EDITORIAL: Sunlight and the superintendent

Let’s start at the beginning. Does the Marblehead School Committee have a right to end the tenure of our town’s school superintendent, John Buckey, two years early?

Yes, when a previous board voted in July 2021 to extend what initially had been a three-year contract until 2025, it negotiated the right to terminate the contract by giving Buckey 100 days’ notice and a payment of $94,350.

But — as a matter of good governance rather than legality — should the board exercise that right without engaging the community in a conversation as to whether that is the right decision, all things — including the cost to the town — considered? That’s where the board loses us.

Yes, the state’s open meeting law, G.L.c. 30A, §21, allows a board like the School Committee to go behind closed doors for “strategy sessions” in preparation for contract negotiations or to not compromise its bargaining or litigating position.

But details about what is being offered to whom are not what residents have rightfully been clamoring for.

No, they are seeking answers to a more fundamental question: Why do these negotiations need to be happening at all? On that front, the School Committee has been silent, leaving residents to guess as to what changed so drastically in a matter of weeks after the previous board voted unanimously to rate the superintendent’s performance as “proficient.”

We know one thing that changed — the composition of the board. But should not the new board defer to its predecessors’ determination, at least until it builds up more firsthand experience supervising the superintendent? As at least one of our letter writers has noted, there is clear incongruity between our Select Board wanting to take a deep breath before reappointing a whole host of volunteers — all the way down to shellfish constables — and our new School Committee members walking into the job and thinking they can part ways with the superintendent on “day one.”

If those new members campaigned on the idea “a vote for me is a vote for firing the superintendent,” we must have missed it. If instead we are right and they kept coy on that subject until they obtained the power to let him go, it is a pretty strong acknowledgement that the voters did anything but give them a mandate to make such a consequential decision. Indeed, the public input forced upon the board members through our letters pages and elsewhere makes that all the more clear.

Ultimately, the School Committee does not have to listen to the voices that have filled our letters pages, which have predominantly urged the board to stay the course with Buckey (though, to our ears, those voices seem well worth listening to, given the writers’ experience on the school and other town boards, in classrooms or simply as parents). But it does have an obligation to explain why they have chosen to take the town down a different path. Thus far, it has utterly failed to meet that obligation.

Absent any information coming from the School Committee, we’re left to guess what “the problem” is with John Buckey.

Buckey’s attorney Mike Long told the Current he and his client have been left in the dark, too. Long floated theories. Maybe this stems from “ill will for COVID-related practice in the district” or the failed override, and the program cuts that ensued. Other ideas floating around in the ether center on Buckey’s failed attempts to add a diversity, equity and inclusion director and a communications director, or declining enrollment numbers and substandard scores on at least some tests.

But, as Long says, “In the absence of publicly stating their concerns, Dr. Buckey and the community may never know their true motivations.”

If any of these guesses are, in fact, what is animating the School Committee’s apparent decision to move on from Buckey, they have an absolute obligation to say so — and before any decision is made. Others may be able to bring additional information to the table that rounds out the picture. The board might hear that, actually, the town does think that hiring a DEI coordinator is a worthy expense, especially as noxious antisemitic graffiti has had to be removed from the very buildings the School Committee oversees, for example.

One can only surmise that the School Committee has no interest in having that conversation or receiving that feedback. That’s a shame, plain and simple.

By the time you are reading this, the School Committee may have “finished the deed.” John Buckey may have been given a big bag of tax dollars and sent on his way. (As former School Committee member Tom Mathers noted in a letter to the editor, it may far exceed the $94,350 in his contract, given the need for the town to buy its way out of any potential legal claims Buckey may have.)

The question will become how best to move forward. To be sure, there will be work to be done — made harder now — to convince talented school administrators that Marblehead is a good place to work.

But there is also a need for the School Committee to acknowledge its duty to welcome the community into its decision making.

The School Committee has seemingly chosen a new path for the district. Next on its agenda should be a new approach to the way it does business, one that prioritizes transparency and inclusion — not just in word, but in deed.

The Current Editorial Board
info@marbleheadnews.org | + posts

The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

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