Parent group Watertown Strong Schools submitted this roundup of the School Committee meeting on June 6, where the overcrowding plan, facilities master plan, enrollment and many other items were discussed.
Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the bottom of the minutes.
Written by: Alyson Morales
Committee members: John Portz, Chair; Kendra Foley, Vice-Chair; Guido Guidotti, Secretary; Eileen Hsu-Balzer; Candace Miller; Mark Sideris; Liz Yusem; Dr. Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Charles Kellner, Director, Business Services; and Craig Hardimon, Human Resources Director.
Audience members: Mena Ciarlone, Cunniff Principal; Elizabeth Kaplan, Lowell Principal; Bob LaRoche, Hosmer Principal; Donna Ruseckas, Director of Wellness & Extended Services; Adam Silverberg, World Languages Coordinator; Lauren Harwood, Accountability Data Manager; Vincent Piccirilli, Town Council Vice President; Aaron Dushku, Town Councilor; Lisa Feltner, Town Councilor; Jim Cairns, WSS; Pete Caron, WSS; Julie Cotton, WSS; Kate Coyne, WSS; Rebecca Grow, WSS; Diego Hammerschlag, WSS; David Stokes, WSS; Alyson Morales, WSS, Mike Shephard; and many other parents and community members.
The Lowell 5th grade Math League was honored along with their teacher Mrs. Debra Garabedian for placing first in the nation in the Continental Math Leauge. Congratulations to all!
WHS Students’ Trip to Costa Rica
A slideshow was presented along with students describing their experiences. You can view the slideshow here.
Public Forum #1
Pete Caron, a Cunniff parent, spoke about the need to create a single place to get information about and discuss the current space proposals and master plan study.
DecisionInsite Enrollment Report
Due to some data errors, the presentation of this report has been delayed until Monday 6/13/16. Lauren Harwood, Accountability Data Manager, explained that there was an error in the way some historical enrollment data was incorporated by DecisionInsite. It was also learned that there will not be a detailed report to accompany the presentation. Normally, DecisionInsite does not present its findings.
All of its information is delivered online. Candace had some questions about the methodology and suggested that feedback be provided to DecisionInsite prior to Monday’s meeting so there can be clarity when they do present. It was stated that anyone with questions should send them to the Superintendent and they could be passed on to DecisionInsite.
Master Plan Facilities Study Overview
The goal of the Master Plan study to be conducted over the summer is to identify physical space options to address our current overcrowded and aging buildings for the next 2-5 years and beyond.
The School Committee will create a 13-14 member Master Plan Steering Committee to oversee and give feedback on the Master Plan process. The Steering Committee will hold public meetings every two weeks and will include the Superintendent (Dr. Fitzgerald), the business manager (Charles Kellner), 2 School Committee members (John Portz and Liz Yusem), a Town Councilor (TBD), a Town Government member (TBD), some teachers, and up to 5 community members. The deadline for submitting interest letters was 6/6/16 at noon. John Portz, Kendra Foley and Liz Yusem will choose the members. It was stated that 11-12 letters of interest were received from the community. The chosen members will be announced and confirmed at the next School Committee meeting on 6/13.
As part of the Master Plan process, there will be an Education Leadership group formed to provide feedback and vision regarding district curriculum and programming needs. Three community meetings will be scheduled for late June, late July and late August and will provide the community a forum for feedback and participation. The June meeting will discuss the educational vision for the district.
2016-2017 School Calendar
The calendar that was discussed at the last meeting was approved. There were questions raised about the format and scheduling of parent teacher conferences. It was asked if rather than having many ½ days and limited evening meetings, more evening meetings could be scheduled. It is something the Superintendent will look into, but there are contractual concerns that need to be looked at. She will meet with the principals to discuss the issues further. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that she would have the schedule for parent-teacher conferences worked out before the end of the school year.
Plan to Renovate First Floor of Phillips Building and Allocate Classes
After considering the feedback received at the public meetings on 6/1 and since the last Buildings & Grounds meeting, and after meeting with principals twice since the 6/1 meetings, a new short-term space proposal was put forward.
The new proposal still involves several moves, but is considered to be less disruptive than the initial plan. The new proposal is as follows:
- A new Early Steps Preschool classroom will be created and will be housed at the Phillips
- A current Early Steps Preschool classroom will be moved from the Hosmer to the Phillips
- The Cunniff PreK will move to the Phillips
- The Hosmer PreK will move to the Phillips
- The Lowell PreK will move to the Phillips
The Early Steps Preschool is currently out of space at the Hosmer and at least one additional classroom is needed to support the additional incoming students. Because of this need, a new classroom space will be created at the Phillips and one existing classroom will move to the Phillips so that there can be collaboration between Preschool staff and the new classroom teacher won’t be isolated.
