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.

Friday, November 2, 2007

An E-mail I received...

This is a cut and paste of an e-mail I received from Frank Moore, who has had kids in both the Charter and the public schools, and whose family was one of the founding families of the Charter Schools. He has allowed me to reproduce it; these are his views and he asked for them to made public.

Here is why I am still going to Bullet just Bruce Menin for Newburyport School Committee

I think it is critically important to have someone like Bruce Menin continue to serve on the school committee. Even though I can cast up to 3 votes for School Committee, having Bruce continue to serve is so important to me, that I have decided to cast just a single “bullet” vote for Bruce to maximize his chances. Other people who are supporting Bruce should consider the same course of action. As demonstrated earlier this year during all the shouting over the override, being on the Newburyport School Committee can indeed be a thankless job. Because of this, I really do applaud the other five school committee candidates for their willingness to sign up for all of this including the long meetings and to potentially get their unfair share of abuse from constituents.

I am also sorry to lose existing School Committee Members Mark Wright and Andrea Jones, who served very admirably but chose not to run for re-election.

Here are some specifics about why I am voting for Bruce:

· Bruce has really contributed significantly to opening up what had been historically a very closed door school committee. In years past there really were 2-3 power brokers who worked very deliberately to ice everyone else out of the process. His blog has also contributed significantly to the keeping people informed about what is happening in the schools.

· On an issue that impacts me personally, Bruce has a clearly articulated position on the River Valley Charter School that you can read on his blog. In addition he contributed significantly in promoting a civil dialog to share ideas between the Charter School Board of Trustee’s and the School Committee. Previous Newburyport School Committees had a history of sending less than civil communications on official letter head to the Charter School Administration and board.

· Bruce has been a strong voice for the children in all of this discourse concerning the Newburyport Public Schools. This includes supporting efforts to get more funding injected into the school’s budget.

· Bruce along with the other members of the school committee, made an excellent choice in bringing in Dr. Lyons to lead the Newburyport public schools.

· Bruce and other members of the current school committee in my view were unfairly attacked by many people on both sides of the proposition 2-1/2 debt exclusion measure to fund the schools. What was particularly troubling to me was the criticism levied against the school committee by my fellow supporters of the override. The best way for me show my disdain for this kind of behavior is to exercise my civic right to vote.

· I either have enough information, or in many cases too little information about the other Newburyport School Committee candidates to make an informed decision. A public forum would have contributed here and I am disappointed that the candidates for school committee were not able to participate in public forum prior to the election.

Finally Bruce along with some others is working hard to promote a civil dialog in the ongoing discussions between the school committee and the city council concerning the future of the Newburyport schools. To be clear, I do not see eye to eye with Bruce on every issue (including some of his preferences for the other election contests) but I think you can count on him to work towards compromise and more importantly civil discourse with those who disagree with him.

Given what we all suffered through last year this kind of civil discourse is what this city desperately needs.

Frank Moore
Walnut Street

(please note the above statements represent just my individual view, and not that of my spouse nor any other organized group or individuals)

Frank is right, we haven't always agreed. But when you bring respect to the table, and a willingness to listen, all things are possible. I believe in a reality-based world view, and action that is pragmatic and respectful.

I am grateful for the support expressed by Mr. Moore, and many others during the campaign. I have gotten a lot of feedback, some of it unsettling, all of it genuine; and regardless of the outcome of the election, I will be a better public servant for it.

Tip of the Hat...

To Gillian Swartz, of the Current, for a very insightful and amusing survey of Candidate signs. Personally, I'd agree that the sign wars are pretty silly- this is the first year I've done them, and I made sure that mine were made of recyclable materials (not just usable in another campaign); but everybody knows signs don't vote. At least I've discovered that in the Mayoral race and in Ward 4 by going door to door.

And not to nitpick about the Current article, but given Gillian's accurate observation of my verbosity ("I'm a man with a vocabulary, and I'm not afraid to use it!" to paraphrase Donkey from Shrek), I think that when she suggested there was no transparency to my signs, what you see is what you read, she probably meant opacity. Nothing up my sleeve. No hidden agendas.

Anyway, thanks, Gillian.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Beacons in the Night

Seriously, folks-

If you want to read thoughtful, sincere and enlightening commentary on what is happening in Newburyport, on subjects ranging from politics to development, from the specific to the visionary, and about the wonder of moving through Newburyport mindfully, intentionally, and with an eye on the real values of preserving much that is good, you have to be making a daily stop at three locally authored blogs. Locally authored, as in not an extension of large media-managed newspapers into a new market because the old one is drying up.

