One of the issues that has consistently arisen is the tendency of elected bodies, including our School Committee, to default to a constituent services model of operations.
How would you balance the need to address constituent needs with the demands of important systemic and structural changes?
Cara Berg Powers:
Unfortunately, because our elected bodies in Worcester are not full time, the roles do not lend themselves well to constituent services. This has become very clear as I've spoken to thousands of community members while doorknocking this summer. I've heard far too many stories of families spending time and resources they can't afford to fight for the educational supports their children need. To me, ensuring that each of these families is getting what they need doesn't need to be balanced with systemic and structural change- it needs to inform it. I've heard enough anecdotal evidence about buses not being where they are supposed to be or 504 accommodations not being implemented according to the law to know that there are larger issues that need to be addressed. So while I can give those families my number, and track down the solution they need, if I am not then asking for the data needed to ensure this isn't also happening throughout the system, and proposing structural solutions, I'll just be caught up in an endless game of whack-a-mole. And our community deserves better than that. With my background and experience in participatory research and systems infrastructure, I look forward to hearing from parents, students and teachers to inform the big picture ideas that will ensure everyone served by our district is getting what they need to thrive.
I think it's also important to recognize our limitations as part-time elected officials. When I call my State Representative, he has a staff person that can look into my issue and report back what a next step may be. I won't have that support as a member of the Worcester School Committee. So there are two things I am committed to- one is having monthly community forums that open accessible spaces for community members to bring their challenges not just to me, but to one another to build a shared community of support and action. The second is to keep a campaign staff person on to support my constituent services and outreach work through my own fundraising. By designing opportunities for parents, teachers, and students to come together, we can ensure that we're identifying the structural causes of some of these issues before they become constituent service issues. I look forward to working with groups like the Worcester Educational Justice Alliance, as I have for nearly a decade with the Boston and Massachusetts Justice Alliances, to bring teachers, students, and parents together around shared priorities to identify the structural solutions to our biggest challenges. I'll always answer my emails and calls to figure out how we can solve the challenges our students, teachers, and parents might face each day, and I hope that by proactively looking at the big picture changes we can make, there won't be quite as many challenges to solve.
I feel that our constituents are the ones most impacted by the systemic and structural issues in our institutions. Listening and having our constituents at the table are vital to the way our city will thrive or fall. As an elected official, I will attempt to address the needs of all my constituents. I want to hear concerns and help constituents address those concerns. But if I have several families who bring to me the same concern, addressing them one by one just doesn’t make sense. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us when he commented on the parable of the Good Samaritan saying that it is inadequate to "soothe the effects of evil, without going back to uproot the causes.” Sure, we must step in and help people when they are in need, but we must also work to address the social realities that create that need. This is not an either/or predicament. If someone is hungry, I should give them a fish AND teach them to fish. I might also have to work to make sure that they also have access to fishing poles and bodies of water. And I need to make sure that those bodies of water stay clean and healthy so that there is plenty of fish. Elected officials must engage in help and support, but they also work to make a more just society so that there is less suffering and need for help and support.
We have to keep the lines of communication open through all of the channels. We have to address the systemic and structural issues, including structural racism head on. No more pushing things under the rug and saying that there is no problem. I feel the most disrespectful thing ever is to have someone come to an elected official that either promised that they would make certain things a priority and they turn around and say that they have never experienced it or that it doesn't exist. It is not the job of an elected official to judge what we they are being told is happening to anyone. They are supposed to listen and take action at every level. When I am elected to the Worcester School Committee I will do just this: Listen, Research, and Act. I will listen to my constituents, I will look into situations brought to my attention and I will then act to elevate problems, but also act to prevent the problems from happening again.
Any elected official, including a school committee member , has a duty to be responsive to their constituents. That would include being assessable, listening to and learning from constituents, and striving to address problems the constituents bring to the table. We must never, however, forget that the inspirational guide by which any educational policy or practice must be judged: Will this make it easier or harder for our children to learn? We must not ever lose focus on this priority. Children must always be centered in every educational policy decision.
I believe being an elected official is an honor, and voters will be putting their faith in me to do what is best for our community and all students. As a School Committee member, I will make sure I am listening to and addressing the concerns of all Worcester residents. I am aware that these concerns may not always align with the systemic and structural changes that need to happen in our school system. I believe the best way to balance these concerns is by having open and honest communication. As a strong school committee member, I will work to help both sides understand the concerns of the other and find a solution that meets the needs of all.
