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99WVN #99: School Superintendent Evaluated in Open Meeting

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  • waylandvoters2
    Jul 12, 2005
      Wayland Voters Network
      July 12, 2005

      Dear Wayland Voter,

      WVN's Margo Melnicove and Michael Short are on a committee put
      together by Town Moderator Peter Gossels to try to improve attendance
      at Town Meeting. Committee members have been asked to ask their
      neighbors for suggestions. Would you please take a moment to reply to
      this email: If you do not attend Town Meeting, please tell us why,
      and what would induce you to attend. If you do attend, please give us
      your ideas for making Town Meeting more appealing to those who do not
      attend. We will share your suggestions with the committee. If you
      would like to present your ideas in person, the committee is meeting
      at 7:30pm in the Town Building on July 12, July 27, August 11 and
      August 23. Or contact the committee chair, Judy Currier, 653-8554.

      This newsletter is a report on the School Committee meeting of June
      22 prepared by WVN subscriber Tom Sciacca.

      SC 6/22: SUPERINTENDENT EVALUATED IN OPEN MEETING

      On June 22 a special meeting of the School Committee was held on a
      Wednesday rather than the usual Monday meeting night to deal with the
      issue of the superintendent's evaluation. Reporters from the Boston
      Globe and the Wayland Town Crier were present. Several more routine
      items were discussed before the main agenda item.

      Superintendent Gary Burton reported that, so far, the costs for the
      high school science modular labs approved at spring Town Meeting
      continue to come in under budget. They will be ready by September if
      everything goes according to schedule. They will be located behind
      the Field House; this will require the removal of two pine trees.

      School Committee Chair Jeff Dieffenbach reported that the minutes
      from June 28, 2004, which were amended at the last meeting to reflect
      the holding of an executive session to evaluate the superintendent,
      actually had such a reference in the first place, so the committee
      voted to rescind the vote of June 6, 2005, correcting them.

      Moving on to the main agenda item of Burton's current year
      evaluation, Dieffenbach said he did not hear support for discussing
      the evaluation in executive session. "Can we take that off the
      table?" he asked, to general agreement from the group. This left the
      choice between discussing the evaluation in open session or having
      Dieffenbach discuss it privately with Burton.

      It was reported that the Massachusetts Association of School
      Committees indicated that the majority of evaluations are held in
      open session. Dieffenbach reported that Town Counsel Mark Lanza
      believes that if the evaluation were done in executive session there
      is a 50-50 chance that the District Attorney would take the town to
      court, and a 75% chance that the DA would win at the first level.
      Lanza also believes that if the ruling were appealed, there is a
      better than even chance the town would lose again. Dieffenbach
      expounded that the multiplicative nature of probability means that
      the total probability of the town losing in court was therefore
      considerably less than 50% and therefore a good bet.

      "The probability that it would be annoying and expensive is 100%,"
      commented member Louis Jurist.

      Lanza's estimate for legal cost was reported as $15,000-25,000.

      Member Heather Pineault moved to discuss the evaluation in open
      meeting. Member Barbara Fletcher seconded the motion.

      Jurist said, "Like it or not, the intent of the Open Meeting Law is
      that this be public."

      Dieffenbach countered that "it is the DA's interpretation," and spoke
      for the viability of the other option. Member Bob Gordon also argued
      for keeping the proceeding secret, because he believes the press,
      including "the perversion of journalism in Wayland Voters Network,"
      would misrepresent what they do.

      Pineault replied, "What I know for sure is we're overseen by the Open
      Meeting Law," and argued again for her motion.

      Gordon responded, "I don't believe you have any more insight into the
      law than Gary Burton or Jeff Dieffenbach or anybodyÂ…It is entirely
      lawful that this should not be done in open meeting." Referring to
      Pineault's comment that poor publicity would hurt the committee's
      chances to get future spending approved by voters, he said "publicity
      be damned and that comment goes for Waycam, too." Waycam has
      announced plans to wire the School Committee meeting room for video
      recording. Gordon went on to comment that the committee shouldn't
      just accept Waycam's plans.

      Jurist, in contrast, said "this has become a major diversion" and
      what counts is public perception. He said they may not like the law,
      but the best interest of the district is what counts.

      Gordon countered that criticizing a superintendent in public would
      make it hard for him to operate with his faculty in the future.

      Fletcher said that perhaps some other school committee would want to
      be a test case in the future, but she was not willing to be one.
      Gordon said he put the value of the school committee's political
      position as "zero." Pineault retorted, "We rely on the town for
      funding." Jurist noted that the majority of communities release some
      document (some release the full evaluation and some a summary, while
      Wayland has released nothing during Burton's tenure). Dieffenbach,
      however, responded that they shouldn't minimize the distinction
      between the summary and the whole document. Jurist asked
      Gordon: "Does it bother you to know only what you wrote and not what
      anyone else wrote?" Gordon responded that he has always been
      impressed at the quality of the evaluation document. Then he asked
      Burton what his preference was.

      Burton said, "I don't like being on the front page of the paper,"
      referring to a Middlesex Sunday News front-page article on the
      controversy. "It's a circus-like atmosphere." He thanked Gordon for
      his "principled stand" but said he didn't want to spend school money
      on this issue. "I wish you well in this process," he said. When asked
      if he had any specific requests of the committee, he said, "I ask
      that you not reduce my performance to a number or a grade."

      The group voted 3-2 to pass Pineault's motion, with Dieffenbach and
      Gordon voting against. The meeting continued in open session.

      Gordon asked whether Burton should leave, or at least whether Doris
      Goldthwaite, head of the Special Education program and a member of
      Burton's direct staff, should leave. It was agreed that Burton should
      stay, and Goldthwaite stayed at his request.

      "We are now descending into complete absurdity," said Gordon.

      The committee proceeded to discuss the evaluation draft written by
      Dieffenbach. With regard to budgeting, Pineault said, "I see that as
      one of Gary's strengths." Fletcher added, "Agree." Dieffenbach
      said, "We had a good process putting together the budget this year."

      The group went through the sections on Curriculum and Staff
      Development, Staff Recruiting, Hiring, and Retention, and
      Communication with similar laudatory remarks. Pineault said she would
      like to see continued progress in hiring candidates of color. She
      also said that it would be helpful if future goals were more
      measurable. With some minor modifications, the group voted
      unanimously to approve the evaluation.

      During the subsequent public comment period, Boston Globe reporter
      Matt McDonald asked for a copy of the draft evaluation so that he
      could refer to it in his story, which was due the next day.
      Dieffenbach refused to release it because it was a draft, but said
      the final document would be ready in a few days. Pineault pointed out
      that if a document is discussed in an open meeting, it becomes a
      public document. Dieffenbach said a request for the document could be
      submitted in writing, but the committee had ten days to honor such a
      request and the final evaluation document would be available well
      before then.

      This reporter asked if a copy of the evaluation could be made
      available electronically. After some speculation on the part of
      members that if an electronic copy were made available Wayland Voters
      Network would publish it in its entirety, the committee declined to
      do so. They did agree to provide a copy of the final, revised
      document in response to an email request.

      The meeting was adjourned.

      Wayland Voters Network requested and received by US mail the
      following week a copy of the final evaluation document. It refers
      to "performance against those goals" (the superintendent's goals
      delivered to the committee on September 17, 2004) as a major basis
      for the evaluation.

      The document congratulates Burton for completing the fiscal year with
      a small budgetary surplus and completing the Claypit Hill roof
      replacement on time and under budget. With regard to the budget, the
      document states:

      "Perhaps most impressive with respect to the 2005-2006 budget was
      your ability to maintain morale in the face of the prospective
      significant cuts that we published and that we would have implemented
      had the operating override not been approved by the voters. Moreover,
      you deserve a substantial portion of the credit for the override's
      passage as the result of your tireless efforts educating the
      community as to the need."

      With respect to the 2005-2006 budget, the committee writes: "As we
      learned at this past Annual Town Meeting, voters may be interested in
      additional detail regarding our capital needs. We ask that you plan
      to provide such detail for future meetings." (One of the "capital
      needs" not specifically listed in the warrant for April's Town
      Meeting or in the School Budget booklet was a new car for the
      superintendent.)

      Although the committee credits the superintendent for helping to win
      passage of April's operating override, it declines to assign him any
      blame for the failure of January's override for design funds for a
      new high school. It writes: "Given the margin of defeat on the
      proposed architectural design study for the high school modernization
      and expansion, the failure was likely not the result of poor
      execution, however, but rather the inevitable result of the state
      moratorium on school building reimbursement and other factors."

      With regard to curriculum/staff development and staff
      recruiting/hiring/training/retention, the committee acknowledges that
      it has very little direct visibility and states, "As such, our
      evaluation depends far more on what you report to us."

      Burton is praised for the Literacy Initiative in the elementary
      schools and encouraged to proceed with the analogous math program. He
      is congratulated for successful contract negotiations and "general
      personnel-related strengths." (No mention is made of generally high
      teacher salaries - third highest average salary in the state,
      according to the 7/3/05 Boston Globe, after Boston and Shawsheen
      Valley - nor of any parent or teacher dissatisfaction such as that
      expressed by parents and by non-resident teachers forced to travel to
      Wayland through the aftermath of last January's blizzard when Burton
      opened schools.)

      Burton is further lauded for his communication abilities with "peer
      town officials such as the Executive Secretary, Finance Director,
      Town Clerk, and Highway Director; members of boards including the
      Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee; the Town Moderator; the
      press; residents at large; and our elected representatives on Beacon
      Hill."

      Under the heading "Last Year's Evaluation," the document includes the
      following note: "On a more tactical note, we ask that you reinstate
      the collecting of parent email addresses along with the other contact
      information that is recorded each fall. This is needed again next
      year." (Why email addresses will be needed again next year is not
      explained.)

      This reporter could not find a single significant criticism of the
      superintendent in the document.

      The closing section includes the following: "As you harvest this
      document for our recommendations, please do so while bearing in mind
      your countless successes, both delineated here and not."

      A complete copy of the superintendent's evaluation can be obtained
      from his office.

      Thank you for reading this WVN newsletter. Please forward it to your
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      Wayland Voters Network
      Margo Melnicove and Michael Short, Editors