With a $92 million annual budget, more than 1,100 employees and eight schools serving more than 5,500 students, the Needham public schools system is something of a behemoth within town government.
The next largest annual departmental budget, for example, belongs to the Department of Public Works at $20.3 million – and that includes spending for maintenance of school facilities.
For the average school parent, keeping up on overall school issues, operations and events can be a challenge, especially on complex issues such as the school master plan.
That’s where Citizens for Needham Schools (CNS) comes in. Since 2002, CNS has served the informational needs of parents looking for help in developing a clearer understanding of school-related matters beyond their direct dealings related to their own children.
While it was initially formed to support a school override ballot question, CNS has gradually moved away from advocacy and toward the role of information provider and a bridge between parents and the school administration.
Its mission is “making school-related news and information available to the Needham community, and meeting regularly with school committee members to provide input from a broad range of students, families, and community members.”
CNS, whose board consists of representatives from the eight schools, provides summaries of all School Committee meetings, a newsletter, an events calendar and other informational resources. The group also responds to individual requests for information.
“The goal is to facilitate families being able to find information,” said Joanie Daly, co-president of CNS. “There’s a lot of info out there but it’s sometimes hard to find.”
“Watching a three-hour School Committee meeting every two weeks is more than most people can take on,” said co-President Abigail Hays. “It’s really more than any one of us can take on, and that’s why we have 10 people on our board to divide up the task.
“It’s important having the School Committee and Dan (school Superintendent Dan Gutekanst) know there are people paying attention and to be a resource for people wanting to know.”
Daly and Hays both said CNS does its best to encourage parent engagement, but the level of engagement tends to fluctuate.
“During COVID, people became much more aware of us,” said Hays. “We had people who were begging us for our summaries the moment School Committee meetings were over because they wanted to know what was coming up for their kids.
“Now that some of that frenzied interest has passed, we still want to be on people’s radar, to know that we’re still here.”
CNS is especially interested in reaching Needham residents with younger children. “A lot of families move to Needham for the schools,” said Daly. “We’d love to increase our visibility with families with very young children.”
(Editor’s Note: Needham Observer Managing Editor Frederica Saylor Lalonde is a member of CNS. She was not involved in the conception or reporting of this story.)