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Concord

Parents seek ear of school officials

The Concord public school system is known for its high student achievement and strong financial backing from taxpayers, yet some parents are worried that it’s in danger of losing valuable teachers and its status as one of the state’s elite districts.

Parents say Superintendent Diana Rigby’s leadership style has lacked transparency and communication, and they want the School Committee to hold her accountable for low teacher morale, a troubled climate at one of its elementary schools, and an over-budget high school project.

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“Over the last year, it was one thing after another,’’ said resident Frank Feist, who has three children in the school system. “The citizens of Concord need to be aware of the severity of it. It’s difficult to face up to these issues. As a town, you don’t want to hear bad news, but long term, it’s not productive.’’

About 100 residents have signed a petition article for the April 22 Town Meeting warrant urging Concord’s two school boards to look into Rigby’s alleged poor planning, fiscal mismanagement, and failure to communicate.

But Rigby and school board members say the district is high-performing, financially stable, and a desirable place to work for teachers. They say some parents and teachers have been unwilling to adapt to change and need to be more committed to working with school officials.

“I’m all about results and outcomes and the results speak for themselves,’’ said Louis Salemy, the vice chairman of the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee, which oversees the high school.

Salemy pointed to the district’s high bond rating, student achievement in academics, the arts and athletics, and teacher retention rate, which is 99 percent at the regional high school. He said 85 percent of Concord-Carlisle seniors get into their first or second choice for college. Standardized testing scores are typically among the best in the state.

‘I look at the numbers and I look at the complaints, and it’s a huge dichotomy. I honestly don’t understand it.’

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“I look at the numbers and I look at the complaints, and it’s a huge dichotomy,’’ he said. “I honestly don’t understand it.’’

The nonbinding petition article would direct the Concord School Committee, which oversees the town’s schools through eighth grade, and the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee to “make new changes in the central administration of the school department to ensure a good faith effort toward greater transparency and fiscal responsibility.’’

Rigby was hired in 2008 after serving as an assistant superintendent in the district. Parents say there have been issues at the Thoreau School for a few years now, as the school has seen four principals in 10 years.

But they say some of the most troubling issues have come to light more recently.

In the last two years, Tho­reau principal Kelly Clough has implemented changes, such as required teacher collaboration, that have not gone over well with some teachers.

Shelagh Moskow, copresident of the Thoreau Parent Teacher Group, said she doesn’t think all of the changes were necessary or handled properly. She said the administration does not listen to concerns raised by parents or teachers, and her biggest fear is that teachers will leave because they aren’t respected.

“It was a very caring community and it’s become a very divided community,’’ Moskow said. “Our teachers are really unhappy, and it’s because of the way the administration is treating them.’’

But Karen Hoyt, a teacher at Thoreau for nearly 20 years, said she has only praise for Rigby and Clough. She said the teachers have the resources they need, and strong leadership to support them.

“Our culture has always been negative against administrators,’’ Hoyt said. “The leaders we currently have are trying to lead, and it makes for an unhappy match. They’d rather not have a leader.’’

Hoyt dismissed concerns that teachers will start fleeing the district. “It’s a wonderful place to work,’’ she said.

Parents dissatisfied with Rigby also point to problems with the project to replace Concord-Carlisle High.

Last summer, the Massachusetts School Building Authority suspended $28.8 million in payments toward the $92.6 million project, saying it had ballooned over budget and beyond its approved scope. After the plans were adjusted, the agency reinstated the funding, but many parents remain skeptical about the project.

In order to make way for the new high school, the district had to demolish its transportation facility, and considered hiring a contractor to provide bus service. The move angered many parents, so now the district is searching for a new location for its fleet of buses.

Also last year, the district released results of a survey that showed teachers have serious concerns about professional development, their influence on decision-making within the schools, and their relationship with the administration.

Merrie Najimy, president of the Concord Teachers Association, said working conditions have deteriorated in recent years under Rigby’s leadership.

“The administration’s respect for us is at a historic low,’’ she said in a statement. “They no longer trust or respect the knowledge, skills, and expertise of teachers in the district. Hence, the quality of children’s education is on the decline.’’

Resident Susan Lowell said she’s frustrated that the district doesn’t seem to be taking the teacher survey seriously, and she fears it will eventually drive teachers out of town.

“This shows little or no concern/empathy for the working conditions of our teachers,’’ Lowell said. “We stand to lose the best and brightest of our teaching staff. Great teachers do not have to tolerate such treatment.”

Rigby said she is aware of concerns expressed by teachers and parents, and she is working to address them. She said working groups were established at each school for the district to analyze the survey results and come up with an action plan. She said the district hired a consultant to study the climate at the Thoreau School, and is working to implement the consultant’s recommendations.

“I was surprised by the amount of dissatisfaction with teaching conditions, because we have high student achievement, top salaries, low class sizes, 99 percent teacher retention rates, and hundreds of applicants for openings,’’ Rigby said. “We were surprised and absolutely concerned, and we’re working on it.’’

Rigby said some teachers at Thoreau are not happy because changes are taking place. She said while teacher collaboration has always been done informally, it is now required and structured. Instead of teachers choosing with whom they work, there are grade-level teams that collaborate on curriculum and assessment.

“It’s an awkward structure initially and it’s challenging,’’ Rigby said. “It requires changes in schedules and working with new people.’’

Pamela Gannon, vice chairwoman of the Concord School Committee, said some teachers are having trouble adapting to the collaborative teaching and integration of technology in the classroom. Many parents have close relationships with teachers and are hearing their frustrations, she said.

“Education has really changed over the past years, and it’s unfortunate that some teachers and parents are finding it uncomfortable and even threatening,’’ Gannon said.

Jennifer Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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