Leadership Interviews: Dr. Kathleen Bodie, Superintendent of Schools
The Vision 2020 Fiscal Resources Task Group embraces and works to help the Town better realize the following Town goal: "We value Arlington's efficient delivery of public services providing for the common good. The benefits from these services and the responsibility of taxation will be equitably distributed among us. We will be known for our sound fiscal planning and for the thoughtful, open process by which realistic choices are made in our Town." We meet monthly and all are welcome to attend.
We present here, the second of our ongoing series of leadership interviews, featuring Dr. Kathleen Bodie, Superintendent of Schools (pictured right). We hope it will provide residents with insights into the people who manage our Town budgets and departments.
What career path led you to this line of work? I have served as the Superintendent of the Arlington Public School for ten years. I began working in the Arlington Publics Schools in 2000 as the Director of Mathematics K-12 and Assistant Superintendent. This is my eighteenth year in Arlington. Except for my first year out of college, I have been an educator for my entire career. I have taught mathematics at the secondary and college level; supported and mentored student teachers in college education programs; and have held various administrative positions.
I grew up in the Midwest and majored in mathematics in college. My first job out of college was in a technology startup company that does not exist anymore. It was located between Whole Foods and Mill Street here in Arlington. My job was to translate code into English. It is an interesting coincidence to be currently working a few blocks from the location of my first full-time job.
Teaching has always been what I have enjoyed doing. When I held the Director position, I was able to teach one course. When I became Assistant Superintendent, I continued to co-teach a math class, but in my current position, that really is not a possibility.
Suppose you've just met someone who recently moved to Arlington, and they ask you what it is that you do. How would you describe your job? My job is to make the day-to-day decisions about educational programs, staff, facilities, and the budget. It is similar to a C.E.O. position. I report to a board, which is the school committee. A school committee’s mandate is to develop policy and approve and monitor the school district’s budget. But, the day-to-day decision making is the responsibility of the superintendent, as well as implementing school committee policies and vision.
As the principal instructional leader of the district, I set the course educationally. In addition to working with the school committee, I work with administrators, teachers and staff in the district to develop goals every year to improve upon what we are doing. During the course of the year, we monitor the development and execution of those goals and evaluate their success. I put in long days and am usually here three to four nights a week, often until nine or ten o'clock. There is always some kind of meeting or event going on. I am not able to attend all of the school activities that I would like to attend because there are often conflicts with meetings. However, I enjoy attending as many school and community events as is possible. I would say that Arlington is one of the more active communities based on my conversations with other superintendents. The vitality of Arlington is one of the things that make the community so attractive. You can be as involved as you want to be.
In the last couple years, my responsibility regarding oversight of budget and facilities has been very challenging because of enrollment growth. As a district, we continue to expand and renovate school space to meet the needs of the growing number of students. Right now a major focus is Arlington High School. Although a decision has not been made yet as to whether the high school will be rebuilt new or will be renovated with an addition, what will be important is that the new school building supports our educational vision, which has been developed with input from school personnel, the school committee and the community.
What aspects of your work have the greatest impact on the average resident? I suppose you could look at impact through a couple of different lenses - one would be property values in the town. The Federal Reserve Bank has estimated that about seventy-two percent of your home value is directly related the quality of the schools in a district. For the average citizen the effect of our work in schools is directly related to the value of their homes. Approximately, twenty-four percent of the residents of Arlington have students in the schools. Parents are well aware of the value of good schools. While the importance of quality schools may not be personally relevant to those who do not have children in our schools, an educated community benefits us all.
Our students themselves enhance the quality of life in Arlington through their community service. You will see students volunteering at The Dallin Museum, the Jason Russell House, the food pantry, raising funds for various causes or participating in recycling efforts, to name but a few of their efforts to support the community. Therefore, a good school system does much more than enhance property values; it fosters good citizens, the kind we need in our society now and in the future.
Also, students and faculty in our schools have been involved in intergenerational projects. One initiative that comes to mind is that for several years high school students have invited people in the community who lived through the sixties to meet with them to be interviewed about their experience during those years. Our high school students were born around 2000 or later, so the 1960s is history for them. There are other ways that older generations in town interact with students, which includes volunteering in the schools.
I think the greatest gift, besides love, we give from one generation to another is a good education. It is through education that people are afforded the opportunity to create fulfilling and satisfying lives. Without educational opportunity in your life, many possibilities that may be potentially available to you based on your natural ability and interests are likely not going to be fully realized.
