The Recorder – My Turn: “Instead of blaming each other, we need to work together”
On December 6, several employees publicly expressed their distrust of the Hawlemont School Committee. As the chairman, I would like to answer. These opinions are my own, but I believe most of the committee members feel the same.
While the school committee is always concerned when staff have concerns, the latest presentation was neither constructive nor accurate. The approach chosen was very public and coordinated, with no notice, with two employees taking turns reading an ugly statement. Choreographed for maximum publicity, this seemed more of an attempt to denigrate the committee members than to solve problems.
Unfortunately, legitimate concerns have been mixed with half-truths and misrepresentations. Reliance on rumors and failure to fully inform themselves caused the speakers, perhaps inadvertently, to play quickly and easily with the truth. Not all Hawlemont employees agree with these statements either. Others have different concerns and appreciate the work of the school committee. I’ve heard of them too, just not so publicly.
The school committee never failed to work with the staff. We worked with them whenever they contacted us. Most recently we successfully negotiated a new contract with our teachers. I think many members of the committee would like to be more involved with the school, but we often encounter resistance.
The committee is accused of being too negative. That is not true; we often attribute positive performance. However, our job as regulators is not to praise every success and ignore failure. This is a delusion, not an oversight.
Ironically, those who spoke the other night are guilty of the extreme negativity of themselves. Although we were attacked for various complaints (some of which were unrelated to our activities), we did not hear a “thank you” for resisting attempts to shut down Hawlemont (a major threat to the livelihoods of employees). We received no credit for accepting a contract that reinstates all benefits temporarily suspended during the COVID-19 shutdown, or for taking extraordinary measures last year to pass a government austerity program and thus avert a government austerity program, as some tried to prevent the vote on this budget. I thank our committee for giving such ungrateful support to students and staff while respecting the taxpayers we represent.
The committee has also been ridiculously accused of downplaying the pandemic. We never downplayed COVID-19. We delayed the return to face-to-face learning even longer than in other districts due to safety concerns. Hawlemont’s protections – including masks and tests – are as strong as anyone else’s. The fact that we thought intensively and carefully about the implementation of the restrictions ultimately made was not a trivialization of the pandemic, but our work. Even necessary restrictions are difficult for children, so we have carefully placed emphasis on safety, comfort and respect for people with disabilities.
However, I suspect the pandemic statement was also a disguised indication that the committee is not buying the unconvincing mantra that the problems at Hawlemont are due to COVID-19. Many of the problems we face – including bullying – started even before COVID. While COVID has certainly made them worse, it cannot be blamed for every mishap. This is a selfish renunciation of responsibility.
The committee was also accused of disrespecting the administrators. However, the committee can also claim to have been disregarded by the administration in recent months.
There was an atmosphere of uncooperativity, even contempt. Examples of this include refusing to provide information that we have requested or promising not to provide it later; fail to provide direct answers to budget, policy, and curriculum questions, or give vague, evasive, ever-changing answers; (often) ask us to coordinate plans and contracts that we have not yet seen; and buying equipment that was never approved in budget and then trying to find alternative funding. Committee members were personally demoted; one even had confidential health and custody information about a relative that was inappropriately disclosed when an administrator passed a chain of emails containing the information to others during an argument.
Many have asked what the role and remit of the school board is. Much of our powers come from Chapter 71 of the General Laws. Section 16B sets out our responsibilities for establishing the budget. Section 37 states: “The school board … has the authority to select and fire the school principal, review and approve public education budgets in the district, and establish educational goals and guidelines for schools in the district that meet the requirements of the law and the national goals and standards set by the Education Committee. ”Section 50 gives us a role in choosing the books the school will use; (in the sense of modernity also digital content). Section 59 requires that the headmaster manage the school “in a manner consistent with state law and the policy of” [the] School committee. ”
The school board does not oversee routine operational matters, hire teachers, or participate in disciplinary cases with limited exceptions (appeals). We ask families to resolve concerns at the lowest possible level (usually with a teacher) and then, if necessary, go up the chain to the headmaster, the headmaster, and finally the school board. This is essential for an orderly system.
However, as mentioned earlier, the school committee is concerned with more than just budgets and hiring superintendents. We have a role in running the school. Our administrators must respect this, work with us and proactively share information. A majority of the committee believes that this has not happened.
Hawlemont faces major challenges. Families withdrawing children from Hawlemont, petitions and letters we have received prove this fact. The responsibility to identify and improve the situation rests with all of us: school board, administration, staff and community members. Instead of blaming each other, we need to work together. The stakes are too high not to be.
Hussain A. Hamdan chairs the Hawlemont Regional School Committee.