NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 21, 2013

Public accountability for public education

Viewpoint
Ralph Orlando

---- — WOW: $500,000

What is half a million dollars? That’s the estimated deficit in our schools’ current academic year. As one who is in regular attendance at School Committee meetings, this amount is easily calculated from a growing list of unbudgeted expenses including the urgent need of the additional school bus required after the first day of school bus fiasco, an unbudgeted coordinator’s position, cut from the approved budget in May only to appear as a new hire in September and the unbudgeted significant, out-of-district expenses plus the continuing but still unknown food service contract losses adding to the amount.

Despite this, the last scheduled School Committee meeting, at which time this deficit was to be discussed, was abruptly canceled the night before the city election. WOW! More importantly, why? One wonders, given this significant deficit early in the year, is funding sufficient to continue operations as planned. There must be public accountability for public education, especially at its annual cost of over $26 million representing > 50 percent of the city budget when benefits are included. How does such a deficit occur?

No doubt, there will be finger-pointing and excuses. Blame and responsibility will be assigned, but it is not about blame and responsibility. It’s about the education of our kids. Guilt is a self-imposed sentiment that is derived from self-reflection. To a certain extent, I have a sense of guilt myself; as a frequent attendee at School Committee meetings for over nine years now, I, as others present at the most recent meetings of the new year, were made clearly aware of the numerous unbudgeted expenses in the current year’s budget. Perhaps, I should have made such a serious deficit known earlier; however, given the election year, I did not wish to be mislabeled a muckraker attempting to influence the elections, especially given all the letters describing for whom one was voting or others should vote.

I share it with you now because I firmly believe that it should be public knowledge, especially if one believes in public accountability for public education and given the fact that with the current building projects, supported by the citizens of Newburyport, and the annual school budget, significant expenditures of taxpayers’ dollars are ongoing, so there must be public accountability, more so now than ever before. Such a deficit of $500,000, to which there will probably be more, must be discussed publicly for all to be made aware. Individuals have been convicted for misappropriation of lesser amounts of taxpayer money.

The behavior that has led to such a crisis can no longer be allowed to continue. We must hold accountable our elected officials and school administrators. The status quo, with all the recent turnover in school district officials, is a concern such that the School Committee should be required to maintain more of an oversight role in this crisis. Maintenance of a continuity of responsibility is essential to avoid further deficiencies. Our students deserve this.

More importantly to this end, I wish to take this opportunity to welcome all to future School Committee meetings to assure public accountability for public education. Painful as it is to attend, which those few who have attended regularly can attest, I believe there is a greater impact in numbers. Better yet, attend individual school councils, more on that topic soon in hopefully another article. In crises, such as these in municipal affairs, let us exert more influence. The sound of my one hand clapping needs to be converted to the roar of the applause of a crowd. Just do it!

My words and actions represent my own opinions; my family assumes no responsibility.

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Dr. Ralph Orlando lives in Newburyport.