Sunday, September 20, 2009

Message from the School Committee

I got a copy of the following letter from the School Committee. Unfortunately, because of the taping schedule, I didn't check my gmail until today. It was also sent to the local newspapers, though.

To the citizens of Newburyport,

The Newburyport School Committee is pleased to have successfully concluded negotiations with the Triton School District, and welcomes Michael Cuneo back to Newburyport High School to complete his final year. This has been an exacting, difficult and emotional process that not only impacts Michael in the short term, but also provides guidance to the community should a family face a similar matter in the future.

The Committee struggled, in part, because the law that allows a School Committee to waive residency requirements for a student was a little-known rarely invoked single statute in the voluminous Massachusetts General Laws; our research did not yield any instances where a school system had used this statute. Nonetheless, with this situation behind us, the Committee has an opportunity to clarify some of the confusion and misinformation that generated the
concern of the community.

First and foremost, Superintendent Deirdre Farrell bore the brunt of criticism during this process. This criticism was unfair, unwarranted and often lacking in civility. The School Committee ardently supports all of Ms. Farrell’s actions over this matter; she upheld a decision made by her predecessor regarding the Cuneos that was consistent with the district’s existing policy on compliance with residency statutes in the Massachusetts General Laws.

Superintendent Farrell has a responsibility to ensure that the best possible education be delivered to the residents of this city, and to deliver those services equitably, with minimal risk of lawsuit or fines. The Cuneo’s situation is one of many compelling circumstances the district faces each year. The School Committee takes each individual situation seriously, yet with no legal basis for resolution, our actions sometimes seem to lack compassion or even common sense.

We regret that Superintendent Farrell unfairly bore the brunt of criticisms regarding a decision
made in accordance with existing policy.

MGL Chapter 76, Section 12 stipulates the only circumstance outside of Choice permitting a School Committee to waiver residency requirements. The Committee regrets not having a legal opinion that revealed this statute sooner.

Please consider the following:

• After extensive research, we found that this statute is rarely used. In fact, after contacting over 45 school systems, only one recognized that the statute with a policy to implement it. Even that one policy was critically flawed and would not have passed legal muster.

• The delay in obtaining the legal opinion was, in part, our reliance on reviewing decisions made by other school systems, each time our lawyers responding the same—the decision was not made in accordance with existing residency statutes. Further, our attorneys noted that in each case no statute was cited to support the residency waiver decision as implemented. Our community should be thankful that our school administration had the persistence and sound judgment not to place our city in legal jeopardy by simply following the steps taken by other districts, despite their seeming success at bypassing the law.

• It was not until after our motion to reopen Choice as a means of resolving this situation that other districts expressed concern that our decision could disrupt their effort to retain and schedule students, and potentially generate costs beyond those budgeted for the year.

Our community and schools will see tremendous challenges in the coming months. We are facing the worst budget year of the last six, while we are trying to rebuild a school system decimated by budget cuts. There are no current prospects for additional revenue from the city and state.

Changes to the make-up of our district leadership – we are looking for a new Superintendent due to Dr. Lyons’ departure, and the retirement of three of the seven members of the current school committee – will test us, but we look forward to being invigorated by new ideas.

We are ready to face these challenges. Now, more than ever, we appreciate the participation, input and support of the Newburyport community.

The Newburyport School Committee

I heard over the course of the last several days that Deirdre Farrell received death threats over this matter.

God, I sure hope nothing I wrote - anywhere - motivated someone or some people to such an extreme and disturbing action.

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