Monday, November 9, 2009

Superintendent Search: Community Forum Tonight

As part of the Superintendent Search process, the firm who is working with the city is sponsoring over 30 individual and group meetings in the community over the next two days. Tonight's meeting at the Nock is open to all interested parties. I hope you can make it.

There really are two purposes for the meetings. Each hour-long meeting will focus on creating a Leadership profile, to establish a clear idea of what the city is looking for in a new Superintendent, besides longevity. The second purpose of the meetings is to help the search firm, HYA, get a diverse and comprehensive understanding of what Newburyport is about- what makes it a unique community, and how things get done or don't get done.

These meetings have been set up with a wide variety of groups and individuals, from media and bloggers to the Charter School, from the City Council to the Arts community, from school staff to students and the spiritual community.

Tonight, November 9th, at 7 PM there will be a forum at the Nock for the entire community; those who were unable to attend the specifically-pitched daytime meetings, and those who want a second bite of the apple. Come on down, it's an opportunity to express your hopes and concerns about the future of the school system, and the type of leadership that will get us where we want to go.

As I've said in an earlier posting, you can't yell at the umpire if you don't get a ticket to the game.

See you tonight at the Nock.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS- Last Rant Before the Holidays

Sometimes, it just takes your breath away. Like today.

In today's Daily News, there is a fairly accurate article about a presentation made by Superintendent Farrell at the last School C0mmittee meeting this past Monday. We'd asked the Superintendent to give us her take on the most recent cuts made by Governor Patrick, and their impact on this current school year. And we asked her to help us understand what would like happen next year, given the cuts we'll see this year.

Daily News 1.2 million

Pretty grim stuff, but I tend to like to deal with reality-based budget planning. Public comment, as we have come to rely, was offered by Dr. Ralph Orlando, whose passion for the schools, and whose relentless advocacy on their behalf, is often accompanied by very astute analysis of current budget trends. He worked hard on the Mayor's Revenue Task Force, and thankfully, he pulls no punches. As an aside, he got my write-in vote for School Committee this year, even though his wife threatened bodily harm to my person for my efforts.

The article was accurate. Things look grim. Grimmer than usual.

And the answers are the same. Cuts or find new revenues. Nothing new about that.

Reading the Comments

Sometimes, though not often, I read the comments that accompany the Daily News. They are usually passionate, expressive, and riddled with innuendos or talking points straight from talk radio. They rarely cite any sources of information to validate what are offered as "facts", or as things "everybody knows".

I read the comments because they help me to understand better what people are feeling and thinking. Not that I don't get plenty of it here at the blog, on the streets, or at School Committee meetings. And as a keen believer in the value of dialogue, I will pretty much listen to anything anyone offers as their perspective, even if they refuse to offer that perspective with a basic respect for people they disagree with, or to inform the conversation with facts that can be verified.

In eight full years on the School Committee, I have been flamed, shouted at, and called just about everything imaginable. I have had messages left on my answering machine that scared my children. I have had a group of people who disagreed with me curse me out and flip me the bird in front of my own kids. You get the picture. I earn every cent of my annual stipend of $2,400. Sorta like hazard pay for civil participation.

I don't usually respond to comments offered by the Daily News readership. There isn't much percentage in trying to use facts as a basis for conversation when people refer to those they disagree with in derogatory and demeaning terms. I value their feelings, and defend their right to air them, but can rarely extract much beyond their understandable feelings of being exploited and ripped off. I learn some things, but don't usually find workable answers to these civic problems we face.

Today, there was a comment I felt worth sharing. It is a particularly valid point of view, despite the tone and lack of factual content. Here it is...

A Penny For Your Thoughts

Is anybody paying attention to this? Fees? Are we feed enough? And scrapping art and music? Why not just end public education and make it all fees for everything? Orlando is a BOOB! Does this city want to have a teachers strike cause that is what will happen next! Why don't some of these administrators, overpaid I might add, take a paycut? Some people in this city just don't get it. Some of these members on the school commity are only in it for power and they do NOT give a rats behind about education, the kids or the schools.

Even as rants go, this one is pretty impressive. It demeans a member of the community for the temerity to urge the city to fund schools better. In a curious linkage of cause and effect, the writer suggests that adding fees for services, (which for the past five years has been in effect increasingly shifting the burden of funding a public education from the community to the end users), will result in a teacher's strike. It suggests that the way to resolve a budget deficit of 1.2 mil, much of which is a result of money that the state has given us for years simply being subtracted from our next year allocation, is to ask our administrators to take a pay cut.

