Pity the poor children of Saugus.
The men who run the town appear to care more about their own power than fixing the struggling schools those kids attend.
Saugus can’t keep a school superintendent to save its life. It is well known in education circles in this state that the town is a nightmare for school leaders, because municipal officials refuse to get out of the way and let them do their jobs.
“It has been one of those communities where … we feel uncomfortable when [candidates] come to us and say, ‘What about going to Saugus?’” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “You have to question whether the culture is too difficult to overcome.”
But even by Saugus standards, what’s happening to Erin McMahon is shocking.
When she took over as superintendent in July of 2021 — the first woman ever to hold that job — Saugus schools were in serious trouble. Test scores put students in the bottom 10 percent of the state, which put Saugus on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s watchlist.
McMahon, who had previously worked in New York and Colorado, set about fixing things. Her goal was to move Saugus from the bottom 10 percent to the top 10 percent of Massachusetts districts in five years. She quickly started getting results: A year after she arrived, the schools were off the watchlist, and had climbed to the 20th percentile in the state rankings. She brought in over $1 million in grant money to help with improving literacy and mental health for students, and to fund a new early college access program.
All of this progress costs money, but luckily, the state bumped up funding for Saugus schools. The problem is, town manager Scott Crabtree didn’t pass all of the increase along, according to McMahon’s attorney. Instead of allowing those millions to go to the schools so that the superintendent could rehire laid off educators and improve arts education, among other improvements, Crabtree put most of the money in a reserve fund over which his administration, not the schools, has control.
In January, McMahon proposed a bigger school budget that took account of another big bump in state funding. But instead of debating the budget increases, Saugus set about destroying the superintendent’s reputation, in the apparent hope that she’d simply walk away from her job.
At a School Committee meeting shortly after she proposed her budget, McMahon was “offered the pistol or a cup of hemlock,” said her attorney Michael Long, general counsel for the Superintendents’ Association, who has defended superintendents against obstructionism in Saugus several times. The committee cited vague concerns with McMahon’s tenure, and demanded that she go out on voluntary administrative leave, or the committee would make it involuntary.
Five months later, despite repeated requests, the committee has still declined to provide any written specifics on the misconduct it is alleging, as McMahon’s contract demands, Long says. Crabtree hired a law firm that does business for the city to conduct a supposedly independent investigation — even though the town manager has no authority over the superintendent in Saugus.
“Crabtree has no authority whatsoever concerning her employment, her contracts, her performance,” Long said. “He may think he does in the fiefdom of Saugus, but he doesn’t.”
Crabtree appears not to care. So far, his administration has spent at least $17,000 on the investigation, and all these months later, there is no end in sight.
As far as Long can gather, School Committee members appear to be bothered by the superintendent’s contract with a well-respected professional development consultant with which McMahon has done business before, and with her occasional absence from the district to work on her PhD at Boston College, which was agreed to in her contract.
Long contends Saugus has violated not only McMahon’s contract, but also state open meeting and public records laws.
At the very least, the town manager and the School Committee have violated due process, not to mention decency.
“To sully someone’s reputation, particularly in a moment when, around the country, people are begging to have leaders like Erin come into their communities, to fight for their kids, is mind-boggling,” said former governor Jane Swift, who knows McMahon from a program for education leaders at the Aspen Institute.
As Swift points out, the town is wasting money paying investigators — and for McMahon’s paid leave — that could be better put to use in the service of children.
“Why are you paying somebody to not do anything when they just want to do their job and help kids?” she asked.
McMahon and School Committee chair Vincent Serino declined to comment. The lawyer for the School Committee did not respond to an interview request, and Crabtree did not respond to multiple messages requesting comment.
The parties were supposed to go to arbitration on June 28 to decide whether the Saugus School Committee has violated McMahon’s contract, but the attorney for the committee withdrew from those proceedings this week citing ethical considerations. A new arbitration date is set for the end of July.
While Saugus keeps Saugusing, kids suffer.
The district has lost five months of strong leadership, the gains the schools made under McMahon imperiled. The system is rudderless going into the fall. It’s hard to imagine McMahon sticking around for more nonsense once she’s vindicated and her reputation restored.
Given the misery the town visits upon its superintendents, it was always going to be hard to convince somebody great to take over the schools there. But after this, who in their right mind would take the job?
At some point, the people of Saugus are going to have to demand better from the people who lead them. Or better leaders altogether.