Public Policy Updates: August Board of Education meeting

On August 17, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held a previously unscheduled summer meeting, due to the untimely death of Commissioner Chester the morning of the June meeting. The meeting was called largely to discuss the process for hiring a new Commissioner. 

In opening the meeting, Acting Commissioner Wulfson acknowledged the significant support he is receiving from all of DESE staff, most particularly the senior staff. All recognized the passing of Kathy Kelley, former president of AFT-MA (information regarding services can be found here).

Taking advantage of the Board being together, the Department gave an update on the state's ESSA plan (notes here). Matt Pakos reminded the Board of the process to date; Rob Curtin then reviewed the feedback received on the plan and the Department's planned response. The Board also received the proposed accountability indicators to date, with the repeatedly emphasized caveat that these will change once results from this spring's assessments are available. At this point, the major difference between the US DoE and the state is the measure on assessments for the academic achievement indicator: US DoE has insisted on grade level proficiency (that is, a measure tied to the percentage of students getting a score above the proficient cut off on testing), while the state has proposed the use of the average scaled score (averaging the scores of all students across a range of profiency rather than a single point, and measuring increases over time). The state does not plan to change this in their next submission. Late Tuesday, Connecticut received approval for their state plan that used a similar measure, which may indicate that a more positive direction for Massachusetts is possible.

Russell Johnston, serving as interim receiver of Southbridge, gave an update on work in the district (notes here). After reviewing the work that had been done on curricular alignment and work with technology and ELL students, he spent more time discussing the work on budgeting. In particular, he spoke of the centralization of purchasing, as too much authority had devolved to the schools on purchasing; the district was not, he said, "following best practices." The Department directly supported finishing the FY17 budget, such that the close of year balanced. Currently, the Department is in negotiations with a contractor for business management services; due to the previous high rate of turnover in the business office, Johnston felt that hiring an individual would not be best. The search for a new receiver will take place after local input on the characteristics needed in a new receiver. Johnston said the emphasis would be in "quality over speed." He will be reinstating the curriculum and budget subcommittees of the school committee in an advisory capacity. The district currently is orientating new teachers; this year, 70 teachers are new in a district of about 175 teachers. As part of their orientation, new teachers are touring the town on buses, meeting with parents, business owners, and other community members to be introduced to the strengths of the district. 

The Board received an FY18 budget update, as the Governor signed the budget after their June meeting. From the Department's perspective, beyond flat staffing, the main concern is the conference committee's decision to budget the assessment line at $4 million less than the Governor's budget. DESE does not, at this point, plan to cut their spending; they are "moving forward assuming we will have that (higher) level." The federal budget picture remains, of course, unclear.

Chair Sagan then took up the search for a new Commissioner.  The Board is required to operate under the Open Meeting Law in their search; as such, final interviews, deliberation, and voting will take place in public session. An initial round of interviews will take place with an appointed subcommittee of the Board in executive session. The Department will be sending out an RFP with the intention of hiring a search firm to assist them in the search.  In response to a question from student representative Trimarchi regarding public input, Sagan proposed a small advisory committee, as well as encouragement of public input through their regular meetings.  

Finally, the Board voted a 10% raise for Acting Commissioner Wulfson for the duration of his service as acting commissioner. Wulfson does not intend to apply for the permanant position. 

The Board next meets on September 26.