Dr. Johnson’s Evaluation Turns Emotional
By: Alex Scofield
Superintendent Mary Ellen Johnson is meeting or exceeding the expectations set by the school committee, the board said this week during its evaluation of the district’s top administrator, but there is still room for improvement.
The discussion during Wednesday’s evening school board meeting at Sandwich High School became emotional at times, with teachers and school committee members making passionate arguments on behalf of the work being done in the district.
In a change of procedure from recent years, the school committee held its evaluation of the superintendent in public session, the result of a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling handed down in January, which states that the proper procedure for school committees is “to meet in open session to discuss the professional competence of the superintendent.”
During the public evaluation, board Chairman Robert F. Simmons Jr. read seven questions related to the superintendent’s performance over the last year, and read aloud written feedback provided by school committee members in response.
The superintendent was evaluated for her performance in the areas of her relationship with the school community, community involvement, educational leadership, human resources management, general management, financial management, and professional leadership.
After each question was read, Mr. Simmons went around the table and allowed each school committee member to provide additional comment.
Committee members Andrea M. Killion, S. Aleta Barton, Barbara A. Susko and Shaun P. Cahill, for the most part, did not provide additional comments after Mr. Simmons read aloud the positive feedback provided in the written evaluation, choosing instead to nod in the affirmative.
Frequent critics of Dr. Johnson, Sharron L. Marshall and Jessica A. Linehan, however, pointed out several areas where they thought she needed to do better.
Whereas the consensus opinion of the board was that Dr. Johnson had done well to maintain a good relationship with the school committee, Ms. Linehan said she needed to “work harder to keep [the school committee] appraised of issues as they develop.”
She pointed to the recent nut ban at the Oak Ridge School as an example of the school committee not getting enough information about developing events within the schools.
The overall opinion of the board was that Dr. Johnson also did a good job in being an active member of the Sandwich community by attending school and town events.
They urged her to continue to work to develop a positive working relationship with town employees, which they acknowledge is difficult given the common “town versus school” perception in Sandwich.
In her public comment, Ms. Marshall said Dr. Johnson needed to build a better relationship with the local media by attempting to be more available.
The majority of the school committee also praised Dr. Johnson’s educational leadership, especially for her ability to implement what they called forward thinking math and literacy programs at the K-8 schools.
In the comments read by the school committee, Dr. Johnson was praised for her willingness to question longstanding policies and to invest in professional development.
Ms. Linehan agreed that Dr. Johnson had good ideas for improving education at the district, but said she had issues with how the superintendent was implementing her initiatives.
Ms. Marshall added that the superintendent needed to work harder to create a collaborative and collegial relationship with her fellow administrators.
Sandwich Educators Association President Laura R. Carlyle took this point in the conversation as an opportunity to express her opinion that Dr. Johnson was not being responsive enough to the needs of teachers.
She said all the new initiatives being pushed by Dr. Johnson were placing too heavy a workload on teachers.
“She has created a stressful environment,” Ms. Carlyle said. “She needs to consider the human element.”
The president of the teachers’ union, which is currently in contract negotiations with the school committee, also expressed an opinion on behalf of her fellow union members that the professional development Dr. Johnson was pushing was not valuable.
“Many teachers say the professional development they are doing does not translate to the classroom,” she said.
She added that when teachers are asked to stay after school to undergo additional training, they are already feeling overworked from a long school day.
Ms. Carlyle said it was hard for teachers to be “creative or interesting” at 4 PM.
Yvonne M. Hunt, a literacy teacher at the Oak Ridge School, spoke later at the public forum to defend the superintendent.
“My work day starts at 4 PM,” Ms. Hunt said.
She said there was “so much good going on in the district” and said she was appalled by “the nerve of some people” to speak out negatively about the direction of the schools on the behalf of all teachers.
She also criticized the local media for not working hard enough to learn about the good things that were happening in the district.
Ms. Hunt was moved to tears during her comments, which earned her applause, as well as several hugs, from members of the audience.
Ms. Killion and Dr. Johnson also both seemed on the verge of tears when responding to Ms. Carlyle’s comments about the workload put on teachers.
Ms. Killion pointed out that teachers were not the only people in the schools who were asked to do extra work after the school day was over.
“Students go home and do homework after spending an entire day in classes,” she said. “It’s a 14-hour day for the students, too.”
In a later e-mail, Mr. Simmons said he was frustrated to hear Ms. Carlyle’s comments about her workload, when he has communicated with many teachers who were eager to take on Dr. Johnson’s proposed initiatives.
“I thought Carlyle’s remarks last night were outrageous. I can’t imagine complaining about being exhausted because you had to work until 4 PM and were expected to take professional development courses after school hours. How can she possibly complain about that when most people work 12 months a year, maybe with two weeks’ vacation, many days from 8 AM to 8 PM or later, with no prep periods, no in-service days, no tenure, no school vacations, no pension, and maybe no health insurance, all for less than the $70,000 she is paid?,” he said. “People need to know about the many enthusiastic teachers who are thrilled to learn modern methods and find better ways to help kids learn. That is what we are supposed to be doing.”
Dr. Johnson agreed that the workload has been increased for teachers this year, but she said that was a product of her effort to improve the district.
She pointed out that the Oak Ridge School is currently listed as “in need of improvement” by the Massachusetts Department of Education and the Forestdale School was under the same designation last year.
“We have to improve and, in order to improve, we have to do things differently,” she said.
Another area where Ms. Carlyle, Ms. Linehan and Ms. Marshall said Dr. Johnson could improve in the current year was her ability to delegate responsibilities to other administrators.
“Dr. Johnson and I share a cordial relationship, but she is too busy,” Ms. Carlyle said.
Ms. Marshall agreed, saying she would like to see more delegation of responsibility to principals.
Dr. Johnson said part of the reason she was taking on so much responsibility was the newness of Principals Thomas C. Daniels at the Oak Ridge School and Sharon Bellao at the Forestdale School.
“Keep in mind that half of our principals are in their second year,” she said.
She asked the school committee to provide feedback about what responsibilities she should be crossing off her list and handing down to other administrators.
“Let me know what you think is less important, and I will cross it off the list,” he said.
Mr. Simmons said the feedback provided on Wednesday night, along with the comments already gathered by the school committee would go on record to become Dr. Johnson’s official evaluation. The school committee is also in the process of negotiating a contract extension for Dr. Johnson.
He said the board would meet in public session tonight in the Sandwich High School library at 6 PM, and then go into executive session to discuss the contract.
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