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Click on the document image to see Superintendent Jeffrey Young’s response to questions about district hiring practices.

Click on the document image to see Superintendent Jeffrey Young’s response to questions about district hiring practices.

Several members of the School Committee sent a message Tuesday to Superintendent Jeffrey Young that there is a “breakdown in the relationship” between the committee and his office.

Those were the words committee member Richard Harding used at the first meeting of the school year, as the committee took up issues percolating for months but unaddressed in the end of business last spring or at the summer meeting in July.

The discussion was prompted by an item not on the agenda – a letter to Young from Mayor David Maher asking for explanations of three jobs recently created and filled:

bullet-gray-smallProgram manager for teacher development, filled by former Cambridge Education Association union president Chris Colbath-Hess. The public was made aware of this newly resurrected position and its appointment with the release of the July meeting agenda, which included a motion by the mayor to congratulate Colbath-Hess on her new position.

bullet-gray-smallActing district director for science, technology, engineering and math, filled by Lisa Scolaro. The decision to combine the science directorship, held by Scolaro, with the math directorship, vacated in the spring by Mark Healy, as a one-year solution was announced in the summer on the district website.

bullet-gray-smallWelcoming schools coordinator, filled by Melody Brazo, former district employee in a number of positions, including part-time district family liaison for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students and their families.

The mayor’s letter asked the superintendent to address whether these positions were filled in accordance with committee policy. Their discovery stirred public concern and letters, according to several committee members, both for their apparent lack of committee input and the fact that all were filled by internal candidates. “All professional staff positions will be created initially by the School Committee,” policy says, and “any recommendations for the creation or elimination of a position must be approved by the School Committee.”

“No usurping of authority”

The superintendent defended the positions, beginning by saying, “There is no violation of any policy or any law.” Positions are created, he said, either through the budget process, which includes the committee, or through outside grants, and the timing of grants is often not in sync with the budget process. Funds usually become available in the summer – a bad time to try to hire educators, so the job creation and search start earlier – and the committee is brought into the loop later, he explained.

“There is no conspiracy, no usurping of authority. This is just about trying to manage the district,” Young asserted. “We have always done it this way.”

He explained the three positions this way in an Aug. 29 letter to the committee and in presentation Tuesday, for which he brought his department’s legal counsel, chief financial officer and human resources manager as backup:

bullet-gray-smallThe program manager for teacher development was funded by a federal education grant, and Colbath-Hess won the job after the appropriate job posting and interviews. Young pointed to the history of the administration and the committee’s endorsement of improved teacher professional development and a new teacher induction program, and said the committee had essentially approved the creation of the position through its acceptance in the July 29 meeting of a Title 2A grant. This grant acceptance was one of 19 superintendent recommendations on that meeting’s agenda, and itself was one of a dozen grants included in a single recommendation. The $384,236 grant recommendation included that “grant funds will provide a 1.0 FTE program manager for teacher development.”

bullet-gray-smallCombining district science and math directors was proposed as a one-year pilot solution when the administration felt it could not identify a “candidate of choice” to fill the vacated math directorship despite a posting and interviews. The “district’s standard practice,” Young said, “is to appoint an existing or retired employee in an ‘acting’ capacity” with plans to re-advertise. In this case, too, the administration wanted to see if there was merit in combining the directorships as part of strengthening STEM education.

bullet-gray-smallThe welcoming schools coordinator was created through the expansion of the LGBT family liaison position, held by Brazo and funded through $25,000 earmarked for family engagement in the school budget passed last spring. Young wrote that the position was “budget neutral, as an existing FTE was reclassified.” “The position was posted in the interest of transparency, interviews were conducted and the successful candidate was appointed,” he said.

Committee unsatisfied

While committee member Kathleen Kelly commended Young for “taking the time to come forward … and being so open” in his explanation, other members were not as grateful.

“Based on what you sent us,” committee member Patty Nolan said, “this clearly violates our policies. Our policy states very clearly that the School Committee approves all positions.”

Agreeing that nothing illegal happened and stressing that she felt there was no intention of wrongdoing, she also pointed to the fact that the committee was previously “told publicly that you were filling a vacant position [for teacher development], yet that position was clearly eliminated” as part of a reorganization that included the creation of the assistant superintendent positions.

Nolan referred to 2012 committee documentation in which Young explained that with the retirement of Frances Cooper Berry, funded by a Title 2A grant as lead teacher in charge of teacher development oversight, the position would be eliminated and combined into the new assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction position, subsequently filled by Jessica Huizenga.

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“A mistake was made,” Nolan said.  “I just feel like we should acknowledge this and apologize for it.”

Kelly said she was confused. “Did you eliminate the position?” she asked.

