My concerns validated over full regionalization of Schools

By Allen Nitschelm
Publisher, Acton Forum

[NOTE ONE: There is a critical meeting of the School Committee tonight at 7:30 pm in the High School auditorium. If you are concerned about the recent resignation of the Superintendent, please attend this meeting and demand answers from our elected officials.]

[NOTE TWO: Acton Forum website is experiencing some technical difficulties. So this article will be sent out in its entirety with no link to the website. Feel free to forward to your friends...]

Let's go back in history a few years...

Some of you old-timers will remember when the issue of fully regionalizing the schools was on the agenda. For the newer members of our community, the High School and Junior High School have been regionalized for many years, but the elementary schools were under local control until about three years ago.

This was one of the last issues I followed pretty closely, and I ended up giving a presentation at Town Meeting opposed to full regionalization.

I was a full regionalization supporter to begin with, because I thought it could save money, which is my number one priority as a fiscal conservative. But as I got involved, I had several concerns. Eventually, I decided to oppose the specific proposal.

After full regionalization was approved, I did a series of articles about how the "con" side of this debate was limited by the rules of Town Meeting and its Moderator, who at the time was Don Mackenzie. Basically, I object to any forum in which people are asked to vote, yet both sides are not equally presented. If one side is given preference, then the vote is tainted. So it is my belief that tainted votes occur often at Town Meeting, and that this eventually discourages people from objecting or participating because they figure out the system isn't set up to be fair and impartial.

I wasn't crying over spilt milk, i.e., the vote itself. Full regionalization was approved, and I moved on, But I wanted people to be aware that the process was broken with the hope that future leaders would fix it.

One concern was raised by former School Committee member John Petersen. Petersen thought the assessment formula between the two towns was too generous to Boxborough and therefore not fair to Acton taxpayers. Petersen was right, although as I recall he still publicly supported full regionalization in spite of this problem. (They did make some minor concessions to increase the payments to Acton, which might have satisfied Petersen but not me.)

We have now seen the effects of the unfair formula: lower tax rate for Boxborough, higher tax rate for Acton. And, as a direct result, higher home values for Boxborough and lower home values for Acton (relative to each other, of course.)

The second concern I had has now become apparent and has been validated. We have concentrated too much power in the hands of too few individuals. We have turned over the entire school system with no "check and balance" to a small group of individuals who appear to be doing whatever they want. without regard to public input, disclosure, or accountability. Many of these "elected" members run unopposed.

Anyone concerned about "good government" should be very worried about what we have witnessed over the past few days. And the School Committee member who decided to publicly not support the election of new Chair Amy Kirshnamurthy is a clear warning sign. You may want to watch her very short statement on Acton TV, click on the government channel, and the SC meeting of May 18. Her statement is right near the beginning, just before they vote for the new Chair. (here is the direct link: http://actontv.org/on-demand/post-video/school-committee-5-18-17).

Under the old system, the Board of Selectmen had some tangential financial oversight of the local elementary schools. There was also an Acton (and Boxborough) local School Committee, which widened participation and made it such that all major decisions had to be passed by three boards. Inefficient? Yes. Protecting the rights of the public? Much more so.

For all the parents and residents who are upset over what has transpired, the lack of transparency, the refusal to answer questions, etc., we have now reaped what we have sown.

Tonight, the School Committee will be holding an "open" meeting to discuss Dr. Glenn Brand's resignation. It is unknown and unclear how much information they will give out.

Will they actually be open? Will they fully explain what happened? Or will they refuse to answer questions?

IF THEY ARE OPEN

If they are open and answer all questions, that would be great. But the circumstances of Dr. Brand's resignation, then, show some sort of incompetence among our elected officials. If Dr. Brand and the School Committee had all these operational and philosophical differences, why wasn't this publicly debated? Why the rush to get Brand out with only six weeks left in the school year and lots of important initiatives nearing completing, like the proposal to build or renovate several elementary schools?

And why would Dr. Brand be given up to $200,000 over the next year, when this "amicable" separation could have been timed to have either no payout or at most a six-month payout? If the School Committee had just chosen not to renew Brand's contract, he would work until it ended and that would be that. So why is this happening with no warning and a large financial hit for the district which could easily have been avoided?

IF THEY ARE NOT OPEN

If the School Committee refuses to speak about Dr. Brand's resignation, the circumstances which led to it, and won't answer specific questions at tonight's meeting, then we have a very serious problem, one that may require a legal solution to uncover and fix.

I am going to withhold judgment and recommendations until after tonight's meeting. The School Committee has agreed not to take a vote tonight, so the pressure is off for the time being. But if the Committee does not give answers to the public like has been suggested by the timing and agenda of this meeting, then we are going to have to consider drastic action to correct their mistakes and uncover their subterfuge.

PLEA FOR THE SILENT TO SPEAK

Let me close with a request for any School Committee members to publicly speak out. There seems to be an impression among some Committee members that only the Chair can talk. This is patently and completely false.

There should only be one "spokesperson" for the School Committee, and that is the Chair. Absent a meeting, only the Chair should speak "for the Committee." That is a great policy and a necessary one, and that is what is meant by having only the Chair "speak."

But...But...But...individual School Committee members have a responsibility to their voters and to their moral compass. They are free to speak "as individuals" (and not for the Committee as a whole) at any time or place and in any venue. They can speak out at a meeting, they can hold a press conference, they can write a blog. Their only speaking (and meeting) restriction is when there is a quorum of SC members present and their communication may violate the Open Meeting Law. Otherwise, they have a First Amendment right to talk about any issue they wish. (With the caveat that they should not disclose confidential information learned in an executive session...but that would be very specific facts, not generalities.)

I was on the Finance Committee and I chose to speak out against how our annual budgets were being considered by Town Meeting. I made an approved (by the Town Moderator, who appoints FinCom members) presentation at Town Meeting, which was then used as a pretext to not reappoint me to the Committee for another term. So there is a "danger" that speaking one's mind will end up with having the other members "shun" you because you are not "respecting the decisions of the committee as a whole." This is an entirely made up standard that people are free to disregard, if they feel strongly about something.

Let me also publicly state that as the publisher of the Acton Forum, I am willing to speak with anyone who wants to call or email me OFF THE RECORD and I will maintain their confidentiality if so requested. That means that ANYONE who wishes to speak off the record can do so with me and their information can be disseminated with no repercussions to them. This shouldn't be necessary if the separation is "amicable" as has been said by both parties, but if it is not, I hope someone will let me know and then the public can be better informed before taking whatever next steps are appropriate.

My cell number for anyone who wishes to talk with me off the record is 978-621-4207. Feel free to leave a message if I don't pick up and I will call you back.

So I hope we hear publicly from anyone on the Committee who feels at all uncomfortable with what is happening, or I hear privately from them if they wish to or feel they must remain confidential. (If you just leave a message or send me an anonymous email, that can also be useful but if I can't validate who you are and how you came to know something, I may not be able to act on it at all. So be brave and tell me who you are and let me speak with you, and I will keep your involvement strictly confidential.)

I also hope anyone concerned about the circumstances of Dr. Glenn Brand's departure will attend tonight's (Wednesday) School Committee meeting, held at 7:30 in the high school auditorium. Come with questions you'd like answered, or just come to listen and witness. The more people who show up, the greater the School Committee will be worried about public anger over this whole situation.

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