Cool. Let's work that one out. Five principals, let's average their salary at $80,000- let's figure each of them will step forward, and not only give up a raise, but they'll give back 10% of their salary. Grand total, $40,000.

Now let's add a 10% give back from the Superintendent. Hmm. $12,500. Grand total, $52,500.

That'll almost prevent the layoff of a single teacher.

But if we can't add fees, and we won't get money promised by statute from the state, and we aren't allowed to generate any new revenues from the city in the form of ballot initiatives, even if we recapture 10% of the administrative salaries, how will we make up the balance of the anticipated shortfall, which would be approximately $1,148,000?

Well, the scenario suggested by the poster of this comment, umm, really limits our options.


Times are bad. They are scary. People are worried about their finances. We get that. But we have to talk about how we will meet the basic needs of providing the kind of education that will prepare our students for college, for the world of work. For the next 50 years. Given the lack of funding, we especially have to talk about it now.

We have to have a dialogue; not a rant, not a monologue, not a demonizing, factually bereft confusion of opinion with what is really happening. You can have an opinion. You can hold onto it despite an onslaught of facts. But at some point, standing there flipping the bird and sticking your fingers in your ears, shouting louder than me so that you can't hear me say things you don't want to hear will not help us to meet the challenge of educating kids for tomorrow with less money than we had this year.

That is what we are trying to do. Public education is not the civil equivalent of picking the public's pocket. You don't get what you don't pay for.

And one more thing. Not liking what we are spending our money on as we desperately try to maintain a quality education with fewer resources, is not the same thing as wasting our money. It does not reflect squandering resources. The budget is available on line. Look for yourselves. If something isn't clear, contact the administration, or the School Committee, and ask for an explanation. You have the right to that. We may disagree on the spending choices the School Committee, upon the recommendation of trained educators, are making. That is why we offer the community the opportunity to publicly challenge every penny and every allocation in our school budget during the budget hearings we conduct every year before we vote on a budget.

Not for nothing, but would you like to guess how many citizens attended the budget hearings that were sponsored by the School Committee prior to submitting the 2009/2010 School budget to the Mayor?

None. Not one person. And I believe the record will show that there was not a single comment offered by the public on the budget.

I'm all for transparency. I'm all for informed discussion of differences, of participatory budget-building.

But if you are going to claim that money is being wasted by the schools, you have the responsibility to be clear and specific about how that is happening. Clear, and specific.

The kind of comments that seem to proliferate on the Daily News and other blogs- demeaning, filled with unsupported assumptions, aren't helpful. Asking some of the most skilled, best educated and hardest working individuals in the community to help resolve community-wide, state-wide budget crises by giving back 10% of their salary is certainly a strategy. Heck, I bet if your boss asked you to do that, you'd be one of the first to offer it up.

But when you sit down and figure out what it will actually do to help address the deficit, and you discover that it would resolve less than .04% of the needed revenue to avoid class size increases and staff reductions of a magnitude that will shock even the most virulent anti-tax crusader, you gotta put something else on the table. Your job isn't done. You wanna yell at the umpire, you gotta buy a ticket to the game. Sitting at home and yelling at the TV won't get the message across.

That is not the way a respectful, responsible community goes about resolving real differences.

OK. I feel better.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Education Priorities for the Mayoral Candidates-- Reading Between the Lines, Part 3

In today’s Daily News, the Mayoral Candidates discuss their priorities for the schools, and education in general. It might be helpful to consider what each candidate is offering as priorities. It might also be helpful to read between the lines to see what they aren’t saying. I’ll try to do both. You can read their responses here.

When you have finished this series of posts, I'd encourage you to head over to the website for each candidate, and explore their thoughts on schools and education. The format for the Daily News article was very confining; each candidate may have more information available at their sites. You can reach Donna Holaday here, and James Shanley is here.

The Budget

A critical annual priority for the School Committee is creating and submitting a budget that addresses the educational needs of all students. That does so in an efficient and comprehensive way. That allows for both the implementation of the Strategic Plan and the level of continuous improvement required under No Child Left Behind and the 1993 Education Reform Act, among other funding needs.

