Some thoughts on the School Committee and its candidates as Election Day nears
In some ways, there is a sense with this term’s members of the School Committee that as a group they are becoming more effective. They opened the budget process earlier than in some years, and included more hearings for collecting public comment. They have questioned the administration more often and more sharply about frequent use of consultants, the high rates paid them, what they see as insufficient social-emotional support for students and the increasing burden of standardized testing and new initiatives on teachers, among other issues. They appear to have become more aware of the costs of contracts up for approval.
But what change has this produced? Not much. Committee members – especially budget subcommittee co-chairmen Richard Harding and Mervan Osborne – point with pride especially to the “precedent-setting” invitation to teachers to comment on the budget. But what was the result? Teachers from across the city overwhelmingly asked for more support in the classroom, “more hands and hearts,” and that translated in the budget into … not much. Four math and one literacy interventionists and four-and-one-half school counselors were added to the upper schools. One district-based and one school-based social worker split across two elementary schools were added. This carries almost no impact to elementary schools and modest impact to upper school classrooms. Meanwhile, in the entire year, only one contract approval was denied.
Too often the committee is easily mollified by the administration’s presentations. Member Patty Nolan points out regularly that the administration is making decisions about which programs are “successful” based on anecdote or a consultant’s reputation (and prestige) and without any analysis of outcomes that would meet the most basic requirements of program assessment. Is one new program better than another? Should we replace one with another? Despite her consistent questioning, her colleagues either don’t understand her arguments or don’t care. They are not alone: Administration members have rarely, if ever, provided data comparing a new initiative with a control group – how do the outcomes compare with a similar group not using the initiative? Even after being asked by Nolan for specific data, their responses are weak and incomplete, or missing – as in the continued lack of analysis of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School college prep classes and honors classes despite repeated requests.
A prime example of the committee not following through on their rhetoric is the pushback on data regarding high daily rates for consultants. The language from members was sharp as they sent the proposals back for renegotiation. “In all my work in schools I can’t imagine pulling in this amount,” one member said. But the following meeting, when the administration came back with a revised rate that dropped the $94,000 price tag by $4,000, the tone changed, praise was heaped on the administration based on largely anecdotal evidence provided by four educators, and Nolan – as usual – was the only member who did not vote in favor of the contract.
Harding is among those who like to say that he holds the superintendent and his staff accountable, saying more than once to Superintendent Jeffrey Young, “I’m going to hold your feet to the fire on this.” But he has never ultimately voted against Young’s initiatives, and, like all the members save Nolan, he voted to extend Young’s contract another year, with a $7,000 retroactive raise. The committee, by the way, had failed to complete the superintendent’s annual review of the superintendent before voting on the raise and contract agreement.
Here’s what we’ve seen of our incumbents over the past term:
Vision: As a group, members spend an inordinate amount of time talking about a lack of a vision in the district, rather than creating one themselves. Too much of the airtime during meetings is given to generalities about the need to “improve education for all students” and “to ask the tough questions” or giving testimonies about their long-term support of specific groups or programs, and not nearly enough time on specifics. There is a lot of time dedicated to parsing the language on “budget guidelines,” which ultimately don’t really change much from year to year, rather than stepping back from the budget and deciding, in the big picture, where they want the money to go. The last School Committee debate indicated that most of the incumbents and challengers probably have a pretty good sense of what kind of schools they would like to see here – if that’s what they campaign on, it’s surely what voters backing them want to see made reality.
Business: The committee convenes regular meetings for two or three hours every other week. Given that, it would be nice if they ran the business more professionally. They regularly start late, often with the public and invited speakers sitting idly in the hearing room even while the members can be heard chatting and eating in the adjoining kitchen. Without fail, only one person at the table arrives in good time and sits patiently at her seat waiting for the meeting to begin 15 minutes late: Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk.
Almost two years into this term, it’s still remarkable how muddled some of the members get regarding Robert’s Rules of Order – how to forward a motion, when to ask questions, what certain votes mean. One result of consistent asides to colleagues is that members often get lost on what motion is before them. More than once, for example, Fran Cronin has misunderstood what motion she has voted on. Luckily, one of the strengths of Mayor David Maher, chairman of the committee, is his expertise in managing the meetings, suggesting to his colleagues what motion they “intend to make,” all with patience and good humor.
Transparency: Kudos go to the committee’s executive secretary, Judy Martin, for improving transparency by making sure that most backups to agenda items of regular meetings are now available online. And video of the meetings are now becoming available online much more quickly. There’s still a way to go, though. It should be standard for all meeting minutes – including subcommittees – to be available online and for all subcommittee meetings, special meetings, roundtables – and in election years, all debates and forums – to be televised and available online.
Open meeting law: In defense of the members, it may be difficult for them to appear organized and united under the open meeting law. As Young’s chief of staff, Lori Likis, pointed out in one (untelevised) roundtable, the superintendent’s staff has one boss and one mission, and they can meet in private; the committee has many, many bosses, and may not discuss business outside of public meetings in groups larger than three. Committee members need to find a way not to let the requirement for open meetings prevent them from developing substantive policies.
Accountability: The committee failed this year in demanding accountability from the superintendent about plagiarism from a top administrator. Confronted with several pages of text – handed out in public meetings and posted online for several months – copied verbatim from other sources without proper references, the committee fumbled. The superintendent claimed the matter had been reviewed, but he left it up to the administrator who sparked the plagiarism charge in the first place. The experts forgiving the violation were either paid consultants of the district or, in the case of Teddi Fishman, director of The International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, gave an opinion without seeing the documents. Nolan and Kathleen Kelly alone spoke out through a public letter condemning the plagiarism and calling for action, and Nolan raised the issue during the superintendent’s review. But the other members either stayed silent or, in the case of Maher and Harding, said they were assured by the superintendent it was a “non-issue.” We would like to see a committee that holds administrators to the same standards as its students, at the very least.
Homepage photo by Elizabeth Vernon.
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