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With Monárrez, the School Committee set a new bar for how we appoint our leaders
The School Committee did two things this week. They hired a new superintendent for the Worcester Public Schools and set an extremely high bar for how an executive body should go about appointing a chief executive.
Thing #1 is news enough on its own. The Worcester Public Schools will soon be led by an extremely qualified, articulate and, if I do say so, rather charming school administrator. Rachel Monárrez will be leaving her job in sunny California at the San Bernardino City Unified School District to take up shop at 20 Irving St. in a few months.
Monárrez is fluent in Spanish, has experience presiding over English language immersion and special education programs, and she’s coming from a district of similar size, budget and demographics. At her interview with the School Committee on Thursday, she stressed the need for community input, youth engagement and decisions based on data. She made it clear that she sees the role as one of managing systems and planning for the future. Her comments on discipline demonstrated a heartening awareness of systemic problems and pitfalls.
School Committee member Tracy Novick visited Monárrez’s district recently as part of the hiring process. Her recap of the visit on Thursday was surprisingly glowing. She described someone who’s focused on the work and uninterested in political gamesmanship, someone who is systems-oriented and understands what it means to manage from that vantage. Novick said she had written on a whiteboard in her office “It’s all about the children and the adults who serve them.”
As I’ve often said here, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with a more informed or critical lens on education than Novick. Hers is not an endorsement to be taken lightly. So when she said that Monárrez is “exactly what the School Committee is looking for,” you gotta trust it.
And Novick was not the only School Committee member on whom Monárrez left an impression. Six of the seven board members picked her as their top choice. Only Sue Mailman opted for another of the finalists, Malika Savoy-Brooks, but changed her vote without fuss to make it unanimous.
I’m far from an expert on school administration, but the four finalists the School Committee chose all seemed perfectly competent to me. I don’t really think there was a bad choice to be made there, and from my perspective as just some fuckin guy, Monárrez was impressive. She handled the interview Thursday with relaxed poise and spoke with the fluidity and ease of someone who’s mastered the material. She acted like she’s been there before.
Because I can’t help being a catty little minx sometimes I’ll say that it was especially refreshing to listen to Monárrez just a few minutes after current Superintendent Maureen Binienda took the occasion of Gordon Hargrove’s retirement from the Friendly House to pat her own back about how much she’s done to help “her kids.” The metaphor there—going from Binienda, who talks about school administration like she’s writing an Instagram post from her missionary trip to Botswana, to Monárrez, who talked systems management and strategic planning—was certainly illustrative.
The best part of all, honestly, is she’s not from here. Her appointment wasn’t the result of some dollar-store Machiavellian power play. She’s coming to the district on merit and with fresh eyes. Perhaps more importantly, she comes without owing any favors, without favorites to pick and without any old beef she can misuse her power to worsen.
In fact, the statement would hold true for any of the four finalists. Charles Grandson was coming from Boston Public Schools. Malika Savoy-Brooks and Sonya Somerville Harrison were coming from Philadelphia.
The School Committee’s process was so refreshingly free of anything that read like political gamesmanship. It was all above-board, transparent and professional. They hired a search firm to conduct a real national search. They put together an ad-hoc committee to review applicants. They picked four finalists, all from outside the district and all well-qualified, and announced them publicly. They then held public meet-and-greet events and conducted public interviews. They sent delegations to the home districts of each of the finalists and reported their observations publicly and in detail. They arrived at a consensus amicably and left nothing to suggest any factors at play besides evaluation of merit.
In short, they did what they should have done. And in Worcester, that’s sort of a miracle.
Back in 2011, the School Committee picked Binienda from a pool of finalists that looks spuriously thin in comparison to the talent they were able to attract this time. All of the four finalists were pulled from the district and I wasn’t around for it but two of them look to me like they were less-than-serious contenders.
It can’t be stressed enough how different the political dynamics of the School Committee have changed from then to now. Last November, we saw the School Committee undergo a drastic course correction in the progressive direction and now we’re reaping the benefits.
Over on the City Council side, as I’ve covered recently, it’s even worse. City Manager Ed Augustus was handed a veritable lifetime appointment after a sham search process. Before that, Ed O’Brien was appointed under circumstances that would merit the word “coup” if the stakes were higher. I highly suggest reading Nicole Apostola’s recent post on the past three city manager searches if you think I’m being overly dramatic.
