cancer. By inauguration day, she was sworn in sitting in a wheelchair, off the stage, where all of the other elected candidates sat. To my shame, it never occurred to me that I, all of us on the School Committee, should have been sitting down there with her.

By our second meeting, maybe even our first, Mrs. Pearson succumbed to cancer. The enormity of this tragedy for the family is unspeakable, and I wouldn't even try to talk about that. But I will talk about what the community lost.

Vickie Pearson was the single most unconditionally respected citizen of this community. She was one of those rare individuals who literally changed the mood of everyone she came into contact with. Not only was she transparently genuine, she was a great listener, a thinker of deep and powerful thoughts, and a merciless consensus builder. The latter skill had to do with the sheer magnitude of her charisma; refusing to sit down to a parlay at her request made you feel like Scrooge.

I have no doubt that she would have been the strongest, wisest voice on the School Committee. She would have moved us beyond foolishness, kept us focused, and kept our eyes on the prize. Maybe she would have served one or two terms on the School Committee, and the pressure would have been brought to bear on her, her husband believes, to run for Mayor. And she would have been the Mayor that all others, past and present, would have been measured by.

By Charter, the job of filling a vacated seat on the SC until the next scheduled School Committee election, fell to a joint convention of the City Council and the School Committee. To cut to the chase, Steve Coles won that appointment, and served until 2005. Four seats were available in that election, three four year terms and the two year balance of Vickie's term. Because of the retirements of Dick Sullivan and Laurie Naughton, and the announced candidacies of Dana Hooper and Gordo Bechtel and Steve for the four year seats, and in keeping with the trend of often uncontested races, I chose to run for the balance of Vickie's term, and drew an opponent. I felt strongly that Dana, Gordo and Steve had a great deal to bring to the table, and I wanted to do anything I could to maximize the likelihood of their winning. They won.

I won, also. I won the last years of Vickie's seat.

Normally, we don't ascribe any particular slot with the person elected to it. Especially in city-wide races. It's just a slot, separate from the individual who is attached to it by coincidence of election

Not so with this seat, with me. Every meeting, I would ask myself "what would Vickie have done?" when I engaged in debate, and made votes. The stupidity and acting out is mine, the advocacy and the passion, the urge to articulate student centered planning and accountability and transparency and focus is much more "the Vickie" part.

For me, this will always be Vickie's seat. If I'm re-elected, she will always be at every meeting, cutting through the b.s., helping us to be constructive and consensual. I've always tried to do that, and I know how to do it; but it takes a spark of energy, a tug of communal responsibility to set it in motion.

Make no mistake, that spark is Vickie. The least political politician, and the best public servant who never served in the office the City wisely elected her to.

While walking Ward Six, I met Vickie's husband. We chatted for a while, and I told him that I had chosen to run for the remainder of her term, and that it meant more to me than just a seat at the table; that Vickie, in her short time, had provided a clear set of standards for public service that I worked very hard to measure up to. He thanked me and wished me luck.

Folks, I knew Vickie Pearson, and I'm no Vickie Pearson. But as an admiring student of hers, there hasn't been a day in the last two years that the phrase "what would Vickie do" hasn't been part of my thinking.

Regardless of the outcome, this will always be Vickie's seat.

One more point about the fiscal crisis

It always occurs to me after a conversation with someone that Newburyport had a lot of company when it came to last year's fiscal crisis. For some reason that only an economics professor could explain, our fiscal headaches, to a lesser or greater degree happened in most Massachusetts communities- it seemed like the banks suddenly called in their note, or we all maxxed out on the credit card; because of the pervasive nature of the lack of local revenue, more than 30 communities put overrides on the ballot, nearly all of them directed towards educational needs. Few of them passed.

Think I'm blowing smoke? Check out some of these recent articles, forwarded to me by the ever-enlightened Ellen Supple, one of the most valuable members of the Task Force on School Revenue:

Residents to education officials: Show us the money
By Douglas Moser, Gloucester Daily Times

Budget mediation slated for tonight
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle

Schools face $1.8 million deficit next year
By Joao Ferreira, Standard-Times (New Bedford)

Wanted: Public advice on schools
By George Barnes, Telegram & Gazette

A textbook case
Students lack materials because schools can’t afford them
By Jacqueline Reis, Telegram & Gazette (Worcester)

State: Marlborough schools need ‘corrective action’
By Dan McDonald, MetroWest Daily News

Billerica school has seen better days
By Jennifer Amy Myers, Lowell Sun

In fact, the only communities that seem to avoid the institutionalized fiscal problems we have are those communities that as part of their charters put an override for the schools on the ballot every two or three years as a matter of course (back to Ed Cameron's suggestion that the time has come for municipal reform).

