Outgoing Franklin superintendent reflects on academic gains, tensions with city council
SAU 18 superintendent Maureen Ward's adjusts her glasses while working with Tracy Bricchi, a curriculum coordinator, left, on compiling a list of things to address during the transition after her departure on her last day at the office, Tuesday, November 26, 2013.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Most of the things belonging to SAU 18 superintendent Maureen Ward were cleaned out of the corners of her office by her last day, Tuesday, November 26, 2013.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
In Maureen Ward’s three years at the helm of Franklin’s schools, student test scores climbed, the district secured a $2 million federal grant that led to more teacher training and a solid curriculum, and teachers were recognized statewide and nationally for innovative and effective practice.
But, in that same period, nearly half the faculty left, the school board sparred with the city council on everything from finances to building closures and critics called Ward a micromanager with a sometimes hostile leadership style.
While her hiring was met with excitement, Ward, 63, leaves the superintendent’s post as a polarizing figure in the community. She predicted change would be met with resistance, but the spiteful turn relations with the city council took when the football coach was not rehired last spring drove Ward to exit her contract early. Although she’ll be paid through the end of December per her buyout agreement, Ward’s last day was Tuesday. That afternoon, she and several members of her leadership team sat with the Monitor to reflect on her tenure.
“When I was hired, it was a board that said, ‘We don’t want Franklin in the bottom, we want you to fix it.’ And at the time, before I even signed the contract I said, ‘This is going to be difficult, you’re going to get flak because there’s going to have to be changes,’ ” she recalled. “And they were willing to do that, so I signed. . . . Whenever you turn something around, there’s somebody that’s unhappy.”
As superintendent, Ward made $126,000 annually to preside over a district of roughly 1,300 students from Franklin and Hill. Franklin had been labeled a “district in need of improvement” by the federal government. In 2010, fewer than 20 percent of high school students tested “proficient” in math on state exams, while fewer than 50 percent were “proficient” in reading.
A report by an outside consulting firm found that most students and teachers had come to accept poor performance as fact. It also found that teachers weren’t following a consistent curriculum. With per-pupil spending of roughly $9,400, the lowest in the state, teacher training and resources were sparse.
But in 2011, the district secured a $2 million school improvement grant from the federal government, dedicated to overhauling teaching and learning practices over three years. With that money, Ward hired two full-time curriculum people and turned four teachers into “coaches,” whose job is to give other teachers the support they need to be successful. Under the grant, Franklin was an early adopter of the Common Core State Standards, a new set of national standards designed to be more rigorous.
That grant, Ward said, was critical to Franklin’s recent successes.
“We would have made gains, but we would not have made them as quickly without money to hire the people for that full-time dedication for that improvement process, and that made a huge difference to Franklin,” she said.
Between 2010-2011 and 2012-2013, eleventh-graders went from 13 to 32 percent proficient in science (which is higher than the state average). From 2009-2010, scores jumped from 15 to 29 percent proficient in math, and 50 to 60 percent in reading. For eighth-graders, proficiency went from 9 to 19 percent in science from 2010-2011 to 2012-2013, 32 to 54 percent in math from 2009-2010 to 2012-2013 and 54 to 76 percent in reading.
Teachers also had more resources and a consistent curriculum to work from. Under the grant, there was more money for professional development. Kerry Cook, a former teacher turned coach, said the level of resources has skyrocketed.
“We felt like we always worked on (curriculum), but we didn’t necessarily do it in an effective way because we didn’t know what were doing,” she said.
Now, the central office has a professional development center, where teachers can go to work in teams or with the coaches. Franklin has brought in national speakers for staff training days, and several of its teachers have been asked to present their work. Cook and Ginny Doyle, another teacher-coach, were complimented for their work on Common Core at a recent statewide meeting, and state officials asked them to speak at a national conference. Carrie Charette, a high school English teacher, finished in the top five for New Hampshire Teacher of the Year.
“This isn’t small potatoes, this is huge, and I credit that to doing, not talking about it,” Ward said.
