Sunday, July 31, 2022

On the Kennedy decision

 Yes, I have had the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District decision sitting on my desk in a folder for a month, waiting for me to get to it. It's absolutely--as the dissent itself notes!-- one that we're going to see reverberating down to districts.

Usual disclaimers: I'm not at all a lawyer. And I blog only as me. If you have anything at all to do with a school district, good heavens, talk to legal counsel before you do anything!

The simple outlines of the case: a football coach in Washington State prays in the middle of the football field after games. Is he within his rights to do so, or is the district correct in telling him he may not?

This case does have in common with Carson v. Makin, the Maine religious schools case that I discussed over here last month that it's another chapter in the tension between the Establishment and Exercise clauses in the First Amendment; that is, it's "Congress shall make no law" establishing a religion, but also shall not prevent individuals from exercising their religion.

Now, I should note here that Justice Gorsuch, who wrote for the majority, very explicitly (not only speaking to the dissent, but also, it reads to me, speaking to the dissent in Carson, a bit) disagrees that there is a tension, let alone that it's present in this case. To Gorsuch and the majority, the case is simple: the coach just wanted to pray out there as an individual, the district told him he couldn't, and that's an arm of the state--never forget that public schools are a part of the government--preventing an individual from free exercise of their faith.

The New Yorker has done a good job in taking apart the circular nature of this argument. 

What the majority never adequately deal with in their argument is that Coach Kennedy was a football coach, standing on a football field, directly after a game, in his coach garb. They argue that others are doing non-coach things in those moments after the game, but this misses that being "coach" doesn't come off that easily. Thus rather than being an individual being denied his rights, he is himself an agent of the state (enjoy that description!) who is imposing his faith on others, thus becoming the state establishing a religion. As noted first in the dissent, and then in Teen Vogue and elsewhere, the coercive nature of the coach's actions on his players absolutely need to be accounted for in discussing his actions and the district's decisions. 

As was noted in the Seattle Times after the decision, Coach Kennedy also wasn't conducting a quiet, individual prayer out there on the 50 yard line. He'd deliberately invited public attention to a controversy he nursed with the district. Justice Sotomayor, writing the dissent, went so far as to include photos of a large group surrounding the coach at midfield, some of whom had jumped the field fences to be on the field after the game, contrary to district policy. None of this was an accident. 

What is in peril here, of course, is the religious practice or lack of practice of students in our public schools. The rights of the students to be free from coercion by those in authority in public schools is nowhere recognized in this decision. 

And of course, this makes a mess for anyone making or enforcing public policy in our schools. Just how much of a mess is clear from some of the legal writing stemming from the decision; see, for example, here and here (both of which I recommend, for what it's worth, for those considering their district policies). 

I don't have a magic answer here, though I also will say that I have yet to read legal counsel that does. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

New Board of Ed members incoming

 ...and thus the reason for the postponed meeting!
You might remember that the Board of Ed postponed their decision regarding the MCAS graduation requirement--the competency determination--from their June meeting to a July meeting (which doesn't usually happen). Such a meeting had been posted for Monday, and then cancelled. 
Today, State House News Service discovered what had happened:

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sent notice Friday afternoon that the board was to hold a special meeting Monday at 9 a.m. to discuss, among other topics, changes to the district and school accountability system for 2022. A little after 8 p.m. Friday, the department sent an updated notice saying Monday's meeting would be rescheduled without providing an explanation for the change. A DESE official subsequently informed the News Service that the terms for two board members -- Vice Chair James Morton and Amanda Fernández -- expired June 30 and that the appointment of their replacements was being finalized. 

