Levy abstains, citing lack of confidence from community
Most of the School Committee voted to endorse voting yes on the three override questions Newton residents will consider in March, but one member abstained at Monday’s meeting, saying he didn’t think the board had the credibility to ask voters to approve nearly $15 million in tax increases.
Some parents agreed the School Committee had not earned the trust for voters to honor their endorsement, referring to a 2022 survey that found nearly 70 percent of parents were unhappy with the direction of Newton Public Schools.
“When the School Committee now comes on and says ‘Let’s work for the override’ I’m going to be a lot less inclined to do so because the last time we brought concerns to you, you dismissed it,” Chestnut Hill parent Irene Margolin Katz told the Beacon.
Endorsement or presumption?
Voters will face three ballot questions on March 14 – one to approve a $2.3 million tax increase for renovations to the Countryside School, another for $3.5 million in work for the Franklin School, and a $9.2 million increase that would go into the city’s overall operating budget. But $4.5 million of that is earmarked for education, meaning more than $10 million of the tax increases would go to the city’s schools.
School officials have said this year’s budget will face a deficit of $2 million to $4 million even if the overrides pass. But if the operating override does not pass, that deficit would be between $6 million and $8 million, and could result in the elimination of 40 to 50 teaching positions.
At a January meeting, School Committee Chair Tamika Olsewski said while Committee members cannot endorse individual candidates they are allowed to make endorsements for ballot questions, and proposed an endorsement for a “yes” vote on all three override questions at Monday’s meeting. Most of her fellow Committee members backed the proposal.
“If we don’t vote to support this it’s a dereliction of duty,” said Ward 5 School Committee member Emily Prenner. “It’s what we’ve been elected to do, to support the students.”
“The failure of the override will put us in a catastrophic hole. I acknowledge [the resolution] is not perfect but it is important,” said Ward Seven School Committee member Kathleen Shields.
But Ward 6 School Committee member Paul Levy abstained from the vote, saying he didn’t think the group could make an endorsement when “there is no question that we’ve lost the confidence of our community.” Levy said he will not yet say whether he will support or oppose the overrides.
“I thought it was presumptuous for us to attempt to advise the populace on this when our own performance has been deficient. I thought it was ill-timed and ill-conceived,” Levy told the Beacon after the meeting. “It just seemed given the lack of credibility of the School Committee in carrying out governance functions and being responsive to members of the community, it struck me as a poor choice to take a vote saying to the community ‘please do what we want.’”
Levy pointed to a 2022 survey Hazard Young Attea Associates performed for the district to determine qualities for the next superintendent. That survey also asked for overall opinions about the schools, and only 31 percent of parents agreed with “The district is heading in the right direction.” The 1562 parents surveyed made up the majority of the 2200 respondents, which also included students, teachers, other school professionals and administrators.
Katz said she thinks the schools have many good qualities, singling out a special needs program that serves one of her children that she’s advocated expanding across other schools. But she said she also has concerns about changing standards at the schools, and that officials haven’t responded to the results of the survey.
While she said she would vote for the Countryside and Franklin overrides, Katz said she was leaning toward voting no on the operating override because of a lack of trust.
“The survey indicated a lot of people are not happy, it feels like our concerns are not being taken seriously,” Katz said.
Ward 2 School Committee member Christopher Brezski brought up the survey during Monday’s endorsement discussion, saying that nearly 70 percent of parents thinking the schools were headed in the wrong direction was “a big problem.” But Olszewski pushed back, saying while officials weren’t disregarding the data, it should be considered in the larger context of how many parents and caregivers are supporting Newton’s 11,700 students.
“I haven’t heard dismissing of the data, I’ve heard cautioning that the data is reflective of a tiny fraction of [the] parent population,” Olszewski said. “We have an incomplete picture of people that are evaluating the current satisfaction level with schools, we don’t know who those folks are, we don’t have demographic information.”
Levy and Katz said the survey’s results still needed to be taken seriously.
“I was very surprised last night when the chair discredited the survey, that survey forms the basis for many aspects of the leadership profile that was used to recruit the superintendent candidates,” Levy said.
You can’t administer a survey and just ignore it and say everything is fine,” Katz said.