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.