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CNS Celebrates 20 years!

Citizens for Needham Schools is proud to acknowledge our 20th anniversary this year! As part of our celebrations, CNS Board Member Frederica Lalonde recently had a chance to sit down with the five original CNS board members to discuss the history of CNS. Their story, and our history, can be found in her account below.

Never underestimate the power of parents to take the reins when the fate of our schools is in question. Born of a series of failed overrides more than 20 years ago, the Citizens for Needham Schools “founding mothers” came together to combat a lack of awareness about the needs of the Needham Public Schools. The group has since become an advocate for capital improvements and an unbiased source of information about what’s happening in our schools. Originally started as an override committee, Marianne Cooley, Amy Goldman, Karen Price, Sue Bonaiuto, and Carla Small each joined for different reasons and offered a variety of skills and perspectives. Their unifying mission was an understanding of the support the town would need going forward as it planned renovations for all the schools.

Before she had kids in the schools, Amy Goldman, now the Program Director for Needham Community Education, was troubled that a school override had failed by a very small margin in May of 1997. When she reached out to her friends to share her concern, she was shocked to learn that none of them knew anything about it. “They didn’t know there was an override or an election,” she said. “That was very eye opening.” Carla Small, now CEO of EarlyBird Education, was recruited because her brother had formed a similar group in Wellesley that had been successful in organizing the town around school needs. Marianne Cooley, who now serves on the Needham Select Board, was asked to create a website as the repository of information that could be accessed easily. “At that point I was President of NEF, and the town was redistricting.” Her neighborhood was getting split into three different districts, which was unlike anywhere else. “I was just very involved as a parent.” In the early 2000s, the schools were growing quickly just as State aid was down. The district was forced to make decisions about staffing, programming and building maintenance. Many administrators were let go, elementary Spanish and High School music and theater programs were cut, and building renovations were postponed. Despite the significant impact to the schools, many of the stakeholders were unaware. As Needham faced another round of overrides during this time, the group worked hard to ensure voters were informed and recognized the importance of these decisions. Michael Greis, now a School Committee Member, aided their efforts by culling voter data and keeping records in order to make their approach as targeted as possible. “We went door to door, checking for yes votes and no votes,” said Sue Bonaiuto, who was working for the school department at the time. “It was run very much like a campaign.” The group was able to celebrate the success of its efforts when the override for improvements to the Eliot, Broadmeadow, and High School buildings passed in April of 2000. Realizing that they had learned many lessons and now had considerable information about how to mobilize citizens around these important school issues, the members of the group knew they couldn’t simply pat themselves on the back and walk away. “We decided we wanted to stay together because we knew money was still tight and we knew there was a huge list of buildings that needed to be done and the schools were still growing,” said Sue Bonaiuto, who called everyone to her house for a meeting shortly after the win. This group then formally became Citizens for Needham Schools (CNS) in 2002. “We knew there were going to be many more overrides coming, and we even got a sign that just said ‘Yes for Schools’ so we could reuse it,” said Karen Price, who was serving on the School Committee at the time.

Once officially formed, CNS members decided to maintain a separation from the override committee. This decision allowed CNS to remain a source of data driven information – and the override committee could conduct business as the advocacy group that brought in votes during campaigns. CNS continued to preserve the institutional knowledge of how to run an override campaign, and even advised other groups throughout the state with similar initiatives. In the past 20 years, nine overrides – both capital and operating -- have passed, and only one operating override has not. “It was the perfect storm of things that came together all at once,” said Amy Goldman, who became the group’s first president. “I do think it was a lot of hard work and a lot of strategy, but the stars aligned: the right people, the mission, the talent. Our kids were here, and we cared a lot.” Since its founding in 2002, more than 50 Needham residents have been members of the CNS board, many of whom have gone on to other town leadership positions. Although now less focused on override campaigns, the group continues to disseminate critical information about the schools and provide outreach to families who want to better understand what is happening in the district. In 2018 CNS began publishing written summaries of every School Committee meeting on its website to compensate for the lack of readily available news due to a rapidly disappearing local press. This service proved crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, when families were eager for information related to the schools. In addition to its website and email newsletter, CNS now uses social media to share School Committee agendas and other timely information. Twenty years later, not much has changed. The town once again faces large investments in its schools, with construction projects for Pollard and Mitchell on the horizon. And Citizens for Needham Schools will steadfastly continue its mission to support and strengthen the Needham Public Schools and keep residents informed and engaged.


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