So now we turn to the City Council with just one month left in Augustus’ tenure and we say, ‘If the School Committee can do it, so can you.’ If the schools can come up with four well qualified outside candidates for a superintendent, we should demand nothing less of the City Council in its search for a city manager.
But I gotta say, the situation over on that side of the fence is not as promising. The first issue, as I just mentioned, is that the council does not have a track record of carrying out professional searches. The appointment of Eric Batista to acting city manager—first listed as “interim,” a term which does not appear in the city charter—certainly read like they were trying to just hand him the job without incident. Two of the 11 councilors, George Russell and Candy Mero-Carlson, have even said out loud that they would be content to install Batista and be done with it.
The second issue is highly related to the first. In fact, Issue #2 is likely why Issue #1 exists.
Political bodies have rules. Under our Plan E system of government (which we should always remember is rather quirky and unusual), the rules for the council and the manager are quite clear. The council sets the direction they want to take the city and in that spirit they set priorities and goals for the city manager. The city manager then takes the will of the council and does their best to execute it. In order for this system to work as intended, the city manager needs to be a competent executive—a systems manager, as Monárrez described—and the council needs to take seriously the role of setting policy toward a strategic vision. The council thinks and the manager does. A board of directors and a CEO beholden to it.
But within the framework of rules, political bodies also have cultures. The designs of the thing are beaten in, tested and bent by year after year of real humans operating within it. For the Worcester City Council, especially after Augustus’ tenure and his interpretation of the role, we’re left not with the Board of Directors/CEO dynamic but rather with the City Manager as The Guy and a group of 11 people who are more or less happy to go along for the ride while competing against each other for The Guy’s attention in achieving relatively small priorities which they see as the path toward their personal reelection. Thinking about it structurally, the council has effectively abdicated its role in articulating a strategic vision for the city. Instead, they’ve been content to sign on to Augustus’ vision of a “Renaissance,” which—I know I’m beating a dead horse here—is nothing but a lure to real estate speculators looking for the next town they can pull a windfall profit from.
Under the design of Plan E, the council is the king and the city manager is the hand of the king. In the culture built by Worcester officials over time, Augustus is king and the council is perhaps best thought of as a court of lesser lords. So now that Augustus has very suddenly said ‘sayonara, suckers!’ (and not for any pressing new job opportunity, apparently, as he’s rumored to be spending the summer traveling Europe), this court of lesser lords is being put in the position of recruiting their new king. Not a recipe for success if you ask me. The easy way out while maintaining this dynamic would be to just hand Batista the job. The guy’s spent pretty much his entire career working for Augustus after all. A successor the king has groomed for command. I mean heck, hire him and we’re stretching this tired feudalism metaphor I’m using straight into reality.
But I’d rather the Plan E style work as it was intended, and this would be a great time to change the dynamic to make it so, wouldn’t it? It would be a swell moment to say “Okay, we are the elected body. We represent the will of the people. We are in charge of the city. Let’s settle on a list of goals and priorities and the qualifications we’ll need from a city manager to achieve them. Then we’ll do a national search and find the person competent enough to work for us in service of our goals.”
This brings us to Issue #3. The November election was a seismic shift for the School Committee. It really was a full-scale changeover in the right direction and to my mind I don’t think we would have gotten as professional a search process if things had gone differently. Though it was still a good outcome for the City Council and we dodged at least one serious bullet, the changeover is not as drastic. We have a more fully established progressive bloc but not a majority. Since the inauguration we’ve seen this new bloc send good idea after good idea like so many waves crashing against the sea wall of the old guard and the political culture they’ve created. For the first time since I’ve been watching the council, we have a dynamic where good progressive policy can get articulated—and that’s important!—but not one which can get it over the proverbial hill.
On an optimistic note, one of our progressives, Khrystian King, chairs a subcommittee that’s crucial to the hiring process. The Standing Committee on Municipal And Legislative Operations is tasked with defining what the search process will look like. It’s expected that at its next meeting, the subcommittee will take up an order from the mayor which, on paper, looks an awful lot like the one followed by the School Committee.
