Two messages came through loud and clear at Wednesday’s School Committee meeting: there is a lot of love in Watertown and its schools for Superintendent Jean Fitzgerald, and that there is a sizable group of parents frustrated by the state of the schools – and they aren’t going away.
Dozens of people came out to express their trust, admiration and love for Fitzgerald, who has been the target of a petition organized by a group of Watertown parents asking for the School Committee to take a vote of no-confidence for the superintendent.
Many who work in the Watertown Public Schools praised Fitzgerald’s work, her commitment to the schools and her character. Watertown High School English teacher Vivienne Mulhall said she has been the best superintendent in her time.
“It wold be disingenuous of me to say I always agree with Dr. Fitzgerald, I haven’t. And having read the petition that some folks who are frustrated,” Mulhall said. “However, Dr. Fitzgerald is a warm, humane, compassionate and well intentioned woman and educator with a lot of experience, and I cannot say that about any other superintendent that I have seen come through this district in 15 years.”
Some said the dissatisfaction among parents seems short sighted considering the hurdles the district has already overcome during Fitzgerald’s time in charge over the past five years.
“I think you should all set your Wayback Machine and remember what it was like,” said parent Erica Dorenkamp. “There was fighting – committees, unions, teachers administration – it was not a good place to be. She came in and she repaired those relationships. They are better than they have been in a long time.”
Parent Ben Delorio, who is a teacher in Belmont, said he has seen the improvement in the Watertown Schools, particularly the relationship she has with the teachers and staff, and he is impressed.
“As an educator I am just so jealous that Watertown can have an educator, that herself has taught for many, many years, in charge,” Delorio said.
Others pointed to the improvements to the education in Watertown Schools under Fitzgerald, including the creation of the maker spaces at Watertown High School and Middle School, and the foreign language in the elementary schools, which begins in the fall.
Former School Committee member Mike Shepard defended Fitzgerald, saying he has never seen her make a decision she did not think was best for the children of Watertown. The problems, he added, were not all of her making.
“The challenges that she faced when she got here were decades in the making,” Shepard said. “She worked very hard, the School Committee worked very hard, members of Town Hall worked very hard, but you can’t unwind decades of build up of issues and problems in a few short months, or years. It takes time.”
Build Up of Dissatisfaction
The drafters of the petition said this is not a sudden thing, including Mark Cotton, a parent and attorney who spoke on the petitioner’s behalf.
“The petition represents a sentiment that has been building up as families become more and more frustrated with the superintendent’s failures in a many significant areas of leadership,” Cotton said, “including not predicting or addressing the growth in school population, or coming with a timely plan to combat overcrowding, last minute changes in after-school care for working families, rapidly changing proposals leading to uncertainty the past spring about access to community schools for Pre-K students, and an overall general feeling that the parents concerns have not being heard by the school administration and by the School Committee.”
Parent Kate Coyne has made an effort to become very involved in the Watertown Schools, and regularly attends School Committee meetings and meetings of their subcommittees. She said she was excited at first, seeing potential for the schools, but has lost faith.
“After the Watertown Strong Schools parents help secure funding in 2014, I looked forward to listening and understanding what would be done over the next few years,” Coyne said. “What I found is parents and questions are no longer welcome, and these are not tough questions but basic questions. The calls and emails are never returned and I do not call constantly.”
Coyne advocated for a collaborative type of government for the Watertown Schools and the rest of town, not insular. She said parent input is a key part of that.
“That is why its with a deep heart and a clear conscience that I say I do not have confidence in Dr. Fitzgerald,” Coyne said. “For me this has been a long run over the past three years, not a quick thing. I came into these three years having full confidence, and unfortunately it was Dr. Fitzgerald’s to lose – and I say that with a sad heart.”