One of the preschool classrooms at the Phillips will be a full day class of 15 students and the other will be an AM/PM classroom of 15 students at each time.
It was stated that several goals are accomplished by this plan: 1) provide short-term space relief to all three elementary schools for at least the 2016-2017 school year; 2) have a facility that is ready to accommodate additional preschool/classrooms in the future; and 3) eliminate cross-town movement of students from Cunniff to Hosmer.
Each elementary school is expected to gain a classroom through this plan to help reduce class sizes, with the details as follows:
- Hosmer will create an additional 4th grade class
- Lowell will create an additional 1 st grade class. The principal is also keeping an eye on the third grade class, as class sizes are reaching 23/24 students.
- Cunniff is still evaluating its needs, but the current plan is to add a multiage 2nd/3rd grade class consisting of approximate 10 students from each grade. This scenario will keep art and music as they are now (shared classroom with certain days on a cart).
The alternate plan will require 1.5 FTE additional teaching staff (.5 at the Hosmer; 1 at the Lowell).
Kendra Foley stated that she liked the idea of the Phillips being a long term home for PreK and liked the idea of investing in our own building. She stated that there might also be a need to cap enrollment at certain schools or grade levels as well as centralized enrollment.
Dr. Fitzgerald stated that moving the PreK to the Phillips would be less of a disruption to the Senior Center as it is a full day program. She also stated the need for a parking study in order to remove parking restrictions around the Phillips to ensure that there is enough parking available for all (administration, teachers, parents, senior center members, and students).
A public meeting to discuss and provide feedback on the new plan to the Superintendent has been scheduled for 6/8 at 8:15 am at the Hosmer Library. All PreK families have been notified of the meeting by email, but everyone is welcome to attend.
Liz Yusem stated that need to determine what we envision for the future of the Philips building. She also noted that while concerns from some parents were heard and addressed in the new plan, as a town we need better alignment of the issues and possible solutions across all students, not just those at the meetings.
John Portz opened an extra public forum on the topic of the alternate space plan.
Jim Cairns discussed the benefits of the original plan and asked that everyone consider it. He feels that this new plan does not address the space needs of the smallest school with the greatest overcrowding issues. The current plan would involve having art/music continue to share space and be put on a cart on certain days. He stated that the transportation and logistical concerns raised by parents over the original proposal can be solved through the district 1) offering a bus for students from the Cunniff to the Hosmer, 2) offering afterschool at the Cunniff rather than the Hosmer for PreK and K students, and extended drop off/pick up times for those students travelling across town. He also questioned whether it is better for the preschool to be housed in a single location (in original plan) or to have it split across two locations (current proposal).
Several kindergarten parents spoke and stated that they favored the new proposal. A parent asked if there would be a possibility of having an extended day program at the Phillips for the PreK students. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that it was possible and she would look into it.
A Lowell PreK parent asked about deposit deadlines, because they pulled their child from the program under the original proposal, but may want to re-enroll them under the new proposal. Another parent asked if the plan would change when DecisionInsite presented enrollment data at the next meeting. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that that plan for next year would not change due to DecisionInsite information.
Mark Sideris stated that he felt that we were putting the “cart before the horse” by spending a lot of money on the Phillips building before the results from the Master Plan study are known. He though it may not be the best use of our tax dollars. He also asked that a second evening meeting be added to the planned 6/8 meeting by the Superintendent, as was done with the last set of meetings on 6/1.
There was no response from the Superintendent on this request.
Candace Miller stated that she needs to understand that this new plan will help the Cunniff. She also stated that she was very apologetic on behalf of herself and the entire School Committee, that we are in this position in June.
John Portz echoed Kendra Foley’s earlier suggestion that we need centralized enrollment to manage overcrowding in the different schools. New students would be placed based on available space when their neighborhood school does not have space available.
John reiterated that the Master Plan study conducted over the summer will be very important. He also apologized that we are currently at this point.
Update: On 6/7, the Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee Webpage went up, which seems to be in direct response to Pete Caron’s suggestion during Public Forum about a centralized location for space related information. The site includes the two short-term space proposals, the SMMA Master Plan Proposal, the 2014 School Facilities Assessment, public meeting information, information about the window replacement project at the middle school and the high school statement of interest to the MSBA.
Approval of Overnight Field Trips
Both the trips to Camp Sunshine and the 2017 trip to Costa Rica were approved.
Approval of Minutes
The 5/2 School Committee minutes were approved Buildings & Grounds Report and Action Items Liz Yusem gave a summary of her report and the School Committee accepted it. Both action items: Hosmer shed placement and confirmation of approval of money spent on Gienapp & Associates architectural plans for the Phillips were approved.
