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Through The Chair…

I first met Brian O’Connell in the early 1990s at a Southbridge School Committee meeting. At the time I was reporting for the Southbridge Evening News, my first full-time gig as a journalist.

Brian was was at the meeting as a legal representative of the school committee, which had somehow finalized a contract with its teacher union, proclaiming it had done so with zero percent in salary raises, only to find out later that it had given the teachers hundreds of thousands of dollars in increased steps and longevity stipends, money that wasn’t in the school budget.

Brian was hired to get them off the hook.

I shared with him at the time my doubt that such a blunder could be successfully defended, and he favored me with his characteristic mirthful–bordering on the mischievous–laugh.

It seemed as if he was thoroughly enjoying the pickle in which the board had found itself, even as he was quite sure he would get them out of it.

He did, and it was years later, after getting to know him as a Worcester School Committee member, that I figured out how he did it.

Brian, who died last week at the age of 68, simply had a knack for getting people with divergent views to think he was on their sides.

Of course, that particular skill of his was sometimes a source of frustration on a seven-member board that seldom voted unanimously on big policy issues–electing a superintendent, voting on a sex education curriculum, for example.

Current and former school committee members will tell you of exiting an executive session after hours of deliberation on a particular issue and having no idea whatsoever of what side Brian would take with his open-session vote.

I remember just one occasion when Brian showed his hand before a vote. It was during the bitter and divisive 1993 superintendent search that led to James Garvey being appointed superintendent.

The minority community and an influential group of residents had pushed for an outside candidate to replace then retiring Superintendent John Durkin.

Garvey, then the South High School principal, had served with distinction within the Worcester public schools for many years, and a majority of school committee members felt he had earned his spurs.

But Brian felt Garvey’s credentials did not stack up well with the other candidates, and said so publicly when the field of nine superintendent candidates was whittled to three– Garvey, James Connelly, of Bridgeport, Conn, and Clifford Janey of Boston,

Brian, along with then School Committee Members Stephen Mills and Harriette Chandler, said they could not support Garvey as the finalist.

Some might wonder what happened to the Brian of 1993, when in 2016, despite the community’s call for a national search, he voted with the majority to interview four internal candidates and to eventually appoint South High School Principal Maureen Binienda, whose credentials for the job was considered light.

But it’s hard to ascribe motives to Brian, who in June startled his colleagues when he announced before the start of budget deliberation that he would seek a savings of $500,000 in the school budget that wanted earmarked for hiring a more diverse Worcester public schools workforce.

The committee managed to cut a mere $20,000.

Brian’s commitment to the Worcester public schools was unquestionable, however, according to those who knew him well.

From his first school committee term 36 years ago when he won his seat by a one-vote margin to the day he passed, the public schools were Brian’s life, they said..

“He went to everything school related, every school events,” School Committee Member Jack Foley recalled.

“If there were several events scheduled on the same day, he would attend them all, showing up and spending 15 minutes at each.”

When Worcester passed a Proposition 2 ½ override to fund the schools in 1991, that success was partially due to Brian’s fervor for the issue, Mr. Foley said.

“He brought his political astuteness to help figure a path forward,” Mr. Foley said.

“Nobody was more committed and more dedicated to the schools than Brian. He brought a unique set of skills with his legal and business backgrounds.”

But if Brian’s legal and business acumen immunized the Worcester School Committee from the sort of embarrassment suffered by their Southbridge colleagues years ago, his fellow Worcester board members often paid the price by being made to suffer through what they dubbed “The O’Connell Zone.”

The designation referred to the frequent occasions on which Brian, whose voracious reading habit led him to devour tons of literature on teaching and learning, would stand to deliver exhortations on programs he believed the school system should should consider implementing. 

The zone could also be triggered by a mere request for the school committee to vote on accepting a revised student handbook.

Brian would go through the more or less 70-page document with a fine tooth comb, and if there was anything amiss, to include even a misplaced comma, he would find it and respectfully asked that it be corrected.

At other times, it was the sudden, unfathomable loss of his business acumen during tough financial times that would frustrate his colleagues. Brian, for example, was often a no-vote when it came to closing elementary schools to make ends meet.

And no matter how tight the school budget, he would persistently push the committee to add water polo and crew as sports options for students. After years of being badgered by Brian, the committee relented and added a city-wide crew team, but drew the line on water polo.

Brian was born and raised in Worcester. He was a graduate of Worcester Academy, the College of the Holy Cross and Harvard University Law School.

His belief that excellence in education was in the reach of all Worcester public school students most of all was the constant strain in his countless school committee agenda items.

“He could have gone virtually anywhere with his pedigree and intellect but he chose to stay in his hometown and, with singular zeal, dedicated a substantial chunk of his life to Worcester’s children and schools,” S. Paul Reville, Harvard professor and former Massachusetts education secretary, said.

 “He was gentlemanly and always had time to listen to and engage with constituents.  He was incredibly patient and persevering.”

Former Worcester superintendent of schools, Jim Caradonio, said Mr. O’Connell “challenged us to continuously improve our educational practices and performance,”

During his five-year tenure as mayor, Tim Murray, now the president of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, had his ups and down moments with Brian.

“While Brian and I occasionally disagreed on some issues, I was nonetheless always impressed with his preparedness for each meeting,” Mr. Murray said.

“Moreover, because he was so well read, he had a fountain of ideas that were always worth considering in an effort to improve educational outcomes for Worcester’s school children.”

Selfishly, I remember Brian most as a dependable source. He always had something to say, no matter the issue, and he would return my calls without fail day or night, weekdays or weekends.

Of course, getting him off the line after I felt he had given me enough material was always an herculean effort, given the many tangents on which he would take a given topic.

Brian worked for years as the business manager for a slew of school districts, and it seemed that almost every year he was giving me a new business number.

I used to kid him on his apparent inability to hold down a job. He would laugh heartily, perhaps because he knew he held for life the one job that matters most to him—being a Worcester School Committee member.

So, through the chair, if I may, a motion please to send Brian’s invaluable dedication and support of the Worcester public schools to the Standing Committee on Teaching, Learning and Student Support for further consideration.

All in favor say aye.

3 Replies to “THE O’CONNELL ZONE”

  1. Aye. Thank you, Clive for such a wonderful piece. We all have our own Brian stories, but you summed him up as well as anyone could. he’ll be missed by so many. Bill Scannell

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