Backlash – Jenkins offered an extension, but not everyone is happy

On November 5, the Winthrop School Committee voted, 4-3 in favor of offering a two-year contract extension to Superintendent Steve Jenkins. The extension will allow him to continue at his current salary of $166,125 through June of 2012. The offer includes no raises or bonuses, but allows Jenkins to buy back up to three weeks of vacation time each year if he does not elect to use them.

“I am excited to move forward on some of the initiatives we’ve started,” said Jenkins. “I’m excited to be able to continue to work in the town that I decided to make my home, and I hope that, even with the financial difficulties that continue to afflict us, that we will be able to get some things accomplished.”

The final decision was the last of four separate votes, which were all related to the Superintendent’s contract. The Committee first approved to allow Jenkins to waive the two-percent pay increase for the final year of his current contract that took effect in October. Jenkins agreed to reimburse the District for the pay that he received as a result of that increase.

The Committee then voted, 4-3, against a motion to remove the vacation buy-back provision from the contract extension. It also voted, 4-3, to defeat a motion asking that the vote on whether or not to offer the extension be delayed until the November 12 meeting. John Macero supported the motion, arguing that the decision should be made after the election, which would allow time for the new Committee-elects to be consulted for their thoughts on the issue. Both Macero and Michael Goldberg did not seek re-election and will step down from the Committee when it begins its new session in January.

“I wanted [the incoming Committee members’] input,” said Macero. “I believe that this decision was one that needed to be made by the new School Committee coming on board, because that Committee will be there for the next two years,”

Macero, William Holden and Tom Reilly, who all supported the motion delaying the vote, also voted against the contract extension. The consensus among the three, as well as some members of the public who spoke at the meeting, was that the opposition to the extension was economic, not personal.

“I was really worried about whether we could afford the contract for another two years,” Macero said. “It was firmly an economic decision.”

Town Councilor Jim Letterie was among those who spoke out against the extension at the meeting. He reasoned that, even without any new raises, the Superintendent’s pay was higher than what the cash-strapped town could afford, and expressed particular displeasure with the vacation buy-back provision.

“The pay grade is too high,” he said. “Based on any community of similar size, we’re spending too much money for the product we’re getting. The children of this town cannot afford, especially a contract with three weeks of vacation buy-back. I haven’t found any superintendent in the surrounding communities that have that provision.”

Letterie also questioned the fiscal responsibility of increasing Jenkins’s pay by more than $30,000 in the five years since he became the Winthrop Superintendent at a time when the town is in the midst of its worst financial crisis in recent history and the fact that test scores in the district have not shown a steady increase.

“At some point, you have to look at the test scores and enrollment, which is decreasing,” Letterie said. “We have two schools [Winthrop Middle School and the Arthur T. Cummings School] which the state has put on corrective action plans, and one of them [the Cummings School] has been on this plan for three years.”

Vice Chairperson Mary Lou Osborne, a school committee member since before the arrival of Jenkins, voted in favor of the extension. She cautioned against using standardized test scores as a primary indicator of the Superintendent’s performance.

“[MCAS scores] are an indicator that we have work to do, but I don’t think we can hang our hats on them all the time as an end-all, be-all,” she said. Even on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website, when you go to start looking at MCAS scores, it says that communities should not be compared to each other based on scores. They are an indication of where we need to do extra work.”

Osborne also echoed previous statements by Committee Chairperson Pat Milano expressing the importance of retaining Jenkins, due to the surplus of superintendent vacancies in the state and a lack of qualified candidates. Osborne recently spoke with the Mass. Association of School Committees Executive Director Glenn Koocher, who warned her about the poor climate for filling superintendent vacancies. He reported that there are currently 25 superintendent vacancies’ in the state, and expects that number to grow as high as 40 by the end of the current school year.

Osborne said that, even if Winthrop did not elect to fill the superintendent position, an interim replacement would likely demand a salary equal to what the previous holder of the position had received. The town would also have to pay between $12,000 and $15,000 to a firm that specializes in conducting searches for new hires in government positions such as superintendents.

In the end, Osborne, Milano and Committee members Michael Goldberg and Gus Martucci felt that the town would save more money by retaining Jenkins than by replacing him.

“I felt that trying to get a new [superintendent] would not save us money,” she said. “[Jenkins] has brought a lot of tools into the system to assess where we need help and what we can do to change thing, and I also think he has inspired his staff to do that. For those reasons, he has us going in the right direction.”

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