Friday, January 4, 2008

My New Year's Revolutions

Sorry to have been off the radar screen for such an extended period of time, but in many ways, I have been prepping for the year to come. Around this time, every year, I draw up my list of New Year's Revolutions, like a lot of you. I wanted to share some of mine, at least the ones that affect the Schools. Please remember that the following represent my own singular views, and should not in any way be taken as the inclination of the School Committee as a whole. Try to imagine six other people with their fingers in the ears going "I can't hear you!!!" Some others on the Committee may feel the same as I do; let them share those views on their own blogs.
  • I resolve to do everything in my power to move the dialogue about the schools from abstraction to reality. The reality is that the Newburyport School system, like much of Newburyport, like much of Massachusetts, depends primarily on property taxes for funding. The abstraction is that since the Schools get about 45% of the City budget, they should get 45% of the revenue. When you sit back, and really think about it, that kind of reasoning is way south of silly. The level at which a City department is funded needs to be based on it's intrinsic value to the community, and not some arbitrary formula that makes things come out all even and pretty. There will times when we need to put extra money into waterworks. There will times when we need to spend money to make our buildings more efficient consumers of energy. You plan, and then you allocate them money to get the job done correctly, meaningfully. Yeah, it involves hard choices sometimes, when the elected officials can't generate new ideas for generating revenue; but when it comes to educating kids, I would suggest those debates are worth having.
  • In the ongoing dialogue that has been part of the Task Force on Revenue, I have learned a great deal. It is clear to me that Newburyport has, for some time, consistently failed to create a multi-pronged, consistent and coherent strategy to root out every penny possible from the feds, the state and the private sector. For example, unlike many cities, Newburyport has no centralized database of what grants it has applied for. There is no file, and no review process to ensure that money is spent as it was allocated. Forget the fact that with few exceptions (the Beacon Coalition) we have failed to find ways to creatively bind several grants to meet community needs; we don't even know what Department has applied for what grant. It's even worse than that- we have no centralized triaging of potential grants; there is no-one in the City who reviews the various potential grants available, and channels them to the Departments who can apply for them. We have left money on the table; and even worse, we don't even know who has what grants and whether they have been spent in accordance with their allocations. I resolve to work closely with anyone (do I sense a possible Ordinance?) who will at least ensure that all grants; state, federal, private, that are used to address needs in this City, are kept in a central file, available to any citizen; I would also include in those files any reports required on the expenditures made by the grantee. Y'know, that whole accountability thing.
  • I would feel less passionate about funding for the Schools if I wasn't convinced that we are closer than it seems to bringing our system into that top 15% or 20% statewide. We have the plan; we have the staff; we have mechanisms in place to ensure that every expense is transparent and justified. We just need to breach the funding hurdle. I am resolved to do everything in my power to ensure better communication about the successes we are experiencing, to ensure that every additional penny we ask for is justified to the community, and to work as creatively as possible to explore ways to reshape the whole idea of how we educate students and continue to support the professional growth of teachers.
  • I am resolved to do everything that I can to find opportunities for members of the community, stakeholders and those who have yet to acknowledge they are stakeholders to participate in the ongoing dialogue about the Schools, what they are doing, and to best do it efficiently. There are a number of subjects we will be considering over the next several budget cycles that can help re-shape education, from extended day to extended school years, from shifting hours to identifying and incorporating ways for students and staff to work more directly with the local community as partners.
I am resolved not to wear a baseball hat during meetings.
I am resolved to listen at least as much as I talk.
I am resolved to make sure that for each constructive criticism I offer, there will be a possible solution suggested.

And brothers and sisters, let us all bow our heads and buckle our seatbelts. The ride is about to begin.