Forging Ahead: After Hearing Community’s Complaints, School Committee Talks Next Steps & Other Business
The Marblehead School Committee gathered in open session on Friday, August 11, 2023, its first public meeting since reaching a resignation agreement with Superintendent John Buckey in early August.
Former School Committee member Sarah Gold – who lost her seat in the June 2023 election in which Jenn Schaeffner and Brian Ota joined the Committee – began her comments by requesting that “this entire Committee step down…so this district can heal.” Paul Baker – who also ran unsuccessfully in the last election – agreed with the resignation request, stating “you have lost the confidence of this town.” Ten other citizens spoke in a similar vein, focusing on concerns about lack of transparency, hidden agendas, and the cost of the settlement agreement.
Two participants – John DiPiano and Frank Kashner – offered a different perspective, expressing their support for the School Committee and calling into question the fact that individuals who had lost the election were now asking those who had won seats to step down.
Jonathan Heller, who noted that he was speaking as a parent and a teacher rather than in his role as co-president of the teachers' union, closed out public comment by noting that “our kids are going to be okay because of the amazing educators we have in this district,” but also expressing concern that we “are averaging a superintendent every two years” which has forced teachers to contend with a constantly evolving set of curriculum mandates and teaching systems that have been adopted by the new administrative leadership and then replaced a few years later.
The School Committee voted to ratify the previously announced superintendent separation agreement. The vote was 3 to 1, with Meagan Taylor voting in opposition and Ota abstaining. As a result of a still-pending discrimination complaint he filed against Buckey some 14 months ago, Ota has recused himself from all discussion, motions, or votes related to Buckey’s contract. Meagan Taylor expressed her frustration with the process, noting “I’m just so profoundly disappointed this is where we are at.”
Schaeffner, along with Sarah Fox and Alison Taylor, took the opportunity to express concern with the tenor of the discussion that had taken place both during the meeting and previously on social media. Fox noted that “personnel matters and student information is privileged for a reason, to protect these individuals as appropriate” while Schaeffner explained that “we are advised around what we can and can’t say.” Alison Taylor read from notes she had taken during public comments, saying that the School Committee members had been accused of having their “heads in the sand,” of being “disgusting” and “homophobic and “a sham,” of having “ulterior motives” and “hidden agendas.” “These are terrible things to say to people,” she said, and “we need to be the model not only for each other but for other people in the community and for the children.” Fox made a plea that “we need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable” while Schaeffner emphasized that “I don’t take any vote without thinking about what is best for our students, our faculty and staff, and our community, in that order.”
The School Committee also voted to name Michelle Cresta as acting superintendent through October 31, 2023. Cresta – the Assistant Superintendent of Operations and Finance since the end of 2019 – had already been temporarily named as acting superintendent in the wake of Buckey’s departure. “I have been incredibly impressed with Michelle’s professionalism, skills, and quite frankly her ability to remain calm in an excitable situation,” said Fox, while also noting that Cresta has already told her she doesn’t want the superintendent’s job long term. “She really likes the numbers,” Fox reported, and “I would never ask her to leave a job she really loves.”
Meagan Taylor, while acknowledging Cresta’s capabilities, expressed concern that the School Committee was being “reactive,” and did not “have a solid plan in place to make sure we have an experienced and permanent superintendent.” Fox disagreed, stating, “I’d actually argue exceptionally strongly in opposition to that” because “the reactive thing to do would be to immediately pick an interim right now.” The motion to name Cresta through the end of October while the School Committee considers how to proceed ultimately passed unanimously.
While much of Friday’s meeting involved discussions about Superintendent Buckey’s departure, a number of other topics were also raised, many of which will be consequential to Marblehead’s students and the community’s overall financial health.
Free School Lunches
During public comments, Xhazzie Kindle addressed nutritional issues surrounding school lunches. Noting that Massachusetts will once again offer free lunch to all students this year – a practice that started as a result of Covid – she questioned why the school food isn’t more nutritious and appetizing. “My daughter is 16 and she’s in high school, and there are days when she sends me photos of the school lunch, and I have to say to her, ‘yeah, don’t eat that,’ because frankly I can’t tell what it is,” she said. She went on to question why her daughter can’t get one item she wants without also getting others she doesn’t, and whether a single slice of pizza offers sufficient nutritional value to high school students.
Becky Suciu also weighed in on this topic, noting that she is in the schools every day and that “free lunch can still be healthy,” but that “as someone who got to see the lunches day in and day out in the schools, we had wins and we had not wins.” The state budget recently signed by Massachusetts Governor Maura Healy includes funding for a permanent program to provide free lunches to public school students in Kindergarten through 12th grade.
The school lunch program falls under the Marblehead Public Schools’ wellness policy, which has been revised over the past year to better match state standards, but had not yet been approved by the School Committee. Ordinarily a new policy of this type would require three separate “readings” at public School Committee meetings before it could be adopted, but Cresta requested that this requirement be waived in order for the policy to be in place prior to the start of the 2023/2024 school year – a prerequisite to eligibility for the free lunch program funding. The motions to waive the three readings and adopt the new wellness policy both passed unanimously, with the understanding that future revisions and discussions were still on the table.
