The School Committee elected Anne Musella the new chair by unanimous vote during the first meeting with new members Will Hangan, Tim Munoz, and Kevin Murphy last week. They also voted unanimously to have Lori McEwen continue as vice chair.
Musella was elected in 2018. As head of the policy subcommittee, she has taken on a deep review of all district policies. She will retain leadership of the policy subcommittee.
During the meeting, Musella noted the School Committee had a lot of work in its future. She outlined what she sees as the top priorities in a recent interview.
“The number one priority is supporting our superintendent to get through this pandemic,” she said, referring to Alexis Meyer, who was named to the top job only a couple of weeks before COVID-19 descended on the land. “She continues to do an incredible job of balancing everyone’s interests in protecting the health and safety of our students and staff, while delivering an education to our students in this wildly unprecedented time. We will continue to support her in that work,” she said, adding, “I am every day more impressed by her work ethic. Her strength seems endless. And the relationships she has developed over the years … put us in a really good place.”
Next on Musella’s list is the budget, both the current budget and the one for fiscal year 2022 (which starts July 1, 2021). During her tenure, Musella has consistently sought additional financial information about everything that’s come before the panel, large and small.
“The state still hasn’t passed its [FY 2021] budget and we as a School Committee have not even approached the Town Council for additional funds this year,” she said. “There remains such a lack of clarity. It’s going to be all hands on deck.”
Tim Munoz was named chair of the finance subcommittee Dec. 1 (taking over from Jeff Dronzek, who stepped off the committee). Members Gene Quinn and Will Hangan will also serve on that committee.
“We’ve had some credibility issues. We can do a better job of providing more transparency with district finances,” said Musella. “We have a much better relationship with the town and we have a new finance director. We have the opportunity for more regular, more consistent finance updates.”
Musella said another priority was the district’s special needs population.
“There are clearly opportunities with respect to how well we are serving or not serving our special populations,” she said. “The pandemic has made it particularly difficult for students with special needs and we need to really focus on that.”
Musella said her first two years on the committee opened her eyes to this population.
“We’re talking about 13 percent of our [student] population. It’s a significant number. It’s inherently unfair not to look at how we can serve all of our students to the best of our ability,” she said. “What can we do better?”
The School Committee will need to focus on facilities issues too. Voters approved a $5 million school bond in 2019 that was meant to target security, health and safety, technology and building projects for all six schools. COVID has caused delays – action is picking up again but that work is just the tip of an iceberg. The district’s capital expense needs totaled $43 million in 2019, according to facilities director Bob Wilmarth.
“Thankfully we have Alyson Powell, who has really taken hold of that piece – there’s a lot to do there,” said Musella.
Musella also mentioned the need to update the district’s strategic plan, noting it would be “a living document that guides all of our work.” Vice Chair McEwen, a former school administrator, will guide that work.
Figuring out how to fund field trips and the other activities that can separate the haves from the have nots is also on Musella’s radar. The committee made big strides in the area of field trips in 2019. The pandemic put a halt to trips and the need to figure out how to fund them but that issue will be returning in coming months.
“The finance director has to have a firm grip on these policies,” Musella said, regarding fundraising and related policies. “There will still be some bumps but I think we can iron those out. It’s all doable.”
What Musella called her “own particular interest” is community engagement. “We value parent partnerships – I think we can really show that and make that come to life,” she said. She plans to follow the practice established by former chair Carolyn Mark of allowing public comment on agenda issues after all the School Committee members have weighed in (as opposed to just at the beginning or end of the meeting).
“What I am looking forward to and one of the things I’m excited about is I think we have opportunities to expand the flow of information, increase the level of engagement, including community engagement,” she said, adding, “We can do a better job of providing more transparency with district finances.”
She acknowledged she sometimes got frustrated with how the School Committee operated in the past.
“I know that in the last couple of years there have been times when I’ve been an outlier in my views and opinions and sometimes even my votes,” she said. “We all seem to be for the most part philosophically aligned. Where we disagreed was around process. We really do have a shared goal of helping our kids and there’s a lot of mutual respect. I see the role of chair as just facilitating the committee – taking the best of everybody and putting it to good use.”
The School Committee meets next on Monday, in joint virtual session with the Town Council, a Town Charter mandated meeting that is the official start to next year’s budget discussions.