Teachers resist plan to combine Mill Brook, Broken Ground principals

The entrance to the Mill Brook School is seen on Thursday morning, July 21, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

The entrance to the Mill Brook School is seen on Thursday morning, July 21, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Mill Brook principal Katie Scarpati (center) talks with a mother and son during a meet and greet event at Mill Brook School in Concord on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018. 

Mill Brook principal Katie Scarpati (center) talks with a mother and son during a meet and greet event at Mill Brook School in Concord on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.  Monitor file photo

By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN

Monitor staff

Published: 02-27-2024 4:43 PM

Teachers at Broken Ground and Mill Brook elementary schools are pushing back against a proposal by Superintendent Kathleen Murphy to combine their principal positions at the end of this school year. 

“We need more boots on the ground, not less. We need more resources,” said Michael Macri, president of the Concord Education Association, the teachers union in the district.

Under Murphy’s plan, Mill Brook Principal Katie Scarpati would oversee both schools after the retirement of longtime Broken Ground Principal Susan Lauze this summer. Each school would keep its assistant principal, making a team of three for the combined K-5 system on the Heights. With ongoing declines, each of the district’s elementary schools has between 300 and 350 students — the projected population for the two adjoining schools next year would be about 580, Murphy told the school board. 

Teachers at the two schools — and district-wide — largely oppose consolidation, according to Macri, and the union is considering a vote of no-confidence in Murphy over the issue.

The superintendent brought the idea to the Concord School Board on Feb. 19 as part of ongoing budget workshops for next year. Lauze’s retirement presented an opportunity, Murphy said: having one principal would better unify curriculum, experience and culture between the two adjoining schools, smooth student transitions and free more than $200,000 in the budget to be used either as savings or towards other district priorities.

One principal would not only mean a more singular experience for students in Mill Brook’s K-through-second and Broken Ground’s third-through-fifth grades, but also would better align them with the other three elementary schools, Murphy continued. This consolidation would also aid the district's efforts to implement a consistent curriculum across Concord elementary schools, ensuring a more equal experience while students are in primary grades and putting them on a similar footing once they enter middle school.

“Students in the other schools have a nice, seamless K-all-the-way-through-five. Same principal, same routine, same communication — that doesn't necessarily happen there,” Murphy said. 

Decreasing salary and benefit costs was not her primary reasoning behind this proposal, Murphy added, but it played a part.

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“I also have a responsibility around the budget. I take that very seriously,” she said. “You have some two world language teachers that you would very much like to have.  We have a social worker at the high school that they really, really want. So I've had to balance things that were really important to the district, versus expenditures. And in this case, quite frankly, there's over $200,000 savings that you can use in your budget.”

Murphy said she understood the staff’s uneasiness around a major change. She also praised Scarpati’s leadership at Mill Brook and readiness to take on the challenge. “I recognize the anxiety that comes with new leadership. But I also know that we have a known individual that recognizes culture and climate and that will work hard to ease any of those anxieties that exist.”

Scarpati and Lauze did not respond to requests for comment.

School board members had questions, and some skepticism, about the proposal, wondering how effective the change would be in pursuing ongoing consistency goals. At the request of the board’s executive committee, the district will hold a question and answer session on the potential consolidation on March 12. 

Teachers at both schools are concerned that the logistics and culture are too distinct to be overseen by one principal, according to letters to district leaders signed by staff at Broken Ground and Mill Brook. They also expressed worry that losing the position would threaten the closeness of student, family and staff relationships with administrators.

“It is no secret that the MBS and BGS communities serve the students with the most socio- economic, psychological, and behavioral challenges. It just seems grossly unfair to our students that they would receive less support than other schools,” a letter to the school board signed by Mill Brook teachers reads. Praising Scarpati’s ability to build close relationships with existing students and their families, the letter warns that, “If our school size doubles, we know that these things just won’t be able to happen in the same way.”

In their letter to the superintendent, Broken Ground teachers wrote that the move would be a step backward from district efforts to meet school needs:

“It was decided in 2018 that each elementary school needed an assistant principal because the job was too much for one administrator. Now we are being told that we do not need our own administrator at Broken Ground. We want to gain momentum, not lose ground.”

After meeting with Murphy, 78 teachers from the two schools met Thursday and took a unanimous, with two abstentions, vote of “no confidence” in Murphy’s leadership, according to Macri. The union sent out a survey following that vote asking whether members approved of the consolidation. Of more than 200 respondents, just five said they supported consolidation, Macri said. All but 17 said that the union should move forward with an organization-wide vote.

No-confidence votes are a way for the union “to call out a lack of leadership,” as Macri described it — an expression he said membership has not made since 2006.

“A no-confidence vote is not taken lightly,” he said.

The school board’s decision to locate a new middle school at Broken Ground over vocal public — and some teacher — objections, is not driving current frustrations with Murphy, Macri continued, but that decision is contributing to their feeling of voicelessness.

The school board may or may not end up backing this proposal, President Pam Walsh said in an interview. Having heard from teachers and others and requested the public question and answer session, she emphasized the board’s readiness to listen to those concerns. It does not mean a no-confidence vote, if taken, would prompt action from the board.

“The board may disagree with the proposal — there are other things that are in the budget that board members will likely disagree with — but the superintendent's job is to bring forward ideas,” Walsh said. 

For consolidation to move forward, the school board would have to approve a budget  aligned with the changes. At the end of work sessions, the board is scheduled to hold public hearings on its proposed budget on March 11 and 18 and to finalize the budget by March 27.