More Elementary School Recess
The Marblehead Public Schools’ wellness policy also references the amount of recess time available to elementary school students in Marblehead. Both the previous and the new versions of the wellness policy specify a minimum of 15 minutes of recess per day, which is currently being provided, though the transition from two recesses to one at the beginning of the 2022/2023 school year was met with significant community concern and disagreement. Recess was also a prominent topic at the recent meeting of the School Committee policy subcommittee. Marblehead Beacon provides a full overview of the recess debate here.
Apart from criticism surrounding discussions taking place in executive sessions, much of the concern surrounding Superintendent Buckey’s resignation has focused on the associated cost, with the settlement agreement specifying that he will receive his regular paycheck through December 31, 2023 in addition to a lump sum payment of $94,350 – a total of approximately $170,000.
The approved fiscal year 2024 school budget – which covers the 2023/2024 school year – already includes $193,418 to cover the superintendent's salary for the year.
Cresta offered insights into how any additional costs – for example for the salary of acting or interim superintendents and to conduct a permanent superintendent search – will be covered.
The schools, Cresta explained, had budgeted $420,000 for unemployment costs this year – a $300,000 increase over the previous year. This was for the purpose of covering potential staff cuts if the tax override on the June 2023 ballot were to fail. While that override was defeated, most of the staff slated for elimination had previously resigned, freeing the district from the need to pay unemployment benefits. There was only a handful of actual layoffs, creating a surplus of $150,000 to $200,000.
Cresta also noted that additional funds totaling between $100,000 and $150,000 are available within the staffing line items in the budget because many of the new hires this year are starting at lower salaries than anticipated. While Marblehead usually hires teachers with five to six years of experience, many of the town’s new teachers have only one to two, so salary expenses overall are lower than expected.
As a result of the above, the district has an additional $250,000 to $350,000 available this fiscal year.
Cresta also explained that there was an overall surplus of $539,497 in the 2022/2023 budget that was used to prepay expenses for out-of-district placements in the 2023/2024 budget, essentially moving last year's surplus into this year. School Committee Chair Sarah Fox later told Marblehead Beacon that these monies are generally reserved to cover unexpected special education costs, because “the historical trend over the last several years is that the actual cost for outplacements has come in higher than budgeted.”
$10,000 Payment to Motivational Speaker
As part of the budget discussion, Fox asked Cresta to clarify a $10,000 line item, which she explained was to fund a 90-minute keynote speech by Jody Carrington for the staff convocation event scheduled for August 30, 2023. While acknowledging that it is “a significant cost,” Cresta noted that the event was arranged by the previous administration. Half of the $10,000 expense is being contributed by the five school PCOs while the other half is coming from the education revolving tuition fund used for one-time costs. Carrington’s speech will be exclusively for staff, not students or parents.
Also with regard to school finances, Alison Taylor expressed her dismay at the recent decision by the Select Board to approve spending $1.4 million of Marblehead’s $6.1 million American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds on upgrades to the rail trail. “I love the rail trail,” Taylor noted, but she went on to explain that the school district represents approximately 75 percent of the town budget and has received only $500,000 of the available ARPA money. She also expressed concern about the lack of transparency involved in the process. “I’m just mind blown,” she said. “These meetings should be open; there should be minutes; we should get to attend.” Taylor went on to state that, in most towns, the schools received a percentage of ARPA funds equivalent to their percentage of the town budget.
Open Meeting Violations
The School Committee addressed two open meeting violation complaints. The process, explained Fox, is that a concerned citizen completes the required form and submits it to the town clerk and the School Committee. The School Committee then meets in public session to vote on whether or not they believe a violation occurred, after which the decision can be appealed to the Office of the Attorney General.
For the first complaint, filed by Cathyann Swindlehurst, Fox read a statement from School Committee attorney Colby Brunt noting that – contrary to Swindlehurst’s contention – “there was not a vote to enact the early termination but rather a vote to allow the committee’s counsel to begin discussions with the superintendent’s counsel regarding an earlier end to the contract.” Explaining that this is “really where the nuance is,” Fox reiterated that “we did not fire Dr. Buckey,” but rather that “the committee and the superintendent were able to reach a mutually agreed term and the agreement was ratified here today in an open session.” Meagan Taylor expressed her concern that the agreement was publicized before being voted in open session. The motion to allow counsel to draft a response denying the occurrence of an open meeting violation passed 3 to 1, with Meagan Taylor in opposition and Ota abstaining.
The second complaint – filed by Reece Dahlberg – was not voted on because, according to Fox, legal counsel advised that the complaint did not specify a violation but only asked that the School Committee issue a public apology. Fox noted that Dahlberg can add more detail and resubmit if she chooses to do so.
At the conclusion of the public session, the School Committee voted to enter executive session, with the stated purpose of approving the public release of the meeting minutes from the executive sessions held on July 21, 2023 and July 31, 2023 to discuss Superintendent Buckey’s contract. Emphasizing the School Committee’s commitment to be as transparent as possible within the constraints of the non-disparagement agreement, Fox noted that this is the first time in her experience that the minutes of an executive session would be made available to the public. Asked about the timeline, Fox told Marblehead Beacon that the minutes would be published on the School Committee website as soon as “the attorney [is] able to do the minor redactions she cited as attorney-client privilege,” which will hopefully take place sometime today, August 14, 2023.
Editor’s note: School Committee member Jenn Schaeffner is a Marblehead Beacon founder and editor. She is recusing herself from Marblehead Beacon’s coverage of the School Committee and anything pertaining to Marblehead Public Schools.