LETTER: Former school board member Mathers: ‘Unforced error’ comes at bad time

Much has already been said about the pending termination for convenience of Superintendent John Buckey’s contract by the School Committee. I believe it is a mistake and demonstrates a lack of executive management experience of School Committee members and their lack of experience in governance.

During my six months serving on the school committee and working with Dr. Buckey, I found him to be willing and receptive to mentoring and enthusiastic in his effort to grow as a superintendent and improve the Marblehead Public Schools. I appreciate that some may disagree with my opinion, but I am respectful of your experiences.

Leadership matters. However, it seems the new committee is not equipped with the requisite skills to continue with Dr. Buckey’s mentorship. But make no mistake, it is the prerogative of the School Committee to decide upon the termination of Dr. Buckey, and since we elected this committee, we will now have to live with the consequences. It is naïve to think the committee will reverse their decision.

So what is next? First and foremost, the lawyers on both sides will come to an agreement that (hopefully) allows Dr. Buckey to move on with dignity and a track record of success. My guess is that there will be a settlement that sees Dr. Buckey receiving at least one year’s compensation, but I would not be surprised if he is paid the remainder of his contract in his separation agreement. I believe that this would be the right thing to do and limit Marblehead from potential liability should Dr. Buckey choose to litigate, which he would most likely prevail upon. Let’s hope that we learn about a settlement on Monday so that we can all move on.

We now have to hire a new superintendent from a limited pool of qualified candidates, who will be skeptical and certainly command a much higher salary than Dr. Buckey given the chronic instability of the district. We may face the possibility of an interim superintendent. Therefore, we will be paying double in FY24 (and potentially FY25) for the services of a superintendent. That is a bitter pill to swallow for me as a former School Committee member, where we had to recommend to Town Meeting that a budget with significant cuts for FY23 be adopted.

So absent new monies, we will have to further tighten belts to accommodate the School Committee’s decision. The town is broke — and we now have an unforced error driving a new material expense.

Importantly, we are entering into negotiations with the collective bargaining units for the schools. As we have seen, the union leaders have spoken in support of Dr. Buckey. Without Dr. Buckey helping us through what will most likely be a difficult and expensive negotiation, we are faced with the prospect of having little leverage. Will we see a double-digit contract increase? It’s not out of the question given where recent collective bargaining agreements have settled in nearby towns.

If the teachers are unhappy in negotiations, they will walk out or hold demonstrations before school. Why wouldn’t they? They now have all the power without a trusted superintendent in place. All of us should care about this because the teachers’ union contract settlement drives every other contract negotiation in town. We are looking at a significant increase in labor costs in Marblehead for all town employees, which without new revenues will lead to potentially further program and service cuts in the future.

Here is an uncomfortable truth: Marblehead teachers who currently live outside of Marblehead (and don’t pay property tax in Marblehead) enjoy the benefit of enrolling their children in our district (K-12) for free. At approximately a cost of $18,000/year to educate a student in Marblehead, this means we are assuming an unfunded liability of $235,000 (over the K-12 experience) to educate these children. The current number of non-Marblehead children attending our schools is non-trivial.

While previously serving on the Masconomet School Committee, this benefit was not offered. A teacher had the right under the contract to ask the committee to allow their child to attend on a case-by-case basis. In my three-plus years serving, we did not approve a single request. Will our School Committee have the mandate to consider such a policy in collective bargaining? I think not. They are politically weakened by their decision to terminate Dr. Buckey. I am not advocating one way or the other, but this is an example of why leadership in the district matters.

The School Committee is rightfully looking at other ways to bring down systemic costs of education in our district. I applaud the study proposed to evaluate special education costs. However, they will most likely find that the near-term costs of implementation of new programs to minimize long-term special education expenses are far beyond the means of this cash-strapped town.

Is the committee willing to support a tougher stance on approving out-of-district placements (which can account for up to 10% of the annual school budget in a given year) and try to provide in-district services? I don’t think this is the right approach, and without a trusted superintendent at the helm, I doubt they will be successful.

This fall, we will receive updated Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores. Will we see progress from last year and year over year? If so, the decision to terminate Dr. Buckey will have looked premature for those who argue about continued learning loss. If we see a significant decline, maybe the committee’s decision is vindicated.

I do know that the iReady intra-student assessment deployed last year in our schools demonstrated appropriate growth in learning over the year. It’s still early days, and we need more data, but the trend is encouraging.

I do believe we should expect more from our schools, and we should always look for ways to improve. I believe there should be serious discussions around curriculum and standards within our schools. Will our new superintendent feel the same way? How will the School Committee embrace this important work without the buy-in of faculty and senior administrators, and without a trusted superintendent in place?

These are only a few of the challenges facing our newly seated committee. Our current chairperson has said publicly that she would never support reinstatement of freshman sports before reinstating the middle school librarian. I am happy that a solution was found to have some parents pay a higher tax to have their children participate — it’s the right thing to do — but we still have no librarian.

I have no doubt there are significant conflicts of interest with our new committee members. I am very disappointed by the actions of committee members with whom I had served and recently completed a thorough review of Dr. Buckey’s performance in FY23 and arrived at a “proficient” rating. I had high hopes and expectations for balanced and informed governance by this newly seated committee. They are off to a very inauspicious start. Let’s hope they can get it back on track.

Tom Mathers

Ocean Avenue

Letter to the editor
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