RAMIFICATIONS OF JAKE EBERWEIN’S RESIGNATION AS PITTSFIELD SCHOOL SUPER … SURPRISE MOVE REPRESENTS HUGE OPPORTUNITY FOR CITY … KINNAS: ‘HIRE A PRO’
BY DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, WEDNESDAY, JAN. 4, 2012) — The sudden resignation of Pittsfield School Superintendent Howard “Jake” Eberwein certainly has THE PLANET and the town buzzing. It will pre-empt by at least a day our planned coverage of two local theaters — The Barrington Stage and the Colonial — and their two recent examples of being in tune (or not) with the community.
“What’s It All About, Alfiie … and Terry, and Dan, and the Rest of the School Committee”?
THE PLANET has been in contact in various ways with several people last night and this morning wanting to know “what it all means.” The simple answer to the question is: “No one knows. We don’t have enough information yet to formulate a meaningful equation.”
We can look at several interesting facts:
* His resignation comes one day after Kathy Amuso takes herself out of the running for re-election to the school committee chair.
* His resignation comes one day after Alf Barbalunga takes over as school chairman
* Eberwein, who says he’s been thinking about this move for months, also announced it one day after the awearing in of Mayor Dan Bianchi and the new city council.
How do these facts relate? Your guess is as good as THE PLANET’s. Barbalunga has a GOB pedigree, but in THE PLANET’s experience, he also can show a healthy amount of unorthodoxy. We have found him open and a good listener on topics and concepts where he is not up to speed. That’s a strength. What is Barbalunga’s relationshipo with Bianchi? Good? Bad? Indifferent? Did Jake feel that with Terry Kinnas, Barbalunga, Bianchi, and at least one more vote making four, he would have much rougher going in 2012 and beyond?
A Once-in-A-Lifetime Chance to Get a Runaway School Budget Under Control
The school committee must being again the rigorous process of finding Jake’s successor. This represents an enormous opportunity for the school committee, on behalf of taxpayers, to finally start reining in an out-of-control budget, which takes up $82 million to $89 million of a $120 million city budget, depending on how you count it. That’s minimum of 2/3 to a maximum of 3/4.
In other words, at minimum, the school department eats up two of every three city dollars. For that expense, we turn out kids with high school diplomas that in far too many cases mean little to nothing. Case in point: More than half of incoming students at BCC need remedial writing and/or reading. This is not just a BCC phenomenon. Other colleges and universities report the same dismal reality.
The “solution” for years and years to date has been to throw more money at education. It hasn’t worked. The hiring of a new superintendent, in the dawning days of a new administration and city council, represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance for taxpayers to finally get their money’s worth from the public education budget.
THE PLANET sees one of two ways this can be done:
(1) Do not grant an automatic hike in pay and benefits, as was done while advertising for the job of superintendent the last two times it was open. This represents an opportunity for taxpayers to save money and for the school committee to flex its muscles in the line of financial conservatism. In FY10, Jake made $133,858.98 in salary plus about $40,000 in benefits. Surely, there’s room for some savings here for a new person coming in and yet to prove him or herself. THE PLANET feels this is a short-term solution.
(2) Advertise at a pay increase, say, $150,000 per year. This will help assure a TOP person will apply and be hired. The question becomes: What will you, New Mr. or Ms. Superintendent, provide in return? Specifically, how much money will you save taxpayers? Correct Answer: “I will institute aggressive operational efficiency.”
The school committee must make the new superintendent’s salary contingent upon an ability to reduce the costs of the department while improving the performance. This is called management, something that has been precious scare in supply. There are staff redundancies that have been built into the bloated budget. Eliminate these. Require the new superintendent to streamline operations to make the department more cost effective. After years of added on waste, this can be done, IF — a big IF — the school committee and Mayor Bianchi don’t blow it. Needful of saying, politics must not play a role in the hiring, as it was in the case of Eberwein.
