SHIRLEY — School Committee Chairman Robert Prescott says he does not want the board’s decision not to renew the superintendent’s contract to have a negative impact on working relations with Dr. Thomas Scott for the remainder of his tenure in Shirley.
A week after the vote was taken, Prescott said he and other board members had hoped to downplay their vote in light of Scott’s subsequent announcement that he would retire at the end of the school year, when his current six-year contract expires. Scott has held the job for the last 12 years.
Prescott said members believe their decision, made by unanimous vote, was in the town’s best interests.
“There are things we don’t agree on, but he has done some good things,” he said of the superintendent. “We want to maintain a good relationship from now until June,” he said. “That was a sticky point.”
Prescott said finances and politics contributed to the board’s decision. “Everybody feels, I think, that we need more funding (for the schools) but we won’t see that with Tom Scott at the helm.”
Fair or not, he said, that seems to be the gist of public opinion. “You see it with different groups … people speaking openly at public meetings …” he said.
In the end, the loss of the contract bid to educate Devens students may have been the final factor that led to the decision. Losing annual revenue the district has counted on for the last five years will hit hard in ways that are not fully realized yet, he said. “$450,000 is a lot of money. …Obviously that’s an issue,” Prescott said.
Prescott said he does not blame the superintendent for every ill, real and perceived, from MCAS scores to overburdened budgets, but he said the latter issue was, in his opinion, the deal breaker. On that issue, at least, he and Scott seem to be on the same page.
Scott, whose two prior contract terms were for three years each, said his administration had a fairly smooth run the first few years, when state funding was steadier than it has since become. He said things got rocky when finances became tight.
He also said that he will miss his work in the district he has served for the last 12 years.
Thomas Scott started his career as an educator in California, where he was a middle school math teacher for several years before earning a master’s degree in school psychology and eventually, a doctorate in educational administration and curriculum instruction from Boston College.
After 35 years in the education field and 12 years as superintendent, Scott said he has “mixed feelings” about retiring now from a job he said he has dedicated his life to, 24-hours-a-day.
“I’ve grown to appreciate Shirley and I love the students and staff …” he said. And he said he has enjoyed a good working relationship with School Committees, past and present.
Asked about recent controversies that may have led to the School Committee’s vote not to renew his contract, Scott, like Prescott, pinpointed finances as a major cause. Citing state reductions in funding, increases in special education costs and failed overrides, the school funding situation has become “contentious” and created a “difficult situation” for everyone, he said.
Scrambling to find funds in tough times has been hard on the community, but Shirley is not the only town facing this scenario, Scott said. But he acknowledged that “angst” over the middle school might have made the situation worse.
As for the failed overrides, Scott said the reaction was understandable, given the uncertain economic environment and competing costs for taxpayer dollars, including sewer hookups.
Asked about the Devens contract, Scott said losing the bid was a disappointment. “We wanted to extend the contract,” he said.
MassDevelopment has said that Shirley provided “extraordinary services,” he said, but Devens residents apparently had other ideas for the future, including alliances with other school districts that might have a more favorable impact on property values, for one thing.
“We feel good about those students and are sad to see them go,” he said. Along with $400,000 to $450,000 in revenue. That, he said, would be a difficult gap to close.
Choice is one avenue other districts have taken to raise revenues. Asked about that route, Scott said the district was holding its own, with as many choice-in as choice-out students.
Having no high school in town may be a Catch-22 on that score. For example, some students who choice- out to Ayer moved to Shirley from the other town and “never stepped foot in the Shirley schools,” Scott said. The choice seems logical, given that those students will most likely attend high school in Ayer.
In addition, increased class sizes and downsized programs, including music and the loss of foreign languages, have resulted in parents seeking other options, such as the Parker charter school at Devens. Scott said those choices have been costly to the school system. “We used to teach Spanish in kindergarten through grade eight,” he said.