Other accomplishments Ward and her team point to include building maintenance at the middle and high schools, a new teacher evaluation system that gives actionable feedback and the school board’s development of a strategic plan. She said the school board makes responsible financial decisions, including the choice to save $1.9 million by closing the Bessie Rowell School, and that the business administrator has cleaned up what were disastrous financial recording practices.
When asked to name the most difficult part of her job, Ward was quick to answer: politics.
In her tenure, she met differences of opinion from the inside and outside that often overshadowed academic gains. Brian Boynton, a former board member and substitute teacher, said Ward has a my-way-or-the-highway style, generating personality conflicts that led many teachers to leave, voluntarily and involuntarily.
“Micromanaging is an understatement,” he said, adding that Ward was “more of a militant than an actual manager.” The staff and teachers who stayed deserve much of the credit for the academic gains during Ward’s tenure, he said.
Ward and Tracy Bricchi, curriculum director, said many teachers left because they did not agree with the new accountability model in teacher evaluations or didn’t want to teach to Common Core. Others left because they were able to find a higher salary elsewhere.
“I respect them for knowing their own limitations,” Ward said of people who left. “They didn’t agree or weren’t willing to put effort in.”
As for charges that she is a micromanager, Ward said it is just the opposite, and that she trusts the principals to do their jobs.
Outside the school walls, Ward and the school board had an increasingly contentious relationship with the city council. The relationship between both bodies has been strained for decades, partly because Franklin has a dependent school district that relies on the council for its money.
Several key decisions during Ward’s tenure were criticized as secretive. In the summer of 2010, for example, Ward hired then quickly fired a business administrator who had a criminal background, and questions arose as to how that happened. Later, when the board decided to shut down the Rowell school, councilors and members of the community said the board wasn’t up front about its decision-making process.
Ward said she tried to stay out of politics when she was hired, but things took a turn for the worse when the board voted not to rehire football coach Greg Husband last spring, after the team was accused of unsportsmanlike conduct. The board voted unanimously not to rehire Husband, and it quickly turned personal.
Husband alleged Ward had harassed him about his marital status and violated school policies. In a public hearing before the council, he and other Franklin residents alleged their children’s special education plans were not being implemented properly.
Ward said this conflict led her to step down. The school board became split on this and several issues, she said, and she did not feel she could be an effective leader anymore.
Next week, William Compton will take over as interim superintendent. Ward will be available to help, but does not plan to be in the office regularly. She’ll be paid on a normal schedule through the end of December, then given a lump sum payment of about $60,000 Jan. 2. Ward, who lives in Tilton, said she has another job lined up, but declined to say what it was.
In January, the makeup of the school board will also change, with three new members coming on, including Husband. This board will search for a permanent superintendent.
Mayor Ken Merrifield and board member Tamara Feener, who has often been critical of Ward, declined to speak specifically about Ward’s leadership. Instead, they both said they’re optimistic about the future, with a new superintendent and board, and disputed Ward’s claims that the council isn’t supportive of the academic gains.
“I would rather look ahead than behind,” Merrifield said. “I would rather look to the bright future that I’m expecting for Franklin schools rather than dwell on the difficulties we’ve experienced.”
Soon, however, the board and council will have important decisions to make. The federal grant will run out at the end of this year, and the schools won’t have enough money to maintain some of the positions, such as the teacher coaches. The school gets about 25 to 30 percent of Franklin’s tax revenue, which Ward and members of her team say is far too little. Merrifield said that number is misleading, because the district gets millions of dollars in state adequacy money and grants.
In some ways, the city is in a similar spot to when Ward was hired. Her predecessor had been fired after alleged violations of school policies and a federal investigation into civil rights, and the community looked to Ward as someone who could repair damaged relationships. Instead, Ward became a lightning rod.
“We’ve worked for years to get that Franklin pride built,” said Cook, the teacher coach. “. . . The last six months or so, it feels like that’s starting to come back, that negativity in the kids, and it’s like, come on, I thought we were all on the same page.”
Ward says the teachers and students have proven they can work hard, and positive change can continue if the community demands it.
“Now that they know the kids are capable, and they know that the teachers are willing, I think now it’s up to the voters of Franklin to say ‘Really, do I have to accept a failing education? Because now I know it can be good,’ ” Ward said. “And I think it’s just started.”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)