That process traditionally engages the community well before the actual numbers are offered. Each School Council, a body comprised of teachers, parents and community members, works with each principal to develop a School Improvement Plan. These plans are submitted to the School Committee for review. They become part of the blueprint for the formulation of a budget. Other factors are costs generated by regulation compliance, ongoing changes and improvements to curriculum and teaching, the changing costs of energy, and compliance with employee contracts.

The Administration submits a budget to the School Committee, which holds public hearings that have often resulted in changes to the budget to reflect community concerns. Once we have the final budget, we vote it, and the Mayor presents it to the City Council.

Several times over the past few years, the School Committee has voted a budget out that does not balance. This has been a reflection of downward changes in state support over those years. Most times, if the Mayor is convinced that the “overage” represents a critical element in the education of students, he or she has advocated for additional money. On one occasion, that did not happen; the budget was returned to the School Committee to make cuts, and we did.

A budget is important, and I was glad to see it on the list. Actually funding that budget is also critical, and what the priorities of these candidates would be if our reach exceeds our grasp was not part of either candidate’s offering. There’s that gnarly word again, funding.

With regard to role of the Mayor and contract negotiations, in my nine years on the SC, I have been at the table four times with the teacher’s union. None of the four mayors I worked with made more than a token appearance to explain a city budget issue. The general thinking has been that having the Mayor tied up doing the negotiations isn’t a great use of their time, especially since the negotiating team created by the School Committee negotiates terms based on what the Committee has agreed upon in Executive Session; the Mayor, as Chair of the Committee is intimately involved in setting those parameters. The negotiating team brings anything outside those parameters back to the entire School Committee for approval before agreeing to it.

I will also say, as a veteran of these negotiations, that the tone and nature of the negotiations, the willingness to discuss difficult issues and reach satisfactory conclusions has dramatically improved over the years; both sides have become more thoughtful, pragmatic, cooperative and creative. Contracts negotiated have been consistent with those negotiated by other city unions; and reflect the budget crisis of the city.

Implementing and Funding the Strategic Plan

The City engaged in an extraordinarily open and pragmatic strategic planning process, requiring substantive community input. The plan is a strong vision; the last several school budgets were aligned with meeting the targets set by the plan. The plan has also been modified to reflect new and emerging priorities, such as the enhanced math curriculum.

It is amazing that Kevin and Deidre have been able to make progress each year on the plan, despite the ravages of funding loss.

Future progress on the plan will depend significantly on funding, but not completely. Knowledge of and commitment to the plan is terrific. Greater specificity about how we will fund the needed improvements when we have resolved those that don’t take new money is needed.

Improving School Facilities

This is another important priority, given the current state of our schools below the high school level. There have been a number of facility reviews over the past several years as we have been submitting proposals to the state for funding; another review as suggested by one of the candidates might shed new light on how much our schools have deteriorated; it might be more useful to express ideas about how the schools and the rest of city infrastructure that is need of repair will get funded. Deidre Farrell and Steve Bergholm, Budget and Facilities expertise respectively, have done an extraordinary job trying to keep up with maintenance; each year for the past several, the City Council has allocated short money to fund these efforts. We have managed to stem the worst of it, but we have some very significant issues at all three of our schools below the high school.

Also, the School Committee and had a standing Sub-Committee on Facilities for many years.

As for good relationships with the state funding agency, I would encourage that strongly and am happy to see it listed. If those new and productive relationships can alter the way state compares our “compelling needs” with those of the schools it is choosing to fund, we should do better than we have. I’m not sure the problem with getting school building work funded hinges on relationships; it depends more on presenting a compelling need and the state having the money to fund the construction.

Cooperation Between City Agencies

This is a good priority. In particular, I am encouraged that the principal of collaborative and complementary services between city agencies would be a priority.

It is worth noting that past practice, going back a number of years, was for the two elected bodies, the City Council and the School Committee, to convene a meeting at the beginning of the budget process. The meeting had several purposes- it was designed to be a general discussion between the two bodies about the underlying “principles” that the budget was responding to. Why were certain programs funded, others not? Which funding was being recommended to help address regulatory issues? The meeting was not intended to take the place of public budget hearings, or the workshops sponsored by the City Council as part of their budget review process.

In addition to getting everyone on approximately the same page with regards to the “why” of the budget, the community had the opportunity to see both elected bodies engaged in the only discussion (outside of appointing a new school committee member to a vacancy) that they were likely to have. There was, in the eyes of a number of people, a symbolic value to that.