The petition has not reached the goal of 200 supporters, but is within 20 of that number. The School Committee did not discuss the petition or even Fitzgerald’s performance evaluation, which was on the agenda for Wednesday, but School Committee Chairman John Portz announced would be postponed until a future meeting. The next School Committee meeting is Sept. 12
The discussion around school issues has gotten heated – perhaps more heated than any hot button issue in town – and some say it has become downright nasty. The target of much of the frustration and ire has been Fitzgerald, who supporters say is just a scapegoat for larger problems.
Deb King, the president of the Watertown Educators Association and a fourth generation Watertown resident, said she usually is proud of her town, but not after what she saw as online attacks on the superintendent.
“When sat down to think about what I was going to say regarding the public witch hunt – which has been going on, thanks to social media and a small group of people – the words scandalous, disgraceful, monstrous, inexcusable, unconscionable all came to mind,” King said.
Barabara Gortych, the district’s Director of Assessment and Testing, said that the “character assassination” against Fitzgerald is “deplorable.” Gortych helped the district implement its anti-bullying policy a few years ago, and she said the behavior seen online would not be tolerated in the schools.
“If these types of things were being written by our students on the weekend, the writers and their parents would be in the principal’s office on Monday morning for discipline and counseling around their behavior,” Gortych said.
Instead of the bullying behavior, she suggested another approach, possibly having a neutral moderator or ombudsman who can help sort out issues parents have with the schools
“I think we need some help resolving conflicts between parents in the schools and the parents on the School Committee. Ruining a person’s reputation an career is not a solution. In fact it is distracting and destabilizing,” Gortych said.
Cotton said people can see him as the villain, bad guy or bully, but that is not the thrust of the petition.
“If you want to envision me as the guy with pitchfork and flaming torches, go right ahead, but that’s not the case,” Cotton said. “I’m here tonight on behalf of number of community members who feel frustrated with our school leadership an pattern of poor foresight and decision making. a lack of communication responsiveness, and minimal to no consideration to the need of families.”
Enough to Go Around
Some of Fitzgerald’s supporters and detractors alike said they place part of the blame for the predicament on the School Committee.
Dorenkamp addressed Portz and Candace Miller, who was elected to the School Committee after being a leader in the Watertown Strong Schools group and has not been shy about asking for more information and looking to make changes in the system.
“John, how could you let us get here? And Candace, why have you taken us here?” Dorenkamp said.
In her statement, Fitzgerald said she has seen a change in the atmosphere and said it has came after the most recent election.
“In my last four official evaluations I consistently earned proficient or exemplary evaluations so I am surprised by the sudden negative reaction to my performance, which has come with the change over in the makeup of the School Committee,” Fitzgerald said.
After Public Forum, Fitzgerald said she values her relationship with the Watertown community and wants to make sure everyone is heard. She also responded to some of the criticisms.
Fitzgerald has advocated for more space for the past three years both at the School Committee and the Town Council. She noted that the district has applied for the state school building program for the past three years, and a master plan for long term facilities improvements will be wrapped up by September.
She added that talks on the short-term solution for overcrowding for this fall started in August 2015 and the decision was not made until after holding several public subcommittee and School Committee meetings, where parent input was collected.
As for the Extended Day program, she said the program must be able to have a 13-to-1 student to adult ratio, and during times when instructional aids are not available the staff must scramble to have enough adults, and at times Fitzgerald has gone to help out.
“The decision only effects two afternoons in 2017 but I completely understand this has an impact on families,” Fitzgerald said. “And we will continue recruiting staff so that we have the proper adult to student ratio.”
Fitzgerald also acknowledged she needs to work on her social media skills and on getting back to everyone who calls or emails.
Portz said the School Committee has heard the parents. He said the district has already begun working on many of the issues raised in the petition and said Fitzgerald was a major part of those programs, such as the school facilities master plan, foreign language in the elementary schools and curriculum initiatives.
“Saying that, however, we still do have challenges of how we manage ourselves moving forward – the School Committee and the superintendent,” Portz said. “We hear the concerns, we read about those concerns, we heard some of them here. What I would ask the community is to give us some space to deal these issues and challenges in a professional way. As a public body we have a process for deliberation we have to follow to address these sort of professional concerns.”