Holland looks back on 20 years (part II)

This is the second part of a three-part interview with outgoing Schools Superintendent Peter Holland. The first part of the interview can be read by clicking this link. In this post, Peter and I continue our talk about the challenges ahead for the Belmont Public Schools, including funding and finding ways to save money.

B2: Is that a new dynamic though? You talk to people who have lived here a long time and they say ‘Oh, there have always been debates like this around whether about overrides or what have you. This is nothing new.’ But look back 20 years — is there a new dynamic in town? Not the fact that there is debate, but the tenor of the debate?

PH: I think the tenor of the debate has degraded. I think instead of being at issue level with some people, it gets to the personal level. It becomes attacking and they denigrate other people. My sense is that that’s never helpful. When someone speaks to you in a personal way, you never forget that. It makes it harder for you to move on and work together.

B2: If you could be emperor and impose a remedy for some of these problems — we want excellence in our schools, but towns like Belmont have small commercial tax bases, and homeowners have their limits — what would it be? Is it…time to revaluate prop 2 1/2? Are there structural changes in the way we run our school system that need to take place? This wrangling seems to be creating a generational conflict within this town and other towns that, in itself, is destructive.

PH: That’s a good question that I don’t have any good solution for. I think there needs to be a lot of long- and medium range planning five years and out. I think the planning that was done when Will Brownsberger was on the Board of Selectmen was outstanding. There were plans and ways of looking at the finances and talking about how these things could be accomplished, what it meant to the average property tax rate and how it could be done in a reasonable fashion to accomplish all the goals. I think Belmont needs to look seriously at expanding its tax base. I think they’re doing that. There are liquor licenses with more attractive restaurants and other stores coming in. I think the development in Cushing Square that’s talked about is important. The development of McClean Hospital land will be import to increase the tax base of the town. All those will be good and increase the town’s resource pool. The other thing: I think the town and this area has to look at ways to regionalize services. Fire, police, schools. All sorts of other services. Ask ‘Are there ways to collaborate with other towns to provide the services we need in the most cost effective way? Now I’ve talked to some people about that and they think that it wouldn’t bring any economies. But, certainly, I came from the Baltimore- Washington DC area. The state of Maryland is roughly same size as Massachusetts, but has 22 school districts. There are 22 counties and Baltimore, which has its own school district. These are much larger school districts. By comparison, Massachusetts has around 350 cities and towns and I think there are around 280 school districts. So it seems that regionalization issue and looking outside of towns is one way at least to address the cost issues.

B2: So the Belmont Arlington, Winchester Reginal School District?

PH: And Lexington, yeah. If there’s interest.

B2: A couple follow up questions. You can see that there are economies of scale. But from the educators’ standpoint, though, research suggests that putting people into big warehouse schools isn’t not advantageous and that you want to go in the opposite direction. I guess the question is ‘How do you get bigger, but not end up with factory schools?’

PH: If you took those four towns — I don’t think the elementary schools are going to change much. The middle schools too – they tend to be very large. At the high school level, you’re not going to change them necessarily. Belmont high school has around 1,200 kids, Arlington and Winchsetser are about the same and Lexington is 2,000 kids. I’m not saying you go to one mega school of 5,000 kids. I don’t think that’s a good idea at all. I agree that small is better and that education is, in essence, a cottage industry. It seems to me that governance issues change. You do better with bargaining and you have a single contract instead of four different contracts. You have collaborative purchasing and a larger base for health insurance, so there could be savings there. The loss is, of course, local control, which New England towns have always prized. I’m talking this way in a theoretical fashion.

B2: Right. You’re the emperor here. Now on the town side of things, what’s been thrown out is consolidation on the town and school side of things. Usually what cited is IT — you don’t need two IT groups. What’s going to happen in Belmont? Or will it happen? Are the two sides too different for that to work?

PH: I think collaboration between the two makes sense. Other areas they talk about is building and maintenance. Because grounds crews are under the purview of the Department of Public Works. We think there will be long term economies, but short term there will be an increase in staffing, because someone needs to sit astride this whole thing and do planning. We have someone on the school side, and the town has someone as well. The idea is that additional person. It’s the same idea with IT. We already have a lot of collaboration with IT right now. The network for the town is run by someone who reports to the director of technology on the school side. But it is partly funded by the Town. The assistant is half paid by the Town and School Department. In terms of …are there some differences? With our people, there’s a joint focus on the school side between instruction and administration. The instructional piece needs to be honored and preserved all the time. On the school side, technology plays an increasingly important function in terms of instruction. As we move into the future, it will play an even greater role.

B2: Where does the leadership have to come from to make these kinds of deals happen? The Board of Selectmen?

PH: I think so. I think the School Committee has been very cooperative. We had some conversations this past spring, but those fell apart because we talked about needing an extra position to coordinate that, and there was no funding for it. If there is, indeed, an override in April 2009, one piece that would be a part of that: consolidation of IT.

B2: So you have to spend money to save money?

PH: That’s the piece the (School) Committee has been looking at. I think the Selectmen and School Committee have to come together on that. I think there’s the possibility that we could move forward, but there needs to be a focus on how this can happen and job responsibilities and things like that, not on personalities and those sort of things.