Policy Committee Report and Action Items
Guido Guidotti provided a summary of his report and it was accepted by the School Committee. The action item of moving middle school start times to 7:55 am for the coming Fall was not accepted. Dr. Fitzgerald explained that due to busing implications as well as scheduling conflicts with music instruction, it was not possible to make this change for the upcoming school year. The other action items: appointing a school committee member to the Wellness Committee and changing the Athletics subcommittee to an Athletics and Extracurricular Activities subcommittee was sent back to the Policy committee for further review. Candace Miller explained that although she had arranged her work schedule to attend the 10 am Policy meeting, the agenda order was changed and she had to leave the meeting before she was able to fully present and participate in the discussion around her proposal to expand the scope of the Athletics subcommittee. She asked that the next policy meeting be scheduled in the evening.
Curriculum Subcommittee Report
Eileen Hsu-Balzer read the report and it was accepted by the School Committee.
Public Forum #2
Pete Caron asked that everyone not shy away from challenges and to look for possible opportunities. He asked that we look at the system as a whole rather than as individual parents. David Stokes encouraged better communication. Ilana Mianelli asked that we look at the forest and not the trees and to look at the bigger picture. She stated that while the short term solutions must be found and that we are in a time sensitive situation, we also need to consider the larger pictures and how to accommodate programming for all students including vocational opportunities. Julie Cotton asked that we make sure that if the Preschool is split across two buildings that all services are offered in both locations. Deigo Hammerschlag asked for better communication. That we should establish dialog, build trust and seek feedback and ideas. Jim Cairns expressed that the latest plan really does not address the space needs of the school most affected by overcrowding – the Cunniff. And while he completely appreciates the perspective of the incoming K parents (particularly with their kids having screening in their classrooms at the Cunniff this week), this plan really does not create any additional space in the building to relieve class size or to address overcrowded special education spaces. The Cunniff administration and faculty will continue to carry the burden of managing these space constraints in the coming year. Even the proposal to cap classes during the year and divert new students to schools with availability will primarily affect families in the Cunniff zone as they are the ones most likely to have to send their kids to a school outside their neighborhood.
The school committee often has a month during the summer when it doesn’t meet, but John Portz felt that given everything that was going on, that the School Committee should meet in July and August. A schedule will be worked out and posted. The next school committee meeting will be next Monday 6/13 at 7 pm in Town Hall.
Candace Miller asked that the Superintendent provide monthly enrollment updates as part of her monthly Superintendent’s report.
She also asked that a schedule be put together for the year, so that there are frequent meetings of the subcommittees.
While I appreciate all of the work done to respond to parent and community concerns in regards to the short-term space plan, communication has not been great. The public meetings last week were definitely a step in the right direction and I am happy to see that there will be another meeting this week to discuss the new plan, but I am disheartened to hear that there is only a morning meeting scheduled and that direct invitations were only sent to PreK families.
I was happy to see the new Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee website go up on 6/7, the day after the meeting. It would be ideal if this site allowed interested parents and community members to sign up to get notifications when new information is posted along with the ability to ask questions, or have a forum for discussion.
As for the new space proposal, I understand the reluctance of the Cunniff Kindergarten parents to have their children attend school across town at the Hosmer, I have to agree with Jim Cairns, I don’t think the new plan does much to benefit the Cunniff School as a whole. If there was an option available that kept the Kindergarten at the Cunniff, while freeing up two or more classrooms that would be ideal. Unfortunately no such proposal is on the table. Moving only the PreK out of the Cunniff, only frees up ½ a classroom. The potential combined grade 2/3 classroom helps with class sizes, but may cause additional instructional challenges as third graders take the PARCC/MCAS, while second graders do not. Also, with the new proposal, art and music instruction will remain as is, without a dedicated space and be offered on a cart on certain days. It was not explicitly stated, but I assume that Special Education will be in the same spaces currently used and a new Special Education classroom will no longer be possible as outlined in the original plan. Centralized online registration and potential caps on enrollment for certain schools or grades will help some, but isn’t a long-term solution. The new proposal puts a lot of burden on the Cunniff principal and teachers.
I encourage everyone to spread the word about the public meeting on Wed 6/8 at 8:15 am in the Hosmer Library and that as many people as are able, attend and express your feedback. [Ed. Note: this was submitted Tuesday, before the meeting with the Superintendent on Wednesday occurred.] If you are unable to attend and want to express your thoughts, I suggest you ask that a second meeting be added and/or send your thoughts via email to the Superintendent and School Committee as soon as possible.