School Committees Play Vital Role in State Oversight

By: DJ Deeb –  August, 2018

As of the deadline for this article the City/School budgets have not been fully resolved or finalized, but I hope to provide more information in a future article. In the meantime members of the City of Methuen Charter Review Commission recently discussed the possibility of recommending the elimination of the Methuen School Committee.

This suggestion was offered by former Mayor Dennis DiZoglio, who serves as chair of the Charter Review Commission. Even though I didn’t want to lend any credence to this suggestion since it’s not going anywhere, I felt the need to write about what school committees do for the benefit of those who are curious. The role of school committees in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is governed by state law and Massachusetts General Laws do not permit the elimination of school committees for good reason.

A short history lesson is in order here. Massachusetts Bay Colony first established public schools in 1647 and the first schools were administered by local town meetings. As the population of the state grew school committees were established in most cities and towns separate from municipal government. In 1826 the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law requiring the establishment of school committees in each city or town to have “the general charge and superintendence” of all the public schools of the town. This system of school governance served as a model for the rest of the nation, which soon followed suit in establishing elected school boards.

In proposing to eliminate school committees in Methuen and transferring their responsibilities to the City Council, Dennis DiZoglio cited three reasons for combining: (1) Duplication of roles; (2) Efficiency of purchasing; and (3) Distrust of officials. City Councilor and Charter Review Committee member Steve Saba stated that the current system was “just not working.” Let’s examine each of these reasons given respectively.

Duplication of roles: According to the National School Boards Association website, “Local school boards have responsibility for goal setting, policymaking, community involvement and oversight of administrative aspects for their individual school districts.” Massachusetts General Law provides that school committees have three primary responsibilities in the governance of public schools: (1) Establishing Education Policies for schools; (2) Approving and managing a line-item budget; and (3) Hiring and providing oversight of school district superintendents. We can see that these responsibilities are very different from the role and responsibilities of the City Council. It is certainly not a duplication of roles.

Efficiency of purchasing: The Methuen School Department has worked very cooperatively with the city for years. This is true when we consider payroll, health insurance, Medicaid reimbursements, etc. Over the last several years the Methuen School Department has assisted the city with their human resources overload and in maintaining city buildings and fields. There is currently productive collaboration taking place between the School Department and the city with regards to improving Information Technology options in the city. It should also be noted that for the last several years the School Department has functioned with a biweekly payroll system, which saves the city thousands of dollars each year. The rest of the city has still not transitioned to this biweekly system. The Methuen School Department has certainly been efficient.

Distrust of officials: I find this claim really insulting. First off, unlike the City Council, the Methuen School Committee began preparing a budget in January and had it finalized by March. Members of the School Committee, including yours truly, tried to meet several times with the previous City Council. Our requests for meetings were ignored and the previous City Council refused to meet with us. Members of the previous City Council failed to read the contracts that put the city in the budget crisis. Some members were too concerned about securing jobs and political favors for themselves and their family members.

The Methuen School Committee has gone above and beyond to be transparent with city officials and the public. This can most recently be seen with the current budget fiasco. It should also be noted that the City of Methuen was fined $3.5 Million by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 4 years ago for underfunding the schools.

On another note, the Charter Commission members have an important role to play. They should ask questions and examine ways to improve efficiency in the city. I want to thank those who are serving in this role for doing so. It can be a thankless job. Ultimately they will make recommendations which will have to go to the City Council and then to the voters for final approval. Dennis DiZoglio has been involved in Methuen City politics for decades. He should know better. This begs the question of whose agenda is he promoting? Kudos to Charter Review Commission members Ron Marsan and Dr. Sue Nicholson for challenging the proposal to combine the roles of the Methuen City Council and Methuen School Committee offered by Mr. DiZoglio.

School committees in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts certainly have an important role to play in providing oversight over our public schools. Their responsibilities are vastly different from those of the City Council. In responding to Mr. DiZoglio’s suggestion, I agree with my school committee colleague Bob Vogler, who stated at our June 25th workshop meeting, “This is not worthy to be discussed!”

D.J. Deeb is a Methuen resident and Secretary of the Methuen School Committee. Deeb is an Adjunct Professor of History/Government at Bunker Hill Community College and an Adjunct Political Science Instructor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Deeb also serves as Social Studies Department Chair at Notre Dame High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He is the author of Israel, Palestine, and the Quest for Middle East Peace (University Press, 2013) and The Collapse of Middle East Peace (IUniverse, 2003).