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Nate Levenson and Budgeting

School Superintendent Nate Levenson has a number of critics in town. Some of the criticism is well-founded, but I think that a lot of it is undeserved. If you are one of his critics (or one of his fans), I invite you to review the budgets and budget presentations that he has created.

I think that Levenson really shines when he’s working on a budget. Last year at Finance Committee I was first dumbfounded and then delighted by the clarity and level of detail and reasoning in his budget. He was as-good this year. He takes policy and priority and he turns it into numbers. This is not a trivial act. It’s easy to get caught up in a budget and spend months trying to fit this year’s puzzle pieces into last year’s puzzle. He has the ability to re-think a budget without being hidebound by the past.

I’m not an educator. I do know a fair amount about decision making, and more than a fair amount about budget decision making. In that context, I believe that Nate Levenson has been an excellent superintendent. Kay Donovan would bring in budgets that I found opaque and mostly relied on her saying “I think that this is best.” Levenson brings in budgets and said “this is what the School Committee said it wanted as goals, here are the three best ways I could come up with to get there, and this is the one that I chose, and here is why it is both good and bad.”

I respect people who I don’t agree with but are “wrong for the right reasons.” I haven’t agreed with everything that Levenson has done, but I have been impressed with the way he reached his decisions. I also have appreciated the way he’s dealt with some of the challenges he’s faced, whether they were external or of his own making.

I think that he’s taken a beating the last couple of months, and much of it was undeserved. I think that there has been a “piling on” by people who are invested in the status quo. These vocal groups who don’t approve of his changes have smelled blood and acted to diminish him or bring him down.

Watch the replay of tonight’s town meeting. Watch him explain the budget. Watch him constructively respond to harsh criticism. He’s building a budget for our schools and our children, and I think he’s doing it well.


Comment from Bob Sprague
Time: May 10, 2007, 8:12 am

As someone who worked for Kay Donovan for five years, and whose job was to communicate schoool issues to the public, I agree with what you write about the level of detail provided in the budgets she presented. I will add that, during the years I worked for her (1998-2003), she declined my advice to post *detailed* school budgets online.

I do not work for Nate Levenson, but I have been watching how he operates. I agree with you that criticism he has been receiving has been undeserved in many case. I also agree with you about the excellent way he provides budget information to the public — on paper and online. Thank you for expressing these views.

Comment from Lisa Deeley Smith
Time: May 10, 2007, 3:24 pm

I don’t think anyone has criticized Mr. Levenson on how he handles numbers. He has been criticized on how he handles people.

Comment from dunster
Time: May 10, 2007, 11:55 pm

Lisa, I agree. I was trying to make a couple different points. 1) when people criticize him for how he handles people, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Most of them don’t know the baby is even there. I’m trying to get them to notice the baby. 2) Some of the people doing the criticizing are people who stand to lose if the status quo is changed. They focus, repeat, and hype the negative as a tactic to defend their turf.

I’m not saying that Levenson is perfect – he’s screwed up, and his screwups have hurt him and the schools. The question is whether the good outweighs the bad, and whether or not he can learn from the bad and avoid repeating it.

I wrote the original post because I feel that much of the discussion has been focused on the negative. It wasn’t a fair picture of what he can do.

Pingback from Dan Dunn’s Podium » Arlington Schools Not On Fire
Time: August 18, 2008, 12:26 am

[…] don’t even know why Nate Levenson quit.  I’ve remarked before about how I admired his skill around the budget.  I’ll miss him during budget season.  I wonder if my opinion of him will change when I […]