New school committee members go to school too
Congratulations, you've won the election. But now what?
If you're Deval Patrick, you headed off to White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where the National Governors Association runs a crash course in how to be a state governor. Newly-elected members of congress had a two-week course in Washington, starting with how to navigate the miles of corridors and tunnels of Capitol Hill. Freshman members of Massachusetts school committees get an orientation program, too.
Getting myself elected a member of the Up-Island Regional School District committee this past fall was the easy part - there were five candidates for five positions on the Nov. 7 ballot. Doing a good job will be a lot harder. On the advice of Superintendent James Weiss and former members of the UIRSD committee, I headed for Hyannis on Nov. 8 for a meeting of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS), where I found more than 10 hours of training spread out over four days.
Since 2003, state law has required that school committee members get at least eight hours of orientation within their first year of service. The MASC Academy for School Leadership offers courses in the roles and responsibilities of school committees, the basics of school finance, school law, special education, collective bargaining, and the evaluation of superintendents. I found that most of my fellow freshman, some of whom were elected as long as a year ago, fell into two main groups - parents of current students and (like me) retired educators who just cannot bear to cut themselves off completely from schools.
This is not quite my first rodeo. As an independent (private) school administrator, I went to dozens of meetings of boards of trustees, so I know in general what school boards do. They hire the chief administrator and concern themselves with broad issues of policy and finance, but they have nothing at all to do with the day-to-day running of the school. And as a current trustee of the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, I get a look at the operations of public schools. As a member of the West Tisbury personnel board, I'd read the Massachusetts open meeting law. Nevertheless, in Hyannis I found there is a lot I don't know, including much I didn't know I didn't know. Here are some impressions.
The open meeting law
I learned that a board or a committee can hold an illegal meeting via e-mail. I knew, of course, that the public's business must be done in public. Obviously a conference telephone call would violate both the spirit and the letter of the open meeting law, since the public would have no access to the discussion. But I hadn't thought about e-mails. I've found it fairly common for one member of a board (say, for example, a personnel board) to send an e-mail to the other members proposing an idea. That's perfectly okay - provided nobody replies. It has always been legal to send documents to board members in advance of meetings. But as soon as one member clicks "reply" (or worse, "reply to all"), a quorum of the board has, perhaps unintentionally, carried on a discussion, which by law must happen only in a posted public meeting. If one member's comment is forwarded to others, that member may have violated the open meeting law without even knowing it.
The advice of the MASC is to use e-mails only for housekeeping details (to change a meeting time, for example). Substantive e-mails should be prominently headed, "Do not reply" in large letters.
The public records law
E-mails and instant messages (IMs) also come under the public records law, as Congressman Mark Foley has discovered to his regret. I don't always save the e-mails I get, and I almost never save copies of e-mails I send. I don't even know how to save IMs. In Hyannis I learned that when e-mails concern public business, no matter how minor, they should be saved. In fact MASC recommends that e-mails and IMs be printed out and filed as hard copies. I'll have to think about that one.
Almost anything you can imagine generated by a board, committee, or anyone acting in an official capacity is a public record, and everyone has an absolute right to inspect it or copy it, with a handful of important exceptions.
In Hyannis, I was not shocked to learn that state officials disagree about the exceptions. For example, the evaluation of a superintendent, as well as the notes, questionnaires, interviews, etc., used to arrive at it, may or may not be public records, depending on whom you ask. The Public Records Office of the Commonwealth says these are personnel records and therefore exempt from the public records law. However, the district attorneys in all eleven districts have ruled that superintendents' professional evaluations (as opposed to comments about character) are not exempt from the public records law (or from the open meeting law). MASC says that six lawyers will give you six different opinions.
Like many others, I always thought that draft minutes of meetings were not public records until the board approved them. Not true. Drafts, tape recordings, and even raw notes (other than private, personal notes) may be inspected by any member of the public. Even if a note-taker wrote in shorthand or some personal code, he must allow his notes to be inspected and copied, although he is not obliged to translate them.
School finance I and II
I sat through two classes on school finance, both of which concerned the state's support of public schools under Chapter 70 of the Massachusetts General Laws. Chapter 70 is supposed to specify minimum spending limits for public schools and provide support for school districts that cannot afford even the minimum. The problem is that the present minimum (called "the foundation budget" and calculated by the state for each town's actual student population) is far less than what it costs to provide a minimum education. The state is undergoing the difficult process of raising the foundation budget to somewhere near what it actually costs to educate a student. Getting to new foundation levels is about as easy as a Chihuahua's giving birth to a Great Dane. And even then, even when the foundation has finally been raised, Chapter 70 funds will still not include things like transportation and capital costs.
