Thursday, January 8, 2015

Moving Forward

Ken O’Brien

Southbridge now has its fifth Superintendent of Schools in just over two years.

Ely, Wiggins, Nembirkow, Gardner and now Stanton.

Eric Ely was the last chosen by anything approaching a community-based process. Even in that case, however, the process was compromised.

All four have departed under clouds of varying density and magnitude.

According to today’s Worcester Telegram Mrs. Stanton has been named “acting superintendent”. (Question to the chairman, “Is that a legal title?”) 

Prior to the coup that the current chairman purportedly orchestrated against Mrs. Woodruff, the former Chairman had started a search committee to name a permanent Superintendent. That effort was halted and allowed to expire by the current ruling body.

One of those commenting on recent developments stated, “Who the hell in their right mind would want to come here to work as Superintendent? Seriously Ely, Wiggin, Buzz, now Gardner and that is just in what two year. Word of advice for anyone who would put their name in for Superintendent, buy yourself a bullet proof vest. Because if your employees don't get you because they don't want to held accountable, maybe the School Committee will because you are not serving their every whim, this town will just chew you up and spit you out SO DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME OR REPUTATION STAY AWAY.”

Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I strongly disagree with this sentiment.

In the case of Gardner and Wiggin we were dealing with individuals who had no prior experience as a Superintendent. In the case of Ely there were enough red flags in his background to raise more than a little concern. Finally, in the case of Nembirkow, it seems that his legend superseded the facts. As I pointed out in the article Blind Faith, there were plenty of factors which could have been found if people looked for them. These elements may well have tempered the almost messiah-like reception with which he was initially greeted.

The reality is that, despite the abysmal reputation of the district, there is a lot of good at the lower levels of administration. All of the elementary schools have functioned well and their respective Principals have managed to maintain forward progress. The middle/high school, as well, has a Principal who is widely recognized as maintaining good order and discipline coupled with a positive mental attitude. This in spite of the opinion of the former Superintendent that she would not have been hired had she known of the Principal’s medical condition.

Nor is funding the problem. Southbridge ranks among the highest in Worcester County on the basis of per pupil spending.

The first problem is the lack of true leadership at the top of the organization coupled with a dire lack of respect and collaboration with those at the lower levels.

As I’ve said several times before, the first thing that must be done is the appointment of a search committee to retain a new Superintendent. While professional credentials are a necessary prerequisite there should be equal if not greater attention to what can best be described as character combined with a profound sense of fiscal responsibility. As the Ely and Nembirkow cases illustrate, this calls for a little more than interviews and a site visit. It calls for some real research into the backgrounds of semi-finalists.

Someone is needed who will dismantle the bureaucracy at 25 Cole Ave. that Buzz and his successor erected to insulate themselves from the school administrators and personnel. Someone is needed who will not delegate so much as collaborate with those entrusted with the task of educating. In so doing they will not only free up funds for the students but dramatically reduce the legal expenses associated with the prior administrations. As a result they might be able to reduce the burden on taxpayers as well as increasing funds for students.

Also needed is a competent business manager who will get a firm grip on the district’s finances and begin the task of structuring a responsible budget that is not subject to the whims of passing fascinations.

Beyond these is the need to restructure the School Committee itself.

The current leadership has demonstrated a paranoia and obsession with secrecy unmatched since the days of Star Chamber proceedings.

The process needs to be open to criticism and responsive to public concern. Rather than silencing their critics, the need is to foster open discussion and resolve disputes by compromise rather than by fiat. There is also the need to recognize (as is also true of the Town Council) that saying that something was done in subcommittee is an adequate explanation of the process. 

These changes can only come at the ballot box. I hope that serious candidates will emerge before June to provide an alternative to the current disastrous leadership.


  1. We also need the backbone to say "No" if none of the applicants is right for the district and be willing to start the search process over again. My fear is we'll fall back on the "this is the best that's available" mentality that's brought many a poor manager to town.

  2. Voters' Remorse?January 8, 2015 at 9:27 AM

    1450 voters spoke and we have McLoughlin and Donovan. This is what the voters, thus the townspeople, wanted. The entire town is responsible for this disaster, with the exception of the 600+ voter who cast a sane ballot for Jovan. I don't want to hear any complain about the state of our schools, except those 600+ voter - they have a legitimate bitch. It appears there is a vast amount of voters remorse, including Mr. O'Brien, who used this very blog to bash the individuals who were improving our schools.
    Anyone with half a brain would realize their dismal failure and leave. Well it's obvious that these two gals lack even half a brain.

    1. You seem to overlook who brought us Ely.
      There is no shame in being deceived by outright falsehoods. The appropriate response is to recognize it and respond appropriately.

    2. You seem to have overlooked the Donovan/McLoughlin girls standing outside the town hall on the night of the vote to bring in Ely holding "Do the Right Thing" signs in obvious fear that a local candidate would be appointed. You also seem to overlook the fact that Dweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum voted to extend Ely's contract for two additional years with 3 days on the committee.
      They have also failed to open the report which details Ely's indiscretions that came to light a few short months later.
      Fortunately, this report will be part of the public record in upcoming litigation.

    3. Exactly how am I overlooking any of that? At this point you're so intent on blaming people that you are making no sense.

  3. Exactly how bad does it have to be for the state to just take over? This school committee seems to love talking...and from watching SC meetings and speaking with employees of the district and parents, nothing is improving! Plans are great, if you follow through! And how the hell can anyone focus on improvement when there's so much turnover and drama and childishness? I feel horribly for the teachers, administrators, and students/families in Southbridge who actually care, but are stuck here for one reason or another.

  4. Philosopical DifferencesJanuary 8, 2015 at 2:40 PM

    I have to laugh when the joint statement comes out from Gardner and the school committee saying that they had philosophical differences about the future of the district. The only difference they seem to have is the school committee feeling that it's okay to bully and intimidate, you just can't let the public know you're doing it.

  5. Well, to all of you who have been naysayers for the last few months what do you have to say now. We have been the victim of a cruel joke over the last few years orchestrated by the Bobbleheads and their quest for glory and political payback. They have given us Buzz the Butcher, Jabba da Gardner, and their witting or unwitting pawns like Amy Allen and a host of Springfieldnistas.

    They have ruined peoples lives; damaged the reputation of the community; and worst of all cost the taxpayers untold sums of money Just think of all the money that could have been put into the schools instead of into the pockets of the lawyers and injured parties. The bleeding of money from the towns coffers is still not over. There are many law suits out their that yet to be settled. What a shame.

    However, there is a way that the present school committee can rehabilitate their reputations and further the cause of education in Southbridge without even resigning. They should, at the next SC meeting do a mea culpa and move on with the processes in place to search for a new superintendent. They may not be re-elected, but the people respect a politician who prostrates themselves before the public.

  6. What's going on?February 14, 2015 at 12:00 PM

    Whew! I've been out of town and the country for a bit. What's going on in this place. I it appears that Sbge is taking on a downward spiraling"Yeminy" type failed state of mind set.


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