By: DJ Deeb – September, 2018
The City of Methuen has gone through a very difficult few months. The latest involves the controversy surrounding Superintendent Judy Scannell not having a license to be Superintendent of Schools and prior to that no license to be Principal of the Tenney and Timony Elementary Schools.
Deciding how to handle the revelations regarding Superintendent Scannell’s lack of licensure was the most difficult decision that I have had to make in my 21 years of experience as a career educator and school committee member. Like many, I had mixed emotions: I was saddened, shocked, and angry. There were many factors that needed to be weighed in considering what were in the best interests of the children and the taxpayers of Methuen.
I moved to Methuen in 2011 and was first elected to the Methuen School Committee in 2013. There is no question that our students and our schools are in a much better place than they were in 2013. My evaluations of the Superintendent’s performance were stellar and reflect this. In 2013, Methuen lagged behind state average and surrounding towns statistically with the number of students who graduate from high school in four years. Methuen had a 79% graduation rate.
It is now over 90% (above state average of 85%). The dropout rate has been successfully reduced from 7.5% to 1.3% (now below state average of 2%). Five years ago, Methuen lagged behind the state in technology integration. Now laptops are replacing textbooks in our schools and all classrooms are equipped with Smartboards. These tools allow our teachers to cater to all student learning styles resulting in increased student performance. People are moving to Methuen because of our schools. Enrollment has increased significantly. Judy Scannell and her team did a great job.
All of this certainly does not excuse the negligence on Superintendent Scannell’s part to obtain proper licensure. It is the professional responsibility of every licensed educator to ensure that their license(s) are valid and up-to-date.
I was not part of the original committee that hired Judy Scannell as Superintendent in 2010, so I was unaware that a waiver had been granted at that time. I would not have voted to hire someone on a waiver. It is not the school committee’s role to be a custodian of licensure. However, given what has transpired, I intend to propose that the School Committee adopt a policy to ensure that all proper credentials are verified each year by the Human Resources Department. There are many more policies that I plan to propose to restore confidence and move the school department forward in the coming months and I will discuss these more in detail at a later time.
When it was confirmed that Superintendent Judy Scannell did not have proper licensure, the School Committee acted immediately. The School Committee had three options: (1) Accept her retirement; (2) Move forward with a process of termination; or (3) Accept her resignation effective immediately. I weighed each of these options very carefully and sought advice from legal counsel before making my decision. Legal counsel advised that if we accepted a retirement or if we moved forward with termination, the School District would be responsible for paying accumulated sick-leave buy-back, which would have cost nearly $20,000.
If we voted to move forward with termination, the school district would still have to pay $20,000 in sick-leave buy-back and leave the Superintendent on payroll on administrative leave for up to 90 days while the process played out. This could have resulted in tens of thousands of dollars more in litigation fees while paying for two superintendents. Under the third option, the superintendent would leave immediately and forfeit sick-time buy-back. At our August 30th public meeting legal counsel made clear that the pension amount is decided by the Massachusetts Teacher Retirement Board and school committees do not have say in the matter. This is truly unfortunate and I would like to see legislation filed by our state delegation that imposes pension consequences for misrepresentations of or lack of proper licensure.
After struggling with my options I voted in favor of accepting the Superintendent’s resignation effective immediately. I could never vote in favor of accepting retirement given the revelations that came out. Many are disappointed that I did not vote to go forward with termination, but the laws governing public employee dismissal are very different than the laws governing private companies. I do not agree with this but it is the reality on the ground. Voting to accept the resignation effective immediately on August 30th made the most sense to me in trying to be fiscally responsible to the schools and the city. Nothing substantive would have come from termination. The city and the schools would have been just stuck with paying thousands of dollars with nothing to show for it at the end of the day. It would have been a lawyers’ field day.
By accepting the resignation Superintendent Scannell left immediately and we do not have to buy back her sick time. Although it may not have been the most popular and politically expedient decision, we were stuck between a rock and a hard place given the legal ramifications. I truly believe that this was in the best long-term interests of our students, our schools, and our city moving forward.
With all of the negative publicity now in the Boston media, as well as the local press, the failure of Superintendent Judy Scannell to obtain proper licensure for her roles will be a dark cloud over her otherwise positive legacy that she lives with for the rest of her life, and rightly so. That is the worst punishment.
The Methuen Public Schools are a good school system. The teachers and administrators in Methuen are dedicated professionals who care deeply about the well-being of their students. Moving forward though it is my belief that we need to begin the search process for a new superintendent as soon as possible. I think that it is best to seek out professional assistance from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees or a similar outside organization to manage this search. I also support bringing in someone from outside Methuen to fill this role in order to restore confidence and to assess current practices.
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).