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New School Boss Outlines Preferred Communications Methods

By Jarret Liotta

Holding its first in-person meeting in months, the Board of Education (BOE) today met at Staples High School to talk about communication with its new Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice.

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Thomas Scarice, Westport’s new superintendent of schools, takes part in his first Board of Education meeting today. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com

In a meeting facilitated by Marty Brooks, executive director of the Tri-State Consortium, the BOE reviewed various procedures and how it might want to update them with the start of Scarice’s tenure.

Scarice shared experiences about some of his own practices in the Madison School District where he served for eight years until being named Westport’s top educator in April

He spoke of how board meetings are held, how public comment is included, how board members communicate with him and central office, and how staff presentations are done at board meetings

“You’re conducting a business here,” he said. “It’s not just a show-and-tell meeting, so we have to stay focused.”

The theme of time management touched on several aspects of the way current board meeting are run, including the practice of allowing public comment after almost every agenda item.

“I think we’re the only one in the state,” BOE member Elaine Whitney said, that allows such extensive comment.

“It’s cultural,” said Vice Chair Jeannie Smith, who said she has long considered it something that should be changed.

“They’re always able to access us to communicate,” she said, through email, but in-person comments at the podium can sometimes become emotional and too specific.

“It just kind of derails some of the work,” she said, noting depending on the issue it can become very drama-filled.

On the other hand BOE member Lee Goldstein spoke in favor of it, saying that other boards and commissions in town do likewise and with no three-minute limit on comments. (In fact, the Representative Town Meeting often imposes such limits on public comment.)

“It is a participatory Democracy (and) I feel very strongly that we should keep it,” she said.

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BOE Vice Chair Jeannie Smith listens to comments from her fellow board member. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com

Scarice said in Madison they have two specific sections in a meeting for public comment, though they are open to any topic.

He also noted the inclusion of a consent agenda — a timesaver that centralizes some of the more technical items that require approval into one, such as minutes and smaller fund transfers within the budget.

“It’s all basic stuff that requires approval in one big batch,” he said.

Scarise raised the question of exactly how board members should be allowed to communicate with him separate of meetings — through the chair as a representative or individually if they so desired.

“It’s easy for a superintendent to get bogged down in his or her office with phone calls from the board,” Brooks said, noting it is customary in many places to allow only the chair that access.

But several board members said it is not something that has been abused in the past, and that in Westport the BOE does not seek private information from his office on particular staff or students, as Scarice suggested can happen at times.

“I would not anticipate calling, almost never,” Goldstein said. “And I would not anticipate gossiping, which a lot of what this sounds like.”

At the same time, she said and other board members said they should always have access to relevant information, not just the chair.

“It’s nobody’s information to own,” she said. “It’s all our information.”

Likewise BOE member Elaine Whitney said there should be something of a basis of trust between them, that they would not, as individual members, abuse that access to Scarice.

“You could be candid with us,” she said. “If we were to ask a question that was inappropriate and not board-related, please let us know.”

Getting information in a timely manner from Central Office was also an area that BOE members asked Scarice to give his attention to, particularly prior to board meetings.

“We have struggled for literally a year to get our backup materials in advance of the meeting,” Chair Candice Savin said.

Scarice said things will be different under his leadership.

“We always try to finalize it by the end of the day on Thursday,” he said, giving members — and hopefully the public — several days to look over material before the regularly scheduled Monday night meetings.

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