9 Things I Learned from last night’s School Committee Meeting

Cumberland School Committee Meeting1. Stark contrast in leadership

There are some serious issues facing Cumberland, with projected budget cuts, the need to redistrict, and interest in providing full day kindergarten. The School Committee and our administration certainly have a full plate.

There are tough decisions that need to made and plenty of opinions on how to best move forward. The issues are not new, but the approach and response by the new administration, specifically from the Superintendent has been refreshing and encouraging. Dr. Thornton maintains his cool, answers tough questions with respect, finds ways of responding without “talking down” to the public, does not become overly defensive, and seems to genuinely seek input, feedback, and encourage discussion.

2. Budget Forecast Not Good

School Committee Chair, Jeff Mutter provided an update on the FY2013 budget/funding projections. Following a meeting with Mayor Dan McKee earlier in the day, Mr. Mutter stated “FY2013 will present significant challenges” and that there is a real possibility that “any new expenditure would not be possible” and went on to say “…It is a possibility that we would be removing things that are already in the FY12 budget for FY13 and certainly with no room to add…

These are just preliminary numbers, things could change, but I don’t sense a whole lot of optimism.

3. Redistricting Is Not Easy, but the administration and School Committee seem to be taking the right approach

I think we all know we need to do this, but given the unique layout and distribution of student population across Cumberland, there’s no easy answers. There have been consultants, countless meetings, multiple school committee’s and administrations that have tried to tackle the issues.

We cannot postpone the inevitable much longer, we need to come up with the best plan we can and move on. I have confidence in this school committee and the administration to get the job done.

4. There’s no “B” in Engineering

I love open government and the political process, which allows citizens to witness government in action. I add this for some comic relief, sometimes we need a break from all the depressing news of budget cuts and all the other struggles…watch the video.

5. Full Day K is more controversial than I thought

I was not expecting some many residents questioning the justification for full day kindergarten. Maybe I should have…if you don’t have young children, you might question the expense. Heck, even some parents of kindergartners don’t want to be forced into it. One resident saying “it’s kindergarten”, questioning the necessity and return on investment in these tough economic times.

I would suggest that full day K is an issue of competitiveness, at least partially. If Cumberland is to remain an attractive place to live and the district is to remain competitive, we need to consider full day kindergarten. Parents have many options when they are looking for a school or even a place to live: charter schools, private schools, and nearby states all offer Full Day K in some flavor.

What is the cost of NOT providing Full Day Kindergarten?  That said, if the budget projections hold true, it might not matter…

6. We often seek evidence that is etched in stone before we’re willing to make changes.

It’s our job as citizens to stay informed and challenge our government when we see better alternatives or wasteful spending. Decisions should be based on hard data and facts, deliberated in the public, giving everyone an opportunity to express their opinions.

When it comes to redistricting, I feel comfortable that the appropriate research and deliberation has been, and continues to be done. I look forward to moving on from this issue, which has bogged us down for years.

7. Educating the community should be ongoing effort

I, like most of us, have a hard time keeping up with all that is going on in our community. Last night one resident came to the mic and made some fairly pointed criticisms regarding the effort to bring full day kindergarten to the community. I thought the comments were a bit unfair, but the committee decided not take “take the bait” and offered no response.  In some ways I think it was a lost opportunity to educate everyone in the room, and the community, on some of the history behind this effort.

Here’s an except from the public comment:

“…March 8th is just way to fast for something like this, and with all due respect you guys are a policy making board and I’d be looking at this stuff 3-4 years out, not 30 days out. This stuff really should be directed at long-term planning, not sort of crisis management, which is what looks like is being done here.”

If I’m not mistaken, this issue has been discussed in our community for at least the last several years and IS part of the committee’s long range plans. To suggest this is a knee-jerk, last-minute idea seems disingenuous.

Here’s video with the full length comments:
(I was not able to hear this gentleman’s name)

8. Large number of teachers pink-slipped in an effort to keep options open

Every year we go through this process…the school department cannot make accurate budget projections this early in the year, but is required to notify teachers before March 1st if they MIGHT be laid-off.

The committee went “a little deeper this year” based on the funding issues, redistricting, and full day kindergarten initiatives.

Here’s a video with the full list of teachers

9. The Transitional Building Cafetorium PA System is AWEFUL!

Why exactly did the committee move their meetings from the auditorium?  Very hard to hear, especially people with quiet voices.

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