THE PLANET thinks option (2) is the best way to go, as long as the new hire is given carte blanche to cut spending while boosting performance. There are such people. That’s why we think the new superintendent should not be an academic lifer. We need to get a top person from the private sector.
Search for New Super Should not Start Immediately; What Should Start Now is the Definition of the Job
School committee chairman Alf Barbalunga is incorrect in calling for the search for Eberwein’s successor to begin immediately. What needs to begin immediately is for the school committee, and to an extent the larger community, to finally define the job of superintendent. Simply put, the new job description should be: Lower costs while boosting performance.
This was not done with Jake Eberwein. He’s a “nice guy.” You always have so say that when it comes to criticizing the performance of any Pittsfield office holder. OK. He’s a “nice guy.” Bianchi’s a “nice guy.” Kinnas is a “nice guy.” Barbalunga is a “nice guy.” Everybody in Pittsfield is a “nice guy.” But by several key measurements, Eberwein didn’t do the job:
* Budget: Under Eberwein, the school department’s runaway appetite for dollars continued unabated, without a resultant increase in performance.
* School Choice: Pittsfield schools suffered a let loss of almost $3 millio, with parents opting out of the district.
* Test scores: Flat-lined, at best.
Kinnas: ‘Hire a Professional’
One school committee member understands what’s at stake.
“I’m looking at this an an opportunity,” says Terry Kinnas. “Hiring a superintendent is one of the most important responsibilities of the school committee, other than the budget. The community has to define what we are looking for in a superintendent. The next superintendent shouldn’t be picked by a small group of people. I think we should look for a top-line person, someone maybe not local, that has an extensive technical background, who can work with busineeses well, and can manage an operation professionally. We should go to the private sector and ask the advice of several top business people. We should seek community input. These decision is far too important for just seven people (the school committee) to make unilaterally.”
Kinnas has isolated the missing ingredient. The schools have not had a professional manager. The days of blackboards and chalk are over. Today it’s laptops and gigabtyes. The pace of change is enormous, and the new superintendent needs to be technically superior, Kinnas says. He or she also must know how to manage an $89 million division of a $120 million company.
“Superintendents are not properly trained for their position,” Kinnas notes. “They need to be up on preventive and correctional maintenance, operational expenses and efficiencies, and have a strong understand of how budgets equate to performance. We can’t keep throwing money at the problem.”
Kinnas is correct. Throwing money at the schools is a politician’s response, which taxpayers have unfortunately seen at the city, state, and federal levels all too frequently. The result is a public school system that has become an embarrassment in the global economy.
Here is our original report from last night on Eberwein’s resignation:
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, TUESDAY EVENING, JAN. 3, 2012) — THE PLANET has learned that Pittsfield Supt. of Schools Howard “Jake” Eberwein has resigned. Eberwein’s resignation was announcement at about 7 p.m. tonight.
THE PLANET had received word this afternoon that “something was up” with the Pittsfield Public Schools. We then found out that Eberwein, new School Committee chairman Alf Barbalunga, and Mayor Dan Bianchi met today, evidently to discuss this sudden and unexpected move. Sources say Eberwein will fill out the remainder of the school year (to June) but will not stay for the remainder of his contract, which runs to 2013. Barbalunga said the school committee will immediately begin the search for a new superintendent.
In a statement, Eberwein didn’t reveal any plans, other than “to reprioitize the work of being a dad,” whatever that means. usually, leaving to “spend more time with the family” is bureaucratese for “I need to get outta here, because the shoe is going to drop.” Ebverwein also said he will look for “new ways to contribute to the work of public education across the Commonwealth.” Likely translation: “I’ve got a job lined up elsewhere in the state.”
Details are sketchy at this point, but consider it confirmed. Eberwein has booked out. More tomorrow.
The resignation comes one day after the swearing in of the new school committee. At that meeting, Kathleen Amuso resigned as chairwoman, and the committee elected Barbalunga.