School committee talks textbooks, transportation at budget forum

At a public forum last week, the School Committee heard suggestions from residents on where they would like to see funds allocated in the annual budget for the town’s schools, with those who attended the forum citing overhauling curriculum, upgrading pay for school employees, and reliable transportation as the primary areas they would like to see the town invest in.

Select Board member Erin Noonan advocated for investing in permanent substitute positions to help ease the burden on staff members.

“There’s obviously still illnesses flying around and it really impacts the overall experience for the students and the staff,” she said, adding, “I don’t know how many are needed … but I think it’s a reasonable ask and it’s overdue.”

Noonan also asked the committee to further bolster the early literacy curriculum, and she said she believed the schools would be benefitted by a core comprehensive literacy curriculum in addition to existing programs.

The committee also heard from Catherine Martin, who pressed for overhauling the curriculum, which she said features “disjointed materials” and has become out of date. Martin cited textbooks as a particular issue, and said particularly in older grades students are faced with a “hodge-podge” of YouTube videos and articles.

“It doesn’t “feel like there’s a linear path to accessing curriculum,” she said.

Martin also advocated for extending the school day, saying she believed the current release time leaves too much room in the day for “not good things to come.”

She also pushed for investing in special education, expressing a belief that the town needed to “find an inclusive model.”

Marblehead has to be “able to give the kids who need more help, more help,” Martin said. “Let’s give our kids what they need.”

Dan Albert said he was concerned about a lack of buses for high school students, particularly student-athletes, which has led to overcrowding on rides to and from locations, he said.

“At the high school level, there should be two kids per seat,” he said. “[The] school routinely sends kids to games with three kids per seat.”

The School Committee in September acknowledged that the district was facing a shortage of bus drivers, and was unable to meet demand for students in the Pay to Ride program.

“We’re not running enough buses,” Albert said. “We don’t have enough money, we’re not spending enough money on bus drivers … this is one of those penny wise pound foolish things the district does.”
Jessica Benedetto backed Albert, adding that the district currently has an “inefficient system” that has led to kids spending “nearly an hour going 2 miles around Marblehead in order to get home from school.”

Noonan added that Marblehead is “not unique in any way” in terms of a labor shortage, particularly in the field of education where there has been burnout among educators.

School Committee Chair Sarah Fox said many of the topics raised at the forum had come up before in previous discussions, and school officials like Superintendent John Buckey, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Nan Murphy, and Director of Finance Michelle Cresta, were “working to get us answers.”

“We really are working to try and do our homework,” Fox said, adding that she believes the district needs to fix the salary scale all the way up.

“Our teachers, our staff, it’s the best asset we have for our students,” Fox continued.

Martin said she would like to see a strategic plan developed for the schools that could be submitted to the town for voters to “see it … vet it … and fund it.”

“Hopefully maybe we can start looking at the reality of some of these things but acknowledging that it’s not going to happen in one year,” she said.

School Committee member Sarah Gold said the district has faced issues due to administrative turnover.

“One of the pieces for me is maintaining our administrators because it’s really tough to gain and sustain momentum if we’re switching over at those top levels,” she said.

James Full proposed using a vacant school building in town, like the Eveleth School, which is currently serving as the interim home of the Abbot Public Library, as a special education center.

“What you’re hearing from all of us collectively is we want to address these needs and we want to find the best way to collectively invest in what we need in special education,” Fox said, adding that “we all want to educate our students in the most appropriate way.”