In recent years, this practice was abandoned. Would restoring such a meeting come under the rubric of cooperation between agencies?

Between the Lines

Given the constraints of the Daily News article, both candidates have provided us with a basic set of premises about what their priorities would be. Space limitations make it very hard to be specific about potential solutions; that and a tendency for candidates to squirm when they are asked to be more specific about the “how,” once they’ve suggested the what.

I’d encourage both candidates to make use of their blogs and the upcoming debates to be more specific.

Clearly, the elephant in the room is funding. Here are some questions that occur to me.

In the likelihood that we will see mid-year budget cuts from the state, a very likely scenario based on the email traffic I have seen, what would the priorities of the candidate be for making those cuts? Class size changes? Loss of electives? Further cuts in music, art, theater? New user fees for school service to students? Reduction in access to school buses for non-mandated students?

What would constitute a set of criteria for each candidate that would compel them to introduce and support a tax question, override or debt exclusion, to stabilize, restore, an/or continue to improve the schools? What would they need to see? Or, do they feel that there are no criteria that would allow them to support going back to the community for additional funding?

Where do the schools fit, as a priority, compared to the other needs to be funded- sidewalks, senior and youth services, water and sewer infrastructure, etc.?

What other strategies, beyond ballot questions, would they consider to generate additional revenues for the city?

What will they do as Mayor to promote the idea that schools are a resource and an obligation for the entire community, not just parents of student and students?

What community-based partnerships need to be improved?

Can you share with the community what your involvement with the schools has been over your time in public service, or before that?

Over the next month, I’ll continue to offer other questions that may help to distinguish the two candidates, and their visions for the school.

Oh, yeah. I’d encourage you to head over to the website for each candidate, and check out for yourself their ideas about the schools, and the role schools play in the community.

Donna Holaday is here, James Shanley is here.

I’m not a one-issue voter, by inclination. But when that one issue obligates 45% of the city budget, I am less inclined to accept vague sound bites as a substitute for thoughtful consideration of the issues facing the community. The city deserves more than that, as it chooses between two competent candidates for Mayor.

Education Priorities for the Mayoral Candidates-- A Primer for Reading Between the Lines, Part 2

In today’s Daily News, the Mayoral Candidates discuss their priorities for the schools, and education in general. It might be helpful to consider what each candidate is offering as priorities. It might also be helpful to read between the lines to see what they aren’t saying. I’ll try to do both. You can read their responses here.

When you have finished this series of posts, I'd encourage you to head over to the website for each candidate, and explore their thoughts on schools and education. The format for the Daily News article was very confining; each candidate may have more information available at their sites. You can reach Donna Holaday here, and James Shanley is here.

Time on Learning

Time-on-learning is an important issue on a number of levels. Our ability to stay in compliance with the state regulations for teaching time is important. Linked to that will be our ability to retain our accreditation with the agency that accredits schools in the country; that accreditation will be critical to the state’s willingness to fund the school. No certificate, no funding. The candidate correctly identifies the problem, identifies one complication that is currently being considered- the present use of the block schedule. What is lacking is a basic acknowledgement that some this will take funding beyond that currently provided to reintroduce some electives and sections of curriculum.

That theme, funding, will haunt the rest of this assessment. That’s where, for the most part, dear reader, you have to go between the lines.


The Superintendent search is important. Hiring the strongest possible Superintendent should not be controversial; there is a very capable national search firm generating candidates, and a local search committee that will send three of the six applicants forward to the School Committee for their decision. The reputation of this search firm, and our own unfortunate experience with their recruiting Kevin Lyons away from Newburyport is a strong indication that if there is a great candidate out there, we’ll see them.

Perhaps a more telling response might be what one considers a “strong” superintendent; and what kind of a relationship each mayoral candidate feels they should have as mayor with the Superintendent.

Restoring Foreign (World) Language to the Middle School

An important issue. Eight years ago, Newburyport had a World Languages program that was considered a state model. It began in kindergarten, and flowed through high school. We did that because it is research-based conclusion that the younger a child is, the easier it is for a child to become proficient in another language.

Because of budget cuts, we are in the process of eliminating French as an option. We have also cut back our offering of World Languages significantly. For those students currently in the system, they will need to wait until 9th grade to start a language, and they will have very few choices of which language that will be. Of course, in a global economy, and with census projections that the United States will shift to a Hispanic majority well within the lifetime of our currently enrolled students, we are sending Newburyport students out to seek their fame and fortune in the world with a distinct communication disadvantage.