I am always impressed with the positions people in this town hold. It is truly an amazing group of people who live here, which results in a highly effective synergy of activism when the community comes together in support of the town – and the effects are beyond the local level. Because we need informed, aware and active people to maintain a vibrant democracy, the education we give our students is also going to be the greatest protection for democracy. The attributes that make a good citizen and global citizen correlate with a strong educational background. Therefore, a good school system does so much more than create high property values; it creates good citizens, the kind we need for our society now and in the future.
The countries where students score very high on the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are countries we recognize as performing well economically. Behind their success is the value that these countries place on education. So, if we are going to be the international leaders we are, have been historically, and hope to be in the future, we must continue place a strong value on education and support it financially. Education today is not what it was a hundred years ago because our society is not the same as it was a hundred years ago. We must anticipate and provide the educational skills and knowledge students will need to be successful in this ever-changing world. We have to prepare our students to be flexible, agile and critical thinkers who can adapt to the unforeseen. It is estimated that half of the jobs students who are currently in school will have as adults do not exist today. How do you prepare someone to know how to learn, to be resourceful and adaptable for that kind of a future? How to prepare students for this type of future is what the administrators and teachers in this district think about a lot and shapes our educational planning. These considerations are very important as we undertake the high school project.
What has happened with technology and technology use in our school district over the last five years is a good example of the changes happening in our society. The change has been dramatic both in terms of the number of devices we support, as well as the use of technology as a tool for learning. I expect that there will be more dramatic changes in the years ahead.
Of course, we have to be mindful of the unintended consequences of the growing use of technology as well. It is challenging to keep pace with the changes, but it is also our responsibility to help students become discerning and critical users of technology while not becoming slaves to some of the addictions that come with it. We want them to develop the ability to evaluate what is true and what is not.
A major part of my job is to enable everyone in the district to focus on what we need to do to meet the needs of our children to ensure that they can lead successful lives and be prepared for the challenges of an unknown future. We want to help students become the best they can be, to feel confident and good about themselves and their choices, and to be the best at whatever they choose to do. This is the theme at Ottoson “Be the best you.”
What I would want to see in an ideal society is that no matter what each person does for work, there is respect for every person and a collective value to make the quality of life better for everyone. Each individual should have options and choices in terms what they can do, but without a good education pathways can be closed.
What challenges do you face daily/annually in handling your department’s budget and personnel? A budget is the blueprint for the allocation of funds over the course of a year. However, unexpected events can happen or needs surface that require funding. The challenge is to manage a tight budget while also responding to the various and unexpected needs of a school district. The challenges are always in wanting to do more but having a limitation as to what is possible financially. The challenge is stretching our resources to do as much as possible for students and staff. We have a very talented group of teachers and administrators in this district, and they deserve to be fairly compensated. We also have educational priorities and mandates for our students, such as special education services, math intervention and reading support for students who are struggling academically, reasonably-sized general education classrooms, and social workers and counselors. The services society expects our schools to provide keeps expanding. There is a lot we need to provide within a limited budget. So, prioritizing and managing the budget is a challenge every year.
In a given year, it is possible to have costs increase beyond what is budgeted for in a variety of ways – a winter with more snow than normal, an unexpected special education residential placement, water damage from a storm, or a greater need for long-term substitutes for maternity and medical leaves. As compared to the late two thousands, we have a greater proportion of young teachers who are beginning families, so there are more maternity leaves in recent years. In one school this year we have seven teachers who are expecting, which is unusual. A challenge can be finding highly qualified substitutes during leaves of absence. In terms of the budget, we plan the cost of substitutes based on a multi-year average. Some years we may need to overspend the substitute budget, which has to be balanced somewhere else.
With regard to special education expenses, we project costs based on a ten-year average. Special education costs can vary considerably each year over a ten year period. The average annual increase is about seven percent. In the years when the increase is less than seven percent, we can put any unspent money into a “savings” account in order to have the funds available when future special education costs increase over what is budgeted.
Going back to “being the best you”, as a society we are measured by what we do for everyone, not just the most talented and brightest. Education is a right for everyone. This belief makes our society unique among countries. Even in societies that place a high value on education, students who require specialized education do not necessarily get the same opportunity to learn as provided to other non-disabled students. We value the opportunity for education for every student. It is a value I strongly believe in. While the financial resources required for special education services can vary from year to year, the annual challenge is how to manage resources effectively to meet student needs.
