School Committee Chair Whittredge resigns six months into new term, cites need to be with two children
This week School Committee Chair Thomas R. Whittredge, who topped his competition in the last two town elections, resigned the position he loved for personal reasons. After the death of his wife last year, he explained, it’s been difficult for him to address the needs of his two children and he needs more time for being a single parent.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Committee and am proud to have been chairman during the most difficult time our district has seen,” Whittredge said in a text message to The Saugus Advocate this week.
“I love the community and helping the people in it. I hope to be back in a couple of years. But right now, my kids have been through traumatic times and they need my full attention,” he said.
In a surprise announcement at the outset of last week’s School Committee meeting (May 4), Whittredge told his colleagues that it would be his last meeting.
But Whittredge decided to attend a brief subcommittee meeting on Monday (May 9) a few hours after submitting a letter to Town Clerk Ellen Schena’s Office which stipulated that his resignation would be effective on Thursday, May 5.
Meanwhile, Leigh Michelle Gerow was sworn in by the town clerk on Tuesday to serve the remaining 18 months of Whittredge’s unexpired term. She received 1,586 votes, the sixth highest total in the 2021 November town election. (See related story.)
It has not yet been determined who will succeed Whittredge as chair. The most likely scenario would be for Vice-Chair Vincent A. Serino, the second-topmost vote-getter last fall, to move up in leadership if he chooses. And then School Committee Member John S. Hatch, the third-highest vote-getter last fall, could become vice-chair.
Serino declined to comment on whether he wants the chairmanship or expects to succeed Whittredge. The School Committee will take a formal vote on the matter before it becomes official.
“Nothing has been done yet as we are in between meetings,” Serino said in an email to The Saugus Advocate.
An emotional announcement
Whittredge nearly decided not to run for a second three-year term on the committee last year because of his wife’s worsening health condition. Back in the early fall, even as she battled metastatic breast cancer for the second time, Theresa Whittredge pushed her husband Tom to run for a second two-year term on the Saugus School Committee. Tom waited until the end to pull nomination papers, and with Theresa’s blessing, he went on to top the field of seven candidates and continue as chair of the five-member panel.
On Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 24), Theresa Whittredge died at Tufts Medical Center in Boston after a gallant fight with breast cancer. Friends and relatives say she was a great inspiration to others as she fought the disease. She was the mother of two children, Brody and Finley Whittredge.
Theresa and Tom, married for 17 years, were known as the first couple of the Saugus National Little League when Tom served as president. She was known as the 1st Lady of Saugus Little League. After recovering from her first bout with cancer, Theresa threw out the first pitch of the Little League season in 2018, and league players wore the pink ribbon on the side of their hats, with money raised going to cancer research.
At last week’s School Committee meeting, Whittredge seemed emotional and uneasy as he shared with his colleagues his decision to resign. “I really can’t make it work anymore,” Whittredge said.
He apologized several times, saying he didn’t want to disappoint anyone. And he stressed that he really loved the job. “It’s just that I got two kids at home that really need my attention,” he said.
“It’s hard for people who are not in my situation to understand it. I’m what they have at home. Those kids have me and that’s it. They depend on me. I don’t want to put them in front of babysitters all of the time,” he said.
The School Committee members, joined by Superintendent of Schools Erin McMahon, other school officials and members in the audience, gave Whittredge a standing ovation.
Committee Member Joseph “Dennis” Gould, representing his comments as being on behalf of the School Committee, all of the parents and all of the students, told Whittredge, “You really did a great job,” adding that the committee respects his decision “and we support you 150 percent.”
Whittredge thanked committee members for their support.
Whittredge and most of the new School Committee members who were elected in the 2019 Saugus Town Election cited public outrage over the privatization of custodial services and the layoffs of 21 custodians as a major reason for the anti-incumbent atmosphere that led to the defeat of the three incumbents who decided to run for another term. But there was also a highly critical report issued by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education which explained the reasons for the Middle and High Schools ranking in the bottom 10 percent of the state in academic achievement. They also cited the controversy and acrimony that engulfed the divided committee.
The new chair and his colleagues vowed to work in a spirit of cooperation and looked forward to a turnaround of the town’s public education system in a new Saugus Middle-High School and the consolidation of the school system into three buildings with the closing of three elementary schools and the Roby School Administration Building. But four months into the new board’s first year, the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, leading to the indefinite closing of schools and in-person instruction being replaced with remote learning.
