The Waltham Public Schools have micromanaging issues, outdated technology, unclear priorities and bad communications habits, according to a new Department of Elementary and Secondary Education report.
Two DESE officials presented the findings of their Coordinated Program Review during the Oct. 17 meeting of the Waltham School Committee.
“The report is devastating when you read it," said Waltham Mayor Jeanette McCarthy during the meeting.
Waltham School Committee members, however, were quick to note the district has many strengths, which they said are not adequately emphasized in the report. Also, much has been done to address some of the problems since the state review team visited the district in February, according to school committee members.
The report will be posted on the school district's website, but only after the district issues its written response, according to Waltham Schools Superintendent Susan Nicholson.
Overall, the report makes several recommendations: Nicholson should continue to create a clear vision for the schools, evaluate the central office structure and possibly make changes; have the school committee and Nicholson better learn their roles in the district; and create teaching priorities in accordance with professional development sessions. Also, the district should assess funding levels for items currently receiving too much or too little money, according to the report.
“From our perspective, we are hopeful that you will see this report as a tool… as you move forward trying to think about the areas you want to prioritize for improvement,” said Lynda Foisy, a DESE official who presented the findings to the committee.
School Committee member Robert Cincotta said while it took too long for the report to be finalized, the wait was worth it.
"It was a very good report,” he said.
Overall, the high turnover of administrators in the district over the past several years has resulted in unclear roles for staff, vague priorities and schools operating as separate entities instead of as part of a district, according to the report. Specifically, having four superintendents in five years and new principals in many of the schools has left staff disorganized and unable to coordinate with each other.
“The recent instability in district and school leadership, with the abundance and scatter of ‘system priorities’ and uneven communication and expectations, has affected the district’s ability to develop highly effective systems, programs, and collaborative practices. Further, it has impeded the district’s ability to take ownership of, and fully address, the achievement of all its students,” the report reads.
CENTRAL OFFICE PROBLEMS
The structure of the central office has left the district unable to effectively operate, according to the report. Some positions have been left unfilled, there is a lack of job accountability and “insufficient communication,” according to the report. Examples of the confusion include: outdated job descriptions, “tensions between principals,” regarding curriculum issues and principals operating with little support from the district office, according to the report.
The report also criticizes the school committee for its micromanaging of the district. Staff interviewed for the report said the committee “involve[s] themselves too much with matters that would best be handled by the superintendent and her administration,” according to the report.
Some school committee members said “most school committee members do not recognize their proper roles in that they tend to micromanage or ‘want to manage more than support.’
“For example, interviewees said that school committee members ‘overstep their boundaries,’ are ‘not vested in the educational mission,’ ‘see themselves as town politicians,’ and are ‘not allowing people hired to do their jobs.’ Some commented that school committee members do not understand their roles, exert power and display arrogance, need to trust the superintendent to do what is necessary, and need to address the ‘disconnect’ between the school committee and the administration and pay attention to reports from the district about student performance,” the report reads.
Other school committee members had a different view. One member, who is not named, said in the report he or she was still trying to learn their role on the committee but believes it was to support the superintendent’s policies. Another member said their role is to hire the right staff and not micromanage the district. A third member said the committee was “like a Board of Directors,” that sets policy.
As a result, the report recommended the school committee attend a program intended to teach them their roles on the committee.
SCHOOL COMMITTEE RESPONSE
Overall, the committee welcomed the report's conclusions, but several members said they wish they had received it sooner so they could start making changes prior to this school year. The committee, however, said that many of the issues mentioned in the report are already being addressed, such as creating a new human resources director position.
Overall, the district infrequently uses technology in the classrooms and often has problems operating the when they try to use it, according to the report.
Also, the district is spending far less on technology than the state averages, according to the report. For information management technology, Waltham spends $22.53 per pupil compared to the state average of $74.77 per pupil. For classroom technology, Waltham spends $10.22 per pupil compared to the state average of $54.08. The city spends $5 per pupil on instructional software compared to the $11.55 state average. Also, many of the district’s computers are 4-6 years old and cannot accommodate video streaming, according to the report.
Donnelly said that it was “appalling” how little money the school spends on technology.
To rectify the issue, the report recommends the district better coordinate the process to budget for technology.
For a full viewing of the report, click on the PDF box to the right.