The recent events between the Haverhill School Committee and the schools' administration — we'll call it the Budget Cut Brouhaha — call to mind the central question asked by journalists about President Nixon during the Watergate scandal: "What did he know, and when did he know it?"
For those too young to remember, the scandal takes its name from a break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., of the headquarters of the National Democratic Party. Staff and advisers to the Republican Nixon were involved in the break-in, among other illegal activities. Investigations ultimately revealed that a high-level coverup began just days after the break-in. The question that reporters were asking at the time referred to whether Nixon knew of, condoned or actually called for the break-in and other activities that wound up costing some of his staff their freedom and cost him the presidency.
These days, after tracking two weeks' worth of back-and-forth comments from the parties involved in the Budget Cut Brouhaha enveloping the school board and high-level school staff, the question seems to be, "Who knew what, and when did they know it?"
Here's a little background:
An as-yet unnamed school principal sent an e-mail to members of the School Committee, saying Assistant Superintendent Kara Kosmes led a closed-door meeting on Feb. 10, asking school administrators how they would trim as much as $500,000 from school budgets in response to a mayoral request. The content of the e-mail was: "We spent two hours with Kara as she asked us to make cuts and where. The entire meeting was conducted by Kara with a 30-minute visitation by Raleigh (Superintendent Raleigh Buchanan). We were sworn to secrecy. Do not let the SC find out." "SC" refers to School Committee.
When news of the e-mail hit the newspaper the next day, School Committee members were outraged, and were quoted as saying that school administrators tried to hide the fact that the mayor asked them to make cuts to their budgets.
Now, I'm not on the School Committee, and I don't have a direct pipeline from the mayor's office. But I sure knew that cuts were going to have to be made from the school budget.
It was in the newspaper. A lot. On local-access TV. And it was fodder for plenty of doughnut shop discussion. It was in the mayor's State of the City address. Not hard numbers, of course, but it could not have been clearer that every department in the city would have to trim spending.
It was talked about at the School Building Committee meeting on Feb. 5. It was discussed again at the City Council meeting on Feb. 10.
Apparently, everyone in the city knew about the need for cuts to the school budget except the School Committee, which means they either have been living without newspapers or cable television and haven't left their homes in weeks, or they just weren't paying attention.
School administrators — principals, Kosmes and Buchanan — did what they are paid to do. They discussed, behind closed doors, the various options for cutting the required amount from their budgets. It is not uncommon or unexpected that those discussions would not be shared with people on the other side of those doors. Rumors and "what-ifs" are counterproductive and can create unnecessary worry among employees of job losses that might never come.
It seems to me the process worked as it is supposed to. The administration debated various cost-cutting scenarios and settled on what it thought was best. The proposals were brought before the School Committee, which heard the ideas, debated, and scheduled a meeting a week later to vote on the proposal.
Some School Committee members argued that administrators left the committee without enough time to learn about the various options. But no decision was required or made that night, so it seems a specious argument.
There have been times when School Committee members have been left in the dark about serious matters: A delinquent electricity bill comes to mind.
Committee members had every reason to be angry with school administration for that situation.
But the current situation is not comparable. There is no way School Committee members could have been unaware that cuts were needed to the school department budget. They could have, and probably should have, been more proactive in seeking information from the mayor — who is a member of their committee — and school administrators about the extent and timing of the cuts.