Wellesley’s 2022 Annual Town Meeting came full circle Monday night, ending with a few hours of presentations & mini speeches about academic excellence after kicking off at the start of April with a lengthy debate over the public school budget. While the budget passed on Night 2 of Town Meeting, Article 44’s Motion 1 on Night 7 to create an academic excellence study committee did not, with the “No” votes outnumbering the “Yeses” by a count of 150 to 70 (with three Town Meeting members abstaining).
The Advisory Committee, which in previous tallies resoundingly recommended against Article 44, disclosed a much closer 6-5 vote against Motion 1.
The night began with the unveiling of a freshly amended motion marked up in blue and red that focused on specific actions related to Article 44, which called for the Wellesley School Committee and Wellesley Public Schools to prioritize academic excellence over other activities. The motion voted on by Town Meeting on Monday specified the creation of a 12- or 14-member academic excellence study committee (including student members) to be appointed by the moderator with the goal of determining whether in fact WPS academic performance has faltered, documenting possible areas for improvement, and delivering a report to the School Committee, all while further refining a definition of the philosophy of academic excellence.
Bruce Franco, the resident who put forth the citizen petition that was Article 44, made his pitch to Town Meeting members on the motion. He described the motion as prescribing “a study committee to assist parents in resolving their academic concerns. Examining parent concerns in a town-wide, interactive public discussion is a communication that doesn’t currently exist.” Franco stressed the term “interactive” and rejected the notion of the entity as a “shadow school committee” (a phrase Supt. Dr. David Lussier used in campaigning against the article). Franco cited shortcomings in the town’s public school leadership, pointing to a lack of responsiveness from the School Committee to citizen concerns and a lack of oversight of the administration. Franco listed a number of concerns that go beyond falling school rankings, and acknowledged rankings aren’t everything (as we all know, organizations of all types have a long history of highlighting or downplaying blue ribbons, awards, or rankings to fit their needs). But Franco did say the downward trend in rankings, and the closely related issue of AP course offerings, is what initially grabbed his attention.
Coincidentally, US News & World Report issued its new high school ranking results Tuesday, and Wellesley was down from #26 in the state last year to #32. Nearby, Weston High School ranked #10 in the state.
School Committee Chair Catherine Mirick responded following Franco’s presentation, encouraging Town Meeting to reject the motion. She said the article emphasized focusing all resources on just one of the school system’s four core values (the others being commitment to community, respect for human differences, and cooperative/caring relationships). Mirick explained the school system’s commitment to preparing students for the real world through its “profile of a graduate” work focused on skills and competencies sought by colleges and businesses, and outlined in its strategic plan, slated for an updated release this spring. She also ticked off numerous ways that the School Committee and administration allow for community input, including new opportunities for dialogue through school forums.
From there, Town Meeting members (and a few non-Town Meeting members at the end) shared their takes, with some espousing an “in the School Committee/administration we trust” approach. Others advocated for giving a study committee a chance, figuring there’s no harm in doing so, especially given all that the School Committee has on its plate. Some shared examples that they said illustrated how academics are being given short shrift vs. social and ethical issues that would be better taught at home. In all, more than 30 Town Meeting members spoke.
A sampling of thoughts from proponents (please see the embedded recording below for complete statements and many more):
- Leanne Leibman: “I want nothing more than for WPS to succeed, and for that reason I will be voting ‘Yes’ on this article… WPS may be meeting the needs of many of its students, but why would we not strive to meet the needs of all our students. The fact is we have an exodus on our hands. I’ve spoken to many parents and the No. 1 reason they tell they left WPS or are planning to leave is because academics. We need to stop the bleeding… If forming an academic excellence committee can help prevent these things even a little, I’m all for it.”
- Ethan Davis: The father of first grade twins said he initially figured to vote “No” on the article, but changed his mind after looking into the issue more thoroughly and observing many families leaving the school system. “If nothing else happens tonight I hope the message gets through that [communications] needs to improve. Even the emails I received over the past few weeks urging me to vote ‘No’ on this article admitted that the administration needs to do a much better job of being proactive in seeking input from the parent community to determine what Wellesley parents think the priorities of our schools should be…”
- Joanne McIntosh: “I’m not sure why trying to measure whether there has been a tangible decline in the quality of education is so controversial. While I understand why that educators and teachers may feel defensive and unfairly criticized, I think we owe it to our kids to determine whether we do have issues and how best to resolve them. We can’t let fear, denial, and deflection, quite frankly, influence our ability to see things clearly…”
A sampling of thoughts from opponents:
- Ezra Englebardt: “I am not in favor of it for two reasons: The highly subjective nature of the term ‘academic excellence’ and the subversion of the School Committee by the legislature…”
- Paul Criswell: He said he appreciated the concerns expressed by parents, but that this proposed committee was not the way to address those concerns. Among his points: “This committee’s mission is remarkably ill-defined. The first thing it’s going to do is get 12 to 14 people to agree on the definition of the philosophy of academic excellence, and it’s going to get all 14 people to agree to this within a 2-year period? I would suggest to you that that’s not going to happen. If they have any extra time, they can define what justice and beauty are after that…”
- Susan Maggioni: “As Ms. Mirick noted in her remarks, academic excellence is one of four core values at the Wellesley Public Schools… I encourage Town Meeting to view academic excellence as not separate from those other three values. Rather, academic excellence comes only when these other three values are incorporated into our children’s educational learning…”
While proponents of Article 44 didn’t win over Town Meeting, they had their voices heard. The meeting reaffirmed that the “school community” can’t be defined just by those who have kids in the system or who are in the school system as students. It includes those taxpayers who have younger children, no children, kids in private schools, or those with graduates of the system.
The School Committee and the School Department took the article seriously, devoting a good chunk of at least one School Committee to the topic of academic excellence because of it, meeting with Franco, and engaging at Town Meeting. While protests, citizen petitions, and study committees outside of their control aren’t school leadership’s preferred formats of feedback, they would seem to have the potential for impact.
You can review the entire segment on Article 44 starting at about the 20-minute mark of the Wellesley Media recording.