School officials look upon Whittredge’s two and a half years as chair as among the most challenging times in the history of Saugus Public Schools: In addition to coping with the challenges of the pandemic, the School Committee oversaw the eventual opening of a new Middle-High School, the consolidation of school buildings into three, the retirement of School Superintendent Dr. David DeRuosi, Jr., and the search for a new School Superintendent. The School Committee made history last June by hiring the first woman superintendent to lead Saugus Schools. They also approved a five-year contract for Erin McMahon. No Saugus School Committee has ever invested so much money – close to a million dollars over the life of the contract – for a school administrator
So, what were the most significant accomplishments under Whittredge’s time as School Committee Chair? The Saugus Advocate asked each of the committee members for reaction to Whittredge’s resignation – on how he contributed to the betterment of Saugus Public Schools during his time on the committee.
School Committee Member Joseph “Dennis” Gould, who was one of the five new members who ousted three incumbents and replaced two other veteran members who decided not to seek reelection during the 2019 Town Elections:
“It was a privilege to serve on the School Committee with Tom Whittredge.
“Although we didn’t agree on everything, we always discussed and voted on what we thought was best for Saugus.
“Tom was a stabilizing force on the committee, always listening to fellow committee members, parents, school administration and teachers to gather as much data as possible for the committee to review, debate and move forward.
“The district is better for his service. He endured a lot of personal problems for his first term with his wife’s illness and taking care of two children, but somehow was always available, and at top of his game when it came to the district.
“Although I will miss his leadership, I am so glad he is stepping aside for a while to focus on his two kids. He is a great father and I am sure if and when time and situation dictates, he can jump back into a future election and come back to committee.”
School Committee Member Ryan P. Fisher, who served as the committee’s vice-chair during Whittredge’s first term and was one of five new members swept into office during the 2019 town elections:
“The impact Tom had on this district can’t be measured. He took over a committee that had been fractured previously, and he set the tone for us. We were going to be positive, we were going to make the right decisions even if they weren’t always easy, and we were going to be role models and lead by example.
“The challenges we faced – getting through a pandemic without a roadmap – and the challenges Tom and his family personally faced, tell you everything you need to know about him. He never once gave up, took it one day at a time and hung on harder and longer than I think any of us would have, and there’s no way he’s done. His kids need him, he’s putting his family first, but he’ll keep inspiring us to be better, he’ll keep fighting for the kids, and he’ll be back before you know it.”
School Committee Member John S. Hatch, a former School Committee member and another of the five new members elected during the 2019 election purge of the then-incumbent School Committee:
“I have a long list of things that Tom has done for the school system and what he’s advocated for. But Tom’s not just about being a School Committee member. He’s about being a coach in Little League and youth sports. He’s about being a father and a family man and a good resident of this town. When it comes to education, there’s no bigger proponent to support our schools than Tom.
“He will be missed. But Tom will be back one day when he’s ready. Tom will be a School Committee member again. I promise you that. Taking care of his children is the most important thing right now. He can take care of all the kids in Saugus. But the most important people in his life right now are his two children.”
School Committee Vice-Chair Vincent Serino, a former School Committee member who came back on the board as the second topmost vote-getter in last November’s town election:
“Tom Whittredge is and has always been about doing the right thing. He is an asset to Saugus and his passion for the schools shows every time he speaks about them. Tom has done so much for the town and the schools that one contribution can’t define him. Saugus Schools have been made better by having Tom involved and we are a better School Committee by Tom time sitting on the board.”
Whittredge’s verbal announcement
This is the text of School Committee Chair Thomas Whittredge’s verbal announcement to the School Committee last week:
“On a personal note, I just want to let everybody know that tonight’s going to be my last meeting on the School Committee.
“I tried to make things work. My wife passed away three weeks after we got elected. And I really, really wanted to make it work, because, you know, it’s been a real honor to be elected chairman twice. And you guys put your faith in me, and I don’t want to let anybody down.
“It’s just that I got two kids at home that really need my attention. It’s hard for people who are not in my situation to understand it. I’m what they have at home. Those kids have me and that’s it. They depend on me. I don’t want to put them in front of babysitters all of the time.
“I hope I’m not letting anybody down out there, but I really tried to make it work. And what makes it easier for me is having all these people next to me because I know that the district is in unbelievable hands. I couldn’t handpick a better crew to have been working with all of this time. It’s hard for me to say this today because I really enjoy School Committee. I really can’t make it work anymore, so effective Monday will be my last day as chairman of the Saugus School Committee.
So I just want to thank everybody. And I appreciate everybody’s support. Thank you very much.”