With Election Looming, School Cmte Surprise: Supt. Contract Added to June 15 Agenda
When the School Committee met earlier this week to discuss the members’ evaluations of Superintendent John Buckey’s performance, the most notable event of the evening may actually have taken place after the meeting was officially concluded, when School Committee member Sarah Gold requested that Chair Sarah Fox add a new item to the agenda for the next School Committee meeting, scheduled to take place on Thursday evening, June 15, 2023 – just five days before the town election on June 20.
Among the contested races is the School Committee contest in which Sarah Gold – the incumbent – and three other candidates are vying for two open seats. A ballot question seeking to raise $2.5 million in additional permanent taxes for school- and town-related matters will also be before voters.
School Committee members and candidates respond
Fox, when contacted by Marblehead Beacon about the unexpected turn of events, noted that Gold had made the request as the School Committee members were all walking out together. Fox said that, “to my knowledge, this agenda item is not standard practice.” A review of last year’s School Committee agenda at the meeting in which the Superintendent’s Evaluation and Summative Report were approved did not include a contract discussion, though Buckey was offered, and accepted, a raise.
It appears likely that a contract discussion would only be called for in the case that School Committee members are interested in changing contract language, extending the contract term, or offering additional compensation. It is unclear whether the June 15th agenda will include one, two, or all three of these components.
Discussions surrounding a superintendent’s pay raise typically take place before a budget is approved, not afterward. For this reason, it would be particularly unusual for current members to encumber what will be a newly composed School Committee with a last-minute raise.
Current School Committee members include Fox and Gold as well as Meagan Taylor, Alison Taylor, and Tom Mathers, who was appointed this January by a joint School Committee/Select Board vote to fill the slot opened up by Emily Baron’s October departure, and will vacate the seat following the June 20th election. Mathers is not a candidate for election. Along with Gold, the other candidates are Paul Baker, Brian Ota, and Jenn Schaeffner.
Marblehead Beacon asked all of the current School Committee members and candidates for comment about the addition of Buckey’s contract discussion to the next School Committee meeting agenda.
Member Alison Taylor expressed concern. “I do not think this should be an agenda item in the twilight before an election,” she told Marblehead Beacon, “ Our town and schools are in dire need and we should be waiting to understand that outcome first. In addition, as has happened with other large decisions, we should have a fully elected school committee.”
Mathers responded by stating in part that “the agenda for an upcoming SC meeting is formulated by the chair and the vice chair in collaboration with the Superintendent. I usually meet with Sarah Fox and Dr. Buckey on Monday preceding the SC meeting. Our SC meeting is next week on Thursday, June 15th and we have not met to discuss the agenda yet, nor has one been posted.” He went on to add: “It would be inappropriate for any member of the school committee, Dr. Buckey or chairwoman Fox to comment on the content of prospective deliberation before an agenda has been set and made available to the public. Since somehow this has become an item of interest to the several outlets, I am providing the exact same response to others as well.”
“I won’t comment on rumors or items that are not on a posted agenda,” Schaeffner, a former member of the School Committee told Marblehead Beacon. “However, it had been customary with previous superintendents I have worked with that contracts are not discussed until several months prior to the expiration at which point the School Committee will inform the Superintendent of the Committee’s desire to enter negotiations for a new contract. These contracts are typically three years in length.”
While Buckey was originally hired with a three-year contract for July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2023, the School Committee voted in 2021 to extend the contract to five years. He had never been a superintendent prior to being hired by the Town of Marblehead.
In the 2021 vote to extend Buckey’s contract, Fox was the sole dissenter, and she pointed to the dearth of data available to evaluate Buckey as well as to the highly unusual five-year contract, particularly after a year plagued by pandemic learning. Buckey’s current contract runs through the summer of 2025.
Candidate for School Committee Paul Baker – who several months ago applied unsuccessfully for the seat to which Mathers was ultimately appointed – offered a reply very similar to the one offered by Mathers, noting, “I'm not privy to the content of the SC agenda for 6/16, or indeed any SC agenda until it's publicly posted. Aren't agendas usually posted on the Monday/Tuesday before a meeting? You must have an inside track/access to the SC Chair.” (Editor’s Note: Baker incorrectly noted the date of the next School Committee meeting, which is June 15).
“Vote Yes for Marblehead” and “Six Percent is Too Much” respond
Marblehead Beacon reached out to the two committees that, respectively, support and oppose the tax override ballot question.
Vote Yes for Marblehead seemingly distanced itself from the possibility that Buckey’s contract could be revisited days before the election. The group stated, “The priority of the Vote Yes for Marblehead Committee is solely to help inform voters of the impact the override will have on the towns ability to deliver necessary services.” (Emphasis added by Vote Yes for Marblehead.) The group’s statement went on to list its perspective on the benefits of the passage of the override, and concluded by saying, “We are focused exclusively on the June 20th election and getting the override passed. We often hear community members say how much they love our town, so let’s come out and vote like we mean it!” Vote Yes for Marblehead’s full statement may be seen HERE.
“It sure appears like history is about to repeat itself, as almost exactly a year ago we were in the same situation,” a spokesperson for Six Percent is Too Much told Marblehead Beacon. “On the eve of an override, the School Committee granted Superintendent Buckey a 2.5% increase, more than what was given to our teachers - the backbone of our education system, the ones who are often putting in more than 100% effort,” she added. The group’s statement went on: “Recently Superintendent Buckey himself noted many educators are dealing with mental health issues, after several very challenging years. Financial stress adds to mental stress. It really seems that the School Committee is a bit tone deaf to possibly repeat this cycle, especially in light of a review where 2 out of 5 members noted improvement is needed.”
By publication time, Marblehead Beacon had not heard back from School Committee members Sarah Gold and Meagan Taylor or from candidate Brian Ota.
Editor’s note: Jennifer Schaeffner is a Marblehead Beacon founding member and editor but has taken a leave of absence from any role with Marblehead Beacon during her campaign for School Committee.