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Lynch offers exclusive commentary

March 27, 2010

Walpole High School is in a better position today with Stephen Imbusch’s strengths than it was with Alan Bernstein’s strengths, according to School Superintendent Lincoln Lynch.  Even while rumors swirl that Bernstein, who resigned earlier this year from his post as principal of WHS, was pressured to leave and was privately admonished for ineffective leadership by both NEASC and by the Superintendent, Lynch continued to insist this week that Bernstein exited on his own two feet and without any looming threats of being fired.  Lynch sat down for an exclusive interview with Sam Obar 180 this week, and revealed some significant details about the 2009 NEASC accreditation that preceded Mr. Bernstein’s sudden resignation this year.  He also offered interesting insight into the school’s current budget deficit and directed criticism at the federal and state governments for not providing enough funding to the Walpole school system at a time of great need.  He also offered commentary on the Rebel mascot and school lunches, and offered a brief update about the search for a new high school assistant principal.

Bernstein’s resignation earlier this year prompted a variety of different rumors as to why he left, many of which are probably untrue.  However, Bernstein, who was widely disliked by faculty, failed to do his job when it came to addressing the concerns that put the school into “Warning” status with NEASC, according to the superintendent.  When the school received word nine months ago that it had been put on “Warning”, Superintendent Lynch immediately assigned Bernstein with the task of resolving the problems.  Unfortunately, however, in the words of Mr. Lynch, Mr. Bernstein did not share the same “sense of urgency” that he and other administrators had in resolving the problems.  “He did not attack these recommendations with vigor,” Lynch said.  Lynch trusted that Bernstein was working on the problems, a mistake he takes responsibility for.  “I took for granted they were being addressed,” he says.  Bernstein was supposed to alert parents and the community that the school was on “Warning” status months ago, and a copy of the report was to be put in the library media center.  However, Bernstein never did either, and it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that the community learned of the NEASC Warning status, after Bernstein’s resignation.  The accreditation recommendations have remained unaddressed for the past nine months.

Regardless of Mr. Bernstein’s apparent failure to do his job, Lynch asserted that Bernstein was never under any pressure to resign.  Sources have told Sam Obar 180 that Bernstein was criticized by NEASC and was told by the Superintendent he needed to improve his leadership in order to get his contract renewed this upcoming July.  But Lynch, while not directly asked to respond to any specific rumors, said a decision had not been made yet on whether to renew Bernstein’s contract in July.  Bernstein’s resignation in late 2009 may have not been a coincidence though, in light of the fact the NEASC problems still were not being addressed.  The lengthy search for a new principal resulted in the NEASC issue being put off until Imbusch’s selection in 2010.  Lynch says that he showed both finalists for the principal job a copy of the NEASC report and told them that as principal they would have to address the problems as a first priority as soon as they started.  The school has requested an extension to the deadline to solve the problems, and hopes for a six month extension, which Imbusch and Lynch both feel would be reasonable.  Lynch “feels confident” that the problems will be addressed.  However, some of the problems NEASC pointed to, Lynch stressed, can not necessarily be solved immediately.  For example, NEASC has called for air conditioning to be added to the high school auditorium, which is a financial expenditure the school likely can not afford when we are laying off teachers.  Perhaps, given Town Meeting uses the auditorium often too, it could be a capital budget expenditure

On the issue of NEASC, Lynch also made sure to emphasize the positive aspects of the NEASC report, which generally commended Walpole.  Lynch also gave credit to the committee that did a self study of the school even before NEASC arrived.  The group saw problems with student assessment, and the NEASC report confirmed their concerns, as assessment was the category in which WHS got a Warning status.

Asked whether he felt that the failure to address the NEASC problems quickly enough could be construed as evidence that the Walpole Public Schools puts too much emphasis on sports and not enough on academics, Lynch vehemently stated that academics remains his first priority.  He believes the school system appropriately balances athletics with learning.  He cited the choice of a former teacher to be Athletic Director as an example, and says that whenever possible, he tries to select in-district teachers, who value the classroom as much as athletics, to be coaches.  He says that if people feel the school is putting too much emphasis on athletics, they need to make their concerns known, and said he would be happy to “scrape and claw” to get funding for more academic extracurricular programs like the Academic Decathlon if students wanted it.  The Academic Decathlon was a casualty of this school year’s budget cuts.  If people think the school puts too much emphasis on sports, “where is the outrage over the 40% cuts to freshman sports?,” Lynch also asked, referencing the proposed cuts to freshman sports in next year’s budget.  People are taking the athletic cuts and accepting them because keeping teachers employed is more important, he says.

