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334WVN #293: No lack of choice in school races

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  • waylandvoters1
    Apr 1, 2009
      Dear Wayland Voter,

      When voters elect two candidates for seats on the five-member School Committee on April 7, there will be clear choices. A veteran incumbent vigorously defends the Committee's work . Three others say they'll bring new ideas and rigorous methods to planning and budgeting. The fifth is a longtime educator offering a "fresh perspective."

      In a campaign marked by diversions and name-calling, a clear divide is staked out between continuing the status quo and voting for change.

      When the School Committee decided last year to close part of Loker School, parent protests erupted. In public statements, letters to the Town Crier and elsewhere, many parents asserted that the decision revealed the Committee's decision-making as haphazard and too dependent on school administrators. Change became a major campaign issue.

      The candidates, in alphabetical order:

      MALCOLM ASTLEY, a teacher, counselor and principal in other towns for four decades and a Wayland resident since 1970, has a daughter at the High School. He's the one offering a "fresh perspective." In appearances on Candidates Night and the WayCAM Ask the Candidate call-in live broadcast, he was soft-spoken and good-humored. Astley offered few specific ideas but talked about the need for more give and take in decision-making and said the state should provide more "tools" to solve the fiscal problems towns face.

      JEFF BARON, a financial planner and management consultant with two young children, is one of two candidates with an MBA. Baron ran a write-in campaign in 2008 and continues to advocate for transparency and fact-based planning and budgeting so as to enable voters to learn what's going on and evaluate decisions. He favors "working within our means," says the Committee should be "a check and balance on the school administration" and asks voters: Are our schools better off today than they were two or three years ago?

      JEFF DIEFFENBACH, with nine years on the School Committee and five on the Finance Committee, is a prolific blogger and an outspoken defender of Committee decisions. He says his knowledge of municipal finance is "unmatched" in this campaign. "I alone" bring to the campaign ideas and experience the schools need, he says. Dieffenbach has degrees in engineering and works in educational publishing technology. He has two children in the schools.

      STEVE GLOVSKY, a lawyer and father of a Wayand High School student, describes himself as "a numbers guy" and has run for the Committee twice before. Like Baron and Paul Grasso , Glovsky advocates more rigorous planning and living within taxpayers' means. He is the only candidate who opposes Question 1, the April 7 measure that would allow the town to do preliminary design work leading toward a new or renovated High School. Glovsky believes that technology is changing so rapidly that the town should wait ten years to see what is needed. He predicts, for example, that in the future there will be no need for computer rooms: successors to the Amazon Kindle and today's hand-held devices will be the only equipment students need.

      PAUL GRASSO, who has an MBA and an undergraduate degree in accounting, says he was a trusting supporter of the schools and the overrides to support them even before he had children. But when he began to look closely at the School Committee's decision-making, he found a lack of businesslike planning and budgeting. A budget analyst and strategic investment executive at Genzyme, he says, "Budgeting itself is easy, but effective budgeting — which is a product of a robust, open, and consistent planning strategy — is not." After 18 months of attending School Committee meetings, Grasso believes that Wayland needs this serious approach to planning, and "that's what I do for a living."

      See the Wayland Town Crier


      for further background on candidates.


      A citizen asked, What background is needed for a School Committee member? On Candidates Night Astley noted that he had worked for 16 superintendents and learned a good deal about all parts of a K-12 system. The other candidates deferred to his inside knowledge while promoting the skills they would bring to the job.

      Baron and Grasso emphasized that their expertise is in budgeting. As Grasso put it: "Budgets need to be a continuum. We need to know the budget drivers, not just the costs." Baron said voters need to know the details behind the budget.

      Grasso said he had followed the work of a special committee, on which his wife served, to consider full-day kindergarten. The process was fruitless, he said, because at the end there was no clear path forward, just a dismissal because of cost.

      Glovsky said the Committee should be responsible for the vision that directs administrators and teachers.

      When a resident asked whether every dollar in the proposed $31.11 million school budget was justified, Dieffenbach said the final figure came after making cuts. "I'm proud of this budget," he said. The Fiscal 2010 is 3.39 percent above the Fiscal 2009 figure.

      Baron said the public can't get enough data to tell whether there is waste. At hearings citizens ask detailed questions but get no answers, he maintained.

      (A campaign mailing by a group that endorses Baron and Grasso asserted that Weston published 10 times as much budget detail as Wayland. A citizen website -- www.waylandtransparency.org -- posts background and links to school budget information.)

      "We can't afford waste any more," Grasso said. Good budgeting means finding out not just what is being spent but why it is spent and what value is produced by that spending, he added.

