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Will Marblehead Part Ways with Superintendent Buckey? Earlier Events Foreshadowed Current Tensions

As Marblehead Beacon previously reported, the Marblehead School Committee will meet in public session on Wednesday, July 26, 2023 to discuss and vote on the early-termination clause in the superintendent’s contract. Both School Committee Chair Sarah Fox and Superintendent John Buckey have declined to comment on the specifics of this meeting, but it appears that the School Committee is considering activating the early-termination option. Buckey’s contract currently extends for an additional two years, until June 30, 2025. 


Buckey’s employment agreement – an amended version of the one originally signed when he was first hired in July 2020 – became active in July 2021. The early-termination clause appears in section 12.2, which specifies that the School Committee may terminate the employment agreement upon providing 100 days’ notice and paying $94,350. Other options specified in the agreement include termination by the School Committee for cause – such as “insubordination, incompetency, neglect of duty, or other good cause” – as well as termination due to disability and termination resulting from the superintendent’s resignation. 


Marblehead’s School Committee welcomed two new members following June’s town election, with retired Glover School Principal Brian Ota and former School Committee member Jenn Schaeffner joining Sarah Fox, Alison Taylor, and Meagan Taylor. Former School Committee member Sarah Gold, who ran for re-election against Ota and Schaeffner, was defeated, as was two-time candidate Paul Baker.


Tensions between Buckey and the newly constituted School Committee were evident almost immediately. During the same election that saw Ota and Schaeffner join the School Committee, Marbleheaders voted against a tax-override ballot question that would have added funding to the annual school budget. Buckey was a vocal advocate for the tax increase, and he was responsible for developing a list of cuts – including to a number of staff positions as well as the high school freshman sports program – that he said would be implemented if the override were to fail. This became a heated topic at the first School Committee meeting following the election, with several School Committee members questioning the advisability of following through with the proposed cuts, particularly given the unexpected surplus – totaling at least several hundred thousand dollars – that had just been discovered in the school budget. Schaeffner in particular had campaigned against the proposed cuts, writing in advance of the election that “we can and must revisit the list of ill-advised cuts put forth in the event of the defeat of the tax override measure. The listed cuts target the areas that are most important to teachers, students, and families rather than reviewing the budget with an eye toward finding saving opportunities that don’t impact student facing staff.”


Buckey disagreed strongly with the suggestion that any of the proposed cuts should be revisited, noting that any type of reconsideration would “undermine the superintendent,” and “feed a narrative that it was scare tactics all along.” The School Committee nevertheless moved forward with revisions to Buckey’s plans, voting unanimously at the next School Committee meeting to reinstate the freshman sports program by adding an additional $12 to the cost of each student’s user fee.


Ota’s election to the School Committee also indicated potential dissatisfaction with Buckey. Ota served as the principal of the Glover School, one of Marblehead’s two lower elementary schools, from 2015 through 2022. Previously, from 2011 through 2015, he served as assistant principal at the fourth-through-sixth-grade Village School. In 2022, when Ota was one year away from retirement, Buckey elected not to renew his contract. Sean Satterfield –  principal at Marblehead’s other elementary school and a 24-year veteran in Marblehead Public Schools – received a similar notice of non-renewal. 


In the wake of being removed from his position at Glover, Ota filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. The complaint is specifically against Buckey, not against the Marblehead school district. A ruling has not yet been issued, though Ota has indicated that the complaint was filed some fourteen months ago and a ruling is expected imminently. Ota told Marblehead Beacon that, whatever the outcome, he does not intend to pursue this issue further and never sought financial remuneration in his complaint. Prior to his decision to run for School Committee, according to Ota, he consulted the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission for guidance and was advised that there was no conflict of interest with regard to his election with the exception of the need to recuse himself from any role in evaluating the superintendent’s performance while his complaint remained open. Reached earlier today, Ota confirmed that he would be recusing himself from tomorrow’s meeting and emphasized that he is not engaging in any conversations with other School Committee members or the public with regard to the superintendent. “I’d like people to understand that I cannot make comments to other School Committee members, and I don’t want to influence anyone’s perspectives,” he said.


An additional indication that Buckey might not have the enthusiastic support of the entire School Committee is reflected in the evaluation process conducted earlier this year in advance of the town elections. Both current School Committee Chair Sarah Fox and current member Alison Taylor offered Buckey a “needs improvement” rating. While the three other members at the time – Tom Mathers, Meagan Taylor, and Sarah Gold – all advocated for a rating of “proficient,” neither Mathers nor Gold are currently on the committee. Mathers was appointed to fill a seat on a temporary basis and did not choose to run for election. Gold lost her seat to Ota and Schaeffner on June 20th of this year. 