On the proposed budget cuts themselves, Lynch cited cuts from the federal government and state government as a major reason why the school system is short of money.  “Have you heard of No Child Left Behind?  In Walpole’s case, it’s Every Child Left Behind,” Lynch says.  The federal government has cut SPED reimbursements, including Medicaid.  The state, meanwhile has not provided circuit breaker funding.  Lynch explained that the NCLB law disadvantages Walpole because education funding gets routed to inner city and rural schools, rather than to suburban schools like Walpole.  Lynch wants Walpole parents to contact their state legislators to demand level funded local aid that would help lower the deficit significantly.  At the same time, even while the President of the Walpole Teachers Association and others are advocating for trash fees, Lynch, a resident of Northborough, said it is up to Walpole residents to decide whether trash fees would be appropriate to bring in more revenue.  He said reducing tonnage, however, and promoting recycling in order to save the town money sounds like a good idea.  School fee increases have not been discussed yet, and Lynch says he is “not actively seeking fee increases.”  However, “the students are citizens of this community,” Lynch says.  “They need to be active and make their thoughts known” at the state level about the budget cuts.

SEE A SPREADSHEET WITH THE UPDATED SCHOOL BUDGET SITUATION, AS OF 3/25/10, AS PRESENTED BY THE SUPERINTENDENT

Contact your state legislators and demand level-funded local aid:
Senator James E. Timilty
Representative John H. Rogers: Precincts One, Two, Six and Seven
Representative Louis L. Kafka: Precincts Three and Four
Representative Richard J. Ross: Precinct Five
Representative Paul McMurtry: Precinct Eight

Lynch applauded the teachers union for making $700,000 worth of concessions, and said that non-union employees, like instructional aides, secretaries, janitors, and administrators, will follow suit.  When all is said and done in concessions, the district is expected to save nearly $800,000.  Concessions from the teachers union will mean that teachers for the next year will not get tuition reimbursements, but after a few years full reimbursements will return.  In terms of layoffs, teachers who have worked in Walpole for less than three years will be laid off first unless entire programs are eliminated or cut.  Asked how he felt about the school of thought that some veteran teachers tend to stick around and the quality of their teaching is diminished but they can not be laid off, Lynch says, “shame on them.”  He believes that the individual building principals have good evaluation systems to determine that teachers remain excellent.  “Our teaching staff is very strong,” he says.

On the subject of awarding merit pay to teachers, Lynch said the issue is currently being studied at the federal level.  However, Lynch said that he supports professional collaboration between teachers, and believes that rewarding teachers individually would discourage teamwork if teachers feel they are competing against each other.  Merit pay might work school by school or district by district, but not teacher by teacher, he says.  Furthermore, the school would have a hard time scraping the money together to offer merit pay.

On other less controversial subjects:

  • Lynch says composting at school cafeteria kitchens would likely be frowned upon by the Board of Health because of bacteria.  However, he says he is willing to look at all ideas for promoting and expanding recycling at all schools.  There may be community service opportunities for students to engage in recycling, he said, but recycling programs would be better initiated from outside the superintendent’s office.
  • Privatizing the school food service staff is off the table for at least the next several years.  “My job is to present both unpopular and popular ideas” for saving money, he said, and cafeteria privatization is one of those unpopular ideas that was explored but ruled out.  Lynch says there is also a committee that will look into improving the quality of the food across the school system.  He would like to see student representatives on the committee, and with the addition of a new food service district director, lunches might be more enhanced.  The cafeteria manager at the high school told Sam Obar 180 that pizzas are overpriced, and many students find the food servings to be too small for the prices that are being charged.  Lynch says those problems could be addressed with the new committee and director.
  • On the subject of the Rebel mascot, Lynch said he was disappointed that one local resident has put up a Confederate flag on his property adjacent to the football field, but said that the “mascot is owned by the community” and that decisions regarding changing it are better done by the community and the students themselves.
  • Lynch says that thus far 6 people have applied for the job of assistant principal at Walpole High to replace Stephen Imbusch.  Lynch says in-district teachers are preferred, if qualified.  An official help wanted ad for the assistant principal position is expected this weekend in the newspaper.
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