SCHOOLS: Restoring Confidence in Our Schools: Candidates Interviewed
Explanation of Q+A Format Below:
Candidates for School Committee responded to a common set of questions. The responses to these common questions follow each other in the Q+A format below. This was done to easily compare viewpoints.
The voters of the towns of Groton and Dunstable have lost some confidence in the School Committee's ability to oversee the financial management of the schools which has led to a corresponding decrease in confidence in the school committee. What would you do to restore this confidence?
I would create as much transparency as possible and I would make myself available to the public as much as possible. I would answer any and all questions asked by the public with the only exception being questions where confidentiality is required due to the nature of the question. I would take extra time to highlight performance reviews where performance met or exceeded expectations. I would accept all responsibility when performance did not meet expectations and present a plan to correct performance that did not meet expectations.
Since the beginning of this year, the School Committee has begun addressing several issues which contributed to the recent budget shortfalls, based in part on the Independent Accountant's report. These include a budget variance review both monthly and quarterly, and taking steps to assemble a tri-board budget review panel, consisting of select members from the School Committee, Boards of Selectmen, and Finance Committees in both Groton and Dunstable. I would work to ensure that these review processes are fully implemented and improved over time so that have the best controls over actual spending vs. budget, and can quickly make adjustments.
I would also work to make sure we improve the budget development process, and improve communications with parents, teachers, town boards, and residents so that more parties can provide input and understand the choices made in the budget.
Finally, I believe the district needs to work with all stakeholders to define a strategic vision to guide district decisions and get our schools moving forward again. We need to develop budgets based on that vision which will enable us to deliver an excellent education to all children in Groton and Dunstable. Many parents and residents no longer have confidence that our schools are delivering a great education. A new vision which takes a fresh look at how the district operates and how it delivers education can help restore that confidence. I will take action to deliver on that vision, measuring each School Committee decision-budgetary or otherwise-against that vision. To track our progress, I will work with the administration and committee members to develop metrics and goals to track how we are progressing toward delivering that vision.
Perhaps the most costly yet politically sensitive spending in the school budget is Special Education. What would you do to make special education costs both reasonable and predictable while still offering good quality special education services?
Unfortunately, special education costs are very unpredictable. This is mostly due to new special education students enrolling in the district and existing children being diagnosed with new or additional special education needs. My wife is an educator in a different district and the message they are hearing as teachers is that students are being incorrectly diagnosed with special needs. They are either being over diagnosed or incorrectly diagnosed. This presents two problems. The first is that the students' needs are not being appropriately met and the second is that funds are being inappropriately used. I would suggest that we constantly be evaluating if we are correctly diagnosing students with special needs to avoid these two problems.
One additional possibility for delivering quality special education services as economically as possible is to increase the scale of the special education program in our district. We could increase the scale of our program and accept students from other districts for a fee. We even have a couple of surplus properties within the town of Groton that might be usable for this purpose. This would obviously require a feasibility study and advice of the administration.
Special Education services are required, but are the right thing to provide for our children regardless of legal mandate. These costs can be somewhat unpredictable, since the district cannot predict what Special Education services may be required for new students entering the district. The highest cost services tend to be those which require out-of-district placement, since the district is required to pay for tuition and transportation to those placements. The state's Special Education Circuit Breaker program only covers a portion of these high-needs children, and so the district must pick up the rest.
One potential way to find savings is to provide more services in-district, which is often not only less costly but also saves on transportation costs. I would ask the administration to look at this, and provide recommendations and projections of savings. I'm hopeful that Lyn Snow, the new Director of Pupil Personnel Services, who has significant experience in special education, can help develop some of these recommendations.
Finally, I believe we need to make sure that the special education portion of the budget has adequate contingency funding so that any unforeseen increases in services can be handled within the approved budget. If unused, that contingency can help to build back up the district's excess and deficiency fund, which is at a perilously low level today.