To answer some of the usual questions:

  • Yes, this is Governor Baker's appointment: the Governor appoints members to the Board of Ed.
  •  Yes, these members of the Board will serve after Governor Baker's term is done. Board of Ed members' terms are intentionally, by state law, non-coterminous with the Governor's term (with the exception of the Secretary, and the position of the Board Chair). 
  • No, these aren't particular seats: the parent, labor, business seats are all already occupied. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Passing along from Dr. Monárrez

The Worcester School Committee, as I've mentioned in my video updates, are now getting Friday afternoon updates from Dr. Monárrez. There were a few notes in this week's that I thought others might find useful, as they update on items of concern in the community:

School Safety Audit: A Request for Proposals has been developed to conduct a safety audit of our district and school facilities. The audit will include a review of existing practices, policies and procedures. We will also be looking at ingress and regress at our schools. The audit will provide recommendations for the administration to consider. 
Development of MOU with School Liaison Officers: As shared at the School Committee meeting, administration will be meeting with the Acting City Manager and city police to review a draft MOU. The MOU language is being developed with our legal counsel. Once the MOU draft is ready we intend to ask the Safety Task Force to review and provide input. The final draft MOU will be brought to the Committee on August 18 for review. We will continue to review the appropriateness of the MOU throughout the first quarter and recommend adjustments as deemed necessary. A detailed report will be provided at the August 18 meeting. 
Comprehensive Wellness Services and Supports Plan: Under the leadership of Dr. Morse, the Office of Social Emotional Learning, Office of Equity and Human Resources will be developing a comprehensive plan for how we provide wellness support for our youth, families and staff. The development begins with an analysis of the current state of programs and services in the district. The School Committee will be updated periodically as the plan is developed.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Worcester and remote participation

 Something I didn't know but found out this morning: 

Previous to the pandemic, Massachusetts had a law which allowed for remote participation by members of public bodies (city councilors, school committee members, etc) under particular conditions (including a quorum of the body, including the chair, being present in person) IF allowed by the local authority.

In Worcester, this was an executive branch call: it's under the purview of the City Manager. And no city manager prior to the pandemic had allowed for it.

When the pandemic hit, we had emergency STATE action, allowing for remote participation for everyone, including the actual members of the public body. This superseded any local decisions. 

That provision has now been extended twice, most recently when Lieutenant Governor Polito, as acting governor, over the weekend signed another extension to the end of March, after the previous extension expired on Friday.

Because we were living in that grey area for a bit, I asked cityside if we had made any provision for remote participation for the public bodies. 
In answer to my question, I received back this letter through the City Clerk's office. It contains the following: 

In accordance with the regulations, the I intend this letter to serve as the chief executive officer's authorization of the practice of remote participation by members of all city bodies in the city of Worcester. I am hereby notifying the city council, school committee members and all city boards and commissions accordingly.

And thus: remote participation by members of public bodies in Worcester IS now allowed, even if the state provision expires!

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Do we have an agenda for you!

 The Worcester School Committee meets twice during the summer--once in July, once in August--with our July meeting being this Thursday. You can find the agenda online here. 

This is of course Dr. Monárrez's first meeting as superintendent, and thus the report of the superintendent is her entry plan, which is linked through the banner on the district website. It's set up with lots of listening in chapters:

That plus item gb 2-206 and following are those I think are the most important on the agenda. Dr. Monárrez proposes the following: 

To consider and approve a proposed reorganization of Central Administration positions to include the establishment of the positions of: 1.) Deputy Superintendent, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer; and 2.) Assistant Superintendent, Teaching and Learning; and to approve the proposed Job Descriptions for those positions.

The superintendent can organize her administration as she sees fit, but position descriptions are approved by the School Committee, and appointments to positions of deputy/assistant/etc superintendent PLUS business official positions are all subject to School Committee approval (and business official contracts are actually with the School Committee).
Thus we also have the following recommendations:

  • To consider appointing Brian Allen to the position of Deputy Superintendent, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer, subject to contract negotiations.
  • To consider appointing Marie Morse to the position of Assistant Superintendent, Teaching and Learning, subject to contract negotiations.
From the position descriptions, this would put all operational functions under Mr. Allen, in addition to those he already oversees, as well as day-to-day operations ("builds and leads daily operations of the district office"); Dr. Morse would be overseeing the offices having (as the title names) to do with teaching and learning (thus special education, social-emotional learning, multi-lingual). 
I (of course) have to save my comments on this for Thursday, but, as I noted previously, superintendents putting together administrative reorganizations is common practice. Note that these are two longstanding Worcester Public School administrators.

