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In The Arena

In the Arena: One-woman show? Hardly

If there has been one constant in my time covering Franklin County politics and government, it’s that no one is sans opinion when it comes to the Greenfield public school system.

It doesn’t matter what town I’m in, whenever the subject of Greenfield’s schools comes up, people tend to pop off and, a lot of times, the comments aren’t complimentary. More often than not, the negative feedback comes in the form of what Gov. Deval Patrick calls “anecdotes,” and are usually pegged around a dispute involving a teacher or a questionable administrative decision. Other times, it’s something as simple as “you couldn’t pay me enough to send my kids there.”

As a 1986 GHS grad and the child and sibling of long-time Greenfield administrators, it’s sometimes tough to hear those comments. But I’ve been in the game long enough to know there is a big difference between perception and reality, particularly when it comes to education. And the reality is that the Greenfield system, while far from perfect, is doing what it is supposed to do, in large part, because of a lot of dedicated people doing the best job they can under less-than-perfect conditions.

That brings me to comments made by Greenfield School Superintendent Susan Hollins, who, at a recent School Committee meeting, described the system as “rubble”— before she came on the scene and saved it.

I understand those words were framed in the context of an employee evaluation in front of a committee that contains some members who may not be big fans of Hollins, personally or professionally. I also get that public figures sometimes make bold statements in haste and wind up paying for it later — except that I don’t have the sense that Hollins regrets her comments or has any intention of walking them back.

That, to me, is a problem.

I very much believe Greenfield is a better school system because of Hollins. She has spearheaded new innovations, including the commonwealth’s first-ever virtual school, and brought in attractive programs that have helped sell Greenfield’s schools to the public, arresting a rapidly widening School Choice gap that was threatening the district’s long-term financial viability.

She deserves major kudos for that, and I believe she is worth every penny of her $150,000 salary. But I also think that anyone who suggests that she, alone, is responsible for the turnaround of Greenfield’s public schools is suffering from a severe departure from reality.

President Obama got into some trouble a while back for suggesting that American business owners did not build their companies “by themselves.” His political opponents tried to spin those comments into evidence of Obama’s alleged “disdain” for the private sector. His larger point, however, was that no success is created in a vacuum. You can have the best product in the world, but if the public infrastructure isn’t there to allow you to take it to market, you’re sunk.

The same principle applies to public education. A superintendent can have great ideas, but without good people to take those ideas from concept to reality, said superintendent has little hope of effecting lasting, positive change. Getting there requires good teachers, mid-level administrators and a dedicated support staff willing to work way too hard for not a great deal of money.

Some of those people were there before Hollins, some have since left and others were Hollins appointees, but they were the ones who did a lot of the grunt work — and I can’t help but wonder what they thought when they picked up the newspaper that day.

There are some who, I’m sure, agree with the “rubble” analogy. I don’t happen to be one of them, but I also have no desire to engage in revisionist history. Greenfield’s schools have had loads of problems over the years, from the Little Dig, to budget cuts, to political squabbles, etc. Still, through all of it, kids got educated. The buses ran on time. Sports teams had success and Greenfield didn’t end up on the state’s Level 4 “underperforming” list like its neighbors across the river. The money problems were always there, as they are for every other district, but Greenfield managed to survive each year.

Hollins definitely made things better, but a few problems still remain that have to be addressed, whether she stays past this year or moves on. And, just like before, it will require a team effort to fix them.

I’m quite certain Hollins understands this. That is why I think as much as we owe her a huge “thank you” for all that she’s done for Greenfield, she also owes one to the people who helped her build this district into the success story that it’s on its way to becoming.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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