Some of this can be funded grants, and from the support of educational philanthropies. Twice in the last several years the community has turned down a debt exclusion and an override that would have generated funds that were specifically targeted towards restoring World Languages in the schools.

Based on my own experience over the last eight years, restoration of World Languages at a level that provides the minimal opportunity for the greatest number of students will require significant commitment of funds; greater than will be available through grants and philanthropies. But it is a high priority.

The next post will finish with candidate priorities, and offer some questions for readers to consider as they make their choices about which candidate will best address school issues.

Education Priorities for the Mayoral Candidates-- A Primer for Reading Between the Lines

This is a long, long post. I have divided it up into several separate postings; conventional wisdom (something I’ve never ascribed to) says that no one will read a dense, focused article that requires a bathroom break to finish. So, this is the first part.

In today’s Daily News, the Mayoral Candidates discuss their priorities for the schools, and education in general. It might be helpful to consider what each candidate is offering as priorities. It might also be helpful to read between the lines to see what they aren’t saying. I’ll try to do both. You can read their responses here.

I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t other issues affecting the community that deserve attention. There are. I’ve got an enlightened self-interest in this particular topic, though. It is not my intention to publicly support one of the two candidates; I am not going to do that here, or anywhere. There is a Holaday sign at 83 Lime Street, and it reflects the support of my wife for her candidacy. Frankly, it means she has one supporter in the house, and another voter who isn’t saying which candidate gets his vote. If you wander a little farther up Lime Street, there is a house that has both a Shanley and a Holaday sign, so having one voter declare their support and another choose not to isn't so odd. I don’t think that a public declaration of which candidate I intend to vote for adds anything to this discussion, and might actually subtract from a fair consideration of the issues.

I’m offering you a framework for evaluating candidate positions on education issues. You may, and should draw your own conclusions. As far as this mayoral race goes, as a voter, taxpayer, and School Committee member I am interested in some very simple outcomes. Like the election of a mayor who recognizes that the schools represent 45% of the total budget of the city, who understands that a measure of the vitality of the community (and to be mercenary, the ability of a community to hold real estate values high) is the quality of it’s schools. One who understands in a very fundamental way that the quality of a school is comprised of many things- administrative leadership, active parents, thoughtful teachers who feel supported and are able to engage students and teach a challenging and coherent curriculum. I want a mayor who believes that schools are a community asset, and works to engage the entire community in supporting local education. Finally, I’d like to see the election of a mayor who understands this will require that the school and city ensure that the resources and funding it provides are spent efficiently, and ultimately, are ample enough to do the job.

Yeah. Maybe I’m setting the bar pretty high. Using the questions I am suggesting in the above paragraph, and the answers of the two candidates published in today’s Daily News, you can see which candidate will score above the mean. Then go to their websites for those answers that didn’t fit into the Daily News format. Hopefully you’ll find them there; I think they should be there.

Each candidate was asked to set three priorities, so we can look at what those priorities are, or appear to be, and discuss them a little bit.

By my reading, the range of priorities includes time-on-learning at the high school, hiring the strongest superintendent, restoring foreign language at the middle school, working on a budget to present to the City Council (and being the first mayor to actually sit at the negotiating table with school employees in at least the last nine years); implementing and funding the Strategic Plan, doing a school building analysis to make sure the school facilities are up to the task of education, (and establishing good relationships on the state level to get any school capital needs funded). Also included in the list, as a sort of bonus, was a priority encouraging cooperation between the schools and youth services to ensure services are complementary.

I think this is a fair range of issues, and in some cases actual priorities, as far as it goes. Might not have been the three I would have chosen, but I’m not running for mayor. Let’s look at the overarching issues these priorities reflect; after we do that, you can decide whether either candidate, in their artificially shortened response, actually tells you what they will do. After that, I’ll share those priorities that will determine my own vote on Election Day.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Back to the drawing board

We got the news today, oh boy. Newburyport has been turned down in it's application for state assistance in making structural renovations to the Nock School. That application was submitted two years ago, and had been held in a sort of limbo by the state. A sort of waiting list. After two years, the Massachusetts School Building Administration has decided we aren't in their ballpark for funding. It took them two years to make that conclusion.

Newburyport's schools are getting a little long in the tooth, as educational facilities go. We recently renovated the high school, tearing down what was known as the "New Wing," which had been built in 1961. But once you get past the high school, things are looking a little frowzy.

