NASHOBA PUBLISHING/AMELIA PAK-HARVEY
Keith Cheveralls served two terms on the School Committee, during which time Harvard Public Schools reevaluated its budget approach, faced an economic crisis and found money for a new playground at Hildreth Elementary.
By Amelia Pak-Harvey
HARVARD -- As someone who has never gone to college, Keith Cheveralls knows the importance of education.
Although he was able to "claw" his way through a successful banking career, Cheveralls said the lack of higher education finally caught up to him. He was "fired into retirement" when Bank of America merged with FleetBoston around 2004.
"This whole issue of education really fascinated me, because if you believe in the future, you have to kind of believe in education and the importance of it," he said.
Imagine, he said, what he could have done if he had gone to college.
"The truth of the matter is, at the merger of Bank of America, somebody at my level needed to have a master's degree."
Cheveralls, whose two sons went through the Harvard school system, shifted his passion for education on to the school committee, where he ultimately served six years. As town elections approach, Cheveralls said it is time for him to move on and he will not be running again. The empty seat will likely be filled by Jennifer Bedford, who is running uncontested.
But Cheveralls left behind an impressionable legacy, as noted when he received a standing ovation at his last meeting last week.
With a strong financial background, Cheveralls first ran in 2008 with the goal of reevaluating school finances.
"With the cost of education going up all the time -- and they still are -- the historical tendency of the older generation to automatically support the younger generation was being tested, being challenged," he said. "The schools were no longer going to be automatically given everything they asked for. We had to begin to look at things very, very differently, from a financial standpoint."
Cheveralls got his share of financial challenges straight away, when the town voted that same year to deny a Proposition 2 1/2 override that ended up affecting the school budget.
His first job on the committee, he explained, was to take money out of the school budget since the override had failed.
But things have changed since then, as Cheveralls highlights school budgets that have only changed by about one percent over the past six years.
When Superintendent Joe Connelly came to town, the committee requested a zero-based budgeting method, Cheveralls said. The new budget process required a ground-up analysis every year of the needs of every department.
Now, every year an enrollment study report investigates the town's birth rate, real estate activity and more to help craft the budget, he said.
This could be the business-based approach that Cheveralls notes the committee began to adopt, looking at data more carefully before making a decision.
"The budgets before tended to be built more top-down, and I think there was less focus on the level of detail that goes into building a budget," he said.
Cheveralls said he is proud to be on the committee that brought such remarkable budgeting achievements without any overrides.
It was even a "responsible financial approach" that got the schools through the national economic crisis when it first hit in 2008, he said. Cuts from state funds meant that schools had to take money out of budgets with which they were already operating.
But Cheveralls said the committee received fortuitous advice from the town administrator to figure out their cuts right away.
"We acted earlier and quite aggressively and we got through that year," he said. "Because of that approach, it essentially allowed us to think through in a calmer position than having to react right at the end of the financial year."
Cheveralls was the deciding vote in a controversial decision that is rearing its head this year, after the school committee voted in 2010 to adopt a secular calendar.
Cheveralls said he still stands beside his decision, which was based on the desire to treat everyone equally.
"It was tough," he said on supporting the calendar, which now requires school on Christmas Eve 2014. "That was not an easy decision by any stretch."
Cheveralls helped bring Harvard Cable TV to its new home in the back of Bromfield, for which HCTV Committee Chairman Bob Johnson presented him a key to the studio.
During his time on the committee, the schools also adopted a point-of-sale lunch program and planned funding for Hildreth Elementary School's current playground.
"People never remember what you did, they remember how you made them feel," he said. "I've done a lot of things, other members have done a lot of things, we've done a lot of things together. But to me it's the way we've tried to do them that's important."
Follow Amelia on Twitter and Tout @AmeliaPakHarvey.