Some people knew the tsunami was coming. There are some 300 school systems in Massachusetts; I seem to recall that at the time we were considering candidates to fill our own Superintendency, something like 125-150 other districts were doing the same thing.

The bad news is that it really stinks all over; the good news is that we are in touch and could expand those contacts to look at how other communities are addressing the need for school funding until the state and the feds wake up from their nap.

Thanks again for the clippings to Ellen Supple. Thanks for more than the clippings. She, and Kathy Flaherty and Ralph Orlando have for more than half of the time I've served on the School Committee, served as a constant reminder of on whose behalf we work, and to whom we as a Committee, and the Administration are responsible. Their constant presence at School Committee meetings, and their insightful, challenging comments have helped the Committee evolve.

And they're all pretty smart, too. I've never been able to get any of the three to remotely consider running for the School Committee.

Three possible sources of additional revenue...

Summary Paragraph: In which Menin tries to answer a question from this evening's forum that was directed at two at-large candidates, but only one answered.

The question was "name three additional sources of revenue for the schools beyond an override."

Without revealing any of the inner chamber deliberations of the Revenue Task Force, let me offer a few suggestions for the candidate who struggled.

  • We could mug girl scouts and re-sell their cookies.
  • We could sell the naming rights to shrubbery along the waterfront.
  • We could turn the new, spiffed up City Hall into a bed and breakfast on weekends; starting Friday, at noon.
  • We could fine Canada Geese for pooping on public property, payable in down, and repackage the down for Newburyport souvenir pillows to sell at Richdale's.
  • We could open up a tobaggon run down from the top of the landfill, and charge by the hour for use.
  • We could enact an ordinance against saying the word "tourist," with fines of twenty-five cents each time you are overheard saying it. I think this one could generate a lot of cash. It adds up.
  • Add a local levy on "doggie bags" that are taken from restaurants. I have it on pretty good authority that very few dogs are actually getting to eat the contents of those bags.
  • Charge a parking fee to anyone driving a vehicle that waits at the intersection of Green and Water Street without turning for more than five minutes.
  • Attach a video-camera to a Seagull, and try to sell the idea of a Seagull Cam 24 Hour Reality show to one of the networks.

See? When you allow yourself to think outside of the box, anything is possible. Those are just a few of the innovative ideas I hope the city will consider

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Thank You, Mother's Club...

Summary Paragraph: In which Menin expresses gratitude that some responsible entity has seen fit to invite all of the School Committee candidates to a forum with all other candidates.

Having had a second opportunity to attend one of these events (my first was two years ago), I wanted to tip my hat to the Mother's Club for giving we of the vote-pandering class a chance to trip over our tongues. It was really my first chance to see virtually every candidate running for office in the city at one time; by and large they are an impressive bunch.

I smiled when a number of candidates described themselves as fiscal conservatives, because there was a time when I would have had a visceral reaction; now I see them as allies in common service to make this a better city by spending more wisely and effectively. This goes back to an earlier post (rant, alright, rant) about Slate candidates; when I talked about a loose coalition of elected officials who are principle-driven, genuinely care about accountability, and have a larger vision that includes the entire city. I am lucky enough to consider myself among this group.

I recognize that my entire political career in Newburyport is an anomaly. I ran for School Committee six years ago, with an earring, a rat-tail six inches long and a reputation as a bomb-thrower. I asked lots of questions, annoying questions, and was quick to hold my peers accountable to the community and students. I was, and probably remain, a pain in the rear.

Somehow, folks in Newburyport know that, and expect me to continue. Many ideas I have been raising over the past six years without success have come to fruition with the change in School Administrators. Accountability for administrators. A focus on student achievement. Reconfiguration of the schools into more developmentally appropriate groupings. Transparency of all school processes; dialogue about issues, creating ways to bring the community into the process of generating ideas for funding, curriculum, cultural offerings.

My friends Bruce Vogel, Tom Jones, and Gary Roberts all describe themselves as fiscal conservatives; yet they understand the importance of spending money on the Schools; with the expectation that it be spent efficiently and that the outcomes in student achievement be measurable. They represent part of that ongoing political dialogue about who we are and where we are going.

