Parents have always been a driving force behind school policy decisions. Some of the proposals and decisions that have been championed, challenged or completely ignored in recent years have been surprising. But those efforts inform how money is allocated within the budget.
Those of us who aren’t directly involved but still help to foot the bill with our tax dollars have a voice, too. And ordinarily, we are able to express ourselves by voting in people that we feel will look out for the best interest of all students while upholding their fiduciary responsibility to stakeholders.
The May 6 Sandwich School Committee meeting and May 19 election should be a wake-up call for every stakeholder in this community.
For the fifth time in as many years an elected member of the Sandwich School Committee has resigned. That’s troubling. In addition, after this week’s election, there are three brand new members, all of whom ran uncontested for their seats. Selectmen are hoping to fill the vacated position by appointment. It’s definitely a much more palatable solution than spending thousands of dollars for a special election, but it also means four positions will be filled by default, not voter choice.
So, after parents did not mobilize to voice concerns about proposed staff cuts, and the budget presentation to the board of selectmen was only attended by a single school board member this winter, I had taken a break from following along and worrying about what transpired in our school district. It was only when outtakes from the May 6 school committee meeting popped up on a lurid online news site that I watched. The broadcast gained a lot of attention because of the behavior of one committee member, but she was not the only disappointment.
Director of Pupil Services Bernard (BJ) McNamara was on the agenda to make a presentation about special education. This discussion is always important but maybe more so this year. Mr. McNamara is a first-year director, special ed is a high-ticket line item in the budget and, most important, for six weeks parents and special needs students have been navigating this unprecedented interruption to their lives without the daily in-person supports and services that their 504 or Individual Education Plans provide them. Many are not well-served by remote learning methods. It should have been incumbent upon committee members to come prepared to listen, comment and ask questions.
Instead, while Vice Chairman Kerri Ames questioned and spoke earnestly with Mr. McNamara about the struggles facing these students, the rest of the board sat silent. Others were not fully present throughout or literally fell asleep. This wouldn’t be acceptable from a group of students in a Zoom classroom, let alone from a committee that is responsible for two-thirds of our tax dollars and the education and future of the children in this community.
The emotional, economic, and academic fallout from this pandemic will impact children for years to come. None more so than our special education population. Those students will regress at a more pronounced rate than their typical counterparts and will take longer to regain skills lost in the months without vital services.
Most parents of typical students I have spoken to are most concerned with their children’s social-emotional well being right now. I would probably feel the same way. But our school board has the responsibility to lead on the academic and economic issues for all students.
The rookies on the board will not have the luxury that new members are usually afforded, easing into the role toward the end of the school year. All had jumped into the race fairly early, so there is reason to be optimistic that all will come to the table with working knowledge and commitment to the job—one that has changed drastically from what they thought they had signed up for last winter.
There is a tremendous amount or responsibility on the decision makers as they deal with this unprecedented abbreviation of the school year and make decisions and plans for an unknown future. Not everyone will agree, but all stakeholders need to be engaged and supportive. That also means holding them accountable. It’s an important job that should be treated as one.