This site aims to inform and mobilize Beverly parents to take an active role in all issues related to the funding and operation of the city's schools. It was launched in the spring of 2008, when the city saw its first-ever override attempt fail, followed by the closure of a nearly-new elementary school. Subsequent years have seen further cuts that have led to larger class sizes across the district. While the opening of an impressive new high school and plans to replace the city's aging middle school give us reason to be optimistic, the school community must be ever vigilant in demanding appropriate school funding by city and state governments, and better community communications from the district and School Committee.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Council Also Questions Transparency of Process

At a sparsely attended (estimated at less than 20 people) joint City Council/School Committee meeting last night at the high school, Council members appeared as surprised as we were about the 5-8 middle school plan they were handed. Council President Mike Cahill sharply criticized the openness of the process; Pat Grimes seemed incredulous that they were just finding out about this report now when it was completed last Spring; and Jim Latter focused on the additional cost of building a four-grade middle school vs. a three-grade building, asking "will this increase capital costs by 33%?"

Prior to the meeting, School Committee President Annemarie Cesa informed us that she would delay tonight's vote by a couple weeks in order to allow the public a chance to digest the proposal, and schedule a public forum or focus group. She stated last night that a focus group would be tentatively scheduled for December 6, and a vote a week later.

Score one for the power of social media, and thanks to everyone who shared yesterday's post, and helped convince the Committee to slow down and open up the process. Based on the City Council's reaction last night, we think they may have put the brakes on any rushed vote, anyways.

The poor attendance last night was due in large part to the fact that there was virtually no public notice of the meeting by either the School Committee or the City Council.  It was on the School Committee's meeting list, which is on a PDF three levels deep on the district website and often inaccurate (no mention of this past Monday's meeting). And we could find no mention of it on the City's website at all. There were also at least two PTO meetings that conflicted, and a meeting at City Hall about the downtown parking garage that some councilors attended instead.

We look forward to having at least two new City Council members, Brett Schetzsle @BrettWard6 and Jason Silva @JaSizz, who are adept at social media to teach city government some better methods of communications.

11/17 UPDATE: At Wednesday night's School Committee meeting, the middle school plan was  discussed some more.  It's clear that the committee has backed off a bit from their aggressive timetable, and will include time for community input, although they still want to meet the January deadline for submission to the MSBA.

President Cesa and Superintendent Galinski also attempted to clarify the elementary school aspects of the plan that we posted last week. They say that the Early Education Center is not on the table at this point, if ever.  While it was part of the discussion and recommendation of the subcommittee, it was not "moved forward" by the administration as a proposal. The current discussion, and vote, will look solely at changes to the middle school model. There will be benefits to the elementary schools from this part of the plan, they say,  by freeing up space in each of the elementary buildings.  But any restructuring of the Pre-K-K grades is not under consideration.

Still, many in the community feel that to fully weigh the benefits and risks of changing the middle school structure, any future changes proposed to the entire Pre-K-8 model must be considered at the same time.

4 comments:

Jim Latter said...

All these discussions happened at properly posted open meetings, and agenda packages are provided to both local papers, or at least they were in the past. To say the process isn't transparent is somewhat misleading. Did deliberations happen off line or in executive session? (in violation of open meeting law). The big hole here is that the local press does not attend our meetings the way they did when Cate Lecuer was the Salem News reporter dedicated to the schools. She was never replaced when she left. There is no substitute for being in the room, and sometimes conversations that seem simple can expand into complex issues. John, maybe you folks should be credentialed as "the press", I'm not sure what that takes, but I think it's worth looking into. I have asked incoming Council President Guanci to appoint an ad hoc Technology Steering Committee, and use of various technology tools to help improve government and city services was one of my main reasons. I hope to have an order in at the start of the new council, and will ask the SC President for collaboration. I think you make good points that new technologies can be used to leverage communication to replace ink and paper institutions that previously did much better at keeping the public informed.

Feel free to get in touch w/ any thoughts or ideas.

Thanks

Jim Latter
City Councilor, Ward 3
145 Park St
Beverly MA 01915
jlatter@beverlyma.gov
978 921 8874

jhall said...

Jim,

Thanks for your thoughts. Maybe transparent wasn't the right word, especially in a legal sense. I'll agree with you on that. We're not suggesting things were purposely hidden. And I totally agree that one major problem in all this is the lack of any press coverage. I'm amazed that the papers still have not mentioned this plan.

But it seems that a better effort could have been made, in light of the media environment, to get the plan out in some public form before the week they planned to vote on it. It was never really my intention that this site would end up breaking news such as this, and it really isn't our role, or something I'm completely comfortable with.

But there has become such a void, that we sometimes end up in that role. When we are given a document such as this to post, find out the committee plans to vote on it so quickly, and realize that very few people know about it, then I felt we had to step in, and try to slow down the process until the public understood the plan better. A week later, and this website is still the only media outlet that has covered this., and the district has not posted it anywhere official for the public to see You all seemed pretty surprised by it Tuesday night, as well.

I have suggested to the school committee that given the state of the press that they need to do more themselves with social media. Many other districts have Facebook pages that allow them not just to put out notices of meetings and such, but to publicize all the good things that are happening in the schools in ways that can be shared with the public, and broadcast to an even wider audience. Facebook or Twitter are much more effective means to do this than the district website, because the information can be subscribed to and shared by people who are interested, rather than expecting individuals to have to search for it. And the district would control the initial message better, rather than leaving it to the press or a blog.

The city has been doing a bit of this, and I know the athletic department at the high school is using Twitter very effectively. Just saw a photo tweeted today of the turf fields being installed, as it was happening. The school committee needs to follow their lead, and jump in too.

I know that in addition to Jason and Brett that you are a Twitter user (sorry I left that out of the post), and am glad to hear that you will be pushing technology at the city level. I would love to be part of that committee or share my ideas with you.

Julie D said...

I think it should be noted that the ConnectEd system is used for PTO announcements and countless reminders to take surveys, yet something this major, affecting the community at large doesn't even get a mention. The tools in existence already to reach out to parents weren't used. Also, clearly inviting the press isn't enough. If you send a press release they will often print it verbatim.

jhall said...

Here's a very timely post from a local media blogger that figures into the media angle of this.

http://www.dankennedy.net/2011/11/18/a-rant-for-the-ages-against-the-corporate-media/

The Beverly Citizen is owned by Gatehouse, so this helps explains why they are often MIA. As for the Salem News, in addition to the loss of the school reporter that Jim mentions, word is that the general Beverly reporter is on furlough this week due to budget cuts at the News.

Patch is filling this void in many of our neighboring communities, but they are struggling also, and Robert Gates, the editor the Hamilton Patch tells me they have no plans to launch a Beverly Patch any time soon.

Julie is correct, however. Since there are no reporters left, if the school committee bothered to send a press release, they probably would have printed it verbatim.