A look back at a school board career
March 02, 2011LITTLETON- Less than a week following her resignation from the school board, Diane Cummings was still feeling good about her decision that comes after 14 years of service to the school and community.
"School board issues have been an integral part of my life for the last 14 years," said Cummings. "My husband was teasing someone that he was observing me closely for any signs of a collapse."
Cummings announced her resignation – effective the following day – at last Monday's school board meeting. The decision came as a result of wanting to spend more time with her family who have had to take the back burner at times due to the hours of work being a member of the school board takes.
"I try to study before the meetings, and that takes a lot of time," said Cummings, who always came to meetings prepared.
Cummings never set out to be part of the school board. She started attending the school board meetings because she was interested and a year later, she was running for the position. At the time, Cummings' children were in first, eighth, and tenth grades – one in each school, she pointed out – but she insists that being part of the school board wasn't because of them.
"I wasn't on the board to make it better for my kids," she said. "I was on the board to make it better for all kids."
The issue that specifically brought Cummings onto the board was concern about deterioration in the district's reading program. Cummings noticed a difference between her children's reading levels, and wanted to weigh in on the "whole language versus phonics" curriculum debate. Cumming's main issue, however, soon had to share the spotlight.
"Like all board members, you realize there's more to it than just one issue," said Cummings – and every decision has to be made with a kindergarten through 12th grade perspective, she added.
Over 14 years, Cummings has been at the center of the maelstrom of many an issue. With her calm and informed manner, Cummings always made her opinion known, even if it wasn't a popular one or eventually won out. In her time on the board, she served with six superintendents, dozens of school board members, and attended hundreds of meetings. These are just a few of the projects and policies of which Cummings has been a part.
In the early years of Cummings' school board career, the district had trouble negotiating a teacher contract. In fact, it failed three years in a row. One of the high points of Cummings' career was negotiating – along with former 18-year school board member Milt Bratz – a successful contract in 2000. Since then, Cummings has seen the negotiation of many more teacher contracts, and points to the inclusion of more staff development days – which she believes are a vital part of developing curriculum – as a particular success.
Another issue the school board had looming over its head when Cummings began her tenure was the burden of three old buildings that would require serious renovation or replacement in the coming years. Since then, the school board has undertaken the renovation and expansion of the Littleton High School, a $6 million project, and the current construction of the new Career Technical Center (CTC) and middle school, a $10.8 million project.
Cummings was one of the school board members who helped present the district's application for an interest-free bond for the latter project before a panel in Concord. The district was ultimately awarded the bond for $2.1 million, essentially cutting the bond payment in half.
Another step taken to help offset the cost of the new building was Cummings' suggestion to implement a 25 percent tuition surcharge to the CTC sending districts to be placed in a reserve account for the purposes of capital improvements and/or equipment purchases. The Littleton voters approved the policy in 2008, and money from the surcharge will offset the bond payment by about $100,000.
"During these difficult economic times, the Littleton taxpayer stepped forward and supported the building project," said Cummings. "I was extremely happy to see the financial impact to the taxpayer reduced significantly, not only by the state building aid but also by these two initiatives."
A new SAU
Cummings marks the 2007 defeat of a plan to merge the Littleton School District with the Profile School District as a low point for her, as she put a great deal of time and effort into developing that plan. The merger was approved by the voters of Littleton, but voted down in the Profile district.
"I was very sad about that," said Cummings. "It was very hard to overcome that, but you have to pick yourself up."
That same year, Littleton left SAU 35 and formed an independent district, SAU 84.
Cummings has been a part of developing many budgets, but she points to this past year's process as one of the hardest because of the budget cuts the school board has made, which amount to the elimination of more than 15 positions. Cummings said she believes the cuts are necessary, but that the decisions are still hard ones.
"I truly think there was a need to do business a little bit differently, but [the school board] understands it hurts people," she said. "We have to be aware of the taxpayers and the families while keeping in mind the education. It's hard to balance."
Cummings said the thing that has made the school's successes possible has been the support of the community, for which she has been extremely grateful.
The next step
Allison Bolt is running as an uncontested candidate for the selectmen seat Art Tighe will be vacating. Cummings said she believes Bolt will be a valuable asset to the board, as she does her homework and has experience in education. As for Cummings' vacated seat, the board will have to appoint an interim member. At the last school board meeting, the board discussed the possibilities of posting the position and having candidates run voluntary campaigns, but no decision was made as Tighe felt it should be up to the new board. The decision will be made at the next school board meeting, following the election.
What's next on the agenda for Cummings, now that she is no longer has to follow the bi-weekly school board meeting agenda? For one, travel. Cummings' oldest daughter loves to travel, and Cummings said she would like to go on some trips with her. Cummings' son is getting married soon and Cummings is looking forward to attending the wedding. As for her first non-school board meeting Monday, Cummings has plans to go to dinner with some of her friends. Her continuing work on the anti-bullying committee and potential involvement with the superintendent search committee should keep Cummings somewhat informed of school district goings-on, and for the rest, she has her husband.
"In the three days since I resigned, when my husband drives by a school, he calls me from his cell to tell me the schools are still standing and that everyone is doing just fine without me," she said.