They are, of course:

Mary Eaton Baker's Wicked Awesome Website

Ed Cameron, City Council Candidate Ward 4 and Substantially Bald Man

One Good Turn Deserves Another- Newburyport Posts

The titles are mine; the commitment, sincerity, passion and intellectual rigor belong to them.

Funny, in a way. All you have to do is plug in, boot up, and you can be part of a wonderfully imaginative grassroots discussion about a sustainable future for all of us. The immediacy of the give and take makes it a real dialogue, and their ability to really suss out what is going on takes the mystery out of a lot of decisions made in the community.

These wonderful writers and thinkers really are a blend of what is best in a neighbor, and what it takes to be part of a community. We're lucky to have them.

My Position: Institutionalizing a culture of Community Engagement in the Schools

Summary paragraph: In which Menin considers the important cultural changes that have occurred since he joined the School Committee, and lays out a path for continued change that engages the community.

If you think the School Committee deserves a failing grade when it comes to maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the community these days, you should have been around six years ago. Then again, maybe you were; if so, skip over the next few paragraphs and rejoin me when the text is bolded.

When the School Committee wanted something, like a new High School or a new Elementary School, there was no group better in the city than they were at hammering home the point. As one of my opponents says, "there was a newsletter out every two weeks from the School Committee!" Fair enough.

But when the community wanted something, like answers, or information; they became quahogs. Tight as could be. You want in on hiring a Superintendent? We'll arrange a dialogue where she'll answer pre-arranged questions, and then you get to write down questions, give them to us, and we'll decide which ones to ask. You want to know what kind of a package was given to the departing former Assistant Superintendent? You think you're entitled to it? You think it's a public document?

It was; some of us pleaded in Executive Session that it be publicly released. Eventually, it was, although it took someone filing a Freedom of Information Complaint against the Schools. I learned a new colloquialism this morning; you can smell what I'm cooking. It was like being in an old Laurel and Hardy movie, where they are in bed and one of them has somehow managed to get his hat on his foot, which keeps "peeking" at them. You just know that at some point, one of them is going to whack it with a hammer, or shoot it with one of those magic guns where nobody ever seems to bleed.

Things change and evolve. Early on, 6 years ago, Dick Sullivan and I pushed for transparency of process and records. Slowly, much to everybody's surprise we discovered a lot of ways to engage the community. Longer, more frequent, more free-wheeling budget hearings. Making budget documents available before those sessions. Making a lot of documents available before School Committee meetings to SC members- no joke, if I had five bucks for every document that was handed to us at the beginning of a School Committee meeting that we were asked to vote on that meeting, I could cut the deficit in half.

Perhaps the pendulum has swung a little farther the other way. Now that we are getting requested information in a timely fashion, and the information is as complete as possible, the SC has finally become a deliberative body. We deliberate. We run as many scenarios as it takes to get it right. We've been willing to interrupt our own deliberations to get feedback from the floor. I'm sure that the Robert who penned Robert's Rules of Order has cast a pox on us. We can probably tighten things up, and still promote a culture of community engagement.

But I have always promoted an idea that is only now coming into vogue. I have been a strong believer in the creation of ad hoc Task Forces, or Advisory Councils, to meet, discuss, research and recommend potential solutions to issues and opportunities in our path. These groups could report out or originate from our Sub-committee structure, or report directly to the full SC and the community when their task has been completed.

The Task Force on School Revenue is a perfect example of this in action. Two School Committee members, a City Councilor and a former City Councilor, and a number of people from the community with an interest in the subject.

In crisis, there is opportunity. The idea of a member of the SC, collaborating with people in the community who have a particular interest works on many levels. First, it allows the School Committee to literally explore many more ideas than it possibly could working as a Committee of the Whole, or even as a Sub-committee. It also helps support the administrative staff- I suspect that there are many ideas that they, faculty, even School Councils and PTO's would like to look at, but no-one has time for researching them.

The second compelling reason is that there is an astonishing pool of talent available to us in the community- money people, artists, teachers, seniors, managers, parents. The pool is out there. By engaging them in these short-term projects that could result in long-term constructive value for education, we are extending ownership of the schools back out into the community.

We don't lack for topics. Can we find more time on learning? Is there a value to extending the school day? The year? Can we create relationships with colleges that can be beneficial academically before students graduate? Can we run summer school classes that are not remedially focused- for example, can we beef up biology by running an oceanography course, or a marshland study project in conjunction with Parker River or Audubon during the summer?

Are there genuine partnerships with the arts community that can benefit our kids?

There is no limit here.

And the final advantage is that people in the community will have an opportunity to work within the schools, the confines of the roles of the School Committee, and better understand the limits and the possibilities along our path to excellent education. That can't help but make them better advocates, voters, and better City Council and School Committee candidates.