Fox and Alison Taylor included some critical commentary in their written evaluations, with Fox suggesting that Buckey should “develop his communication skills further so he is communicating independently more and relying on outside communications support only when required due to unforeseen circumstances,” and Taylor writing that “rather than paying a communications consultant, it’s important that our district know that the word choices and tone are Dr. Buckey’s own.” Buckey has hired outside communications consultants paid for by the town during his time as superintendent. 


Fox also noted her concern that “the lack of a 360 degree anonymous review by the staff continues to be a problem while trying to review the effectiveness of Dr. Buckey as a leader.” Fox was also the lone dissenting vote in 2021 when Buckey’s contract was extended from three years to five following his first year of service. Her rationale was that it was premature to offer Buckey an additional two years before having more of an opportunity to review his performance. 


Buckey has also faced uphill battles with several initiatives he has championed during his tenure in the community. As previously noted, the $2.5 million tax increase that appeared on the ballot this year – with a significant portion targeted to fund the schools – failed to be approved by voters. Voters also shot down a tax override last year that was specifically for the schools. Appearing as Question Two on the June 2022 ballot, the permanent tax increase was slated to fund a number of initiatives including a six-figure salary for a Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Voters defeated the measure by a more than two-to-one margin.


Other initiatives introduced to the district under Buckey’s leadership include changes to the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade report card and deleveling of classes at the high school, as well as the adoption of new curriculum programs across several subject areas. Buckey sat down with Marblehead Beacon last year, together with then-assistant superintendent Nan Murphy, who has since left Marblehead to become the superintendent in Dedham. In discussing the move to Standards Based Grading at the elementary level, Buckey confirmed that the change involved the removal of the “exceeds expectations” grading category, replacing it with “meeting expectations” as the highest designation a student can receive. When asked if there was a plan in place to implement Standards Based Grading in the middle or high schools, Buckey and Murphy indicated that they had seen successful implementation of this approach in other districts but did not intend to pursue it in Marblehead at this time, with Buckey acknowledging that removing letter grades could negatively impact students’ success in the college application process. During this same conversation, Buckey and Murphy supported the removal of some leveled classes, with Buckey explaining that, “I think that this idea of boxing children and students [in a way] that creates tracking is something that school districts have been trying to move away from.” Marblehead High School has since eliminated all classes at the CP2 level, previously intended to provide extra support and a slower pace of study. These students are now included in CP1 courses, considered the foundational level for college preparation. More advanced honors and AP level classes are still offered. 


Over several months in late 2022, Marblehead Beacon conducted an analysis of Marblehead’s school performance and outcomes compared to a variety of other Massachusetts districts long considered to be comparable in terms of socio-economic status, size, and community goals. Our research, using data provided by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, indicated that Marblehead has and continues to face significant challenges. Our students’ scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests rank second to last among comparable districts, while at the same time we are spending more per student and paying our teaching staff significantly less. The community continues to face a variety of challenges with regard to recovering from Covid-related learning loss and disciplinary issues.


Moreover, as noted by the Boston Globe, Marblehead is one of the communities experiencing the most significant reductions in student enrollment. “Some of the greatest declines have occurred in Greater Boston,” according to the Globe, “where school systems in Marblehead, Rockport, Wellesley, Wilmington, Brookline, and Amesbury saw enrollments drop more than 10 percent, according to state data.” The chart included in the article places Marblehead at the top of the list, with a 12.2 percent decline between the 2019-2020 and the 2021-2022 school years. According to the Massachusetts Department of Education website, Marblehead had 3,293 students enrolled in 2014, and we have 2,622 in 2023, a decrease of 671. Over the same time period, Marblehead has increased our staffing from 245 teachers to 250. 


Massachusetts General Law outlines the rights and responsibility of the School Committee with regard to the superintendent of schools in every community. According to Section 37, School Committees “shall have the power to select and to terminate the superintendent, shall review and approve budgets for public education in the district, and shall establish educational goals and policies.” 


Marblehead’s schools face a number of ongoing challenges, as outlined above. In the recent elections, Marblehead’s voters indicated their desire for change, not only in defeating the tax override but also in replacing a number of incumbents across town offices and sending new voices to the School Committee, the Select Board, and the Board of Health. Given these circumstances, the School Committee’s decision to pursue a conversation about the early-termination clause in the superintendent’s contract was foreseeable to many.


Editor’s note: School Committee member Jenn Schaeffner is a Marblehead Beacon founder and editor. She is recusing herself from any issues surrounding School Committee coverage.