WVN #462: School Committee takes a long view
- Dear Wayland Voter,
Mention the word retreat and many people imagine corporate executives jetting to private golf courses in balmy climes. Not so for the Wayland School Committee, which occasionally schedules meetings described as "retreats." They're not private, nor distant. But they are a chance to get away from sometimes eye-glazing day-to-day detail to discuss larger and long-range issues.
As a nod to the idea of retreat, there is food. Attend one of these sessions and you may be sure that Committee members will share their cookies with you.
Role of SC/Evaluation/Planning
The School Committee held a retreat on July 24 with a consultant facilitator, Irwin Blumer, a professor of education at Boston College. Although this was a public meeting, filmed by WayCAM, the camera operator and a WVN reporter were the only non-officials present.
Blumer's main topics were on keeping communications open and honest and doing business effectively. He emphasized that meetings should spring no surprises and ensure that all voices are heard.
First, the five committee members discussed the role of the SC. They all agreed that their role was policy while the superintendent's role was to carry out policy. The four tasks of the SC are (1) budgeting, (2) policy, (3) hiring and evaluating the superintendent and (4) collective bargaining with the teachers union. The SC does not get involved with issues of curriculum and choice of books, by Massachusetts law.
One example of policy vs. implementation came with the idea of Global Education. The SC wishes the schools to prepare students to live in the international community. The implementation of the offerings of Chinese classes comes from the superintendent.
How the SC is to evaluate implementation of policy was discussed. Superintendent Paul Stein reports to the SC and the SC asks questions. The SC expects Stein to get feedback from principals and from the community. Blumer suggested that an indicator of success of the Global Education policy would be if more students enrolled in the succeeding year.
Blumer said there is no longer a push for five-year plans because current theory says that this is too far in the future. Instead, two-year plans are now the norm and strategic initiatives should be reevaluated after one or two years.
Discussion soon focused on problems this SC has faced. One issue is what to do when a parent or other citizen has a complaint. SC members have to make a value judgment about the scope of a complaint they get informally at the grocery store or in a personal email. If it concerns only an interaction between a teacher and a student, for example, it is best to follow the "chain of command": First the parent should talk to the teacher. If this does not provide a satisfactory result, the parent should talk to the principal. Next comes the superintendent. If nothing in the chain of command works, it may be appropriate to be discussed by the committee. (If the subject is sensitive, such as a complaint against one teacher might be, this may take place in executive session. Any suspected criminal activity must be reported to the police and is not SC business.)
Blumer pointed out that while an individual SC member may have an opinion on a subject that is brought up with another citizen on an informal basis, the SC member should be careful to say that his or her opinion is not a School Committee opinion unless it has been discussed by the SC.
This led to a case where one SC member, Ellen Grieco, had received several emails from one citizen about the upcoming discussions on the auditing of several accounts. This is an issueof wide scope and immediate public interest. The problem was that Grieco was reluctant to forward the email to other SC members and to Stein because of the Open Meeting Law.
Following Open Meeting Law
There was some feeling on the committee that no documents could be distributed in advance of meetings because of this law, making meetings much too long because members did not have time to read documents before meetings. In fact, the SC has been taking the precaution of distributing documents at one meeting and then postponing discussion until the following meeting. In other words, the only mechanism for making documents public was distributing them at open meetings.
However, most other town committees do distribute documents to members between meetings. These documents then are public documents and there must be a way for the public to see them. For example, they can be put on a website, or they can be available in paper in a well-publicized location.
There are some exceptions. By law, if the document contains an opinion of a School Committee member, it is defined as a "deliberation" and cannot be made public outside of a meeting. Also, if the document is of limited or personal scope, such as a complaint by a parent about a teacher, all agreed that it should not be made public unless it became SC business.
Blumer suggested that the SC establish a policy on sharing emails or other information obtained by any SC member between meetings. Discussion on email policy should be public. The principle is that if one member of the SC knows something, everyone (including Stein and the general public) should know. There should be no surprises at meetings. Sharing information at the last minute puts people in a bind.
The state has made a clear distinction between "information" and "deliberation" in the Open Meeting Law.
The Open Meeting Law defines deliberation as "an oral or written communication through any medium, including electronic mail, between or among a quorum of a public body on any public business within its jurisdiction." Distribution of a meeting agenda, scheduling or procedural information, or reports or documents that may be discussed at a meeting is often helpful to public body members when preparing for upcoming meetings and will generally not constitute deliberation, provided that when these materials are distributed no member of the public body expresses an opinion on matters within the body's jurisdiction.
Before making a change in document distribution, the Committee wants to resolve an argument from a citizen that the law requires the inefficient current method.