As an elected official, I am ready to have these conversations knowing at times they may be difficult. In my current position as an Education and Career Counselor, I have to balance what is best for my students and their families, with the policies that govern the school system. I have been part of conversations where disagreements take place and I have worked to mediate a positive outcome. I can tell you my approach will always be honest and straight forward as I believe those to be the two most crucial elements in building strong relationships and partnerships. As a School Committee member I will continue to work this way. No matter the circumstances I will always push for the best interest of students and staff in the face of change.
Although a critical component to service on the school committee is responding to concerns for families, students, and other constituents, these singular issues should not be a part of the school committee’s agenda. My approach has always been to reach out to the administration when I hear of concerns or questions and to link the right department with the parents/families to resolve the issue or to get an informed response. The only time these items should go to the agenda is if they become a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.
I have filed requests asking for a restructuring of the school committee agendas to avoid the heavy presence of constituent items, recognitions, and unnecessary reporting back to the school committee by the administration. The focus of the school committee meetings should be on important discussions regarding the strategic direct of the district and policy matters impacting students. This discussion, supported by reading materials prior to the meeting and set up with brief comments from the administration, would create a more interactive, forward-thinking dynamic on the school committee and provide greater transparency to the public on the strategic vision of the district and the school committee. It would also allow the school committee to solicit feedback from the public on these important issues. The 2017 Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s review of Worcester’s governance also recommended similar changes to the agenda and focus of the school committee. The school committee needs to make these changes.
I will ensure the school committee develops annual goals to achieve systematic change. This can be working on the implementation of the strategic plan. Because there are no plans, members tend to file items that speak to their base. The school committee should participate in retreats to work on strategies to tighten collaboration among members and to improve service operations.
When making systemic and structural changes I would be conscious of how am I addressing constituent needs. Hopefully the changes that are made are too address the concern of our constituents. It shouldn’t be hard to balance, because it should work together. The changes that will be made should be to better serve our constituents.
I believe that, because we have a strategic plan in place, one that was developed and agreed upon by members of our community, we will be able to focus on our mutually agreed upon goals. We will be following the mandates of the entire community that have been developed, in part, by our constituents. The plan is our guide and our road map. We will continue to bring our concerns if our constituents to our collective body for discussion and address.
It’s always important to keep the communication open and encourage constituents’ ideas from various groups. Many times those interested groups or individuals appear on agenda items at the School Committee level as committee members submit the ideas of the group or individuals.
The Strategic Plan is the important systemic and structure change happening now. Parents are the constituents and we need to have input from them. Decisions that are made need to have parent involvement at all times.
Then, it’s our job as a body to make decisions on what will be best for the district taking into consideration what parents have contributed to the conversation. Parents are the most important group in the mix for they are a child’s first and most important teachers and our job is to have them as part of the learning process. All schools need to embrace the concept articulated in the strategic plan that “fosters a positive school climate through articulation of shared values/goals and implementation of effective practices in schools.”
The first step to repairing a problem is admitting it is a problem. This, for the Worcester School Committee, is a problem.
Under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 71, section 37, the purposes of school committees in Massachusetts are four:
To select, terminate, and evaluate the superintendent
To review and approve the budget
To establish district goals
To establish district policies
A review of Worcester School Committee agendas demonstrates the issue. Agendas are dominated by lists of recognitions, which further necessitate speeches at the meeting proposed and at the meeting given. Frequently, there is no report of the superintendent connecting to the district and superintendent goals on which the district is working. Reports that are given frequently are seen as simple public relations exercises, rather than evaluation of progress. Often, items from members focus on individual recommendations or concerns, in direct conflict with the state school committee Code of Ethics, which states that members will:
Refer all complaints to administrative staff for solution and only discuss them at Committee meetings if such solutions fail
That is where constituent services lie: in forwarding constituent concerns on to the proper place within the administrative structure, only bringing it to the committee as a body if no remedy is given, or if the remedy lies with the full committee. Too often, members of the Worcester School Committee simply file constituent concerns as items, seeing this as the remedy, so as, it appears, to be able to say “I’ve filed an item on this” and be seen to do so. This is outside the operational agreement of committee and administration. This is also inefficient, as rather than simply having the matter dealt with, it must wait for a meeting, be sent to administration, be dealt with, and be reported back on a future agenda.
This is not simply my own observation: in the 2017 Comprehensive District Review Report by the Center for District and School Accountability of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (available for download here), the very first concern listed regarding Leadership and Governance is that of the Worcester School Committee’s use of time and attention (p.2):
School committee members should act with restraint with regard to the number and complexity of motions requesting information from school and district leaders.
This recommendation was based on a thorough review of Worcester School Committee agendas, meetings, and administrative time spent in response. The report noted the great number of items that are not aligned with district goals or plans. The recommendation by the Department speaks at great length on this concern, further noting:
Few motions made by members are aligned with district leaders’ priorities for improving teaching and learning or with district goals for the year.
