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Marblehead Schools In Crisis?

With the news late on January 9, 2023 that Marblehead’s respected high school principal, Dan Bauer, was offered the position of Danvers Schools Superintendent, Marblehead residents may be wondering what exactly the future holds for our community and our schools.


The district has been in flux over the past several years. At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, two long-serving elementary school principals, Brian Ota at Glover and Sean Satterfield at Brown, learned from Marblehead Superintendent John Buckey that their contracts would not be renewed for the following year, leaving a gap in institutional knowledge at the elementary-school level. 


Assistant Superintendent Nan Murphy has been applying for superintendent positions in nearby districts. Murphy remains a finalist for the position in Dedham, and she was named a finalist in Milton, but did not receive an offer. In 2021 Murphy was also a finalist for Superintendent in Bedford, MA, but was not selected.


During last year’s budget cycle, the School Committee asked for a permanent override of proposition 2½  that would have increased taxes in Marblehead to provide an additional three million dollars annually to the schools. During several public information sessions about the request, Superintendent Buckey and members of the Marblehead School Committee explained that the funds would be used for one-time costs including safety, technology, curriculum, and equipment as well as for recurring costs including curriculum, full-day kindergarten, and personnel–specifically a full-time director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. During the election held on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, Marbleheaders voted against this tax increase by more than a two-to-one margin. 


Meanwhile, Marblehead’s MCAS results raised significant questions. Though Covid-related learning delays may explain poor educational outcomes compared to previous years, Marblehead’s drop in student outcomes is significantly larger this year than those observed in other districts long used as comparable communities by which to benchmark Marblehead’s progress. As recently reported by Marblehead Beacon using statistics on the 2022 MCAS obtained from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website, Marblehead’s students performed second-to-last when evaluated against the comparable communities of Andover, Belmont, Hingham, Lynnfield, Needham, Swampscott, and Winchester. In some areas, fewer than 50 percent of Marblehead students are meeting or exceeding expectations with regard to basic skills in Math and English Language Arts. 


Marblehead also faces distinct challenges with regard to utilization of the resources made available to our schools. As recently reported, Marblehead pays its teachers significantly less than almost all comparable communities, yet per-student spending is toward the top of the range. This discrepancy can be explained by Marblehead’s very low student-to-teacher ratio, which at 10.3 students on average to every one teacher is lower than all other comparable districts and one of the lowest in all of Massachusetts.


At the same time, student enrollment in Marblehead Public Schools has dropped dramatically over the past three years, with an almost 20 percent reduction. While many families might have chosen to find alternative educational options during Covid–including private schools that remained open more consistently or offered more robust online learning options–the question of when and whether Marblehead enrollment will return to pre-pandemic levels remains to be answered.


As Marblehead faces these multifaceted challenges, the School Committee is currently one member short as a result of the resignation of Emily Barron in October of 2022, purportedly brought upon by a conflict of interest. Ten community members have applied to fill the vacant position. The appointment was originally going to be made during a joint session of the Select Board and the School Committee on December 7, 2022, but was postponed when a Select Board member had a scheduling conflict. The joint session is now tentatively scheduled for January 23, 2023, pending notification of and confirmation from the ten candidates who have submitted their resumes and letters of interest. The appointed School Committee member will serve only through the end of the existing term. During the next town election, scheduled for June 2023, two School Committee seats will be in contention, the currently vacant seat and the seat now held by School Committee member Sarah Gold. 


Based on comments made during recent meetings, it appears that the School Committee is likely to once again this year ask for an override of proposition 2½ to provide additional funding to the schools. More detailed discussions on the school budget are scheduled to take place during the budget workshop to be held on January 17, 2023. 


Superintendent Buckey will be tasked with finding a replacement for outgoing Marblehead High School principal Dan Bauer, as well as potentially for Assistant Superintendent Nan Murphy should she be selected to fill the open superintendent position in Dedham for which she is currently a finalist. Even if Murphy is not appointed superintendent in Dedham, her ongoing applications for superintendent positions indicate her intention to leave her position in Marblehead in the near term. Murphy’s current contract expires in June 2023.


Originally, Buckey’s contract as Marblehead’s superintendent was scheduled to expire in June of 2023, but, in an unprecedented move, it was extended in 2021 by a four-to-one vote of the School Committee, with current School Committee Chair Sarah Fox dissenting on the grounds that it was very early in his tenure and it would be preferable to wait and see educational outcomes before deciding to extend. If Buckey’s contract had not been extended, he would have begun new contract negotiations with the School Committee last month, in December of 2022. His contract is currently set to expire in June of 2025. 


Editor's Note: Articles without a specific author listed are a joint effort of Marblehead Beacon's editorial staff.