Other things on the agenda:
  • TLSS is reporting out on a meeting that including summer school, tutoring, and sex ed.
  • F&O is reporting out on a meeting on transportation. Note that Vice Chair Johnson has also filed a few items on transportation regarding late buses, so expect those to be discussed.
  • Included in this month's donations is over $38K in donations from UMass Med; scroll to the next page to see the grants those are supporting. 
  • Remember we held three positions pending Dr. Monárrez's taking office? They're on this agenda. (I heard that some were told the building-based subs were cut; no, they just didn't have a position description, and we held all new ones until we can find out what the new person in charge thinks.)
  • Member Mailman is asking that we look at childcare options for educators in geographic proximity to schools, as well as getting the city IT department out of Worcester Tech so Worcester Tech can use the space.
  • Member Kamara is requesting that the School Committee receive reports on "timely reports on filed racism, sexual harassment and discrimination complaints from staff and educators in the district" (an HR function) and also "To implore the administration to launch a “Positivity Campaign” during the new academic year to last all through the school year. All WPS teachers and staff to take a stance on the usage of supportive words/language to boost students’ self-awareness, gift, passion, sense of self, confidence in their education and more."
The Committee is meeting in public session first, then moving to executive session, which has two grievances and successor bargaining with two bargaining units.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Welcome, Dr. Monárrez!

 Hey, Worcester: we have a new superintendent!

Banner hanging on the front of the brick Durkin Administration Building Friday:
White banner with blue lettering says Welcome, Dr. Rachel H. Monárrez!
We're looking forward to working with you!
From Here, Anywhere...Together!
The banner is watermarked with the district seal,
and the main text is surrounded by "welcome" in the district's main languages

A new fiscal year brings new administration contracts, and Dr. Monárrez's contract officially started with us on Friday. 
I appreciated that she was tweeting about it right away Friday morning:

Tweet from @Drrmonarrez says: Today is the day!
I officially start as the superintendent
of Worcester Public Schools. I am honored and thrilled to work and lead with
exceptional people providing access and opportunity
to the youth of Worcester. #LeadershipMatters #allmeansall #reamwork
(and of course the last hashtag is a typo; remember Twitter doesn't have an edit function.)

I hope you've already had a chance to view her introductory video:

You can find her entry plan (in fifteen languages) on the district website.

I suspect this is going to be part of School Committee discussion at some point, so I don't want to say too much, but that it's founded on Karin Chenoweth's Districts That Succeed is quite something; I was reading it during the superintendent search, as I told Karin herself (but hadn't mentioned to Dr. Monárrez) at the time:

Something we also should expect will be early on the agenda: Deputy Superintendent Sue O’Neil also retired June 30. That means leadership academic side needs to be filled. It’s entirely possible—note, this is just my reflecting history here—that the organization chart may be reworked in the process, as both Superintendent Binienda did and as Superintendent Boone did. Central offices, particularly ones the size of Worcester, can have lots of different models. 

First meeting is July 21 at 4!  

Saturday, July 2, 2022

On FY23, as of the start of the fiscal year

 ...budgets are not merely affairs of arithmetic, but in a thousand ways go to the root of the prosperity of individuals, the relation of classes, and the strength of kingdoms.

John Morely, writing in The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, Vol. 1

 ...which of course is just a fancier way of saying "budgets are moral documents."

This is probably the weakest year I've ever had for blogging the Worcester Public Schools budget usual warning: it's 444 pages, so that's a big document), for which you all have my abject apologies. FY23 started yesterday--yes, happy fiscal new year!--and I did want to take a look at what it is that the Worcester School Committee passed last month for this coming year. 
This is a long post, but then, the budget is long, too.