Webster reflects upon 15 years with SC

Published March 7, 2019


NORTH READING — School Committee member Mel Webster will be completing nearly 15 years as a member of the School Committee on March 18.

Webster was officially elected in 2004, however he stated that he first became involved with the committee during a budget crisis a few years prior.

“There was a budget crisis, and they had to cut a lot of purchases out of the budget, so another North Reading resident, Bob Armacost, and I put together this group called SOS (Support Our Schools), and we raised almost $50,000 and donated it to the committee to buy books,” Webster said.

After donating the funds, Webster stated he remained in regular contact with then Superintendent Dr. David Troughton, and joined a finance subcommittee formed by Troughton aimed at helping parents understand and become more involved in school financial matters.

“It was almost like a training ground for future School Committee members. It was really good in helping to understand all the finance stuff,” Webster said.

AFTER 15 YEARS of service on the School Comm., Mel Webster (back row, far left) will participate in his final meeting March 18. (Seated, from left): Chairwoman Janene Imbriano, Vice Chairman Scott Buckley, member Dyana Boutwell, (back row, second from left): Director of Finance and Operations Michael Connelly, Superintendent Jon Bernard and member Rich McGowan. (Jillian String Photo)

Though this work on the finance subcommittee helped to inspire Webster’s eventual run for School Committee, he reported that seeing North Reading fall eighth from the bottom in the commonwealth for per pupil spending really fueled his decision.

“Being a former reporter, I’m just a real information nerd. Even before the internet, I was always reading and looking for information,” Webster said. “I saw that North Reading was eighth from the bottom in per pupil spending in the state, and I was like, ‘This just can’t be. This town shouldn’t be like this,’ so that’s when I got involved.”

During his tenure on the committee, Webster has been part of numerous subcommittees, however one of his favorites has been the athletic subcommittee.

“It’s a fun group,” Webster said. “The opening of the turf field (was a great day.) That was so long in coming. Jerry Venezia and I worked so hard to convince all of the School Committee members that it was the right thing to do.”

A day in the life

According to Webster, various times of the year present different challenges for committee members, with budget time being the most intense.

“Budget time is really intense. You have a lot of not only regular meetings, you have the budget workshops. You have the back and forth with the superintendent or (Director of Finance and Operations) Michael Connelly,” Webster said. “Michael’s budget book takes several hours to read alone.”

Webster stated that filling public offices is not always easy in North Reading, noting that four out of his five elections were uncontested.

For School Committee positions, he attributed this to the time commitment and workload.

“If you’re really conscientious about your job, you’re spending 10 hours a week, and by that I mean you’re preparing for meetings, researching what’s going on with education, what’s going on with certain issues around the country that we’re dealing with here, and I think when you add it all up between the regular School Committee meetings, subcommittee meetings, town meetings, other meetings you have to attend, you’re talking about 50 meetings a year, 500 to 600 hours a year,” Webster said.

Webster stated that it would be nice to see School Committee members, as well as Select Board members, receive a stipend considering the amount of work they do and for what they are accountable.

“In my opinion, both Select Board members and School Committee should be paid. They should be paid a stipend. I don’t begrudge the fact that I never received a stipend, but that’s a lot of time. A stipend of $3,500 a year, it makes you feel appreciated,” Webster said.

Advice for future members

The first piece of advice Webster offered to those seeking to fill seats on the School Committee is to stay on top of current issues in education.

“Do your homework. Do all kinds of research on what’s going on in public education. You don’t need to spend hundreds of hours, but just be aware. Understand what’s going on with standardized testing. Understand the way they’ve changed discipline and how we deal with discipline. Understand things like the issues with vaping in schools, privacy in schools. Understand the main issues. Understand funding,” Webster said.

Webster also noted that members should be prepared to deal with the public.

“You have to be patient,” Webster said. “When you’re at it for awhile, you don’t understand why people don’t understand. Most parents don’t understand funding. They don’t understand if the district population is getting less why we still need to add specialists or paraprofessionals, because we have more demands from the education system that we have to meet.”

Webster noted that it is also important to jump in at meetings and share your opinion.

“I can’t think of a lot of regrets, not that everything was perfect,” Webster said. “I was never shy about expressing what I thought should happen, so I don’t look back and say, ‘Oh, I really dropped the ball on that one.’”

According to Webster, many reasons kept him interested in running for re-election each term.

“I really enjoyed the superintendents I’ve worked with, starting with David Troughton. They’ve all been so different, personality wise,” Webster said. He also enjoyed “the camaraderie with the School Committee members, especially Jerry Venezia, and just working with the issues. Public education is always changing, not only the financing, but all the controversy over MCAS and standardized testing, SAT’s, and class rankings. I just was always interested in that stuff, but at the bottom of it all was wanting to have a public education system that really served the kids of North Reading.”