The newest school built in Newburyport is the Nock Middle School, constructed when Richard Nixon was still president. That would be 1972. The Bresnahan School was built the same year that I was born, 1955, the Brown School was built in the 1920's. The original high school was built during the depression.

Two years ago, we retired a school building that was built in the 1870's.

Newburyport prides itself, justifiably, on it's native architecture and historical preservation. But years of infrastructure neglect, and trying to subsist on what amounts to a starvation diet for capital repair funding, have had a pretty damaging effect on the schools. With the hiring of Deidre Farrell over five years ago, the school system instituted a schedule for regular maintenance and repair to our schools; with a relentless commitment to squeezing every possible dollar we could out of systems upgrade- HVAC systems, windows, bulbs. Deidre's efforts at getting things done a shoestring and a rebate began to stem the tide of deterioration in the buildings.

But there are no coupons for reconverting the temporary classrooms that have been attached to the Bresnahan for more than 40 years into permanent classrooms. In fact, these temporaries are now in their second generation.

The reality is that our schools need both major repairs and significant makeovers to become efficient and functional educational settings.

The Nock has structural issues, and could benefit for ongoing electrical and other systems upgrade. Recently, thanks to the foresight and largesse of the NEF, the science labs were upgraded. As of last year, prior to work, they contained the same equipment and facilities from their initial construction, 1972. A lot of science has happened since then, and science curricula have undergone tremendous changes in that time.

During the 90's, the state was engaged in the business of supporting communities that needed to renovate or build schools. Through the Massachusetts School Building Administration, projects like Newburyport High School received a significant percentage of it's renovation funds through the state, lowering the local tax burden for local communities. But those days are long gone. The ability of the state to support communities in their capital needs around schools has taken a severe hit during this budget crisis. Frankly, the capacity for the state to help communities meet basic educational needs and requirements is also pretty porous these days.

Recently, Newburyport was informed that an application to renovate the Nock that was submitted two years ago and assigned a vague status by the MSBA somewhat akin to "waiting for more information" has finally been rejected. It took them two years, and two, possibly three site visits, to reject us.

The plan had been to get the Nock done, and then apply for the Bresnahan, which in the interim has become the only school serving 1-3 graders in the city. We'll still submit the required Statement(s) of Interest to the MSBA to get in line for consideration, but unless we can prove that the schools have overcrowding or "significant structural issues," we aren't likely to see any state funding to offset construction costs.

We have yet to see whether educating two generations of Newburyport students in temporary classrooms constitutes a significant structural issue in the eyes of the state.

Alongside the water treatment facilities and the sewage treatment plant, add the all three schools to list of critical infrastructure investments the city will need to make in the future. Probably the near future.

Hopefully, we will hear from this year's Mayoral candidates about how they intend to address these issues. We can run from them, but we can't hide forever.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Swimming with the Big Fish- Searching for a New Superintendent

Tonight, the School Committee met in public session with the consultants hired to conduct the search for a new Superintendent. John Connolly and Al Argenziano will be the two consultants from HYA working with the Screening Committee and the School Committee, HYA is a national organization, and the search will be national in nature.

Nobody knows better than Newburyport that HYA always gets their man or woman- recently they were hired by Hudson to help with their Superintendent search. They were successful- Hudson, you may remember, hired Kevin Lyons.

You can catch tonight’s meeting on cable later this week. To summarize some of the most important points raised tonight:

* HYA will conduct the search, and do all the initial screenings. They will forward the names of six candidates to the Screening Committee appointed by Mayor Moak.

* The Screening Committee will interview all six semi-finalists, and forward the names of three finalist candidates to the School Committee for their consideration. The School Committee makes the final determination.

* It is the School Committee that will set the parameters and role of the Screening Committee. The School Committee will use information generated by community responses to a Leadership profile to create a “script” of questions to be asked of each candidate by the Screening Committee. The School Committee will use the same script as the basis for their interviews of the finalist. The questions will be developed through focus group meetings and interviews in the community.

* Those community focus groups and interviews will happen in early November.

* The School Committee hopes to be introducing the new Superintendent to the community by March 31, 2010.

A few more points worth noting- HYA has told the School Committee that they search “very aggressively,” and that the likely candidate for the Newburyport job is not currently looking for a new superintendent position.

