Will Select Board Alone Determine School Committee Vacancy?
The Marblehead School Committee hosted a public forum on Thursday November 10 to solicit priorities and feedback for the fiscal year 2024 budget that will be developed in the coming months and presented to Town Meeting in June 2023.
School Committee Vacancy
Before opening up to the public discussion, Chair Sarah Fox announced that that there had been a new development with regard to the recent resignation of School Committee member Emily Barron. “Select Board Chair Moses Grader informed me that the Selectmen would be proceeding with the process of seating a new member to the School Committee,” Fox said, and “he has reached out to his Committee and notified them that they would be starting these proceedings next Wednesday.” During its meeting on November 1, the School Committee had discussed the open seat created by Barron’s resignation, and a motion to go forward with a new member appointment was defeated by a 2-2 vote.
Fox explained that the last time there was a vacancy on the School Committee, in the fall of 2016 when member Susan Pratt resigned, the School Committee decided to leave the seat open until the following election. The Select Board took no action at that time, in effect supporting the School Committee’s choice, and “moved on.” Fox questioned whether the School Committee is invited to the Select Board meeting to appoint a new member and if not, how is Grader planning to structure that meeting? She continued, “This is a decision that the Selectmen are moving forward with that was not originated from the School Committee, which is a new precedent.”
School Committee Member Meagan Taylor urged the Committee to revisit the vote. She stated that “the [School Committee] policy directs the reader to the Mass (sic) General Law and nowhere in there does it say we need to take a vote to start the process…We don’t need to take a vote to go forward... We should follow our policies…And the vote should be if we choose not to follow that policy which is what I believe happened in the previous case…Right now we are not following our policy.”
Fox replied that she had consulted Massachusetts Association of School Committees Representative Dorothy Presser and the School Committee’s counsel for advice. She went on to say that she “was going on the minutes and past precedent of …how this was handled the last time a seat was vacated, … which at the time…was unanimous on the School Committee and clearly had the support because the Selectmen did not move to do otherwise.” Fox continued, “Unless we have a Town Charter that states otherwise, we could choose to leave that seat open. And Marblehead does not have a Town Charter.”
Marblehead Beacon reached out to Select Board Chair Moses Grader with questions on the decision to move forward with the vacant seat appointment and to clarify next steps with no response at the time of publication. We will provide updates if we receive a response.
Moving onto the main agenda item, the public Budget Forum, Fox explained that there was some urgency in moving the discussion quickly as members Meagan Taylor and Sarah Gold had to leave at 8 PM, and she wanted to make sure that they could hear as much as possible from the public. Gold responded, saying that their departure would cause the School Committee to lose a quorum of members, and the meeting would have to be adjourned. Fox disagreed, noting that she had received written confirmation from the State of Massachusetts that the meeting could continue without a quorum, as long as the members available to stay limited their responses to answering factual information and did not deliberate, vote, or share their opinions. They could, however, continue to listen to the public. Gold responded she “was a little at a loss on that given all of the open meeting stuff that has gone on over the last several years.”
Over eighty people participated in the forum and many shared their thoughts and opinions regarding the priorities for the school budget. Resident Xhazzie Kindle expressed concern about the school district apparently paying the food service workers less than minimum wage. She stressed the need to pay a living, competitive wage in order to attract essential workers. She questioned how we could do that.
Select Board member Erin Noonan put forth several priorities, including hiring permanent substitute teachers, which impacts the student and staff experience. She also stressed the need for a core, comprehensive early education literacy curriculum, career planning resources for the High School students considering non-college paths after graduation, and executive function skills programs to be developed in the district.
Former Select Board candidate James “Jimmy” Full made a strong statement.“I want to address the elephant in the room,” he said. ”We have a School Committee that is divided right now very badly. What are we going to do to fix it? How are you people going to work together to work through this and move forward?”
Fox responded that she recently attended a conference that included recommendations of specialists who can facilitate workshops to bring groups together, and she is working with the Superintendent to schedule a session. “At the end of the day,” she said, “all four of us want to focus on students and student achievement.”
Full was not appeased. “Some people think there is a coup happening,” he said. “I really want you to work together. We don't need a divided committee. I really hope the petty stuff can be put to the wayside.”
Former two-time School Committee candidate Katie Martin made several suggestions for budget priorities. She urged the members to focus on curriculum including Google classroom, a tool used by teachers that she claimed shows disjointed materials, out-of-date textbooks, and “a hodgepodge of Youtube videos…and distorted scans of articles.” She suggested the hiring of Curriculum Coaches because “the average student is fine, gifted students are bored, and special education students have a hard time accessing curriculum.” She urged the members that “this is something we can all come together on.” Martin also stressed the need for strategic three- and five-year plans with deliverables, goals, and benchmarks to bring to Town Meeting to secure needed funding.
Martin also encouraged a review of the union contracts and the need to increase the workers’ pay - referencing the earlier question about below minimum wage pay for food service workers. She ended with the need to extend the school day given the recent decision to eliminate a recess for younger elementary students in order to increase the amount of time on learning.
Martin commended the School Committee for the lack of facility maintenance needs on the list of priorities. She reasoned that the school building construction, recently completed with the opening of the Brown School, and recent major projects funded in this year’s budget, show the hard work the School Committee has done to get this years-long maintenance under control.
The issue of bus service was highlighted by two residents: Dr. Dan Albert and Dr. Jessica Benedetto. Albert focused on the need for additional buses as he claimed that high school athletics regularly overcrowd buses to athletic events due to lack of enough buses. DeBenedetto has been a long-time crusader for expanded daily bus service for students walking or biking to school on dangerous town streets.
Full questioned the approved Proposition 2 ½ override in June that included “$750,000 in whiteboards.” He said that every schoolroom in the district has a Smartboard and questioned the need for these upgrades. “That is what is infuriating to me as a parent. I have to buy a computer for my student and we have $750,000 in IT districtwide…This is reality, you want us to pay the taxes; where does it all go at the end of the day? That is an honest question. I would like to know where the hell it all goes.”
Resident Joelle Lydon stated that while everyone agrees that the schools need money, “the problem is transparency; we want to see more forums.” Lydon believes that “people will give the money to the schools if they know things make sense.” Lydon also suggested looking at the out-of-district placement costs for special education students, which has escalated over the course of ten years. Her suggestion: the School Committee should come to Town Meeting right away as soon as the costs increase and not wait until it requires a tax override. “Funds don't always need to come from an override.”
Fox closed by asking the community to send questions or comments to Superintendent Buckey, who was present but did not speak during the forum, or School Committee members. There is no additional forum scheduled at this time.