Less optimistically, George Russell, the councilor who already tried to get the council to hand Batista a two-year contract, is one of three subcommittee members. While the motion itself failed, it succeeded in demonstrating that Russell is not interested in conducting a thorough search process. Who knows how many councilors feel the same way Russell does? It wouldn’t be an outlandish thing for the council to go through a sham search process and, after however many months it takes, point to Batista and say he’s done such a good job as the acting manager, why not just make him the manager? That is exactly what they did with Augustus. There’s a playbook there and a long track record of it working.
So that takes us back to the difference between the structure of a political body and the culture of it. The School Committee didn’t just conduct a thorough search process, they were invested in it. The fact they sent delegations to visit each of the finalists’ districts is a testament to that. Because they took it seriously, they put themselves in a position to choose from a pool of talent befitting a district the size of Worcester’s.
Similarly, City Hall could benefit immensely from the leadership of a city manager who’s qualified, versed in national best practices and cares about the function of city government more than the politics of Worcester—someone whose career has everything to do with demonstrating results and nothing to do with whether Candy Mero-Carlson likes them.
The School Committee demonstrated that we can have that person. That Worcester can attract real talent. That there are people who want to stake their careers on this weird little town.
Will the City Council show us the same? Nine months from now, are we going to be looking at a pool of finalists from all over the country who are well qualified and hungry to prove themselves in the next chapter in their professional career? Or are we going to settle for the same old succession of petty lordship?
Like I said: Open question.
My gut says we’re going the lordship route. I would love so much to be proven wrong.
Well well well, you’ve made it to the end of another post I see! I hope it helped you understand how things work around here, or if you already understand how things work around here it rang true to you, OR if you understand how things work around here better than I do, that you think gee this kid’s on the right track. There’s always more to every story and more to learn, and we’ve got just enough local journalism left to get you the necessary headlines out, but not nearly enough to make sure you understand them.
You had the opportunity by now to read four or five stories about Monárrez’s appointment. And all of them were more or less the same, and all of them competently got you the information expected in a traditional first-day news story: This is her background. This is what she said at the meeting. This is what the council said. These were the other applicants. This is who she replaces.
This post comes three days after those stories, which would be absolutely unacceptable if the success of this publication hinged on page views. If that were the case, I’d be rewriting every press release I could find and putting up my near identical version of every Telegram story and making sure I was the first one to get a take up, however lazy, and doing um… other things that MassLive does.
But the idea here with Worcester Sucks is to address one of the widening holes in local journalism as it simultaneously withers and adapts to the demands of the internet. The reporters lucky enough to have a job in the first place don’t have any much time for analysis or digging or advancing stories because they’ve gotta get like three posts a day up to meet content requirements based on page views. And that means going for the easy stuff and shelving more difficult and potentially interesting projects. Further, the old school industry standards of objectivity require a rigid line between “news” and “opinion” while downsizing outlets opt to let go of opinion writers while keeping the relatively cheaper and greener news reporters. Smart move if the goal is to produce as many posts as possible. It’s a very dumb move, however, if the goal is to get readers invested in the subject matter. “Why should I care?” is not a question that can be easily answered in a 300-word objective news article.
Answering that question is the #1 guiding principle of my writing here. Local politics is pretty fun and interesting once you peel a couple layers of what at first glance appears to be a very boring onion. It’s a tired cliche to say it’s the most important form of government and I’m really not so sure that’s true. It is however a place where your investment actually matters and it’s not something you can only passively consume. And the way things are around here that’s saying something.
To my mind the highest ideal of journalism is illustrating power—making it clear who has it, how they use it and how it affects regular people. This newsletter is an experiment in achieving that ideal in a system that doesn’t assign it much value. I wouldn’t be able to do that without the people who’ve decided it’s valuable enough to them that they’re willing to part with a small amount of money every month. If that’s you, thank you! If it’s not, maybe it could be if you smash the button below :-)
And for most of my readers I know I’m simultaneously preaching to the choir and repeating myself here. But come tomorrow I might have some new people visiting the page! I’m not sure if I’m allowed to spill the beans yet so I won’t… but maybe check the Worcester Business Journal’s site Monday afternoon.
Ok geez I just checked the word count… More than enough for now. Cya next time!