Friday, January 12, 2007
"It's a big job watching over Carlisle's schools" School Committees set policy and budget, then get out of the way
"It's a big job watching over Carlisle's schools," says Carlisle School Committee member Wendell Sykes. The issues are complex, the time demands are enormous and emotions can run high whenever the welfare of children is involved. But the job is important and School Committee members are dedicated to excellence in the Carlisle School, one of the highest rated schools in the state.
The Carlisle School Committee (CSC) consists of five elected members, each serving three-year terms. Current members Koski and Fitzgerald also serve on the Concord-Carlisle's seven-member Regional School Committee (RSC). The members' main tasks, according to the committee members, are to set policy for the school and set the budget. The committee has the responsibility "to communicate with the people of the community on how we spend our dollars," explained Fitzgerald. The board "closely advises Carlisle School Superintendent Marie Doyle when she seeks an opinion," said Barbee. "We set policy for school and budget and we don't run the school," said Koski. Sykes agreed, saying the board does not deal with the day-to-day operation of the school. He said the board deals with decisions regarding facility maintenance, such as the recent boiler replacements (See page 9).
Characteristics of a board member
Members were asked what characteristics they suggest for a successful board member. Many felt listening was a key factor. "It's a real listening job," Barbee said. Koski said members must be willing to listen to many sides of issues, and to not take decisions personally. "The best meetings are when we hear many different points of view," he added.
Fitzgerald thought members should understand that a committee member's role is to represent the needs of the school and communicate the needs to the town. Members need the "ability to listen and comprehend complex educational issues," he said. Barbee added that it is important for members to have an understanding of how schools work and added that members can't pursue personal agendas.
Sykes noted the amount of time needed for the job. He said members have had to "make more time available" than would be expected for just two meetings per month. In discussing helpful skills, he said his engineering knowledge has been useful when dealing with projects such as the Wastewater Treatment Facility, and serving on the Cell Tower Committee.
Burkel felt members should have an interest in public education, and be consensus builders, willing to listen to others. She also noted that it is helpful to have a basic understanding of public finance.
What do they bring to the table?
When asked what special skills he has, Fitzgerald pointed to his 16 years of town government service. He served five years on the Carlisle Finance Committee and six years as a Carlisle Selectman. He understands, he explained, the flow of town income and expenditures. Koski, who has a software engineering background, said he brings his level-headedness. Burkel said she likes to interact with people. She has extensive business operations experience and enjoys solving problems. Sykes, having previously noted his engineering background, explained he brings prior school board experience, having served in Scituate. Barbee said she is articulate and has experience as a writer and editor. She added that she brings the perspective of a parent whose child learns differently.
Power in the eye of the beholder
When asked what powers they hold, the board members said they don't picture themselves as having much power. "Individually my power is zero," replied Koski, pointing out that the board has "no power when we're not sitting at the table." Barbee agreed, "People would be surprised at how little power we have." The most powerful and important thing the board does, Sykes said, "is to appoint the superintendent." Fitzgerald noted he is one-seventh of the vote at the Regional School Committee, and one-fifth in Carlisle.
Frustrations of the job
All members agreed that the biggest frustration of the job is the budget constraints the school faces each year. "There are so many programs we would like to offer at CCHS and at the K—8 school," Fitzgerald explained, but currently Concord and Carlisle do not have the money to offer additional programs. He said this is the "sixth year we're trying to get a new high school building." Sykes agreed with the finance concerns, noting it was the reason little progress has been made on a new school for Carlisle. Finances also play a part in the amount of specialized education the school can offer, Barbee pointed out. She is frustrated that she can't do more for the inclusion of all types of learners.
Communicating priorities can be frustrating, Burkel said. She wants to communicate to the community that the School Committee's actions are based on the best interest of students. This requires preparing students for the global economy, so different from when she went to school. She also wants to focus on the positive things that are happening in the classroom.
Koski agreed that communication is a high priority. "I have no problem with the audience [at School Committee meetings]; let them vent, that's okay." But, he explained, parents should be following the established communication path. People come with complaints directly to the School Committee but they should have addressed their concerns with the teacher first, then the administration and then come to the School Committee if things haven't worked out.
This year's major issues
School security was and is a major topic of discussion. Koski pointed out that issues should be handled at the school level and not at the School Committee level. "We can form a committee to review an issue and make suggestions. But we shouldn't be running the school and we shouldn't be setting curriculum; that should be done by educators."
Koski said he is not worried about MCAS. "As a whole, it's a concern, but not specifically at the fourth-grade level." He said the school is giving support to students in the methodology of answering new types of questions so they will have experience with the various types of questions presented in MCAS tests.
Also, Koski wants to increase collaboration between the Concord Middle Schools and the Carlisle Middle School so all the students get to the high school at the same level. He says there has been progress in this area. Concord Superintendent Brenda Finn and Carlisle Superintendent Marie Doyle have been working together to coordinate the two towns. Carlisle teachers were invited to join Concord teachers last summer for professional development via a Columbia University writing course. By offering world languages in the lower grades, Carlisle is better aligned with Concord. Barbee added that it is important to offer world languages to all students. She said it is also important to offer different ways of teaching and grading.
The major issue and an eye-opener for Sykes is the need for a new school building. During his first tour of the Carlisle School he was shocked, he said, at seeing 800 students in a facility designed for 600. Koski noted how detailed the budget process is. He sees the need to set a budget that they reasonably believe the town will support. Noting the very large deficit this year, he said it is important to balance the needs of the school to what the town can afford.
Barbee was surprised at the "large concern" regarding security at the school. Burkel said she was amazed at "how hard the school administration works," as well as the number of unfunded state and federal mandates.
Serving the town and the students
"In theory," Sykes said, the School Committee "is protecting real estate value" by supporting a high performing school.
Burkel summed up by saying, "The School Committee makes decisions that are in the best interest of student learning based on the best available objective information."
© 2007 The