Paul Levy is running for Newton School Committee. Why?

Paul Levy was the much-admired executive director of the Mass Water Resources Authority, who, from 1988-1992, led the stunningly successful cleanup of Boston Harbor.  He had previously chaired the Mass. Department of Public Utilities (1983-1987) and followed that with several years as an adjunct professor at M.I.T. After a series of noteworthy accomplishments in the public sector, he became executive dean for administration at Harvard Medical School and went on to become President and CEO of the Beth Israel Deaconess  Medical Center from 2002-2011.  Now he’s running for the Ward Six seat on the Newton School Committee being vacated by School Committee Chair Ruth Goldman.  At first, Levy’s decision was to me head-scratching.  At 71 years old, why on earth would he want to take that on?

The man is a natural-born leader, guiding large and complex institutions through periods of turmoil and change. He has led organizations ranging from 40 people to 7,000 and is an internationally-sought-after senior consultant on negotiation. He has also dedicated himself to young people.  A familiar sight on the sidelines of youth soccer games, Levy published a book Goal Play! Leadership Lessons from the Soccer Field, in which he shares what he has learned about leadership across various sectors. So, again, I ask, why would he want to spend time sitting in committee meetings about school facilities and superintendent accountability or having family dinners interrupted by endless phone calls?

He smiles at the question. After decades in public service, in impactful positions to which he was appointed, this will be his first time seeking elected office. With two grown daughters, he now has a new family, including a five-year-old son entering kindergarten. Levy is someone for whom serving will not be a career-building move; it’s hardly a stepping stone to higher office.

He learned about what he calls the “nobility” of public service under the influence of certain teachers, especially including one Mr. Harrison, his 5th and 6th grade teacher in Oceanside, Long Island. Levy’s passion was nurtured by being a teenager when President John F. Kennedy inspired so many others of that generation to go into public service. As an adult, Levy enjoyed many years of coaching and refereeing soccer, nurturing young people, developing a set of skills and years of experience to put to work in their behalf. Now Levy says he’s loving being out in the community, meeting new people, finding out their concerns for their kids and their community, whether those concerns are curricular, extra-curricular, the amount of homework, prepping for college or vocational education.

The School Committee’s role is reviewing the $268 million that accounts for 62 percent the City’s budget, negotiating labor contracts, and ensuring the Superintendent’s accountability. The Committee’s role is not to intervene in curriculum matters though reviewing curriculum decisions is part of the accountability review. The School Committee’s job is all about major policy decisions, clarifying mission, setting goals, measuring performance and communicating with constituents. How important are national and state rankings? Are the schools pursuing academic excellence? Teaching critical thinking? Civic values? Tolerance? Is the system meeting parents’ needs and expectations? Do Newton citizens, even those without school-age children, have confidence in the opportunities being provided for all students, whether average, gifted or struggling?

Levy links what’s happening inside the classrooms to big-picture concerns. There must be a strong commitment across the city to support recruitment and retention of excellent teachers. Will enthusiasm be there for future financing of rehab and new construction of our aging facilities? With about 20 percent of the Newton population over 65 years of age, can we build inter-generational support for the schools? People often move to Newton because of the Newton Schools’ reputation. So, beyond the all-important quality of the education provided, the system’s reputation is directly related to everyone’s property values. In other words, we all have a stake in this.

Bringing greater transparency to the School Committee, says Levy, is an important part of reinforcing that foundational commitment. The School Committee needs to do a better job at communicating with families and being responsive to their objections, suggestions and questions. He is quick to say that “no one has a monopoly on good ideas.” He is also focused on bringing comity to the School Committee itself while still encouraging meaningful debate. He talks the talk and walks the walk when it comes to transparency. In Levy’s days as CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess, he was one of the first CEO’s to use social media to build collaboration among different stakeholders. He is thoughtful and non-defensive in explaining his positions and could be expected to bring that style to any public body to which he is elected.

I have yet to interview Shawn Fitzgibbons, former chair of the Newton Democratic Party, who is also running for that seat. It will take the upcoming campaign for voters to sort out the similarities and differences between the two. When things heat up, residents of Newton will have a chance to consider adding to the School Committee someone with a wealth of experience, talent and wisdom, a man willing to put himself out there at a time when he could be sailing off into the sunset, resting on his laurels. Once again I am impressed by how fortunate this City is to have so many people willing to step up to be part of the solution.

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