Greg Earles is another Council member who fits the characteristics mentioned above. He's already demonstrated an ongoing commitment to the Schools through his participation as a parent, and as an active, very challenging member of the Joint Ed Committee bringing the City Council and the School Committee together monthly. Greg took a very unfair hit tonight from his opponent, who suggested that he was a "fly on the wall" at Joint Ed. I've worked with Greg on that Committee for at least three years; he has been diligent in his attendance and an asset on many issues. The breakdown in communications between the Council and the Committee has a long history, and Joint Ed has already spent a meeting talking about changing that. It is unfair to blame Greg for what has been an historical failure on the part of two elected bodies to figure out how to talk to each other. His opponent may not remember, but Greg sponsored Steve Coles and me as an agenda item on a Council Meeting early in the year, so that we could give them a heads-up on the likely recommendation for an override; two sitting City Council members voted no. They did not want to hear from us.

Ed Cameron, with his emphasis on Municipal Reform, is another strong, thoughtful future leader. There is a common denominator, besides gender, to this group-- they think beyond the moment, they believe that we can make decisions now to ensure a better future. You can see it in Kathleen O'Connor Ives, as well. This isn't about specifically what they, or we bring to the table. It is an openness to ideas, an expectation of accountability, and a desire to work collaboratively.

I describe my politics as radical pragmatism. I was raised as a Saul Alinsky-style strategist when it comes to community change, which may account for my occasional irreverent lapses. I seek the pragmatic; I define pragmatic as the solution that is efficient, compassionate, empowering, oriented towards building community and not destroying it, that is creative and affirming. Once we reach the pragmatic solution, the radical part takes over- I want it done NOW. I don't want to wait.

All of the people I have named above strike a zen-like chord in me- it isn't about them, it's about us, it isn't about blame, it's about accountability; it isn't about liberal, conservative, progressive, populist, it is about community. Like me, I get a sense that these people see politics in the same way I see education-- an ongoing community dialogue about who we are, and where we want to go, as a community.

There may be others out there I've forgotten; to those I apologize. I'm not telling anyone who to vote for, believe me; (well, I am asking you to vote for me). I have to say that after 8 years writing for the Undertoad, six years as an elected official saddled with a moribund and deteriorating school system that never seemed to cross onto the radar screen of those pulling the strings, these people represent the kind of public servant I always strive to be; with Ed and Kathleen, it's a gut feeling, since their public service has been limited.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Your tax dollars at work

Summary paragraph: In which Menin muses on the priorities of the Federal Gov't, and advocates for more local uses of available money.

Recently, I added a stat-tracker to the blog; one that has lots of features and doo-dads. The feature that keeps me, admittedly an easy target, amused is the one where you can call up a map that tells you where your hits are coming from. Although one of my fellow Newburyport bloggers did warn me about this, I have to say I was surprised and a little flattered when the following two hits appeared on the counter:

Host:, ISP: America Online Inc, Entry Page Time: 16th
October 2007 11:21:04 AM, Visit Length: 0 seconds, Browser: MSIE 7.0,
: Windows Vista, Resolution: 1280x1024
Location: Virginia, Reston, United States United States, Returning Visits: 0, Referring URL:
No referring link

Host:, ISP: America Online Inc., Entry Page Time: 16th
October 2007 03:18:40 AM, Visit Length: 0 seconds, Browser: MSIE 7.0, OS: Windows XP
Resolution: 1024x768, Location: Virginia, Reston, United States United States, Returning Visits: 0
Referring URL: No referring link

I've removed the IP addresses.

Reston, Reston. Virginia. Well, I don't know anybody in Reston, Virginia. I
do know that there are several Executive Branch agencies that have headquarters in Reston.

Folks, these are your tax dollars at work here in America, 2007. We have a federal government that refuses to guarantee health care and nutrition to every child under 18, but has the money to monitor every single blog in the country.

No Child Left Behind has never been funded at more than 15% of it's promised level, but the government is willing to spend time watching for subversive activity on the blog of an admittedly ornery candidate for re-election to a local School Committee. There isn't enough money to arm and properly equip soldiers fighting in a war of choice, and the World Language
Department at Newburyport High School has started the year without Spanish textbooks.

How do you even begin to teach children about the Constitution, the Rule of Law, the greatness possible in this country, when putting the word "Iraq" or AIDS in your blog sets off an alarm in small cubicle in Reston, Virginia?

Good people of Newburyport. The inter-generational compact is breaking down; for the first time, we are leaving our children a world that is in much worse shape environmentally than the one we inherited; our schools remain in the 20th century, and we cannot seem to engage in a public dialogue that isn't polarizing and cartoonish.

