Sunday, December 27, 2015

Herding Cats

On December 15th the Board of Directors of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education met in Malden. On their agenda was the issue of the continuing underperformance of the Southbridge school system.

The Worcester Telegram reported, “Deeply troubled about the state of Southbridge public schools, Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester said a recommendation to place the district in Level 5 receivership is not off the table.” 

Several days later the same paper reported on the State’s issuance of an RFP for a possible receiver for the district. The article concluded by outlining Southbridge’s existing activities regarding a search for a new school Superintendent.

Regarding Southbridge's present effort, a search committee met Wednesday to review and discuss applicants for its next superintendent, said School Committee member Jill Congdon, chairwoman of the search panel.
Sixteen applications were received and six of them have been invited to interview Jan. 4-6 in executive session, Ms. Congdon said.
On Dec. 21, the search committee will meet to discuss interview protocols and develop questions for the initial screening of candidates.
Site visits are planned for Jan. 11-15. Final interviews and a school and community meet-and-greet of finalists are planned for Jan. 19-22.
The Jan. 26 School Committee meeting has been targeted for a selection of a superintendent.

Now we learn that the Southbridge School Committee will meet on Monday to discuss receipt of a letter from DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester advising them to suspend the search pending the resolution of the issue of receivership.

The reality is that the School Committee should have acted on its own to suspend the search as soon as it became clear that the DESE was considering the issue of receivership.

While there may have been a successful search underway initially, based upon Ms. Congdon’s comments, the reality most likely changed following the DESE’s action.

After all, what potential Superintendent capable of having a meaningful impact on the district would take the risk of becoming subject to the constraints imposed by receivership?

So, while there may have been a sizable number of initial applicants (the quality of which is unknown), the pool of those continuing to the interview and selection stage would almost certainly have diminished.

There also appears to be an element of gamesmanship involved in the search committee’s scheduling. Is it merely coincidental that the scheduled date of selection of a prospective Superintendent was planned for the same date as the next scheduled Board meeting of the DESE?

Barring a change in their schedule that date, January 26th, is the earliest that Commissioner Chester might recommend a move to receivership. That would be followed by public hearings and a final vote, most likely at the Board’s next meeting on March 22nd. This is speculative, based on the Board’s currently scheduled meetings. A greater sense of urgency could result in special meetings, accelerating the schedule.

It is also known that there is concern on the part of the DESE that Southbridge has moved its search efforts ahead without the benefit of a professional search consultant.

Whatever the case, it is clear that either option – a new Superintendent or State receivership – is not likely to be realized until near the end of the current school year.

The Southbridge School Committee, despite the vacuous conciliatory remarks of the Chairman at the December 15th meeting, may well have increased the likelihood of receivership. Their actions indicate a thinly veiled defiance of the DESE. This has been met by a diplomatic yet firm action from Boston calling for a halt to their recruitment efforts. Those efforts, which already demonstrate an implicit level of contempt for the advice contained in the 2010 District Review, do not bode well. As such they may reinforce the case for receivership by supporting the case that little has changed from past behavior. 

When this skirmish ends the School Committee may find that the DESE is not so much confronted with the problem of herding cats as it is by reining in defiance in defense of failure.

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