By Christopher Scott
LOWELL -- The School Committee evaluated Supt. Jean Franco last fall and gave her a proficient rating. School Committee member Connie Martin summarized the reviews of the committee by saying, "The overall score of proficient is laudable and good news for our superintendent and our district."
Then, earlier this month, the school committee and Franco agreed to a new two-year contract for the career educator who started in Lowell in 1996. The deal gave Franco an annual salary of no less than $175,992.50 and makes her eligible for a 1 percent cost-of-living increase and merit raises of up to 3 percent a year. "Jean has done a good job. We will keep moving the school system forward," School Committee member Jim Leary said.
All the acclaim is a distant memory now, as the School Committee shocked the system and the city Wednesday night when it approved a Martin motion, 6-1, to delay ratifying Franco's new two-year contract pending further closed-door discussions.
The issue will now be discussed during an executive session scheduled for Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., with a special meeting set for 6:30 p.m.
What prompted the sudden change in sentiment? The answer depends on who is talking. Mostly, however, it appears school committee members are upset that Franco went directly to the classroom to find most of $1.5 million in budget cuts.
But there is also talk of patronage: Martin's close friend and School Department employee, Mary Sheehan, was overlooked for a top job in the superintendent's office. There is speculation that's what motivated Martin to hold up Franco's contract. Martin said it had no role.
Committee member Stephen Gendron, who was the lone vote against delaying ratification, said he was "frustrated" with Franco's response to cut the budget by making cuts in the classroom. But Gendron didn't think it should have prompted a delay.
Members Kristin Ross-Sitcawich and Kim Scott were more critical.
"Of all the cuts the superintendent could have proposed, she wants to cut in the classroom and directly affect 14,000 students? I have a problem with that," Ross-Sitcawich said.
Scott said Martin's motion will give committee members a chance to have a "dialogue," and make sure everyone is on the same page."
Martin did not previously discuss her motion with either Ross-Sitcawich or Scott. Both members said Martin deserves a chance to be heard.
Martin said she is indeed concerned about the budget, plus the superintendent's handling of new protocols regarding special education.
"I thought both were poorly handled," she said. Martin declined to go into detail, noting the upcoming executive session.
Asked if Franco's actions are a deal-breaker, Martin said: "I don't know."
Committee member David Conway has also been very critical of Franco's handling of the budget, as he was the member who called for $1.5 million in cuts to be identified because no funds were set aside for collective bargaining.
He said Franco should not have proposed cutting so many jobs in the classroom, while at the same time proposing no cuts to her administration.
"For her to do something completely contrary to what best practices would be is so irresponsible," Conway said Thursday.
Conway also said he was upset about the roll-out of the realignment of the schools' special-education offerings.
He said that principals, teachers and parents were not involved with the planning of the realignment, though school administrators contend otherwise.
Conway said he is opposed to the financial elements of the deal offered Franco, and said he will wait until after the executive session Martin has called for to decide on how he will vote on the contract as a whole.
Under the new deal, Franco would be eligible for a merit raise each year based on the School Committee's evaluation of her.
If she achieves a performance rating of "proficient," Franco will receive a 2 percent pay increase. Franco will receive a 3 percent pay increase if she receives a performance rating of "exemplary."
Mayor Rodney Elliott said he agrees the budget process has not been handled well, but said he was already against Franco's contract because of the "financial implications" of it, including the potential merit raises.
"Committeewoman Martin requested to go into executive session to voice concerns, so I voted to hear what her concerns are," Elliott said.
Committee member Jim Leary said recently that he did not support making cuts that would impact classrooms.
However, Leary said Thursday he remains supportive of signing a new deal with Franco.
"At this point I'm a yes vote, but I want to hear what is said," Leary said. "I think it is important to have the executive session and get it done one way or the other."
Franco said she "understands" why her bosses are angry, but noted: "I don't make any of these decision lightly. They are done in consultation with the principals and in this instance, it was believed this was the way to do it."
As it turns out, the cut was unnecessary due to an unexpected windfall of $1.3 million in charter school reimbursement money. Still, Franco said she is anxious to hear the school committee's concerns.
"I will be respectful, but I will defend my positions," said Franco, who hopes the stalemate can be resolved. "I am a very serious person, but I am also a very open-minded person."
Meanwhile, Sheehan is executive secretary in the Office of Student Support Services, making $52,214, plus an additional $10,500 for recording school committee meetings. Franco's confidential secretary's job, which went to Mirneva Palazzo, had a salary range of $53,000-$62,000. There were six applicants.
Martin said she is "disappointed" Sheehan didn't get the job, but emphasized it had no role in the budget stalemate.
Follow Scott on Twitter @cscottlowellsun and Moran @lylemoran.