The simple method would be to raise the foundation budget, ask the towns that already pay more than the minimum to continue what they've been doing, and come up with the difference to support poor towns. It's not that simple. So that all towns get support for their schools, the legislature has agreed that no town will be asked to pay more than 82.5 percent of the foundation budget. Rich towns (including all Island towns) pay 82.5 percent of the foundation budget plus whatever else they choose to pay. However, the state doesn't have enough money to support poor towns and cities (in some cases by as much as 90 percent of their foundation budgets) plus pay all those extra 17.5 percents.
So the state is going to phase in changes in the foundation budgets over five years. Every town has a different "target spending level," which will keep changing because of municipal growth and changes in student populations. Each town is required to reach this moving target in four stages. The resulting squiggly mess is producing the huge estimated swings in the "wealth-based" apportionment system for the Island. Towns could still agree to share regional foundation budget costs according to local regional agreements, but all the towns in the district must agree. Looking at the numbers, it seems unlikely that voters in all the towns will agree.
The UIRSD and the MVRHS will continue to follow their regional agreements to apportion the considerable funds they spend above the foundation budget levels.
It was disappointing to me that School Finance I and School Finance II were concerned entirely with revenue. When I asked for advice on controlling spending, the MASC teacher simply shrugged. Maybe there'll be another workshop.
Bargaining with or through a union is new to me. As a private school teacher, I always made my own deal with whatever headmaster I would be working for in the coming year. I had 38 one-year contracts. As a school committee member, I'll have an opportunity to vote on the union contracts, but I won't be doing any negotiations, at least not any time soon.
Vineyard schools are even now negotiating new contracts with five different bargaining units, as the present three-year contracts expire in June. Interestingly, one of the MASC instructors told us that on the Vineyard, where everyone knows everyone else, bargaining is done entirely through agents. He thought that was a good idea. Whether or not it's a good idea, it's not true, as I learned when I returned. On the Vineyard, as in most districts, an Island-wide team is negotiating face-to-face, beginning with the teachers' union.
I did hear what sounded to my inexperienced ears like some good advice: The goal is not to have one side or the other win; it is to get to the fairest possible contract. Along the way, everyone should leave the negotiations in the negotiating room ("What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas"). Whatever the other side might say in the heat of disagreement, individuals should try not to take it personally. When the bargaining is over, the teacher's representative goes back to being a teacher, and the school committee negotiator goes back to being a neighbor, parent, friend, and whatever else he was before. The negotiations are a success if everyone can shake hands at the end.
Special education (SPED) costs on the Vineyard have been rising, and taxpayers and school committee members are puzzled. I've already heard taxpayers ask, "Why do we have so many SPED students?" I learned no answers in Hyannis, but I did learn that SPED costs are mushrooming everywhere. The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) is a largely unfunded federal mandate that could, in an extreme case, cost a school district more than $300,000 to educate a single student. Massachusetts has a "circuit breaker" law that requires the state to pay 75 percent of the student's costs after his or her expenses pass three times the average per-pupil cost, but that can still leave an enormous sum. Moreover, the circuit breaker does not include the cost of transporting the student to school, which can exceed the in-school expenses. The worst thing for school committees is that sudden new SPED expenses are unpredictable and uncontrollable.
In general across the state, more parents are demanding SPED services than ever before, and they are demanding them earlier. In the case of extreme medical need, the rise in costs may be because the medical profession is saving more infants who in earlier years would not have survived.
SPED cost is a state-wide problem, and the SPED session I went to was packed with more than 200 participants, many of whom were parents of SPED students as well as school committee members. There was not a lot of good news, but I learned that there are groups working on change. Other than forming collaboratives among neighboring districts, there is not much that schools themselves can do to control costs. The obvious solution, more adequate state and federal financing, is essentially a political one.
It was an exhausting four days. The observations above are only a few of a flood of impressions. As a freshman school committee member, I did not come away from Hyannis filled with confidence, but I did come away with notebooks filled with resources, some new information, and a determination to do the best job I can. More than anything else, I was impressed with how hard school committees work and how much members care about kids.