Also, they were clear that “the compensation package will determine the ultimate quality of the candidates you will get.” They will be doing some research on current salaries in MA and elsewhere in the country, and make a recommendation to the School Committee. Given the number of current openings and the generally thin pool of potential candidates, we should be prepared for serious case of sticker shock. A serious case of sticker shock, indeed.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Shape of Things To Come

There are a lot of things happening over the next several months that will have an impact on the schools this coming year. These include:


Since my name isn’t on the ballot for School Committee this go round, we have another uncontested election. You History shows that the three SC elections I have run in have been contested, the intervening elections- not. Three up, three down. This election is no exception. There is something about my presence on the ballot that stimulates the impulse for democratic, multi-candidate elections. Despite the absence of a field of candidates, these are important elections.

With an open Mayor’s race, the School Committee has four of seven seats up for grabs; since Steve Cole is the only SC member running for re-election, we will be seeing three brand-spanking new faces on the Committee come January. Dan Koen and Cheryl Sweeney, who ran unopposed, will join Nick DeKanter, Stephanie Weaver, Steve Cole and me. The Mayor-elect will assume the position of Chair of the School Committee, as authorized by the City Charter. The School Committee rules provide for a Vice Chair to preside over the meetings.

New faces, new challenges. As the election season proceeds, we will be gearing up our search for a new Superintendent. The School Committee has hired a search firm, and the Mayor will be convening a Search Committee shortly. Hopefully, the School Committee will be choosing from several candidates some time this spring.

The Charter

Also on the ballot is the Charter Review Question. A positive vote on the question will also establish a Charter Review Commission. The Commission will review the governing structures of the City, and recommend any changes that will promote better efficiency and accountability in governance. The potential exists for the Commission to consider School Committee terms.

If you search diligently among the 20 names on the ballot, you will find mine. I like to think of the Charter Review process as a Civics class. I’d appreciate your vote. I’ll study hard.

Other Stuff

Also on the docket for the fall will be the school administration response to MCAS results at the Middle School level. At the next School Committee meeting, October 5th, there will be a full presentation to the community of the MCAS results, with some of the initial analysis of data that is being done; with next steps. While on the whole the MCAS scores were very encouraging, there are some steps we need to take to address challenges that have been identified. I will devote a posting on those results shortly.

The ongoing economic challenges remain; these will become most apparent as we start the process of creating our budget for the next year later this fall.

I will post on each of these issues over the course of the next several months.

Buckle your seatbelts, folks. Should be a ride.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back on the Radar Screen

I have been uncharacteristically quiet for the past year or so. It feels like time to get back into the blogging business. People have expressed concerns about the issues and challenges facing the schools in Newburyport. Local media is not always able to, or inclined to present nuanced issues in all their complicated and messy glory. Other commendable local blogs are helpful, but don’t focus on the particular issues affecting schools regularly. A real public conversation about the schools is usually limited to a brief period before School Committee meetings; and thus far, even that is available only to those attending the meeting. The rest of the debate is held in blog posts and through letters to the editors. Those places provide great vehicles for expressing an idea, but leave a lot to be desired as a way to bring new and fresh ideas to the table for vetting.

The community should have a place to go for a dialogue about the long-term implications of the challenges we face. We need information, context, explanation, and a place to challenge assumptions and raise concerns about our schools.

Schools are no less important to me, and the larger community, than they were when I last posted in 2008. Some of the issues are old, some of the challenges we face as a community are new, and unprecedented. I’ve always believed that if you give the community all the information they need to make a decision, you significantly increase the likelihood they will make a good, compassionate decision. Solid, factual information is truly the down payment on the democratic process, and impending elections are always a good time to ante up.

Over the coming months, I will attempt to clarify some of the complex issues facing our schools and the community. Too often, local news reporting fails appreciate the larger context in which issues arise. Sometimes they do not, or cannot examine issues that cannot be easily rendered in black and white. I hope this blog will help. I will continue to strive for balance in the presentation of those issues; but again, I strongly believe that transparency rules, and that an informed community will get it right most of the time.

I write as a member of the community, as a parent, and as one of seven elected School Committee members. I do not write on behalf of the full Committee; nothing I say should be construed as representing the deliberations of the full Committee. I’m on my own here, folks. Again. Thanks for taking the time to read. And to think for yourselves. Those two practices make Newburyport a far better place to raise our kids.

Check back in the coming weeks, y'all. Let the conversation begin.