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.