      Astley went at the problem from the other direction, saying the state should provide more ways for towns to raise funds.

      (State legislators have discussed a tax on telecommunications companies to benefit municipalities and legislation allowing municipal meals taxes. Wayland's Rep.Tom Conroy has said it appears the first measure is more likely than the second to become law in the near future.)

      Asked about the $85,000 in raises (3 percent) for top administrators in the proposed budget, Dieffenbach replied, "Certainly it is appropriate." It was based on teachers' raises, he added.

      Baron disagreed: He called the raises "irresponsible " and said top administrators "should be leading the way."

      When asked whether the candidates would vote for a high school construction project recommended by the High School Building Committee no matter what it contained, Dieffenbach replied that the HSBC is the "most stellar group of individuals" serving Wayland.

      Grasso said he'd back a plan, but that Wayland should take care of the existing facility in the mean time.

      Astley said it was highly likely that he'd back the proposal, though he said he was concerned about the state's role in the process.

      Baron answered yes, adding that the process of considering various iterations is designed to lead to a good decision.

      Asked about the Committee's recent about-face, deleting $300,000 in debt for modular classrooms because the schools' "strongest supporters" disapproved, Dieffenbach said that it was a unanimous vote: "We've got our eye on a bigger prize."

      (Chairman Louis Jurist's earlier reference to "strongest supporters" apparently indicated belief that Question 1 -- High School design funds -- would stand a better chance of passage if something were removed from the second debt exclusion question.)

      Grasso said it wasn't "the best way to make a budget decision...It was reactive." Classrooms needed immediately wouldn't be a budget-buster and could have been planned for, he said.

      Baron suggested that the Committee could have applied the $85,000 for top administrators' raises to modulars instead and found the rest somewhere else. Detailed budget information could have made that possible, he added.

      On Candidates Night Dieffenbach used part of his opening statement to deny rumors that he had a conflict of interest because he works in educational publishing -- a rumor that hadn't been reported in local media. Dieffenbach has worked in management and marketing positions for several small companies that have sold educational software to the Wayland schools. He said he isn't currently involved in sales and had no financial dealings with the school system.

      Wayland officials often file letters with the town clerk to put on the record connections that could raise questions about a possible conflict of interest. Such a letter filed by Dieffenbach last month mentions only that he would be subject to fees for such things as school athletics which are in School Committee jurisdiction.

      Dieffenbach used the opportunity to decry the "tone and tenor" of the campaign. In the Wayland Town Crier and online he and his supporters have questioned Baron's fitness to serve.

      One Crier letter went so far as to describe Baron's campaign as "Nixonian" and condemn Grasso for not condemning Baron.

      At issue is that Baron once owned the Web domain name www.soswayland.com, which he said he bought for $9 after he and a group of residents concerned about the schools got a computer-generated list of available URLs congruent with "support our schools" or "save our schools."

      Except for "com" instead of "org," the domain name is identical to that of SOSWayland, which has consistently backed School Committee positions. Baron said he held the name for months, never used it, and turned it over to someone else.

      Someone evidently used the site to post part of a Board of Selectmen meeting showing Board of Selectmen Chairman Michael Tichnor appearing briefly stunned when Selectman Doug Leard asked about Tichnor's decision to speak at a private SOSWayland meeting. The same footage was available on WayCAM and YouTube.

      Dieffenbach accuses Baron of somehow planning to confuse readers by using a similar URL, then lying about it. If there was a plan, it never became action.

      On WaylandeNews Dieffenbach calls Baron "cowardly" and his behavior "reprehensible."

      Baron says: "There are those who will stop at nothing to prevent changing the guard of the School Committee and seek to attack and malign."

      -- Michael Short


      The Water Department will conduct spring hydrant flushing beginning on Sunday evening, April 12.

      Flushing will begin in the area of the Reeves Hill water storage tanks on Old Connecticut Path East and continue to other areas for about six weeks. In any one area the inconvenience should last only a day or two.

      The Water Department advises:

      -- Please do not call Public Safety Dispatch unless a true emergency exists.

      -- Note that flushing will be conducted between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sunday through Friday.

      -- Minimize water use during this period to avoid drawing iron sediment.

      -- Check water before washing clothes to avoid rust discoloration. Some customers will experience rusty or black water caused by naturally occurring iron and manganese. These minerals are harmless but may stain laundry and plumbing fixtures.

      -- Avoid products that contain chlorine (including automatic dishwashing detergents).

      -- When the water clears, flush out your hot water heater to remove any accumulated sediments.

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      Wayland Voters Network
      Michael Short, Editor