February 22, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald
Dear Mr. Caputo.
With an uncontested race ahead of you, it looks like you will soon be on Belmont’s Board of Selectmen. As you pack your bag to move from the School Administration Building to Town Hall, there are a few experiences that I hope you tuck in there to bring with you. Most importantly, I hope you bring a commitment to consciously apply the following lessons from the School Committee to your new role as a Selectman.
First, let your Town Administrator administrate. There are reasons –in terms of skills, education and experience—that Patrice Garvin is our Town Administrator and you’re not. Some people think the job of being a Selectman has become “too big.” It seems to me, however, that that is personality driven, not a function of the job. Your job is to be a member of Belmont’s board of directors. And boards set policy. They don’t run the operations. The School Committee interacts with Superintendent John Phelan in the same way. No question exists about who makes operational decisions for the schools. If there is a decision, or type of decision, that you would have left to the Superintendent on the school-side, you might consider leaving corresponding decisions on the town-side to our Town Administrator.
Second, empower your staff. As a member of the School Committee, you would never dream of walking into one of Belmont’s schools and telling the principal how to do his or her job. I urge you to give your department heads the same deference you would give your principals. Belmont has long been blessed with smart, committed, talented staff. Sure, you need to set policy to guide the ship. That’s your job. But, you also need to let your staff do their jobs. If you wouldn’t participate in the operational decisions of a principal as a member of the School Committee, don’t feel compelled to participate in the operational decisions of a department head as a member of the Board of Selectmen.
Third, respect the intelligence of your constituency. One thing you likely learned as a member of the School Committee is that Superintendent Phelan is a straight-shooter. Folks appreciate that. If the Belmont schools face a space problem, we hear about it. If there is a traffic problem at one of our schools, we hear about it. And, when financial and/or resource constraints make available options merely adequate, rather than perhaps ideal, we’re told that. The community can understand when we face challenges. And we can understand that you are committed to finding the best available solutions. What we would not understand is if you don’t respect us enough to be up-front with our problems, open about our available options and their costs, and transparent about what you decide and why.
Finally, the Schools aren’t everything, but they’re way ahead of whatever is in second place. I talk to a lot of Belmont residents in my roles as a Citizen-Herald columnist and the producer of the Community Conversations podcast at the Belmont Media Center. One comment that once was made to me in one such conversation really rang true. In urging that the schools needed adequate funding, this person said “I’ve never heard a person say they moved to a community because of the quality of their streets.” Now don’t take that as encouragement not to fix the streets. That’s clearly not what I’m suggesting. Belmont has (finally) begun the long, and often painful process, of repairing and replacing its streets. Nonetheless, the merit of this resident’s observation remains valid. Please, don’t forget the value of the schools to the community as a whole, as you learned from your time on the School Committee, in some misguided belief that somehow you must continuingly “prove” to folks that you can set aside your experiences with the schools.
I will save my congratulations for a few weeks. After all, you still have an election in front of you. But, let me wish you the best of luck as you approach your new endeavor.