The School Committee has appointed John M. Flick of Gardner to investigate allegations made against Southbridge Superintendent of Schools Patricia Gardner. He is mandated to present his findings to the Committee by December 3rd.
While indicating a concession to public opinion, the action is essentially meaningless.
First and foremost is why the Superintendent was not put on paid administrative leave as has been the practice in the past. Certainly the charges preferred against her would seem to warrant such an action. According to the presentation made by Committee Member Raymond Page the Superintendent threatened not merely to “get” the complainant. She also attempted to compel the individual to sign a document implicating a former school official in acts of misconduct and threatening to destroy documents relating to last year’s MCAS. In addition, she supposedly made reference to the medical condition of an employee, indicating that, had she been aware of the condition, they would not have been hired.
Seething below the surface is the development of an emerging split within the committee. It should not go unnoticed that those lodging the complaint took their issues to Mr. Page. There can be little doubt among observers that he constitutes a voice of reason as well as having a talent for cutting to the core of issues. Perhaps there has been no better illustration of this than when he asked how it could be that students were given passing grades but subsequently failed to perform on the MCAS exams.
In the course of this he has apparently gained the respect and support of Committee Members Olivo and Congdon. Arrayed in continuing support of the current administration remains a majority consisting of McLoughlin, Donovan, Quinney and Abrahamson.
Prior to taking up this matter, the Committee received a report from DESE representatives on the Southbridge District’s latest Accelerated Improvement Plan (AIP). During comments on Mr. Page’s filing of the complaint several members commented on the hope that this plan would move the community forward and that it should not be derailed by such distractions.
Despite the glowing sense of accomplishment with which the DESE presentation was greeted by its proponents, it overlooks a few salient facts. Foremost among these is the fact that those espousing it were an entirely new team. Obviously we have no insight into what happened to the team that had overseen prior AIP’s. I strongly suspect, however, that much has to do with the unwillingness of the DESE to admit its past failures to carve out a path to improvement for the District for fear that it might ultimately be called in to take it over. Better to put in a new team and let them posture as a mechanism to achieve what has not been accomplished for more than a decade.
As a consequence, those supporting the current administration are given a reset button by which they can simultaneously say things are about to get better and let’s not change horses.
The reality is, however, that the current Superintendent is not, at heart, an educator. She is a former school principal who has been mentored by an individual who long ago forsaked his own claim to that role and transformed into a political gamesman. (See for example our prior article Blind Faith). She views this as an opportunity to move into the rarefied atmosphere of school superintendents and set Southbridge as a base from which to progress. One clear example of this is her use of Walter Solzak as an attack dog just as her predecessor used his Director of Operations.
As we move through the holiday period from late November to the New Year, there will be little opportunity for Committee Members to extricate themselves from this mess.
We will move into the coming year and the beginning of public attention to the school issues, and there will be an incentive for new candidates to come forward in anticipation of the June elections. There will be of a focus on the outrageous expenses incurred by the School Committee in areas such as unemployment insurance, legal expenses and school choice. This will be coupled with their abject failure to demonstrate any meaningful progress.
The balance of public outrage will fall most heavily on those up for reelection to the Committee – McLoughlin and Donovan.
There is always the possibility that either or both will not seek to be reelected. However, in either case, they are both confronted with the need to make a decision about either a campaign for office or a question of their legacy.
Of the four who are currently committed to the present administration, I do not expect Abrahamson or Quinney to change their position. Abrahamson is essentially a cipher who rants but provides no substantive guidance to the system or its policies. Quinney is so deeply wedded to special needs students that she can see little beyond that. Take for example her clear inability to even comprehend the word “redacted”.
Of the remaining two, who will be up for reelection, I believe that it is most likely that Donovan will recognize that a dramatic move is necessary. If she receives the Flick report and decides that Gardner has to go, then she may well have an opportunity to reposition herself. By choosing not to renew Gardner’s contract, and moving to open a search for a new Superintendent, she would position herself with the current minority. It is possible that McLoughlin could do the same, but that would require repudiating much of what she has stood for.
However, this would not work for Donovan if it were done behind the scenes. It would require her to come out publicly shortly after the Flick report.
It will be seen if Donovan has become disaffected from the last three years of this School Committee and break with McLoughlin or whether she is merely Lauren’s appendage.