Michelle Cresta’s Many Hats
Michelle Cresta has spent most of her career dealing with financial calculations. “My former world was very black and white,” she tells Marblehead Beacon, because “you’re either correct or you’re incorrect.” Her current role as acting superintendent of Marblehead Public Schools, she notes, offers no such clarity.
Cresta has served as the assistant superintendent of finance and operations in Marblehead for the past three and a half years. She stepped in to serve as acting superintendent several months ago upon the resignation of former superintendent John Buckey. There was significant controversy surrounding Buckey’s departure, though the agreement he reached with the School Committee included a mutual non-disparagement clause preventing further discussion about the reasons underlying the ultimate separation.
Cresta is not interested in taking on the superintendent position on a long-term basis, but agreed to do so temporarily to give the town time to conduct a search for a more permanent replacement. While not easy, she says, the dual role has offered up some unexpected benefits. “It’s given me a whole new perspective,” she explains, adding that while she has worked in education for many years and “it is what I love to do,” her previous positions were significantly less interactive. “This role puts me a little bit more in touch with the students, a little bit more in touch with the staff on a regular basis, and in touch with the families,” she says. “It’s actually a really enjoyable piece of it.”
Still, she notes, the transition has not been without its hiccups. During the first week of school, for example, Cresta decided to use the town’s automated phone system to make several community-wide calls–first about the start of the school year and soon after about the heatwave that was causing temperature spikes in some of the buildings. “I was accused of over communicating,” Cresta says with a shrug, adding, “you can criticize me for a lot of things, and I will never take it personally, but over communicating? That’s something that I strongly believe is essential to any successful operation, whether it be education or any business-world scenario."
In all of her roles–including previous jobs in both school and municipal finance prior to landing in Marblehead–Cresta says she has welcomed the opportunity to face new challenges. “I like being challenged by people who are really smart and come at a situation from different perspectives,” she says, “and always questioning how I can work to make something better.”
Cresta has had ample opportunity to do just that over the past several months. While her primary goal, she says, is to “make sure everything stays afloat” and “everyone is happy and satisfied” until the arrival of an interim or permanent superintendent, she acknowledges that she has been fighting a few fires that were too urgent to allow for any delay.
The school handbooks, for example, must be approved each year by the School Committee and then signed by parents to indicate acceptance of school policies. It was recently discovered that the homework section in the handbooks referenced a legal policy that had previously been discontinued in Marblehead. Cresta and her staff rushed to remove all of the conflicting references, and she notes that, going forward, the process of evaluating the handbooks needs to happen much earlier in the school year. “We need to do this in the December/January time frame,” she says, because if it waits until summer or fall, there isn’t time to make necessary changes, and “ideally we get those handbooks out the first day of school.”
When asked what other issues have demanded immediate attention, Cresta replies that, “literally, every day brings up something different.” She notes that there have been some challenges in terms of athletics–in particular the fact that there had not been guidelines in place for how team captains and coaches are trained. “We’ve now instituted required [Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA)] training for all of our coaches,” she says, adding that this has always been a mandate, though it was not previously enforced. “There’s a cost associated with it,” she acknowledges, “but I think the pros outweigh the cons.” With regard to the finding of “unintentional bullying” by a Marblehead High School coach last year, which ended up accruing significant legal fees, Cresta responded that the training is important because “in the long run, we can end up saving, and we’re doing the right thing by requiring it.” She explains that, while it was a little bit late this year to get all of the fall coaches trained, “our winter and spring coaches will be certified before the season starts.”
Another problem that popped up recently had to do with the kindergarten schedule. “Literally it came to my attention on Monday,” Cresta explains, “and I chatted with my leadership team on Tuesday, and we implemented a solution on Wednesday.” The solution involved adding some additional time to the portion of the day that all kindergarteners attend without paying a supplemental fee. Previously, the half-day kindergartens left at noon, but they ended up missing some areas of core instruction because of scheduling changes implemented this year. By having them stay until 12:30 instead, Cresta says, they are able to access English and math as well as allied arts subjects such as library, physical education, and music. Cresta notes that this issue should have been caught earlier, and would have been, in her opinion, if “the turbulence and change in administration did not happen over the summer.”
Cresta explains that, for all of these types of issues, she is working on putting together a roadmap so they are addressed in a more timely manner going forward. “Whether it be me or the new interim superintendent,” she says, my goal is to create “a roadmap for the district and what the leadership team needs.”
While fulfilling her responsibilities as acting superintendent and laying a foundation for the interim superintendent who will take over, Cresta is simultaneously responsible for her other important role–as assistant superintendent of finance and operations–with budget season just now getting underway.
