Dennis A. DiZoglio
Former mayor of Methuen, author of new book, “The Value of Political Capital”
One of the first things that struck me when I became mayor of Methuen was that there were effectively two governments — one for the schools and one for other municipal departments. As in other cities, under our charter a budgetary wall separates those two sides of city government. But for practical purposes there should be greater opportunities for the two to cooperate and communicate.
Let’s consider the functions the school and municipal sides have in common. Both manage buildings, employ many people, need information technology and record management services, require legal representation, manage tax dollars, and have to account for spending decisions. They need to purchase fuel, electricity, food, and clerical supplies. They also have opportunities to be entrepreneurial like installing solar panels and leasing building space to generate new revenue.
Although there is some cooperation, the school and municipal halves of city governments typically have separate facility departments, personnel offices, purchasing agents, solicitors, accountants, and other duplicative offices. Citizens fund both sides of government and their tax dollars should be used wisely. We need to spur municipal and school managers to take advantage of opportunities to become more efficient through collaboration. There are two reasons this is so difficult. The first are charters. The second is more about people. There is an inherent mistrust between the sides, one filled with jealousy, competition, and turf control.
Through home rule petitions to the Legislature, why not have cities eliminate the structural issue and the inherent mistrust by having one committee deal with both sides of government? I propose school committees be eliminated and their functions assumed by city councils (since towns do not have councils, my proposal for now pertains only to cities).
The council would have a broader view of the needs of both sides of government. It would be accountable to voters for overseeing the schools, just as the school committee is now. The mayor would select a school superintendent subject to council approval. The superintendent would retain the independence required to manage day-to-day school activities without interference from the mayor and council.
With this step, we could make both sides of our government work better.
Chair, Newton School Committee
The current system of public education oversight by school committees is very effective for the Commonwealth.
Beginning with a law passed in 1647, Massachusetts has required every town of a minimal size to educate its children and to hire teachers and establish a school house for the purpose. By 1826, towns were required to elect separate school committee to oversee their public schools.
The 1993 Education Reform Act updated the responsibilities of school committees, assigning them the roles of setting educational goals and policies; approving budgets, selecting and evaluating the superintendent; and collective bargaining. The superintendent is empowered as the district’s educational and operational leader with the discretion due similar highly trained executives, while the state sets curriculum frameworks and structural regulations.
In cities, the mayor holds the purse strings and typically sets the district’s allocation, which may account for 50 percent of the municipal budget. The mayor is often a sitting member of the school committee and occasionally acts as chair. With line item oversight of the education budget, school committees are directly accountable to the mayor, the city council, and taxpayers.
A school committee operates well when roles and expectations are clear, communication is transparent, and members put the health and well-being of students and the district above personal ambitions and agendas. Building effective partnerships with parents, district leaders, the mayor, and other elected officials ensures effective use of resources and a thriving school district.
In Newton, our members play important roles on working groups that have brought about four brand new schools, and successfully redistricted elementary boundaries to relieve overcrowding. We support critical initiatives like full-day kindergarten, better communication systems, and up-to-date policies and procedures. Most importantly, we are a vital link to parents. I am especially proud that our current School Committee is diverse and increasingly responsive to families of color and our non-English speakers.
Collapsing oversight and accountability for schools into a City Hall or city council with myriad other concerns is not a recipe for success. Let’s give the Commonwealth’s legacy of high quality public education and our children the respect and accountability they deserve through authorized School Committees.
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As told to Globe Correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.