Friday, October 17, 2003
Citizens trade opinions with Superintendent Brenda Finn
An informal morning session with new Concord-Carlisle Superintendent of Schools Brenda Finn became tense when the discussion turned to the school budget and the cuts necessitated by the recent defeat of a budget override in Concord. Although the League of Women Voters, which sponsored the chat at the Ripley School in Concord on October 8, was initially disappointed in the low turnout · about thirty Concord and Carlisle residents · the small number allowed the participants to sit in a circle and interact more directly.
Finn began the meeting by giving a brief outline of her background. Growing up as one of eight children in Lynnfield and Medford, Finn has roots in the Boston area. She has a bachelor of arts in English and a master's in education in counseling, both from UMass. She has also earned a master's degree in English and writing from Middlebury, and a doctorate in leadership from UMass. After teaching and working in various locations, including Wisconsin, California and Managua, Nicaragua, she said she feels moving back is "retiring to her old stomping grounds." She has many family members living nearby, including her two adult children who are educators themselves.
Finn's most recent position was Superintendent of the Gill-Montague Regional School System in western Massachusetts. "There's no work more important than teaching," she said.
Term limits for School Committee?
When term limits for School Committee members were brought up, Finn expressed concern that experienced members would be replaced every three years. "The level of dedication of the people serving on the School Committee is amazing," she said. "And what rewards do they get? Phone calls, complaints..." "Disrespect at Town Meetings," one person called out, amid laughs. "Serving the town and the district is a great burden on people," pointed out Carlisle resident Christy Barbee, referring to the fact that School Committee members serve their local elementary and middle schools, as well as the regional school district. "My previous experience," responded Finn, "was at a school that was K-12, but not a regional district." It would be more efficient, she said, if Concord and Carlisle had a regional K-12 system.
Teacher retirements, salaries, work load
Another person asked about teacher retirement incentives and whether new teachers, hired at a lower salary, have helped the budget. Yes, it can help, answered Finn, but some retiring teachers have contracts that were negotiated in the sixties and seventies. They have benefits and provisions which are just now coming due, such as accrued sick and vacation days. "That's part of the challenge," she said.
"I am concerned about the high school," Finn continued. "I am not negative about teachers, but one of the issues in the contract is the four classes a day and the ratio of students to teachers. I was a union rep for thirteen years," she said. Carlisle resident Cindy Nock said she is serving on a committee that is reviewing the high school salaries. "There is a perception that we are paying too much," she said, "and leaving other communities behind." Finn agreed, "We are in range of similar towns, but at the top when you look at all Massachusetts districts." Beginning salaries are not high, Finn continued, but the ending salaries are. The whole salary package has to be looked at, she said.
Fees and fund-raising
"Any measure that parents can do to fill up the deficits?" asked Carlisle resident Francoise Bourdon, wondering if fundraising could help fill the gaps in the budget. "It's a risky business when you start expecting private funds to support school, when everyone has the right to public education," responded Finn. She said education consumes over two-thirds of the towns' budgets, and people feel they don't have a say in how the finances are handled. "We all benefit in a society by having education."
"In Connecticut the schools are asking parents to pay for art and music," said a participant. Finn replied that music and art are part of the curriculum and could not be paid for by fees. Extra-curricular activities, which occur after school, could be fee-based. "How about marching band?" asked another. "I don't want to get into the nitty-gritty," responded Finn. "Ask me again in six months," she suggested, after she has had more time in the school system.
One parent said she had to pay field-trip fees for three of her four children, is paying for drumming lessons because her child missed the year of free lessons, and has to pay sports fees. "I could go to a private school and really be heard, instead of not getting return phone calls," she complained. "I feel the town should pay for my children's education." Finn replied, "If the school personnel aren't responding to you, give my office a call and I'll track down that situation for you." She then told the group, "I can feel the level of frustration building in this room. It gets to you when you see funding chipping away."
Civility breaking down?
Communicating with the community is important, said Finn, but the August Concord Town Meeting was disturbing. "A couple of teachers spoke, and people hissed," she said.
"When I am talking with people I try to make a connection," she said. "Fifty-two percent of voters said 'no' [to the last override]. Those people care about the schools, but have other factors in their lives. How do we begin to support that dialogue?"
Questioning SPED costs
"Some people may not like me saying this," began a woman who entered late, "but I think Special Education is the sacred cow; whatever they need, they get. Whatever is left goes to the other kids. I know we have a federal mandate, but this is the first state I have been in that will pay medical costs. I feel for SPED parents, but we're doing SPED first, and we're cutting funding for non-SPED kids. I think they should be educated, but..." She offered the example of one student that is assisted by a full-time nurse, paid by the school.
"I don't want to get into a discussion of specific students," replied Finn, noting the tension in the room in response to the subject. "Other agencies pick up the [medical] costs." She suggested that people contact their legislators to voice the need for additional state funding to pay for special education.
A parent spoke up in defense of special education. "I have a child in regular education and a special education one." The law mandates equal education for all students, she pointed out, and it is our moral responsibility to educate all. "I'm only in my second year here in Concord. I was floored by the helpfulness and friendliness [of the schools]," she said. Her son had a full-time aide last year to assist with a behavioral problem. "He made so much progress, this year he doesn't need it, and it's because of the school teachers," she concluded.
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