The state, oft cited for its role in oversight, listed this as a concern two years ago. This report was never formally reviewed by the Worcester School Committee, and the conditions have only worsened in the intervening time.
This is no small issue: in their 2006 work “School District Leadership that Works,” J. Timothy Waters and Robert J. Marzano found:
In districts with higher levels of student achievement, the local board of education is aligned with and supportive of the non-negotiable goals for achievement and instruction. They ensure these goals remain the primary focus of the district’s efforts and that no other initiatives detract attention or resources from accomplishing these goals.
Yet “other initiatives” are constantly the focus of the Worcester School Committee.
Goals, by contrast, are so lightly taken that the superintendent’s 2019-20 goals were passed at a July meeting at which not all members were present with little discussion and without amendment. The Committee itself does not, despite its own policies BA and BAA, have performance goals for itself, nor has it conducted a self-assessment of its operations. Both should be done and reviewed regularly by the Committee.
The Worcester School Committee needs to focus on the work under its purview, forwarding constituent concerns to the appropriate place, while working to advance student achievement in all of its many aspects.
Massachusetts School Committees have an extensive array of responsibilities established for them by statutory law and regulation. They hire and evaluate the Superintendent of Schools. They also hire (in most cases upon recommendation of the Superintendent) the assistant or associate superintendents, the school business administrator, the administrator of special education, school physicians and nurses, and legal counsel. Pursuant to Chapter 71, Section 37 of the Massachusetts General Laws, they “shall review and approve budgets for public education in [their] district and shall establish educational goals and policies for the schools in the district consistent with the requirements of
law and statewide goals and standards established by the Massachusetts Board of Education.” They conduct collective bargaining with school district employees. They consult with the Superintendent as to school improvement plans before the plans are approved. They even have authority regarding private schools; under Chapter 76, Section 1 of the Massachusetts General Laws, they “shall approve a private school when satisfied that the instruction in all the studies required by law equals
In thoroughness and efficiency, and in the progress made therein, that in the public schools in the same [community].”
Officially, School Committees are not responsible for “community service.” However, School Committee members truly cannot exercise the responsibilities detailed above, in a prudent, well-informed and thoughtful manner, unless they welcome the advice of their constituents regarding them! Thus, effective School Committee members attend appropriate school and parent meetings and events, when able to do so. They should be visible in their community, and encourage the suggestions of their fellow residents. They should demonstrate, and exercise, effective listening skills, paying close attention to the input given them.
Furthermore, School Committee members can assist the members of their community by helping them to obtain resolution of their issues and concerns with the schools, in a careful and properly limited way. A significant percentage of the calls and messages I receive from constituents relate to such topics - for example, the options parents/guardians have as to schools In which their child is eligible to enroll, the process to appeal a decision made in a school, the identity (and contact information) as to the school official who can best address their concerns. While no state law or regulation delineates such a responsibility for School Committee members, this is truly an area in which Committee members can assist their constituents, to help them and their children, to allay unnecessary anxiety, and to demonstrate to them that city officials can, and will, assist them, within the proper bounds of their flexibility to do so. Thoughtful Committee members can do this without infringing, in any manner, on the discretion and responsibility of other school officials.
Committee members should not “default” to this role. Their primary duty is to carry out the tasks set forth for them by law and regulation. However, I believe these can only be exercised well when Committee members encourage, and consider, the advice of their constituents, and when they inform their deliberation by active research into key educational topics. Yet they can, and should, guide their constituents to the school officials who can best help them, and, where appropriate, to review with them the policies of the School Committee which are pertinent to them.
It is the duty of the Worcester School Committee to address the important systemic and structural needs of the system. I do understand the draw towards answering individual voters concerns. However, in order to truly serve our community, we must take a systems approach. It will be how I measure my success as a school committee member and indeed how I would judge anyone on the school committee. I know from my professional experience change around diversity at UMass Medical School only has a lasting and measurable impact when we take a systems approach. How our system performs will be directly reflected in the vibrancy and health of Worcester as our graduates join the workforce or other institutions of higher learning.
Our job as committee members is both governance and policy. I believe even in the governance aspect of the committees work, we should take a systems approach. I believe that we can do better with parental engagement, for example. If we only approached it from a constituent services model, only the parents connected and vocal would have their voice heard and the vast majority would not be heard. However, if we looked at the system, and came up with an engagement model that works for those parents who are struggling to make sure their child has their needs met as well as those parents who are already connected to the school committee, then the entire system will benefit for years to come.