Noting that she recently met with town representatives to launch initial budget discussions, Cresta emphasizes the importance of doing a complete analysis and sharing as much information as possible with the community. “How can we tell our story?” she asks. “If you compare us to where we were 10 or 15 years ago, our demographics have changed, our enrollment has changed, our needs have changed, our costs have changed,” and “we really need to get a solid narrative around that and just be able to show it.” She continues, “I don’t want to spin it. I want factual data, and I want everyone to be able to see that.”
Part of Cresta’s push toward transparency, she says, is moving the cost for benefits from the town to the school side of the budget. Currently, when the school adds staff, the salary amount appears in the school budget, but the cost for health insurance and other benefits are a town liability. Cresta explains that she has been trying to make this change for the past two years. “If we’re going to add five new staff,” she says, “that’s like $150,000 additional [for benefits].” Emphasizing the importance of having the schools consider the full cost, she notes, “it will put the accountability more in our court.” The same is true, she says, of the energy reserve account, which holds $350,000 for excess energy costs that are slated for school use but reside in the town budget. The energy reserve was the subject of a heated but relatively short-lived controversy in the immediate wake of the town election in June. The overall goal, she says, is to encourage prudent planning. “You have volatility,” she says, “so how are you going to plan for that?”
Asked about recent calls for a zero-based budget, which essentially involves throwing out all previous line items and starting from scratch, Cresta notes that, “while in theory, that’s a great exercise, it’s not really realistic. Are we going to spend the time, with our limited resources, to count how many boxes of pencils we need?”
She goes on to note that the expense part of the school budget is less than 10 percent of the overall costs. “Roughly 90 percent of our budget is staff salaries,” she says, and that is where the real analysis needs to take place. “Unfortunately, the past couple of years,” she continues, “it was really just a roll forward.” Now it is time to take a deep dive. The questions she wants to ask include: “What are our class sizes?” and “What are our needs at each school?”
When asked whether this process was done previously, particularly in light of the unsuccessful tax override questions to benefit the schools in both 2022 and 2023, Cresta says, “I can’t speak to whether it was done as an overall exercise…I know when it got to my level, I wasn’t aware of it.” She notes that even with the process underway to bring in a new superintendent, she wants to get this analysis process started. “It’s important,” she says, because “unfortunately the new super–when they come in–our budget process will already be underway.”
Cresta has some thoughts on exactly which qualities the new superintendent should bring to the position. Alluding indirectly to some of the controversies that have roiled the district in recent months, Cresta notes that, “we just really need someone who can build goodwill, be a fabulous communicator, and really want to serve our students.” She acknowledges that there are challenges but also that Marblehead is a unique place, with its own personality. “The board and committee members here,” Cresta says, “not just the School Committee but the Select Board, the Finance Committee–they’re passionate, I mean, they truly believe in what they are doing.”
Although Cresta lives in Middleton, she feels a strong connection to Marblehead. “I don’t live here, but I feel like I should,” she says, because “that’s how vested I am in the district.”
For now, Cresta notes the many positive steps underway. She praises the assistance and support she has received from the school and town leadership teams. For the schools, she says, “all of our new leaders except for one are actually internal hires, which shows growth within our existing staff” and offers important benefits since “they are all familiar with the district.” She also emphasizes her excellent working relationship with the School Committee and expresses dismay over a suggestion made by Buckey in a recently released draft letter that she felt uncomfortable as a result of previous interactions with School Committee members. “That was completely false,” she says, adding that “I felt my role was to support my superintendent and to assist with anything I could,” but “I work very well with the School Committee–always have, always will.”
Looking forward, she says the community should soon be hearing from the committee tasked with evaluating and recommending candidates for interim superintendent. An analysis of Marblehead’s recent results on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test is scheduled for the School Committee meeting on October 5, and plans are underway for future presentations on cell phone guidelines and issues surrounding discipline and vaping.
For now, Cresta will continue fulfilling both her roles, with an emphasis above all on transparency and open communication. “I love getting to know the residents. I love getting to know the parents. I love the involvement [of the community],” she says. “I’m very happy in Marblehead, and I think we’re doing great things.”
Editor's note: As of 9/27/23 at 12 noon, the word "draft" has been added to this article to reflect the fact that the above referenced letter written by John Buckey was made public as a result of a Massachusetts public records request and was not officially sent to the School Committee.
Editor’s note: School Committee member Jenn Schaeffner is a Marblehead Beacon founder and editor. She is recusing herself from Marblehead Beacon’s coverage of the School Committee and anything pertaining to Marblehead Public Schools.