Mitchell: Durkin’s Approach ‘Might Not Be Right One’ in Future
With two new members soon to join the New Bedford School Committee who have been very vocal against her, there is a growing sentiment among the committee members that Dr. Pia Durkin may not be retained as superintendent of schools once her contract is up after the 2019 school year.
Mayor Jon Mitchell, in his weekly appearance on WBSM, praised much of the work Dr. Durkin has done in her turnaround of New Bedford schools, but was noncommittal about whether or not he'd vote to retain her.
Mitchell noted that Dr. Durkin has a year and a half left on her contract, and that she doesn't need to be informed about any decision not to renew until 2018. The New Bedford School Committee--including Mayor Mitchell, who sits on the committee as chairman ex officio--will be writing up its evaluations of Dr. Durkin in the near future.
"There are something things I'm happy about, and some things I think we need to work on," he said of Dr. Durkin's performance.
Mayor Mitchell said it should be an "open question" that is discussed within the community as to whether or not to bring back Dr. Durkin when her contract expires.
"The approach over the last few years might not be the right one in the next few years. We have to see," he said. "But I think we'll take a look at the evaluations after they're done. I want to respect the process. Anybody who would become superintendent here would expect that, including Dr. Durkin and anybody else who follows, whenever that happens, and expect that the School Committee would be faithful to the established evaluation process. And I'm committed to that."
The mayor said he'd be happy to make his evaluation of Dr. Durkin available to the media once it is completed, but he did offer some insight into his feelings on the job she's done thus far.
"Overall, the school department has improved, there's no doubt about it," he said. "We have to remind people where it was in 2011. It was a mess. There was little accountability, little direction, all the systems were backward."
Mitchell listed some of the big changes under Dr. Durkin's leadership, such as improving the four-year graduation rate from being in the 50 percent range to into the 70s now, improving the dropout rate and improving test scores across the board. He pointed to the state recently releasing the system from its monitoring as the biggest sign.
"(The state said) it doesn't need to be monitored any more, that 'this is a completely different district than it was in 2011,' and that's a direct quote," he said.
Although Mitchell also noted that the work is far from over.
"Now that this foundation is laid, the approach now is to really build a culture in the school system, which means everybody has to feel as though they have a role to play, that they have value to add, and they are being supported," he said.
Mitchell said he understands the "human cry that the superintendent should be fired," but noted she'll be evaluated just like anyone else before any such decision is made.
"Look, her job is not a popularity contest," Mitchell said. "This was a very troubled school system that now has gained some traction and is certainly moving in the right direction."
"I think the quality of the instruction in the school system has great improved. I think that the systems in the back office have greatly improved. There is a great command of the budget now, greater transparency," Mitchell said. "It's a big organization, with 2,000 employees and 13,000 students. It can't be run with a 1950s management style, as it was not too long ago. It has to be modern and run well, so people understand where their money is going."
Speaking of money, Mitchell said the budget has been one of the issues with Dr. Durkin.
"We do need to work on things like the way the budget is formulated," he said. "I think it's overly contentious, and it needs not be...I think the formulation of the school budget has been far more contentious than it should."
One of the other topics that came up during the mayor's appearance was Governor Charlie Baker's proposed bill that would allow for the overdose-reversing drug Narcan to be made available over the counter. Mitchell said he'd defer to medical experts on whether or not selling it on store shelves is a good idea, as it could lead it becoming a "backup plan" for addicts, making what he called the "loose analogy" of a person buying a fifth of whiskey and also getting a bottle of aspirin for the expected hangover that would result from drinking it. But he did note that he is a full supporter of Narcan, and pointed out that New Bedford was one of the first municipalities to have its first responders carry it.
One proposal in Baker's bill would allow hospitals to hold a person who overdoses for up to 72 hours, and possibly even longer if warranted, to get them the help they need to kick the addiction.
"I tend to think it's a good idea," Mitchell said. "If they have the option, they can keep people from walking out of the emergency room door, going out, buying heroin and overdosing again. We know people who overdose are the most willing to seek treatment in the wake of an oversode, so in other words, we've got a window of opportunity."
However, that also brings into question whether mandatory hospitalization would infringe upon a person's civil liberties--something that Mitchell, a lawyer, said shouldn't really enter into the discussion when it comes to saving lives.
"I'm not too concerned about that," he said. "In many of these instances, it's a matter of life or death. And 72 hours isn't that long. It's just three days."
Mayor Mitchell also addressed the police-involved shooting of a 19-year-old New Bedford man earlier this week, a situation which still has many questions surrounding it as the Bristol County District Attorney's Office has said it won't offer up any more information until its investigation is completed.
"We're looking into it. I want to make sure that we're doing whatever is necessary to support the family," Mitchell said, noting his office has already reached out to them. "What they're going through is awful. Whatever was going on, the reality is that the kid was 19 years old and left behind a fiancee, who is expecting, and a distraught family, which is awful."
Mitchell said he knows the DA's office will get to the bottom of it.
"I have confidence the District Attorney is going to get down to brass tacks, and find out exactly what happened," he said. "But I want to be there for that New Bedford family, because I know they've got to be hurting right now. It's got to be really tough."