NEWBURYPORT — School leaders are looking to move on from the controversy that erupted several weeks ago when Mayor Donna Holaday publicly rebuked Superintendent Marc Kerble following his second-in-command’s resignation.
But from the tense words exchanged this week at a School Committee retreat aimed at quieting the discord, some members are still looking for an explanation from Holaday for her critique that they feel plunged the board into chaos.
“The things that were said by us, and by you Mayor Holaday, are out there forever,” School Committee member Bruce Menin. “Anybody who ever wants to work here has only to type in the word Newburyport and see it all.”
Menin was referring to Holaday’s comments following Assistant Superintendent Deirdre Farrell’s announcement in October that she will be leaving the district at the end of the year to accept a job in Amesbury.
In response to Farrell’s resignation, officially tendered to the mayor and copied to Kerble, Holaday told The Daily News that she had concerns about the leadership of the city’s schools. She leveled a similar critique of Kerble in a letter to city councilors that same day.
Saying the School Committee knew nothing about the Holaday’s letter to the City Council, Menin said the mayor’s actions were out of bounds for a personnel matter that should have been looked on from afar by the school board.
“To me, it was a personnel issue that we shouldn’t have gotten involved in,” Menin said. “We brought in somebody who was going to make some changes. People have to make a decision whether they want to be part of it.”
But Holaday, who as mayor serves as chairwoman of the School Committee, said she had the right to voice concern over the loss of Farrell and others in the district recently. While she offered that stress in her personal life may have played into her reaction, she said was not going to apologize for her comments.
“There is a lot of information that I have that you don’t have,” Holaday said. “I’m not just a School Committee member — I’m the mayor.”
She added, “I have no intention of offering a public apology for what I said.”
Holaday’s comments did not sit well with Menin. He questioned the mayor’s claim of being privy to more information than the committee as a means of explaining her comments and accused her of furthering discord in the School Department’s central office by placing Farrell at the helm of the new School Building Committee.
“I don’t know if (Kerble) knew that Deirdre was going to be working part time for him,” Menin said. “I didn’t know. We have a huge issue with trust, especially when I hear, `I have information that you don’t have.’ Where do I go with that?”
Other School Committee members weighed in on the controversy as well. Steve Cole registered concern with the number of staffers who have left the district over the past year.
“I guess I can’t just toss it into the wind and say things are going to get better,” Cole said.
Others echoed Menin’s sentiments by lamenting the loss of trust on the committee since the controversy started. And some characterized Farrell’s departure as one based on personality styles.
“Oil and water are great separate, but they’re not always great together,” member Audrey McCarthy said. “I do have great faith in Dr. Kerble’s ability.”
“Mistakes were made across the board,” member Nick deKanter said. “We can’t control when people are going to make decisions about their lives based on what’s good for them.”
DeKanter encouraged the committee to reflect on what happened and learn from it.
“Communication doesn’t happen by accident,” he said. “It’s a deliberate, thoughtful process.”
In the meantime, he suggested members should go back to what’s important in order to find a path away from the controversy.
One area Kerble, Holaday and every school board member were all in agreement on was a desire to move forward and put the events of the past month behind them in the interest of the schools.
“I have tremendous faith in our school system,” he said. “I sit down with two products of the school system every night. At the heart of this is the kids. It is all about the kids. Let’s get on with this stuff. Let’s go spend some time with the kids and then let’s get back to work.”
In a related discussion, members spent considerable time discussing how the role of the School Committee could facilitate a smoother operation of city schools.
Vice Chairwoman Cheryl Sweeney asked her fellow members to consider whether they have been overstepping their bounds by getting inappropriately involved in the administrative functions of the superintendent’s office when it comes to responding to parents’ calls and emails.
“I think we are guilty of overstepping those bounds and answering those (calls and emails),” Sweeney said. “We have to have an honest conversation about this. We need to have a conversation to determine where we belong and where we don’t.”
Saying she agreed with Sweeney, Holaday admitted that it gets “cloudy sometimes and it’s hard to keep clear boundaries.” But the mayor also said there have been issues that have served as an impetus for the committee to get more involved, like the forced resignation of Special Education Director Karen Brann over the summer after she encountered some personal strife.
“There are things that have happened that have caused us to make that shift,” Holaday said.