Additionally, we always have facility problems that need to be addressed and can be costly. For example, when the elevator broke in the high school a couple years ago, the cost to fix it was over $150,000, which was funded through the school district’s facilities revolving account. Sometimes the cost of a repair requires that we work with the town Capital Planning Committee and the Finance Committee to fund a particularly expensive surprise. For example, one of the rooftop heating units at the Ottoson failed unexpectedly. It cost was about $250,000 to manufacture and install a new unit.
What we hope to eliminate in the future are surprise facility expenses. The new Facilities Department has been working to create an integrated facilities management system that will provide a maintenance plan to significantly minimize unexpected equipment failures. For example, when a new boiler or any new piece of equipment is installed, its maintenance schedule and warranty are recorded and monitored in a software system. Arlington really stands out among municipalities in terms of how well it tries to plan long-range while supporting its schools.
Can you describe a memorable moment that reminded you of the ways in which your department works to make life better for residents? There are so many, but there is one I am particularly proud about, which is also an example of how well the School Department works with the Town to accomplish goals, which is important for the community to know. Through collaboration we have been able to offer tuition-free full-day kindergarten since 2012.
Arlington was one of the first communities to start full-time kindergarten. Much credit goes to past-Superintendent Kay Donovan. She recognized the importance of kindergarten in establishing the foundation for learning. Clearly, the residents of Arlington, who had children go through the system, agreed with that belief as evidenced by their willingness to pay the $2,800 tuition for the afternoon kindergarten session. All but a few families enrolled their children in the afternoon kindergarten program. Even though $2,800 was a lot of money for young parents, they valued a full-day kindergarten experience so much that they were willing to sacrifice to pay the tuition. In a nearby community with tuition-based afternoon kindergarten, about twenty five percent of the eligible students did not attend afternoon kindergarten as compared to less than one to two percent in Arlington when tuition was necessary.
I give a lot of credit to my central office team who were quick to respond to a change in the school funding formula that determined Chapter 70 allocations. Our analysis indicated that moving to a full-time, no-tuition kindergarten program would actually result in Arlington receiving more money from the state for education.
As a result, Arlington was able to offer full-time kindergarten beginning in 2012. Working with the Town Manager, Finance Committee, and Town Meeting, we made it happen. I was gratified to read the heartfelt notes I received from young families telling me what a major difference it made for them not to have the tuition expense. There was also satisfaction in bringing additional revenue to the Town.
Imagine yourself at a conference of municipal employees. When the superintendent from another school district or another state asks you about Arlington, how would you describe your town? Arlington is a very involved and supportive community. For example, over seventy community members responded to the invitation to apply to serve on the Arlington High School Building Committee. Not all those who applied were parents. There were people who are interested in sustainability and others who simply wanted to be involved in this important project. There are about 80 committees in town. Arlington residents pass debt exclusion overrides and general operating overrides to support the schools and town services.
Arlington is a vibrant, involved and supportive community. As Superintendent, I am proud of the support the community has given the School Department in supporting both operating budget overrides and debt exclusion overrides to renovate/rebuild schools. This level of support is significant when less than a quarter of the resident’s children have in the schools.
I would also share that I believe our schools are excellent with great teachers and administrators, which is evidenced by the success of our students on many metrics, including standardized tests. The quality of our schools has resulted in a continuous and steady increase in enrollment, which has been a challenge. We have grown by approximately 700 students in five years. Several years ago the growing enrollment along with an elementary building project created the need to redistrict elementary school districts, which was a challenging under-taking, but reflected well the way Arlington resolves problems. The solution after much collaborative discussion involved creating buffer zones in town where students could be assigned to one of two schools in order to balance class sizes. Establishing buffer zones helped to maintain neighborhood elementary school districts, which are highly valued in Arlington, and provide a mechanism to manage class sizes better.
People love living here. Last year, Money Magazine identified the ten best communities nationwide in which to live and raise children. Arlington came in at #9 in the entire country and was the only town chosen in New England. These rankings were based on many factors, some of which were the quality and reputation of the schools, libraries in the community, parks, and public transportation. Arlington is a very vibrant town. People talk about the urban-suburban blend, you get both here. There are very few communities that have that combination.
