Monday, April 29, 2013

Attleboro School Committee - No Free Lunch

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on April 29, 2013
By Bill Gouveia

It’s been a rough few years for the Attleboro school system.  Largely due to local politics, human error and lack of proper public attention, the system has failed the people it was designed to serve – the students.  It is now time for this failure to stop.

The most obvious and publicized sign of this has been the infamous “No Free Lunch” incident.  Local students who either could not afford to buy lunch or who had pre-paid accounts that were unfunded found themselves unable to get a meal.  In fact, some who were given lunch were forced to dump it in the trash rather than consume it.  This despite a policy that required they be given a cheese sandwich and milk if they had no money for lunch.

This situation – and some clumsy efforts to minimize its impact early on – resulted in Attleboro becoming a national joke.  The private company that provides the lunch service fired several workers.  The school system suspended and demoted an administrator.  Then the superintendent reported there were threats made against school officials in the aftermath of the debacle.

But this unfortunate predicament was made worse by the less-publicized problems that preceded it.  It was merely the final straw placed into a pile that collapsed under its own weight.  It highlights the need for a new beginning, a renewal of sorts for a school system that has at times been its own worst enemy, starting with the school committee that oversees it.

The ongoing battles between school committee members and Superintendent Pia Durkin have been harmful to the system as a whole.  Durkin has been a lame duck for some time now, and will become the leader of the New Bedford school system starting this next school year.  Her professionalism has been magnificent when compared to that of her bosses on the school committee.

One committee member hasn’t even been to meetings for the most part.  Member Teri Enegren, who travels extensively due to her profession, was not physically present at any meetings for many months.  She did not attend a single meeting involving the search for a new superintendent.  She never interviewed a candidate publicly.  Yet she did show up to cast her vote when it was time to make the decision.  It was noted she kept abreast of committee business through emails and phone calls during her absence.

Her fellow members made a shambles of the Open Meeting Law during the drawn-out interview process.  The infighting between members has drawn more attention than any accomplishment the committee may have achieved.

The lunch fiasco has done worse than shake up the school system.  It has also brought political philosophical arguments to the local level, with many now debating the relative roles of parents and school officials in providing for children.

“Where are the parents?” many have asked, wondering why the kids weren’t given lunch money or why their accounts were not funded.  Some wonder why the responsibility to feed them falls to the schools. 

In the meantime, the many truly important educational challenges facing city students and parents have been pushed to the background.  The newspapers and television stations talk about Attleboro’s school lunches rather than their school curriculum.  What is being served for meals is discussed more than what is being taught to students to prepare them for their futures.

This is what happens when political concerns take precedence over educational ones.  It is what happens when a superintendent and her bosses are on different pages – regardless of where the fault for those differences belongs.  It is what happens when adults concentrate too much on other adults, and not enough on children.

It is also what happens when parents simply don’t pay enough attention.  It is their responsibility to use the power of their ballots to elect people and then hold them accountable.  Going to an occasional meeting or writing an occasional note is not enough.  There is no substitute for involvement.

School committee members, administrators, teachers and parents must all come together if Attleboro’s image and problems are going to improve.  Attleboro should not be the butt of a national joke, and there is a way for the school committee to prevent it.

Stop acting like one.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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