HARVARD — While there was agreement that Jim O’Shea is a ‘super principal,’ a flap broke out at Monday night’s School Committee meeting as to whether or not the committee should reverse course and create, for O’Shea’s benefit, a new temporarily enlarged responsibility.
School Committee member Virginia Justicz proposed O’Shea cover both as principal of the Bromfield Middle/High School, and also as interim school district superintendent for the coming school year.
O’Shea wasn’t at the meeting. Nor, apparently, has he directly communicated this desire to any School Committee member. But Justicz brought the hearsay to the floor and sparked a lengthy debate over the notion.
Harvard School Superintendent Thomas Jefferson leaves for like duties in Lynnfield on July 1. Jefferson accepted the post on Jan. 13. At its next meeting on Jan. 24, the Harvard School Committee unanimously agreed to hire a one-year temporary superintendent, favoring an interim over a permanent superintendent.
The interim model allowed for the ongoing study to possibly share central-office functions (if not a superintendent) with neighboring Boxboro as early as 2013. The committee also agreed to allow the interim hire to apply for the permanent post, if interested. A combined superintendent/principal model was not on the table for any part of the discussion.
Jefferson has yet to formally resign in Harvard until he inks a final contract with Lynnfield. That had placed Harvard in a holding pattern until Monday night’s meeting.
Despite Justicz’s 13th-hour reconsideration call, the committee agreed Monday to immediately advertise the interim superintendent position. An ad was placed Tuesday on the website for the Massachusetts Association of School Committee (MASC) with one to follow with the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS).
Committee Chairman Keith Cheveralls was strongly advised that he should chair the screening panel to winnow down the applicant field. That advice came from both School Committee attorney Naomi Stonberg and MASC Executive Director Glenn Koocher. The screening panel of 14 was created Jan. 24 to include O’Shea.
The two also advised Cheveralls of the “real need to expedite that search” for applicants as the school year winds down. Resumes will be accepted through Feb. 28. The salary was advertised as ‘negotiable.’ July 1 will be the interim’s start date.
The screening panel will meet in executive session to narrow the applicant pool. Then three finalists will be interviewed in open session before a final School Committee vote on a hire.
The screening panel set some tentative meeting dates of Feb. 28 at 5:30 p.m., and March 2 and March 4 at 7:30 a.m. The locations have yet to be determined.
Justicz said that she’d heard through the rumor mill of O’Shea’s interest in serving simultaneously as Bromfield principal and the school superintendent. She said the combined role has merit.
“I think it’s our responsibility to give that consideration,” said Justicz. “There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few years over our level of administration (though) I personally don’t think it’s a model we’d want to go with in the long term.”
“He’s well regarded in the community; he’s a good leader and it’s my understanding he has the certifications and he’s interested,” said Justicz, who suggested it could help the district save money.
But the other four members held fast to the pure interim superintendent model — one that they said remains open to O’Shea as an applicant.
Others bristled at gossip entering the discussion regarding a chief administrator.
The four members expressed concern with this fall’s, once-a-decade accreditation of the Bromfield School conducted by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). The educational audit probes deeply — from the top down — into a school’s processes and practices regarding teaching and learning. The four did not want O’Shea’s attention diluted by a dual role.
“We failed accreditation before. I lived through it and it was not pleasant,” said Committee member Piali De. “I want Jim at the helm of that school.” She discounted any alleged savings. “In the interest of saving money? I don’t want to.”
With the NEASC visit looming, De said O’Shea has flagged concerns at Bromfield. “We have a lot of unfinished work there. NEASC is going to come and audit us on those things. This is an absolute critical year in my opinion. I’m not trying to squash careers here but for me it’s a risk I cannot take. In theory I’m agreeing it can be done. In practice, I’m saying why would we take that risk?”
Committee member Patty Wenger, who is a nurse at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, equated the NEASC review to the accreditation process hospitals have to go through every two years, saying “a huge amount of work needs to be done.”
Committee member Kirsten Wright said she’s experienced the NEASC process twice as a teacher. “It’s an arduous process. You really need a steady, stable leadership through it.”
Devens representative Maureen Babcock agreed on the need for a firm NEASC focus but lamented, “it’s kind of a shame when someone is looking for an opportunity.”
Justicz admitted that she lacked NEASC experience and was uncertain of how the audit would tax O’Shea’s energies but said, “this is coming from Jim and it’s something that Jim wants to do. Jim knows NEASC is on the table.”
Jefferson said he was uncertain if O’Shea has served before as a principal during a NEASC audit, adding Bromfield still has preparatory issues to be ironed out. “I would be naïve to say there aren’t.” As to the dual leadership role, Jefferson weighed in. “It can go either way…Jim’s an extremely talented administrator. He’s up to the task.”
“So Jim’s approached someone?” De asked Justicz. “I’m out of the loop. This is the first time I’m hearing this. He’s approached someone on this board?”
Justicz answered, “I’ve heard it sort of anecdotally.”
The rumor-mill driven discussion irked De and Cheveralls. “I’m feeling blind-sided, flustered, and this is not where I want to be on these things,” said De.
Justicz groused that her idea wasn’t placed on the meeting’s agenda. Cheveralls clarified, “You said you were reacting to a rumor. I’m not arranging agendas based on a rumor. This is an awkward situation.”
De wondered about the appropriateness of the public discussion regarding O’Shea, as talk of his duties nudge up against his professional services contract. “Everyone’s career does matter but this is not how we should be discussing this.” Justicz denied the talk qualified as a valid exception to the Open Meeting Law.
Cheveralls deferred to the committee, “We should be determining the model the School Committee wants its highest level of governance to happen. If the board wants to consider a change to that, it’s this board’s prerogative.”
De suggested proceeding with the interim superintendent search but asked that O’Shea be approached to determine his desires. Wright and Wenger agreed to talk with O’Shea.
Cheveralls was uneasy with the turn of events. “I’m troubled that we’ve engaged ourselves in this regarding a highly thought-after member of the staff. This isn’t about whether he can or cannot do this job or NEASC. It’s what this board wants of its chief officer so we can understand more clearly future models.”
“We seem to be rushing headlong into a job for one person,” said Cheveralls. “This community has repeatedly — even significant members of the community sitting at this table — discussed how bad a model that was and now we seem to be rushing in headlong driven by this ‘need to save money.”
Jefferson suggested Cheveralls knew of O’Shea’s interest in a combined superintendent/principal post. Cheveralls corrected Jefferson to say that the only talk was that O’Shea was considering the interim superintendent post.
O’Shea was placed on the interim superintendent screening panel on Jan. 24. On Monday, the committee did not address changing the composition of its screening panel if O’Shea ultimately applies for the interim superintendent post.