Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why The Schools?

Ken O’Brien

Recently someone commenting on this blog noted, “Personally I think you focus on the Schools too much, but this is your creation and you are entitled to be critical of any of the poorly run departments of this overtaxed poorly run town.”

Others have indicated that they think I have a vendetta against the School Committee and that I’m using this forum to constantly attack them.

The reality is that I have come to the conclusion that the abysmal condition of our schools is the basis of much of what is wrong with Southbridge. 

Whether we are discussing home values, property taxes, the lack of businesses, employment opportunities or a variety of socioeconomic realities, the condition of our schools is a bedrock issue.

Virtually no one is going to buy a home in a town that has been rated at level IV for two decades. If that is the case then all of the factors that stem from that suffer. Our housing stock is aging with most, if not a majority of that stock, having been built before I was born.

Even for renters those properties are essentially inadequate with the frequent allegations about absentee landlords or slumlords”. Nevertheless the rents for these properties are artificially high in large part because they are subsidized by a variety of state and federal programs.

And the state of our schools is now impacting the town's search for a town manager.

But I digress.

For ten of the last twenty years a significant segment of the population viewed the solution to our problem as building a new school – particularly a new high school. There can be little debate that such a development was needed.

Through the tenure of two school superintendents, ending with that of Dr. Dale Hanley, this view gained momentum. It was finally realized, however the much sought after new millennium did not emerge.

In large part this was the result of political infighting among members of the school committee. It resulted in the current situation which began with the choice of Eric Ely and has subsequently continued with the appointment of Basan Nembirkow and Patricia Gardner as superintendents without any formal selection process.

This process, or lack thereof, has been amplified by the current committee through the expansion of central office personnel, the expansion of the lack of transparency, the catering to special interests and the use of intimidation to increasingly separate the public from the education of their children.

More than anywhere else this failure has been exemplified at the Middle/High School. Most recently we have, among other things, the superintendent (allegedly) telling the principal that she wouldn’t have gotten the job if she knew that the principal in question had lupus. Of course there are the other allegations that she directed a subordinate to sign a document contrary to their wishes and threatened in response to shred documents.

This is merely one example of a pattern of bullying and use of authority to squelch public dissatisfaction. The case of Sarai McNeill is just another.

The foregoing simplifies many matters. However, I believe that it fairly summarizes the trend.

And what is the upshot?

We have the current school committee falling back upon the recent report by the DESE about the rosy outlook for the future. When hasn’t the DESE in their quarterly reports given less than a rosy outlook if the numerous Accelerated Improvement Plans to which we have been subjected were followed?

The reality is that the State doesn’t want to have to deal with Southbridge. Who remembers a time not so long ago when current school committee member Brent Abrahamson joined a chorus advocating for a state takeover of the Southbridge school system?

Now an entirely new State team comes in and gives a report on the road to a promised land. What happened to the old team?

The current school leadership argues that MCAS scores are improving. The reality is that they are focusing on statistical aberrations to place the results in the best possible light.

The current school committee is the worst we have seen in two decades. I had hoped otherwise 2 ½ years ago. I have since been proven to have been seriously misled. I strongly believe that I am not alone in this assessment.

School choice has allowed people to make their statement with their feet. Unfortunately, we are paying the cost, just as we are in legal expenses, unemployment charges and underutilized, reinstated employees.

So, to the comment that I am focusing too much on the Schools, I disagree.

I would like to pay attention to numerous other matters. There’s the matter of the Board of Health. There’s the matter of the Landfill MFN clause which, as John Pulawski correctly noted, is tied to the effective date of the contract which was altered by the side letter. There’s the matter of the police department and the police union. There are numerous other issues.

But I’m one person with limited time and resources.

Too bad we don’t have a local paper to pursue such matters. But that (really) ended with the departure of Lorraine Urbanski, and now what we have is a weekly advertiser and an occasional fillip from the Worcester Telegram. Aside from this outlet we don’t even have any local blogs focusing on political issues left. 

So, I do what I can. Too bad if you are the target – you deserve it.


  1. Mr. O'Brien makes several excellent points:
    *The schools sell the town
    *This school committee is the worst in decades, even worse than the Prencipe/Tarrantino/Laliberte crew
    *The loss of a daily newspaper keeps the voters and citizens even deeper in the darkness

    But his blog focusing largely on our schools is essential. Our schools service our most important population, our youth. Their futures are the future of our town.

    Voters will have a chance to oust McLoughlin and Donovan in June. Or, they could do the right thing - not run for reelection. That is probably a dream, as they think they are doing a great job. So there will be a concerted effort to insure their defeat at the polls.

    In conclusion, this blog needs to keep reveling the bullying, incompetence and failure of this school committee and district administration.

  2. When I recently mentioned your focus on our schools I was not being critical- if it can across that way I am sorrythst I did not make my point well.

    We have an abundance of issues to contend with, and you have every right to focus as you see fit.
    It is too bad that the Boston media is more interested in the Blueberry Brouhaha and a Councilor taking a bite out of Crime than they are interested in the inadequate education offered here, the landfill that has exposed us to great liability by sliding into a Charlton wetland, and a heroin and crack cocaine problem that says volumes about law enforcement and our board of health.

    1. I didn't take any offense at your remark, I merely felt that it deserved an explanation.

      I just wish that there were more "citizen journalists" who would research these numerous additional issues and work to inform the public as I have attempted to do.

  3. Hi Ken. I couldn't agree more. Good schools are critical for the stability of the town. They are also critical for the fiscal health of the town. Think of all the lost wealth due to the lack of movement in the local real estate market. The poor condition of our schools has a direct effect on our net worth, the ability of home owners to borrow, and the quality of life people will have in retirement. Solving this problem should be a top concern of everyone who owns property in town.

    I also think this problem is exacerbated by the high number of rental properties we have in town. People who can pull up stakes and move have less incentive to get involved. I know when I was a renter I didn't pay much attention to the schools or local government of the towns I lived in.


All comments subject to moderation. All commenters must use their own name or a screen name. No comments labelled as "Anonymous" will be published. To use your name or a screen name select "Name/URL" from the drop down menu. Insert you name in the "Name" space and leave the "URL" space blank.