This is an important election. Look for people with a reputation for listening
and not shouting, for those who would try to find common ground and not raise substantive disagreements to the level of simplistic demonizing.

Look for people who embrace a range of opinions.When the seats are taken by people who already agree on the problems, the procedures and the outcomes, they stop listening to the community; there's no incentive to seek answers; they already have them. Public process, that messy, sloppy thing that is democracy, which leads to boring meetings and painstaking efforts to forge a consensus on the future
becomes a thing apart from outcomes.

When I first ran for School Committee six years ago, for all intents and purposes, the Committee was an echo chamber, a group of people who felt little need to move beyond token efforts to bring real dialogue into their decisions. They worked exceptionally well together, and it felt to me that votes on issues were merely a formality, ratifying choices that were made at another time and place.

That isn't what the City needs right now. When you vote, try to bring together as representatives people with a range of views and perspectives, to promote a real exchange of ideas as we move forward.

Thanks. If anybody wants me, I'll be walking the outer Wards, waiting to hear from the IRS telling me my taxes are going to be audited.

Hate the War, Love the Warrior

Summary paragraph: In which Menin shares a lesson he's learned about paying it forward.

Of late, one of my favorite political blogs, The Daily Kos, has been taking a lot of heat.

It leans left, admittedly, but it's a pretty good way to put a little fair and balanced in the whole news cycle, if that be your desire. Sometimes the bloggers go way overboard, but on the whole, postings are pretty thoughtful.

Especially this one, by a Kossack named Kath25.

It is relatively bad form to cut and paste large segments of a posting, so I ask Kath25 in advance to forgive me. Somehow, I don't think she'll mind it.

"It has been several months since we last organized a DailyKos box drive. CPT Matt Larson is a friend of DailyKos over in Iraq, and he will distribute these care packages to other soldiers who are not receiving mail, or anyone who needs some cheering up. Plus, there are hundreds of other soldiers who could use a surprise from those of us who are stateside.

When you’ve been deployed away from your family and friends for months, even a year, any little bright spot can make a difference. Let’s show our troops how much we still support them by sending over care packages to help them get through these next few weeks and months. It’s easy!

Send Packages To:

CPT Matt Larson

ATTN: Anysoldier
FOB Prosperity

APO AE 09348

I have permission from Matt to post this address, to expedite the process. If you’d like to send additional boxes to other troops, please do so. You can request soldiers’ addresses at, and even look for specific branches of the military, home base locations, female soldiers, whomever you most want to help out with a care package. Many of the soldiers will have a specific wish-list that you can fill.

Shipping isn’t that expensive. The U.S. Postal Office offers a "flat rate priority envelope" that goes for $4.60 postage. There are TWO "flat rate priority boxes" that need $8.95. Weight and distance don’t matter with these packages – just fill it up as much as you can.
Heavy magazines or books? PowerBars? Gatorade Mix? The flat-rate box cares not what it carries to our troops overseas, you just pay the flat rate. You can get a surprising amount of stuff in, even in the flat rate envelope. N.B.: Make sure to get the boxes with the red stamped "FLAT RATE" on them. You will have to fill out a customs form, but these are available at the PO and only require minimal information. Because the boxes are sent to an APO or FPO, the "flat rate postage" applies, and the boxes get there relatively fast – ten days to two weeks. Not sure what to send?

Here’s a list of commonly-requested items from soldiers currently registered on

Commonly Requested Items:

Cotton Socks, Magazines, Women’s Cotton Underwear, CD’s,
Men’s Cotton Underwear, DVD’s, Tampons, Crossword/Puzzle/ Sudoku Books, Sanitary Napkins, Paperback Books, Shampoo, Sketchbooks and Pencils, Conditioner, Paper and Envelopes, Tissues, Individually-Packaged Sports Drink Mixes (Gatorade, Propel) Body Wash, Microwave Popcorn, Lotion, Licorice, Lip Balm/Chapstick, Gum and Mints, Disposable Razors, Gummy Candies, Foot Powder, Packaged Cookies, Q-Tips, Meat Jerky.

If you don’t want to put together a box of your own but still want to make a contribution, head on over to Treat Any Soldier, which has pre-fab boxes all set to go. Just donate the cost, and the box is on its way. Treat Any Soldier was started by an Army Mom, based on what her son and his fellow soldiers most wanted to receive.