Blumer said that SC members should be advocates for the school system, but that does not mean that they are not able to criticize certain aspects. However, the tone of the criticism should be respectful.
The tone question has also affected the working of the SC when criticism comes from outside the SC. Member Ellen Grieco said that SC members have gotten upset and this makes it harder to get work done.
Blumer said when complaints come from outside, even when the tone is bad, there are only two things you can do: ignore the complaint and move on or fix the complaint and move on. The SC should just say they did as well as they could on the issue and move on.
This led the Committee to take up letters to the editor in the Town Crier written by member Shawn Kinney last year. Blumer asked why letters were written before the issue was discussed. Kinney said that he wanted to inform the public about the issues, and he pointed out that more people read the Crier than watch entire SC meetings on WayCAM or attend SC meetings.
Beth Butler explained that she had been upset about the tone of the letters (there were more than one). They seemed critical of schools and she did not agree with the underlying assumptions. Also, she said, one of them did not say explicitly that it was the personal opinion of the writer. Barbara Fletcher said that if people feel an issue is not resolved, they should talk about it more rather than going to the public. Grieco questioned whether the school committee at the time had addressed the issues fairly. She also said she valued having someone like Kinney, with strong feelings, on the SC.
Kinney said he resented being asked to make a vote unanimous. Blumer said that committees can, when the vote is not unanimous, take a second vote attempting to "support the decision of the committee" through unanimity. Thus, even when someone disagrees, if the majority of the committee votes for something, the decision is respected as a team decision. This is not used for routine matters, but for something as major as appointment of a superintendent. The practice is rare in Wayland.
The five Committee members agreed that since the composition of the SC and also the administrative team have changed, many issues have been resolved. The real issue here, they concluded, is not whether individual members can write letters to the editor (they can). The issue is, can the SC talk through problems and function efficiently?
Blumer suggested that members let their colleagues know during a meeting when they intend to write a letter. This would prevent surprises and might might lead to further discussion on the issue of contention.
Another item that came up was whether or not SC Chairman Fletcher has too much work and should delegate some of it. Blumer said that the "race to the top" requirements are coming and this would be a perfect instance where Fletcher might assign another member to be point person.
Blumer's last item was "next steps." He asked that the Committee consider how to evaluate itself and what should be the norms of behavior.
Malcolm Astley summarized the retreat by saying he thought some high points of discussion were: (1) be sure that issues get a full hearing (avoiding going to the public in the newspapers) (2) try to move the agenda (3) notify Stein about specific questions on his reports (4) get clarity on rules for sharing emails, (5) for communication from non-SC members, use the chain of command for personal problems.
Audit of Questioned Accounts
After the retreat discussion concluded, some regular business took place. Rebecca Chasen, the former chairman of the Operational Review Committee, and Geoff MacDonald, the schoolbusiness administrator, joined the meeting.
This was mostly about the audit of certain controversial school accounts, most of which are now closed. These include the principal's discretionary accounts, some revolving funds and student activity funds. There seems to be general agreement within the SC and the public that these funds were not handled appropriately in the past. Funds earmarked for one purpose were used for another. Town Meeting voted to have the history of these funds examined. Although it has been referred to as an "audit," it is not technically a formal audit.
The examination of these funds is to be done in two phases. There are two boxes of records referring to the high school principal's discretionary account and to the high school student activities account. First, an auditing firm from outside Wayland will be asked to look at records in these two boxes to get an idea of what the scope of the examination should be. Then the SC will request proposals for a deeper evaluation. Questions to be answered included: What went on? Who was involved? Are some of the involved persons still around? Were there tax implications? How should involved persons be retrained? In addition, a clear assessment of current procedures should be made and recommendations for remedies or changes in procedure should be made. The thrust is to start wide, then know where to go deep.
In a follow-up meeting on July 26 the Committee approved a letter to be sent to four accounting firms recommended by Rebecca Chasen to ascertain interest and availability and get the process started to define what should be looked at. Simultaneously the newly appointed town Audit Committee will be contacted to see what role it can play in the effort. Tony Boschetto is the SC appointee on the Audit Committee, which will convene for the first time on Aug. 6. Kinney will be the contact for the audit firms and the liaison to the Audit Committee if it gets involved. The members agreed that this course of action was likely to get results most quickly; all expressed a desire to resolve the matter as quickly as possible. The July 26 SC meeting is available on WayCAM:
-- Betty Salzberg
Monday, July 30:
Operational Review Committee, 6 p.m.:
School Committee, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, Aug. 1:
Board of Selectmen, 7 p.m.
Permanent Municipal Building Committee, 6:30 p.m.
Monday, Aug. 6:
Audit Committee, 6 p.m.
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor