WVN #397: School Committee races-- nuanced differences
- School Committee Races
Newcomers are seeking two of the three School Committee seats up for grabs on April 5. There are no stark differences between candidates. Factors that voters may be considering include:
-- Experience v. the prospect of new energy and approaches.
-- Responses to the Abrahams report, which points to serious flaws in school accounting.
-- Representation of school populations.
For more information on candidates and their positions see:
School Committee incumbents argue that their experience is critical because a new superintendent is arriving and several other current administrators are in new positions. They also say that the Committee needs a base of experience because there is a lot to learn. Louis Jurist has been on the Committee for three years, Barb Fletcher for six. Beth Butler was appointed last June when Jeff Dieffenbach resigned after many years on the Committee. She had lost an election bid to Shawn Kinney.
Jurist and Fletcher point out that if they lose their seats the Committee will have only one member with more than a year of experience. They also say that they are in a good position to introduce the new superintendent, Paul Stein, to Wayland's singularities, systems and culture.
An unusual aspect of the races is that Jurist, the Committee chairman, chose to run for a one-year term so that Butler can seek a three-year term. He explained that he didn't want Butler to have to face voters three years in a row. The timing of Dieffenbach's resignation presented the chance for an appointment that would give Butler several months to build credentials for a run.
Challenging Jurist is Ellen Grieco, an attorney. Facing Butler and Fletcher is Alexia Obar. Both have been active school parents.
Grieco and Obar, whose campaign signs are paired on many Wayland lawns, offer an aggressive attitude toward improving financial controls and their experience as mothers who will have children in the schools for many years to come. Only they have children in elementary schools.
All candidates favor administrative efficiencies to save money for more direct student services. None favor sacrificing educational quality to lower costs. Nuances differ. For example, challenger Grieco favors the continuation of neighborhood schools. Reopening Loker is widely assumed as kindergarten populations rise. Incumbent Fletcher, on the other hand, speaks of having a "discussion" over whether to switch to grade level schools, an educationally equivalent and more cost-efficient system, but one that is less convenient and appears to be less popular with parents.
Incumbents have children who are graduates of the schools or soon will be. Some voters may take parenthood into account. Members sometimes leave the committee when their youngest child graduates.
In two very polite TV appearances, answers to questions often began with a variation on "I agree with everything the others have said..." The most pointed comment came from Grieco who, without naming names, criticized a statement by Butler during an earlier meeting that the Committee shouldn't question the honesty and integrity of administrators. That can be taken as an implied criticism of a School Committee that gave positive reviews to a superintendent who stuck with a business manager who presided over an accounting system lacking in adequate controls against theft and fraud.
Dealing with the Abrahams Report
One large item on the agenda awaiting the School Committee is the report from the Abrahams Group, which lists among schools' financial management shortcomings five irregular bank accounts. See:
All five candidates said positive things about the report. There are many findings and suggestions; it would be difficult not to find something useful. The selectmen objected to the release of the report on the grounds that it was a draft and could contain errors and misperceptions.
The School Committee incumbents have promised to take action on final recommendations.
It would be surprising if the report were flawless. In fact Jurist pointed to one apparent anomaly, a suggestion that the schools could save money by outsourcing food service. The service is self-supported by fees, Jurist said.
Still, the most serious Abrahams criticisms are likely to stand up, and taxpayers are likely to demand serious, complete answers. In addition to laxity in accounting for school spending, the report points to five accounts operated for years and known as Principal's Discretionary Funds. The accounts were closed recently. The funds violated state law by being set up improperly and managed without passing the money through the town treasurer.
As far as is known, the accounts contained only donated funds, not taxpayer money, and were used for valid purposes by honest people. Still, a lot of money was deposited and disbursed -- $155,000 deposited into the high school account in 2009 alone, for example.
Funds were used for such things as bus trips and retirement parties. But large sums deposited and spent involved testing (presumably SATs). The scale of the funds raises questions:
-- Why was testing paid for with these funds rather than the normal process involving the town treasurer?
-- If employees were paid as proctors, were IRS withholding requirements met?
-- How do we know that there were no irregularities in the way the funds were handled?
-- Since these funds were managed by the town government, public records laws apply. Are all required records available? If they're not available, was the form required by law filed?
One Member Embraced Report Early
Committee member Shawn Kinney, who has been very public in asking for serious and immediate responses to the draft Abrahams report, appears to be the odd man out on the current Committee. He proposed the May 2010 Town Meeting resolution, endorsed by the Finance Committee and accepted by voters, that led to the Abrahams report. For months he abstained on votes at which his colleagues approved payments -- sometimes larger than $1 million -- without seeing any documentation. (He began voting with other members only when the new business manager began issuing a summary.)
Kinney wrote a March 24 Wayland Town Crier guest column explaining the highlights of the Abrahams report. It includes a link to video showing him at odds with his colleagues during a 2010 meeting over authorizing payments. See it at:
The two challengers have linked themselves to Kinney, who is endorsing them. If they win, a new majority would be able to influence the direction of the Committee and the schools.
-- Michael Short
DOCUMENTS RELATED TO WVN #395
To see documents referenced in WVN Newsletter #395, concerning Article 17, planned use of the decommissioned Wayland-Sudbury septage treatment plant, and Twenty Wayland's wastewater issues see:
WASTEWATER MEETING DATE CHANGE
The Wastewater Management District Commission (WWMDC) will meet on Wednesday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m. in Town Building. The agenda includesTwenty Wayland and the Construction and Reimbursement Agreement, final preparation for Town Meeting (WWMDC is sponsoring Article 18), and planning for a public hearing in June for user fee rates and adoption of water conservation guidelines and regulations.
The meeting had been scheduled for a date after Town Meeting, which begins on April 7.
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Michael Short, Editor