Taxpayers bite back on school bonds. Hull school chief's first assignment: cut costs

TOWN taxpayers, 3; school officials, 0. Claire Sheff doesn't know all the players yet, but she certainly knows the score.

Shortly after she took over as superintendent of schools in this small coastal town 20 miles southeast of Boston in June, voters rejected a measure that would have added $915,000 to the $6.1 million school budget. Twice more during the muggy summer months townsfolk turned down efforts to pass a school levy that would have raised property taxes.

Next week, instead of seeing the first day of classes as the start of a bold new beginning for the Hull schools and the fulfilling of her lifelong goal to be a superintendent, Ms. Sheff heads a school system that must handle basic academic education, some vocational preparation, and not much else. She spent the summer devising a school roster that cuts 23 positions and eliminates all extracurricular activities, plus a good chunk of the special-ed program. She must run the schools at the fiscal equivalent of low tide.

``The money crisis in this town would be a challenge for the most seasoned superintendent,'' says Robert Bunnell, superintendent of schools in neighboring Norwell. But for one in her first superintendency, ``the challenge is near overwhelming,'' says the veteran of 23 years in the superintendent's chair.

Although the problems Sheff faces may be extreme, her situation is by no means unique. With administrative leadership high on everyone's list for school improvement and new funds from state and local sources beginning to level off, scrutiny of school officials is at an all-time high.

According to a recent survey of superintendents by the American Association of School Administrators, the most important tasks in a ``super's'' job are leadership in building school climate and developing curriculum, financial management, personnel management, public relations, and teacher evaluation.

Sheff faces each of these tasks.

Leadership in building school climate and developing curriculum:

``You take on your first superintendency with a sense of purpose, high vision, ideals,'' Mr. Bunnell says. ``She never had time to.'' But if anyone can bring off better schools under extremely difficult circumstances, Sheff can, he says. She was an assistant superintendent in his district for 6 years. The people are expecting the superintendent to overhaul the school system, says Claudette Fitzsimmons, a town selectman. It should have been done a number of years ago, she says. ``We have 500 fewer students than we did in 1981 and yet we have two more staff than we did then,'' she notes. She sees the most important role for the superintendent as getting clear facts out to the community.

Sheff and the Hull School Committee made clear from the outset that, however the vote went on the tax levy, academic priorities would govern all decisions. The core academic program would be maintained. ``Certainly less of an education than I felt was in the best interest of kids,'' says Sheff, ``but not a substandard one.''

She knows that major changes in the curriculum, K-12 must occur. But she refuses to make any sweeping, unilateral decisions until she knows the schools and the town better and ``they get to know me better,'' she says. ``One thing that is clear, people in this town don't want something shoved down their throats,'' she says. ``It's not the way I operate anyway.''

Personnel management, teacher evaluation:

``She hasn't had a honeymoon,'' says John Lewis, president of the local teachers' union. ``She's had to make hard decisions affecting staffing even before she officially took over,'' he says.

The day after the first levy was defeated, when it was apparent that a number of teachers would be let go, Sheff called nine area superintendents to let them know she would have staff they might want to hire. She sent a letter to each person being laid off listing openings. ``We see this as a way she operates and we like it very much,'' Mr. Lewis says.

Financial management:

In comparison with similar towns in Massachusetts, Hull pays more taxes per capita and spends more money on students per capita, says Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, a fiscal watchdog group.

This is due to the demographic mix of students, says selectman John Silva. Some 36 percent of the students go directly into the work force; almost half go on to college. The rest drop out.

``The budget crunch is an inhospitable environment for risk taking,'' says Sheff. ``The spotlight is on every penny, and schools are not allowed to fail,'' she says. The local booster club presented the district with a check for enough money to enable the high school to have football, soccer, and field hockey this fall.

School Committee members welcomed the money - but only on condition that they would have final say over how funds could be spent. Sheff has gone out of her way to communicate that this is a one-time, stopgap measure.

If increased funding is not established for future years - and both town officials and organized opponents to any property tax increases see little likelihood of this - Sheff knows she will have to streamline the curriculum, limiting the diversity.

Setting the curriculum is the hardest, yet by all accounts the most important, decision a superintendent can make as schools prepare their students for the 21st century, Bunnell says. For Sheff it means answering the difficult question of how best to serve college-bound and non-college-bound students simultaneously, many of whom, in a town with a 1,521 fall enrollment in K-12, she will come to know personally.

Public relations:

``Prior to the budget crisis, we sensed that the community wanted what we wanted in a new superintendent,'' says Norm Rogers, a member of the School Committee. ``That's why we hired her.'' The town wanted a superintendent who would try to get people from outside inside the schools, especially senior citizens, he says. Sheff was chosen from among 43 applicants. (Less than 5 percent of superintendents nationwide are women.)

Superintendents must ``fit'' their schools, says Mr. Rogers. A management style that works in a big city might flop miserably in an affluent or small college town, or a diverse community like Hull, he says.

A diversity of students is a problem often thought to challenge urban, predominantly minority districts. Increasingly, it confronts working-class or industrial suburbs in metropolitan districts as well as rural districts seeking a comprehensive program, says Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich, this year's president of the Education Commission of the States.

Sheff's bridge-building talents will be tested in dealing with senior citizens, says Anne Scully, who is active in Hull senior affairs. ``[Sheff] is getting the brunt of it all. She's brand new. She didn't cause any of the problems, but she is being asked to solve them,'' she says.

Many older citizens in Hull feel they are being blamed for voting down more money for schools; they resent allegations that they don't care if the children get a good education, says Mrs. Scully.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is in helping students realize that the vote is not a reflection on them, and that it does not mean the town does not care about its children, says Sheff. ``There are many complex factors involved, plus a long history that led up to the vote, and I want students to fully understand this,'' she says. ``The last thing I want is for them to think they or what they are learning is inferior as a result of the vote.''

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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