Young said only, “As I said, you voted on July 29 to approve the Title 2A grant. The way you have initially created grant-funded positions is the vote to approve the grant.” He then brought up school lawyer Maureen MacFarlane, who provided tautological support: “Based on the information I got from [Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner], in terms of past practices when you have had grants that have created new positions, they have come in as a grant and you voted to accept the grant in detail which may include the creation of additional positions. That is what happened.”

Committee member Mervan Osborne moved the discussion beyond whether the administration sidestepped practices of position creation to the issue of how the positions were filled. “When we’ve had other positions … there’s a process that we can follow. Here we have a fait accompli,” he said. “I’m just as likely to have missed this, but I don’t recall the process by which we arrived at having these three positions filled.”

At this point Young brought up school department human resources director Barbara Allen, who assured the committee the positions were all duly posted, applications received and applicants interviewed. For Colbath-Hess’ new position, she said, they got 65 applications and conducted several interviews. For the math director position, even though Healy had announced six months in advance that he would be leaving, and shortly after he had recommended a districtwide change in the K-8 math curriculum, they were unable to find a successful candidate. An earlier post on the school department website reported they had received only seven applications. Scolaro then agreed to take on both positions for the coming year.

Elephant in the Room

“I’m not going to indict anybody,” committee member Richard Harding said, agreeing that the charge here was not of illegality, “but I would say that there definitely is a breakdown in the relationship between us and the superintendent’s office.”  In measured tones, Harding was critical of the fact that, while these positions may have been technically created and filled legally, he felt it was indicative of an administration that failed to keep the committee in the loop.

When Berry retired, he said:

It was thought by me and others that the new person at that time – we didn’t have Dr. Huizenga yet – was going to run this teaching induction program. Right? That’s what we all thought … In a place where we had a great relationship, somebody would have let us know that this was happening … Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. The reality is that the public’s eyes and ears are going to wake up when the former head of the CEA becomes that person. Let’s talk about that! Let’s not act like no one’s going to know! So for me to catch that, no matter how many people you interview, when it ends up being that, no matter who you are, the best citizen and I in this city looks at that and says, ‘What’s going on?’

When you extend contracts to individuals, extend contract to principals in our schools without informing the School Committee until after, this is where trust breaks down … This means we have to look at each and every grant intentionally so that this doesn’t happen and when this comes up we now will be considered micromanagers … And that’s going to put an additional strain on our relationship … It may have been some of our fault, and we’ll own that. But you can bet for sure that every little grant we will be looking at hard.

Committee member Fred Fantini echoed Harding and Nolan, and in the name of educating newer committee members Kelly and Fran Cronin, reminded everyone in the room how the committee expects the relationship with the administration to work, including placing “great trust in this administration” despite having the power to literally vote in every line item of the personnel budget, as some school systems do. “We give [the administration] great authority, great flexibility,” he said, but “any significant change in job descriptions has to come to the School Committee. We don’t hold you to that because [of our trust].”

“But new members should know: We can change that dynamic if we want. This is about a partnership and relationship, especially new members,” Fantini said, continuing:

They wanted to talk about why we don’t have a math coordinator. With the public. We knew for six months [that the job would be vacant] and we can’t find anyone? We are one of the only systems with math coaches and we can’t get one of them to take an acting position? I have complete confidence in Ms. Spinner, in Mr. Maloney, in Superintendent Young. But you get those questions out of your system so you don’t have to think about them privately.

He ended by saying he hopes that this discussion would “make for a better relationship,” and the mayor moved the agenda along.

Another example

But the issue of transparency came up again, this time with Kelly expressing concern about separate requests by Cronin and Kelly for progress reports on the middle school math program’s new configuration, which creates non-heterogeneous math “pathways.”

“My recollection was that we also talked about students beyond accelerated learners … The reason I supported academic challenge was to support all students. But in the budget, I’m realizing, most of the sources go to the accelerated pathway,” Kelly said.

“I felt that was where transparency was missing for me,” she said.

The motions were calendared to allow the authors to consolidate them.

Emergency-plan update

Kelly also expressed disappointment in what she felt was a lack of responsiveness to earlier requests regarding the school department’s reaction to school emergencies. In asking that emergency-plan revisions be reworked before passing, she said she felt the policy “didn’t reflect the spirit” of the earlier request she and Nolan had made asking for a “reflection on Graham & Parks and what the challenges were and what went well,” referring to a teacher’s arrest last spring on child pornography charges. While noting the revisions were thorough for natural disasters, there is “nothing that answers to the type of situation that happened last spring.”

She felt they had been specific about such things as procedures for contacting families and on a district response within the first 24 and 48 hours, but none was reflected in the revisions, she said

The recommendation was referred to the school climate subcommittee, of which Kelly is a member, along with Harding and Osborne.

This post was updated Sept. 5, 2014, to correct a quote by district Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner in the graphic. A reporter’s preliminary paraphrase was presented incorrectly as something said by Spinner.