Group Forms To Increase Communication, Transparency On Mashpee School Budget, Programs
By: Brian Kehrl
A group new to the landscape of the schools and town government has emerged in the past few months, aiming to fill a role its founders say is not addressed by other committees and organizations.
Parent-teacher organizations tend to focus on fundraising, the school councils oversee rules and regulations, and the Mashpee School Committee sets policy and the budget, but the Mashpee Public School Friends is different. The Friends group, formed by five women with children in the Kenneth C. Coombs and Quashnet schools, have staked out a mission that is at once to advocate for Mashpee Public School District students and to keep a watchful eye on the town and school budgets.
“The Friends will highlight pertinent information and communicate between various groups (PTO, school council, and school committee) and the Mashpee parents,” according to the group’s vision statement. “As well-informed parents, we are the best advocates for our children.”
“We want to support our schools. But we also live in Mashpee and we pay taxes. We want to make sure that our money is being spent well,” said Friends co-founder Heather L. Lakatos. “Our goal is to inform parents about what is going on...Most parents can’t make it to these meetings. They’re busy, they have a ton going on.”
“We are interested in hearing all sides,” said co-founder Barbara L. Cotton.
The group was born in part out of their experience with the budget last spring, including the defeat at Town Meeting of a request by members of the school committee to use town savings to prevent cuts to the school budget, as well as the limited public discussion by the school committee about what programs were under consideration to be cut.
The women—Ms. Lakatos, Ms. Cotton, Deborah M. Flaherty, Sarah J. Provencher, and Liz Viera—have been meeting with school and town officials since the summer, introducing themselves and developing a list of e-mail addresses, between 50 and 100 so far, from parents interested in receiving occasional information updates.
The group had something of a coming out event this week, moving beyond its formative stages to help arrange a presentation at which Town Manager Joyce M. Mason and Town Accountant Dawn M. Thayer explained the basics of the town budget, from the state and local revenue sources to a breakdown of costs.
Ms. Mason said state aid for this fiscal year is down by 11 percent compared to two years ago and town revenue estimates for this year are down. However, she said town departments had $1.3 million in unspent funds at the end of the last fiscal year, money that is turned over into the free cash account his year, so the town savings is at a healthy level.
The presentation came as the budget process is just beginning to get going. Each department, including the school district, is due to submit their detailed budget request by Monday. Ms. Mason’s budget message requested a level budget submission from the school department, keeping the bottom line the same for next year as it was this year.
In the coming weeks Ms. Mason and the town financial team will meet with department heads to negotiate the town manager’s recommended budget, which then goes to the Mashpee Board of Selectmen and Mashpee Finance Committee for review.
Town and school officials, in interviews this week, described enthusiastic support for the group and its mission of increasing communication and transparency.
“I think it’s great. Let’s bring as many people to this table as we can,” said Scott P. McGee, the only school committee member who attended the presentation this week.
Mr. McGee said he has heard some individuals involved in the school district express concern that the new group may overlap with the PTOs. “But I don’t buy it. I want as much involvement as possible,” he said.
He said he hopes the new activists all run for school committee, to help bring out new ideas that can make the most of the school department’s limited budget.
Superintendent Ann M. Bradshaw, who also attended the presentation, wrote in an e-mail this week that, “I absolutely support the Friends in their roles to foster communication and to advocate for Mashpee students.”
“I think communication with schools and families is quite good—principals send newsletters, submit articles to the Enterprise, info is posted on our website, we use automated calling to remind parents about important events, and have numerous opportunities for parent involvement. With very few exceptions, our response to parents with concerns or questions is timely. However, communication is so important that there is always room for improvement. We welcome the Friends’ efforts to assist in getting information to parents,” she wrote.
Ms. Mason said she will work with the group to provide any information they request. She met with the group this summer and said that she hoped the group would keep the whole town budget picture in mind, beginning a conversation that led to the presentation on Tuesday evening.
During a wide-ranging discussion after the meeting this week, the women said they hope to address concerns, general and specific, from comments made by other parents that they are considering removing their children from Mashpee schools out of concern that the district is not meeting their needs to how money like donations from grocery store receipts is spent. They also hope to advertise the strengths of the district, citing strong performances by the KC Coombs School students on a standardized literacy test and their positive experiences with a new math curriculum.
The Friends said they hope to increase communication and transparency between the school district and parents, both about successes and how the district is addressing the issues it is facing.
Ms. Viera said she felt that the parents were given little information about what the school committee was considering cutting due to budget limitations, so when the news came of what had been dropped, it came as a shock. “It is all just discussed in executive session,” she said.
Ms. Cotton focused on the decision to cut the integrated arts program, formerly run by Davien Gould.
She said that if the school administration had provided parents with specific programs that were to be cut, the parents may have been more engaged with the budget process, she said. “Then it becomes more personal,” she said.
She said she hopes that the school administration can explain ahead of time how they plan to meet the potential budget cuts for next year. She likened the situation to a board of directors of a corporation asking a CEO to explain how he or she plans to meet a projected future budget gap. “If the CEO says they don’t know or don’t have a plan, that wouldn’t be acceptable,” she said.
Ms. Cotton said that the school district reached out to parents just before Town Meeting last spring, asking them to go to the meeting and support the article to use free cash to support the school budget. But many parents did not fully understand the situation, she said.
Ms. Lakatos said the group originated not out of griping but out of an interest in improving the process from last year.
The Friends noted on several occasions that the school and town organizations and officials can seem difficult to access at times, something Ms. Viera said could be addressed by the school committee holding a forum for asking questions at the end of each meeting, to allow an open discussion so that the parents can better understand the issues.
Ms. Flaherty said her son is in kindergarten, and she joined because she was looking for ways to be involved.
Ms. Cotton and the other Friends seemed to recognize that how they approach the issues will be crucial, and Ms. Cotton stressed that the group has no intentions of being adversarial. “We don’t have an agenda. We just want to know,” she said. We are not interested in micromanaging things.”
“There are questions that everyone wants to ask but that no one does. We’ll ask those questions,” Ms. Cotton said, highlighting questions about how money from the Super Stop & Shop receipts donation program is spent.
A sense of pride emerged, just for a moment, during the discussion, with Ms. Lakatos noting that selectmen, a school committee member, town and school employees all came together for the meeting. “That wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t exist,” she said.
But some of the challenges they face were also illustrated after the meeting this week. The group members were mingling around and chatting with town and school officials, inquiring about the history of the town Charter and how the town Department of Public Works took over responsibility for building and grounds maintenance at the schools. They have a lot of information to learn and history to catch up on, Ms. Cotton said.
Some of the people started to leave, and Ms. Bradshaw said the meeting was good. “But there are some things in there that I don’t agree with,” she said, on her way out of the conference room.
The women said the group is focused on expanding its e-mail list and attracting more participants, especially from parents of Mashpee Middle and High school students willing to serve as liaison to those schools. The group can be contacted at email@example.com.
They stressed that involvement does not have to mean a major time commitment.
“The more people we have involved, the less work it will be for everyone,” Ms. Flaherty said.
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