If you don’t want to spend much money on the contents of your box, here’s a few more ideas:

Empty out your collection of hotel soaps and shampoos and send ‘em off.
Burn a few mix CD’s from your fantastic music collection.
Involved with a group? Ask everyone to write a short letter and drop them in the box.
Teach a class? Ask your students to contribute a short note or drawing. Heck, that could even be worth extra credit.
Still reading those old magazines? Send them over. Even an old magazine is better than no magazine.

Don’t forget to add "DK" to the corner so Matt knows where the box came from. Include a note of thanks to the soldier who will receive your box. You may even get a thank you note. I sent a box back at Christmas, and received a nice note from CPT Larson and the person who received the box. Not sure what to say? Thank the troops for their service, tell them you support them and that you’re thinking about them. Heck, throw in a picture of your cat. I know how you people are about your pictures of your cats!

A Few More Do’s and Don’ts:

Don’t send pork products, pornography, or alcohol.
Don’t send homemade food, as the soldiers are required to throw it away.
Avoid anything that will melt, particularly in terms of food products.
It is hot in Iraq.
T-Shirts must be Brown for Army (Tan for the new digital uniform, the 'ACU') and Navy, Green for Marines, Black or Brown for Air Force.
Marine boot socks are black. White athletic socks are for PT and sometimes under the boot socks.
If sending a liquid, put it in a zip-lock bag, then double-bag it upside-down from the first one. If an item can leak, it will.

Here's that address, one more time, send packages to:

CPT Matt Larson

ATTN: Anysoldier

FOB Prosperity
APO AE 09348

Thanks so much in advance for all of your participation on this! CPT Larson is looking forward to receiving all of these packages to give to his fellow soldiers, and I’m sure they’ll all be really happy to see so much support coming from those of us stateside."

Thanks to Kath 25, and thanks to the readers of Daily Kos, who do this several times a year. This a great family activity, also terrific for classrooms.

Pay it forward, folks. These are our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. This is not about politics, it's about community.

Back to education next post.

Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew- not a baseball posting

Ed Cameron has a few thoughts worth noting in his blog today about the relationship of the parts to the whole.

Newburyport to Wealth is like Red Sox to Offense

These ideas and thoughts all harken back to my earlier post of putting people into office whose diversity of opinion and shared commitment to equitable outcomes are the assets this city needs to move forward. We don't need to agree on methods; we do need political leaders who have commitments to transparency and public engagement, and the faith that once you have all the information you need, the shared outcome can be arrived out by consensus.

Cameron seems to not only get that; he seems to live it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Yet another faux endorsement

This is not a real endorsement. It is a faux endorsement. I've never personally met Arnold. In fact, Arnold has stopped returning my phone calls.

My mother tells a story of going into a deli on Broadway in New York in the early seventies, and watching the Governator grab and paw at a waitress, finally pulling her onto his lap against her will, the easier to gropinate her.

Of course, I told her she must have confused him with someone else. He would never, ever do anything like that. So, with regards to this faux endorsement, I remember something one of my two heroes, Lennon or Marx (John and Groucho) said. "Any club that would have me as a member I wouldn't want to join."

And remember what Freud said. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Looking Like A Duck...

Summary Paragraph: In which Menin concedes that not everything that looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and talks like a duck is a duck. It's just duck-like.

One of the other candidates, (we'll call them School Committee Candidate A), who appeared at the Friday night coffee for three of the School Committee candidates who worked on the Yes campaign, contacted me today in response to an earlier post, Wiping the Slate Clean.

According Candidate A, Candidates A, B, C, and D, who worked on the YES campaign are running independently of each other; and that the Friday night coffee, attended by A, B and C, was more along the lines of helping C get a jump-start. However, at one point between the coffee and the danishes, there was a clear indication that the purpose of the event was to present three fresh faces to make sure that the one old face running for re-election would be retired. This assertion did not come from one of the Candidates, apparently.

Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, I believe; but just because they support me doesn't mean I have to buy whatever they are selling. And I sure as hell try not to put myself into a situation that could be misconstrued as my buying it.

Candidate A said that when the conversation got personal regarding me and my re-election, and agenda driven, it became awkward for them and Candidate B. They didn't endorse the sentiments; they didn't deny them. They just were awkward.

I understand how that can happen. I've often been in situations when people trash-talk me about people I have to work with; sometimes they even trash people I don't respect or who don't respect me, but I still have to work with. I personally don't find it awkward; I usually divulge my relationship with the maligned individual, and thank the trash-talker for sharing their opinion, but that it isn't mine. It's that last little piece; thank you for sharing but that is not my experience nor my opinion that usually makes a difference. It draws the line which clearly says, your opinion is yours, and you are welcome to it, but don't try stuffing it in my ears

I remember a situation vaguely analogous to this in my own life.

