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Select Board Takes Up Question of School Committee Vacancy

When the Marblehead Select Board next convenes, on Wednesday, November 16, 2022, one of the more contentious items on the agenda will be the discussion of the recent vacancy on the Marblehead School Committee.


As Marblehead Beacon reported last week, following the resignation of Emily Barron, the School Committee voted to leave the position open until the next town election in June 2023. Chair Sarah Fox and member Alison Taylor supported this perspective, while members Sarah Gold and Meagan Taylor advocated filling the open position immediately through a process that involves a joint session with the Select Board. 


The two-to-two tie vote meant that the motion to fill the empty seat was defeated. The process did not, however, end there. Select Board Chair Moses Grader announced that the Select Board would be moving forward with the process of appointing a replacement. “The law is prescriptive regarding Select Boards as to authority and process, requiring Select Boards to fill such a vacancy by a joint roll call vote of Select Board Members and, in this case, the remaining members of the School Committee,” he informed Marblehead Beacon.


The Select Board will be discussing the plan for the replacement process during their meeting this week. It is unclear what role the School Committee will play in this discussion but, because of a potentially deadlocked School Committee, three of the five members of the Select Board may be in a position to select their preferred candidate.


The Appointment Process

Although the conflict currently playing out between the Select Board and the School Committee is unprecedented, the Select Board does have significant power with regard to the appointment process. Beyond filling elected seats that are vacated mid-term, the Select Board is responsible for appointing a wide variety of positions on influential committees. 


Arguably the most impactful of these is the Finance Committee (FinCom). FinCom is responsible for reviewing all departmental budgets and approving line-item budget changes for everyone except the School Department. FinCom also has the unique role of recommending for or against all departmental budgets (including the total school budget) in their presentations at the annual town meeting. Historically, attendees heed the advice offered by FinCom, giving the members of this board significant influence. 


Another important appointed board, the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), is responsible for giving residents permission for construction projects that fall outside Marblehead land use bylaws. For example, if a homeowner wishes to construct an addition that does not adhere to the required setbacks from the property line, the members of the ZBA must give their approval. 


Other appointed boards, such as the Conservation Committee, the Historic Commission, and the Harbors and Waters Board, also play significant roles in town governance .


Town Meeting Members Seek More Transparency

During the 2022 Town Meeting this past May, Article 36 requested in part that the procedures for determining these appointments be officially codified. The text of the article, sponsored by Marblehead resident Megan Sweeney and others, called for the Town “to adopt procedures of operation and organizational structures for each board, committee, or similar town body to include but not be limited to a designation of powers and duties, decision making processes, board structure, and its initiatives to attract new members.” 


This article eventually failed by a vote of 176 to 168, but it generated significant discussion. Current School Committee Chair Sarah Fox noted that the School Committee, unlike the other elected and appointed committees in town, already has operating procedures in place. “Every year we review them,” she said. “It’s just clarity. It’s really simple. It’s a really light lift. And every year at election time all I hear is transparency, transparency, transparency. It really is as simple as, we want transparency, or we don’t.”


Select Board Chair Moses Grader disagreed, noting that in his opinion, the text of Article 36 was “so abstract and so non-specific. It expresses more of a yearning for something,” he said, “that I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of what our participatory form of government is here in Marblehead.” He continued, “codification is not a substitute for trust and participation.”


Terry Tauro, Marblehead resident and former state representative candidate, stood to ask Grader, by way of the Town Moderator, “How does the Board of Selectman handle appointments?” Grader responded, “We have a process we have used repeatedly. It’s based on what we have done before.”


Tauro requested that this procedure be provided in writing. “I think what you may be saying,” said Grader, “and it may be a legitimate critique, is that we need to do a better job communicating what our existing procedures are.” 


Select Board Members Question Appointment Process

The appointment procedures of the Select Board also came under scrutiny in recent years when its newest members – Erin Noonan and Alexa Singer – questioned the process whereby nearly all appointees to volunteer boards had been automatically reappointed without discussion or interviews, making it difficult for new volunteers to find an opportunity to participate without the active resignation of a currently serving member. The remaining members of the Board – Grader, Jim Nye, and Jackie Belf-Becker – did not agree with their concerns.


Current Vacancies

It remains to be seen following Wednesday night’s meeting what procedure will be followed for soliciting interest in filling the vacant School Committee seat, assuming the Select Board chooses to go forward with the process. Marblehead Beacon will provide updates as they become available. 


Currently, the town website lists a number of open volunteer positions, including three vacancies on the Task Force Against Discrimination, five on the Marblehead Cultural Council, two on the Old Burial Hill Oversight Committee, and one each on the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the Design Review Board, the MBTA Advisory Board, and the Marblehead Forever Committee. Interested citizens are asked to call the Select Board office at 781-631-0000 for additional information.


Editor’s Note: Jennifer Schaeffner, a founding member and reporter for Marblehead Beacon, served as a member of the Marblehead School Committee from 2016 to 2020.