The benefits of on-going education for town employees

By Jessie Levine, New London’s town administrator

This column is one of appreciation to the taxpayers of New London, who may not know that in 2005 the Board of Selectmen voted to add educational assistance and tuition reimbursement as a benefit for Town employees. This decision is revisited every year during the budget process, and every year the Selectmen have voted to continue the benefit to support the ongoing education of Town employees for the benefit of the community.

New London is not the only town that offers tuition reimbursement, but it does have some of the tightest restrictions, such as limiting the number of classes and amount of reimbursement, tying reimbursement to course performance, and requiring a portion of the reimbursement to be returned if the employee leaves Town employment within a certain amount of time.

Since its inception, employees in the Police, Dispatch and Town Offices (including, in full disclosure, me) have used the educational assistance program to pursue degrees.  In May 2008, Amy Rankins — who began working for the Town in 1994 at age 23 — received her associate’s degree from Granite State College with a 3.85 GPA, and she will receive her bachelor’s degree in 2012.

I am in the final year of the four-year Masters in Public Administration program at the University of New Hampshire, and the Town has paid for about half of the cost, for which I am extremely grateful. Although I had six years’ of practical experience in New London at the time, I went back to school because I wanted a better understanding of the theoretical and historical foundations of public administration. This program has helped me find it.

In particular, I am about to complete a course called “The Legal & Policymaking Environment,” which examines the context and surroundings in which public administrators must work.  The course operates under an unique definition of “ecology” as the relationship between the whole and the parts. In his final lecture, Professor Melvin Dubnick (whom I will call Professor D to save space) gave the following advice to the class to keep in mind as we continue our work in public service:

One: Manage With Care.  Although it may not always appear to be so, a community is fragile, and a careless manager could damage its ecology (Professor D gave an aside about the difference in management approaches between male and female managers that I’m not sure I buy without further analysis). Within this category, Professor D advised us to 1) analyze our surroundings to always be aware of threats and opportunities facing the community, and act or respond with the notion of care; 2) anticipate change, so as not to assume that existing trends – good or bad — will continue forever; and 3) accept “Miles Law.” Rufus Miles was a public administrator whose career began during the Great Depression and included lengthy posts at the federal Bureau of the Budget and the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Miles Law, according to Professor D, is the necessity of seeing the world from the point of view of the organization we represent but also from the point of view of those we serve. In other words, said Professor D, where you stand depends on where you sit, and don’t forget that others operate under the same rule.

Two: Develop Legal Competencies. This does not mean accepting that the law as written is right, but that public administrators have to have the competency to “challenge, question, or try to change the law” (Dubnick) in order to better serve the organization. We are fortunate to have regular dialogue with Senator Odell and Representatives Foose and Kidder in this regard.

Three: Get Your Values Straight. According to Professor D, this means not simply knowing the difference between right and wrong, but understanding priorities, standards of behavior, and ethical parameters of the individual, the job, and the community. He pointed out that values might change over time, but the manager must be aware of the starting point in order to understand subsequent shifts.

Four: Understand, Create, and Re-Create Communities. We operate in multiple communities — not just the ones we work for, but the ones we interact with, such as the community of other managers, the community of the Legislature, etc. Professor D says that it is particularly important to remember that we also represent those who may not have a voice, such as the poor and disenfranchised of New Orleans.

Five: Remember the Meaning of Citizenship. Professor D reminded us that we serve all citizens, and all citizens have an investment in the role of the public administrator. He said that all of us have rights, needs, and demands, and that public administrators should not try to circumvent these rights or shut off dialogue.

My goal is that we, as employees of the Town who receive the benefit of educational assistance, can return what we learn to the community. Our police officers have furthered their education in investigation and criminal justice, widening their knowledge of technology and forensic analysis.  Amy Rankins has turned her coursework in human relations into a new and valuable role within the town: she is the chair of our employee Joint Loss & Wellness Committee (required by state law), and prepares a quarterly newsletter for employees.

Thank you for the opportunities you have given us to continue our educations. I hope the program will be sustainable and renewable, so that as some of us complete our educations, others may begin.

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