What part of your job brings you the most satisfaction and/or the most frustration? I love visiting schools. I get so much satisfaction from the success of our students whether in academic or other endeavors, as well as the success of our teachers and staff. I enjoy going to school concerts, plays, and exhibits. I love coming to work and working with the people I collaborate with throughout the district. We have such a wonderful team of administrators and teachers and staff!
I have said to colleagues and people who do not live in Arlington that I would be happy to have any of my grandchildren attend any one of our elementary schools. Each school has its own character, but they are all academically equivalent and all are wonderful places for children to learn. Arlington is fortunate to have wonderful teachers and administrators who share a belief in continuous improvement. We have a coherent, consistent curriculum in all of the schools. One of my core beliefs is that all students should have an equal opportunity for learning. It is important that the curriculum is the same in all the elementary schools, so that when students enter middle school they have had the same educational background in order to not be disadvantaged in learning at this level. Curriculum consistency exists in Arlington elementary schools and I am very proud that this is true. As a district, we continue to make this a priority. We also prioritize meeting the social and emotional needs of all students.
What is my biggest frustration? It is not being able to get through my “To Do” list many days – probably because of the size of the list. I also find it frustrating that I am unable to respond to the volume of email I receive daily in more timely way.
What are your goals for 2020? I would love to see the beginning of construction of the rebuilt or new high school in 2020 and celebrate our first year of the new Gibbs School for sixth grade students. In 2020, I hope to have seen an operating override and a debt exclusion override for the high school supported by Arlington voters. An operating override is important in order to maintain the financial resources we need to keep the services, both in town and in the schools, at least at the level they are right now. What Arlington gets for its tax dollar is exceptional. Our schools are excellent even though we are below the state average in per student spending. The Town knows what a treasure we have in our schools.
Town officials work well with the School Department to provide funding to support the increased enrollment, which, I believe, is a consequence of our success. The five-year planning we do in Arlington is a model for other towns. The last override was supposed to close the structural funding gap for three years, but instead will last nine years through careful spending. As said, we are below the state average in spending. I think that we do a very good job with the money we receive.
With respect to expenses associated with a growing school enrollment, the Town has recognized the need to supplement the School Department’s budget over the amount which is determined by a formula for annual budget growth. The additional money does not mean that all of our needs are met, but it certainly helps with the cost of additional personnel and materials that are needed to maintain level services. Many costs go up when enrollment increases.
While the town has managed its money well, the reality is that we are going to need an operating override in the next few years in order to continue to pay for town services at the current level. Why will we need an operating override? Because the stabilization account funded from the last override will eventually not be sufficient to close the structural deficit. Without an operating override, the quality of our schools will be affected and it will likely result in staff lay-offs. We experienced lay-offs in 2010. It took a while for the schools to come back from that experience. Lay-offs have a negative effect on morale. The expectation of all families, those presently living in Arlington and those moving to Arlington for the schools, is that our schools remain excellent.
What activities and hobbies engage you when you’re on your own time? My first priority for time away from work is time with my family. My children and grandchildren live in the area. I come from a very large family and enjoy spending time with my Dad, who is ninety-five, and my eight siblings, as well as many friends. Visiting family often requires traveling since most live in the Midwest.
I belong to a book group that enhances my life with friendship and reading. It is very easy in this job to just be reading educational articles, so belonging to a book group expands my horizons. Yoga and walking are my two forms of exercise. I love to travel. This past fall, a group of superintendents went on a learning trip to Poland. It was a memorable trip and very moving. And, I enjoy “down time” to reflect on my work. Finally, I appreciate the pride Arlington residents have in their schools and town.
Is there anything else you'd like to add? I would say that an Arlington resident can be very proud of living in this town and of its school system. Residents receive very good value for their property taxes. Is there more that we could to improve our schools? Yes, we are always looking for ways that we can improve. Continuous improvement is a cultural norm in our school system. We want to improve as educators, as well as offer programs and opportunities that will improve the learning experiences of our students. What we do reflects our beliefs. The most important belief being that our job is to make sure that all children can “Be the best that they can be”. This is a highly held, uniform belief in this district. When we interview applicants, we look for that belief.
Editorial addition: Shortly after our interview with Dr. Bodie was conducted, U.S. News & World Report ranked Arlington High School as one of the top ten high schools in Massachusetts.
Editorial addition: Shortly after our interview with Dr. Bodie was conducted, U.S. News & World Report ranked Arlington High School as one of the top ten high schools in Massachusetts.