School chief James Weiss gets top grades

School chief James Weiss gets top grades

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As a difficult school year — one marked by significant financial challenges and sputtering negotiations with five union bargaining units representing school employees — comes to an end, superintendent of schools James Weiss recently received an encouraging pat on the back. In their annual review, members of the school committee and the superintendent’s cabinet said that Mr. Weiss always meets or exceeds’ expectations.

Twelve of 14 All-Island School Committee (AISC) members returned evaluation checklists to the personnel subcommittee, chaired by Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee member Dan Cabot.

Eleven of twelve school cabinet members responded. They include school principals and administrators in Mr. Weiss’s office.

The superintendent’s evaluation consisted of a checklist of items under the headings of educational direction, communication, professional growth, leadership, systemic functions, and annual goals 2009-10. There were six possible responses for each item, ranging from “fails to meet expectations,” to “exceeds expectations.”

Mr. Cabot compiled the data and summarized the findings.

“A most cursory glance at the checklist below reveals that Dr. Weiss enjoys the overwhelming support of his Cabinet and the All-Island School Committee,” Mr. Cabot wrote in the evaluation’s introduction. “Three-quarters of the AISC responses and more than 90 percent of the Cabinet responses said that Dr. Weiss ‘always meets’ or ‘exceeds’ expectations in the 38 categories covered by the evaluation.”

Decidedly positive

Many AISC members commented that communication is one of Mr. Weiss’s outstanding strengths, Mr. Cabot said. Mr. Weiss also received praise for his leadership in budget areas, and in particular, his decision to cap his own and other administrators’ salaries.

One commenter wrote, “Good job prioritizing cuts while not jeopardizing instruction levels.”

Mr. Cabot said although school cabinet members were not as forthcoming with comments, their responses were almost entirely positive.

“Dr. Weiss is described as an excellent leader: approachable, accessible, supportive, thoughtful, passionate about education, decisive, diligent,” Mr. Cabot said. “He was often simultaneously praised for effective communication (an area of great strength), and good listening.”

One of the cabinet members noted that, “Dr. Weiss is the best leader for whom I have worked. I don’t always agree with him or his direction, but I always agree with his methods.”

Only about two percent of the school committee responses checked that Mr. Weiss failed to meet expectations on any item, Mr. Cabot noted. Most of those items were under the headings of “communications” and “specific priorities for 2009-10.”

One AISC member commented that Mr. Weiss’s communications with school committee members were inadequate and sometimes private, which he or she thinks is wrong. The person also wrote that the UIRSD and superintendent’s budgets “don’t reflect that we are in difficult financial times.”

The only negative comment from a cabinet member came from a school principal that would have liked more direction from Mr. Weiss.

In follow-up after Mr. Cabot’s report, Susan Mercier of Edgartown, who chairs the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) school committee, said the superintendent’s evaluation is a great tool.

“I think his evaluation is done very objectively, and my assumption is that all members that do it put a lot of thought into it, as I did,” she said. “I think we as a community are just so lucky to have him, and he does such great things for all the students and staff and families across the Island.”

Marshall Segall of West Tisbury said he has found Mr. Weiss’s performance to be “splendid in all respects.”

“For me personally, I would say that the most satisfying aspect of my service as chair of the Up-Island regional school committee has been the work that has brought me into contact with Jim Weiss,” Mr. Segall said. “He is just a fine person to work with.”

Self-scrutiny

Mr. Weiss also provided a self-evaluation to the AISC.

“The 2009-2010 school year has been spent, in large part, on finances and negotiations; however, we have continued to emphasize several important instructional initiatives,” Mr. Weiss wrote. “The budget development process for each of our six entities has been long and involved due in large part to the economic downturn and the significant reduction in state support.”

“The High School and Up-Island budgets were smaller than previous years; however, the loss of state revenue resulted in assessments being up more than we would have liked,” Mr. Weiss added.

Given that increases to salaries and benefits are unlikely for the time being, negotiations with all five of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools’ bargaining units are especially challenging right now, Mr. Weiss said.

Complicating the process further is the size of the negotiation team. In addition to the traditional school committee team, Mr. Weiss said there is a representative from each of the six towns, for a total of 12 people. Such a large group makes it difficult to get a quorum.

“Additionally, these town reps come to the table with little experience in union negotiations or with a focus just on the impact for their community and not the entire Island,” Mr. Weiss said. “These issues have made bringing our process to a successful conclusion extremely problematic.”

On the plus side, Mr. Weiss noted that assistant superintendent Laurie Halt has continued to move the school system forward with a revised teacher evaluation system and improved collection and use of student data. An honors algebra program for eighth graders continues, and a writing lab has been established at the high school.

Improvements to early childhood programs and programs for students with emotional challenges have also been successful. However, Mr. Weiss said future growth may require additional funding in the individual district budgets or shared services budget.

In addition to Mr. Weiss’s evaluation, the AISC and cabinet members suggested future goals for him.

Based on concerns about the ongoing impact of the economic downturn on the level of services and programs that can be offered to students, Mr. Weiss said he would limit the number and scope of goals he sets for the 2010-11 school year.

He plans to discuss those goals at the AISC’s meeting tonight at 7:30 pm in the MVRHS library conference room.