When I was living in Buffalo, I was dating a woman who came from a robust, large Catholic family. Her father had served very honorably in World War Two, commanding a naval vessel.
Despite their small house, and simpler means, there was always room for me at the dinner table, and her mother was, and hopefully still is a saint. It was actually the closest thing I knew to a sustained family until I had my own.

One day, her father's former commanding officer was in town, and was invited to dinner with his wife. Two more plates were set at the table.

After a few glasses of wine, the Admiral's wife's tongue loosened up a little bit, and she began to ask some questions.

"What with a medical school, and dental school and a law school right nearby at the University of Buffalo, you must have a lot of Jews from New York City coming up here. That must be terrible. I've heard the school is actually called 'Jew-Bee' by people who live here. Doesn't it bother you to have so many Jews going to school here?"

I felt awful for my girlfriend and her family. They were terribly embarrassed, and were at a complete loss for what to say. They didn't deserve to have to respond or defend this foolishness; I'm usually not at a loss for what to say, as many of you who know me can attest.

I've been there before. People sometimes wear their ignorance and intolerance like a medal.

But it is also part of my cultural heritage to try to laugh, because if you can't, you cry.

I told Mrs. Admiral that it didn't bother me at all.

"All of my closest relatives are Jewish," I told her.

You could see my girlfriend's family trying to stifle laughs and hide smiles. Apparently, Mrs. Admiral missed the point, and continued to commiserate with me about how the Jews were responsible for many problems, ranging from venereal diseases to high interest credit cards. I just nodded, wondering exactly how far she could get her foot into her mouth. Mr. Admiral, however, caught the thrust of my remark immediately. After attempting to get Edith to stifle herself, he gave a swift kick under the table that I bet she still has a bruise from, 25 years later.

The point is this. If someone puts words into the universe that don't reflect your personal views, I think you have an obligation to distance yourself from those words, no matter how awkward that is. Define yourself, or you will be defined by the company you keep, and the little hurts thrown out into the universe that you allow to go unchallenged.

For Candidate A, who sought me out with a beef about what I had written, I have regained a measure of respect. I really do believe, now, that they are doing what I am doing; that is running for School Committee, and not against a person or an institution. How you move through the political world has a learning curve all it's own; I told this individual the dumber you get, the more you learn.

But learning to challenge ideas you don't believe is part of that learning curve. If you don't clarify the remarks, and challenge them, but stand there awkward, you become part of the problem.

And that problem is, of course, how to best build bridges.

Lesson one-- Demonizing is the first refuge of the divisive and unimaginative. It is the powder post beetle of bridge-building. Anyone lazy enough to ascribe a single characteristic to an entire group isn't your friend; they only become your ally when you accept their formulation. And the threshold for acceptance is very low; it is silence.

Lesson two- if you don't name a lie, a misrepresentation, a strategic lack of clarity, a simple statement that doesn't resonate for you when you hear it, it owns you, too. Flypaper.

So I'll tone down the talk about Slate YES. After talking with this Candidate A, I believe they are running a strong race, for the right reasons, and will be an asset to the School Committee, regardless of what happens to me.

As for the others, B, C, and D, I now realize they are hoping that Candidate A has long coattails. Long.

As long, they hope, as the slate blackboard in a Brown School classroom. And longer, they hope, than six years.

It's fall, and I can hear the ducks quacking. Seems like there is one less than I thought there was yesterday.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Great Idea Out of Ward 6

Summary Paragraph: Things you can learn when you listen.

I was walking out in Ward 6 today, trying to squeeze in between the Patriots and the Red Sox (Go Sox); I was surprised and pleased by the welcome I received, and the general level of information people have about the Schools. Many different issues were raised; one in particular seemed so easy to accomplish that I promised the resident I would post it on line tonight, and push for the administration to make it happen this holiday season.

I spoke with a Mom, who's had three kids go through the high school and go onto residential colleges. She felt the high school did a great job getting them into college, but that they were genuinely unprepared for "freshman shock;" the freedom, the need to step out and make friends, the multi-cultural experience they are exposed to.

When we talked about how we could better prepare the HS students, we came up with two ideas. The first was to use some of the existing health classes to talk about establishing friendships, and how to meet people. The second idea was to have recent alumni who have come back into the area for vacation- Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hannukah, February- and give a "workshop" for parents and seniors about their own personal experiences during their first semester in college.

Thanks for these suggestions. With so much effort going on to smooth the transitions between the different schools, this makes perfect sense.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Wiping the Slate Clean

Summary Paragraph: In which Menin acknowledges a tough re-election campaign, and talks about what he believes is a significant strategic error by his fellow candidates for SC. Of course, Menin recognizes that he has a self-interest beyond the benign in the outcome of the election.

It's no secret that four of the five other people running for School Committee are running interlocking campaigns, with the goal, stated clearly during their meet and greets, that the City would be better off throwing all the bums out. When I look around, and realize that in the worst case scenario, should I be re-elected, there will still be two new members of the Committee, I believe that point of view will really need two basic assumptions to succeed.

The first is, obviously, that they need to convince people who have watched me fight for accountability for six years that I'm a bum. They need to convince the voters that my elimination from the School Committee, and the loss of six years of experience, of having worked with 3 superintendents, of ad nauseum advocacy for process transparency and accountability, full disclosure, and community involvement, is really prudent. The community knows that I've lived through two teacher contracts, helped negotiate one of them, and voted against the other for fiscal reasons. I have experience evaluating the superintendent 4 times; I've written curriculum, and grants to support curriculum, taught in the classroom and in adult education; Slate YES needs to convince more than just themselves that these assets, along with a ferocious and precocious streak of independence, a willingness to speak out to anybody any time, anywhere, lack value here in Newburyport.

Based on the feedback that I have been getting as I walk the Wards, that one is proving to be a hard sell. Maybe not hard enough, we'll see, but a lot of folks aren't buying it. And judging by the hits on my site and the feedback I'm getting, the Slate YES idea isn't getting much traction among the outer 60%, and there are a lot of folks I've spoken to who plan to make me one of their three votes, or are telling me I've got their bullet.

Which brings me to the second point. Even if you can prove the first point, something very difficult to do with anyone who has lived in this City more than six years; you have to convince Newburyport that electing three people who think alike, act alike, and have linked arms together to clog the lanes is the best thing for the schools. And you have to do that in an environment in which only one person has run for re-election to the School Committee in 10 years- me. I have articulated the problems, fought to bring all points of view to the table, insisted on more, better community dialogue and made very hard decisions on school contracts, budget cuts and reconfiguration. I have always done so thoughtfully, which is why people may disagree with me, but no one has ever suggested I was unprepared and sloughing off hard choices. Keep in mind, for reasons I understand better than anybody, my peers on the Committee for the last ten years have been four and out.

As a veteran of more than fifteen years of watching the ebb and flow of Newburyport politics, I can assert, with some degree of confidence, that this city traditionally abhors slates across a single elected body. It has always found them, when people are arrogant and ignorant enough to put them together and promote them, to be condescending and insulting. Newburyporters don't like to be told who else to vote for by candidates whose pitch is a straight line "vote for me and him and her"-- they don't like anyone assuming that they lack the judgment to make up their own minds. No self-identified, full "slate" of Council or School Committee candidates has been elected to my knowledge. I simply think in Newburyport, not only doesn't that old dog hunt, but to even try to foist such an insulting proposition on the City is like having that old dog poop on the front lawn of the people you are trying to convince you have the ability to listen to and lead.

What Newburyport does seem to understand are the occasional loose coalitions of candidates across several fields, who don't agree on every issue, but share principles by which they approach an issue and the community, and have faith that reasoned dialogue will result in consensus outcomes. That happens all the time, particularly on the progressive/populist side of the equation. A Mayoral candidate might align with a few City Councilors, a School Committee candidate. Sometimes, you can get a picture of how these loose coalitions form by looking for consistent patterns of signs on peoples' lawns; two or three candidates will seem to appear together around the city or in the Wards.

Although, it is fair to note, don't put so much stock in signs. I've spoken to folks who have Moak signs but have no intention of voting for him; the same goes for Erford Fowler.

But no group, with any respect for how Newburyport works politically, any basic understanding of how to run a campaign that doesn't divide, and any knowledge of Newburyport's political pulse, tic's and quirks would cobble a slate in a single field to throw the bums out, when there are already two seats open in the election. You'd need to present a pretty airtight case alleging high crimes, misdemeanors, or malfeasance. One doesn't exist, because the candidate you are running against isn't the person you have described to the community, and they know it; and the school system you describe is turning around as a result of the work of Kevin Lyons and the School Committee.

You might make a case against a candidate like moi because while I take the issues seriously, I try not to take myself so seriously. Maybe people really prefer pompous, self important blowhards, to irreverent, self-deprecating policy wonks. Or you might convince the community that they would be better off with an elected official who doesn't lengthen meetings by insisting on engaging the community in dialogue; that might work.

But that still fails to make the case for a slate that can be trusted by the community to grow into good, thoughtful public servants. Especially when their presumptive argument for electing themselves is y'all aren't smart enough to make up your own minds, so trust us to do that for you. Been there, done that 6 years ago.

Now, from a pure, venally strategic point of view, as someone who has watched the rise and fall of such venerable figures as Lisa Mead, Mary Anne Clancy, and Jack Pramberg, let me share an insider's analysis with Slate YES. I know my suggestions fell on deaf ears during the override, but you might want to think about this.

Let's suppose Slate Yes wins. Three new members on the School Committee, leaving Steve Coles as the most senior member of the Committee with four years. Let's suppose that the campaign message promulgated by Slate YES as recently as this Friday night, when three of them had a meet and greet together, that we need to clean house and get people who think like us, succeeds.

So we have three new members, all with learning curves that will vary from steep to steepest, who think alike, share the same views on issues, and more importantly, have run a campaign that is based on their expressed belief that the School Committee is an entity that is indecisive, marginally functional, and excruciatingly boring. I know that the majority of the sitting SC doesn't feel that way; in fact, given what we've had to do, the time we've had to do it in, and our ridiculous commitment to getting as much feedback from the community as possible, we kinda feel like we've given things the due diligence they deserve, now that we haven't had to fight tooth and nail to get the information to make good decisions.

So Slate YES begins their "reformation" of an elected body that feels like it is finally getting it's groove on.

Three votes for whatever reforms, or limitations on due diligence our impatient slate needs to see sacrificed to the illusion of efficiency. And maybe, three votes against screwing with what is not only finally working, but becoming an actual process of embedding institutional change in the schools.

Tie-breaker? The mayor. You want the Mayor to have that much power? I don't, regardless of who the Mayor is. I've already lived through that little experiment, and it accelerated the erosion of school academic programs like a match to gasoline.

I originally ran against a School Committee that was convinced it was smarter than the community and because of that, felt it didn't need to share much of what it was doing; I ran because I felt I need to get there to make a change.

I was pretty damned smart back then. I challenged a lot of assumptions, and asked a lot of questions. I played Mickey the Dunce a lot. And most of my peers never caught on that I already knew the answers to 90% of the questions I asked, and had a very reliable indicator to measure the variance between their responses and what I knew to be the facts.

I'm much dumber now. I listen more. I still get a steady stream of neat ideas about how to do things. But I've learned a lot.

I think I like the dumber me. It was very hard to keep up the appearance that I was smarter than everybody else, especially when it was never true.

So run, slate, run. See how they run. If you are right, and you are the political future of Newburyport, I will be whupped like a rented mule in this election, and will have to work for change from the outside. But even when I was on the inside, pushing for change, I was on the outside.

But if you are wrong, and only one or two of you manage to run the gauntlet of the electorate, then you start with a distinct disadvantage. You ran a campaign predicated on telling the community who was worthy of their vote and who wasn't. You were smarter than the voters, in your own minds. You didn't learn anything from the override vote. In fact, judging by the last six or so years, the smarter people may be smarter, inherently, but they sure as hell don't have a learning curve that can get them elected with much frequency.

They don't get it. That was the river; this is the sea.

And if you think the School Committee has credibility and communication problems now, wait'll you carry that baggage on board; especially after you have expressed your personal opinions of your potential peers, by name, to several people in the community. Word gets around, pretty quickly, especially among people who measure friendships and working relationships not by agreeing on everything, but by sharing common principles and having confidence that the means can be devised to reach shared outcomes.

We'll see what November brings.

But you know, the more time I spend out there talking to people, listening to them, going over where we've been (and I've been) and where we are going, the more I realize something that surprises even me.

I could get only 15 votes, and the kids have already won. In six years, I've been privileged to be part of a thousand hard decisions and solutions, but I've never had to trim my principles. I've run this campaign about the future; you've run it about the past. My campaign is idea driven, and boringly specific, yours has been personal, and requires people to choose whether to believe you or their lying eyes.

People don't like having serious decisions framed in such a simplistic format. Given enough time, and a shift of strategy, I believe a package of financial reforms and proposals, including an override, can succeed.

But Slate YES, I'm afraid you'll have to get as dumb as I am to see that.