Superintendent Durkin: ‘Best For Me to Move On’ [VIDEO]
After turning in her letter of resignation last Thursday and speculation about exactly why she chose to step down, outgoing New Bedford Schools Superintendent Dr. Pia Durkin appeared on WBSM's "Barry Richard Show" Monday afternoon to offer up some insight.
In her letter, Durkin cited "major philosophical differences" with both incoming and current School Committee members as her reason for resigning, and she explained how that can make her job more difficult than it needs to be.
"On a good day, when conditions are right, the work is extremely hard to be able to consider change, and make change happen," Durkin said. "When the conditions are right, it's hard. When the conditions are not right, it's impossible."
"This was not a decision that I woke up in the morning and said, 'ok, I'm going to do this,'' she said. "I have never not fulfilled a contract, but I really did see that it would be best for me to move on."
Durkin said she will be finished at the completion of this school year, instead of finishing out her contract until the end of the 2019 school year. She said she saw the writing on the wall, knowing her contract wouldn't be renewed.
"The interesting thing is that the issues that are very paramount for this school district, I don't believe the issues have been looked at," she said. "I came in as a change agent, I knew that, I embraced it...in the initial part, we had some rough going, but I stand by the decisions I made."
Durkin also addressed those that questioned her leadership style.
"I do believe the sense of 'style,' as some people put it--men are tough decision makers and they can be aggressive, and women, when they're being the same way, are viewed very differently," she said.
"I've heard a lot about being decisive, and I am. About being direct, and I am. But you have to make those decisions with the core interest for children," she said.
Durkin also challenged the idea that New Bedford has low teacher retention because of her personality and approach.
"Our retention data from the state--now, it's two years old, and you can argue about the formula the state uses, but it's used for everyone--we compare fairly to places like Fall River, Dartmouth, Fairhaven, etc.," she said. "Our retention rate is only about two percentage points below the state retention rate, and it's fairly good for an urban district, when you compare apples to apples. So we are up in the high 80s, close to the state average data."
She said she's proud of the work she has done with the educators who have remained in the system.
"There's been an incredible amount of professional development our teachers had to have, and how they are doing such good work because they were finally given the tools for that," Durkin said. "That's how I measure my success, that people have reinvented what they normally did, and believe in the vision that New Bedford will become a truly excellent school system."
Durkin said she's heard from outgoing School Committee members Jack Nobrega and Dr. Larry Finnerty, as well as Jack Livramento, and "they were extremely supportive and understanding." She also said she'd been chatting electronically with Mayor Jon Mitchell, but hadn't spoken directly with him just yet. Richard asked Durkin about Mitchell's comments on WBSM last week that budget negotiations with the superintendent were more contentious than they needed to be.
"I've addressed the budget the last four years. $130.9 million is a lot of dollars, however, I've addressed the budget based on student needs," she said. "In the years prior to my coming here, the superintendent was given a number and fit (the budget) in (to that number). Though we have to be conscious of constraints on the city, we absolutely have to have a student need-based budget. I wouldn't call it contentious, I would probably call that a difference of opinion."
Richard also asked Durkin about the rumors that she may be moving into a position with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, perhaps even replacing the late Mitchell Chester as the state's Education Commissioner.
"Well, at this point, I'm going to sit for a bit," Durkin said. "I always believe you don't react to things, so as pensively as I took this decision (to resign), I'll look for my next opportunity. I do know I want to be able to continue contributing to eqity for chilred, and making sure that needs are being addressed."
Durkin also said she's thinking about writing about her experiences at the helm of New Bedford schools.
"I believe I have a lot to say about the story of New Bedford, about the team I've been able to assemble, an incredible team of principals that took risks that they didn't have to take," she said. "I think we've got a lot of lessons learned, and I think we've got a lot to share with other 'Gateway Cities' and urban education individuals. I have plans for telling that story, and I know there are a lot of people who'd want to hear it."
Some feel Durkin's decision to resign was partially related to last week's encounters with School Committee member-elect John Oliveira, who made no secret about his dislike of Durkin during the campaign. He went to her office twice last week, attempting to meet with her. When told he couldn't have a private meeting with her Wednesday afternoon without the presence of Deputy Superintendent Jason DeFalco, Oliveira himself admitted he became irate, pounding tables and slamming doors. As a result, the police were called, and Oliveira left willingly. Police were called again when Oliveira tried to return to Durkin's office Thursday morning, and he was issued a "No Trespass" order for all New Bedford Schools property.
Durkin couldn't comment on the issue with Oliveira, citing it being "an ongoing police matter." But she did say she takes safety and civility very seriously.
"Safety and a civil demeanor are probably the most important assets we need to have as officials, and that's a non-negotiable for me," Durkin said. "I have 100 people working at the central office, I have 26 schools with 13,000 children, and their families entrust me with their safety. And I have to be concerned not only for myself, but for those people, so the police will be working with that issue."
The superintendent did say, though, that she's made a practice over the past four years of meeting with incoming School Committee members.
"I generally give them a little breathing time, and then call them to see if they'd like to come in and just chat, basically on procedural issues," she said, noting she gives them copies of the policy and procedural handbooks, as well as the budget.
Durkin also said that it's common practice for her to have Deputy Superintendent Jason DeFalco in all meetings with her, something to which Oliveira took exception, wanting a one-on-one meeting without DeFalco present.
"I generally have (DeFalco) with me, because there's lots of information you want to share, and there's no reason that wouldn't happen. We're a team effort," she said. "I can't have every bit of information at my fingertips, so it's always good to have someone there."
Even though she's stepping down, Durkin has pledged to work with whoever her successor is, to ensure a smooth transition. She knows turning around the district is still an ongoing process, but that those within it will get the job done, whoever leads them next.
"I just want to assure the community that the work that's been done in New Bedford definitely has deep roots, but it needs to be able to thrive and flourish," she said. "And I have full confidence--full confidence--in the people who are in our schools to be able to bring that forward. And I will work my very hardest between now and June. I'm so grateful to the people who have given me so much support. We will move this district forward, and give it the excellence it needs."