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737WVN #538: School reconfiguration conundrum

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  • waylandvoters1
    Jan 13, 2014
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      Dear Wayland Voter,

      The School Committee is meeting frequently and continues to hear comments from the public about a costly plan to reconfigure the elementary schools. Tonight is the next chance for voters to be heard.

      CONFIGURATION CONUNDRUM

      The School Committee continued to grapple last week with the issue of a potential elementary school reconfiguration. Monday's meeting included another public forum ostensibly focused on the FY15 budget proposal. But in reality it was again dominated by school parents commenting on the reconfiguration plans.

      A school father challenged the notion of buffer zones -- areas between school zones from which students could be allocated for balance -- and whether they would save money. Superintendent Paul Stein explained that eliminating the buffer zones could add another whole class section per grade, or up to $400,000 to the district budget, because a small increase in the number of kids adding to a grade already up to capacity in one school would force the creation of another whole class section. With the buffer zones, those students could be sent to another school with more room in that grade, at essentially zero incremental cost.

      At present all kindergarteners attend Loker School. Under Stein’s plan the three elementary schools would teach grades K-5: two each at Loker, three each at Happy Hollow and four each at Claypit Hill.

      Another resident noted that the runner-up alternative reconfiguration plan, making Loker K-1 and the other schools 2-5, did not require buffer zones to be viable.

      Another parent voiced concern that, under the recommended plan, making Loker a two-class-per-grade school, if elementary populations drop again, Loker as the smallest school would be closed again. Stein noted that population projections are stable going out ten years, and if wrong are more likely to go up than down.

      Others also argued for a 3-3-3 reconfiguration model, citing transition and social issues with a small school. One parent said he went to a school with two classes per grade and saw serious problems. Another grew up in Northborough and attended a two-classroom school, and saw the other school get more programs and resources. But Stein countered that people in other districts tell him that small schools are sometimes the most beloved.

      Convenience for the parents played a large role in support for the proposal. One parent strongly supported it because it allowed her to drop her kids off in one place most efficiently. But another objected because during the transition year he would have a third and a fifth grader in different schools.

      One parent questioned the 438% increase in Special Education (SPED) spending in ten years. Director of Student Services Marlene Moskowitz-Dodyk explained that this cost is dominated by the cost of out-of-district placement, which is required under state law in some cases. Older residents will remember the huge controversy over Chapter 766, a quintessential state unfunded mandate, which required local school districts to cover the cost of educating children with disabilities, no matter how severe. If the children cannot be adequately accommodated in the district the town must pay for tuition and the cost of transporting them to special schools, which can be many times the average cost per student in Wayland. Approximately 19% of Wayland students are in SPED, though most are handled in-district.

      After the public forum closed, the only decision made by the School Committee was to present whatever plan was decided as part of the total budget, rather than as a separate warrant article at Town Meeting. That means that voters at Town Meeting would have no direct way to reject whatever reconfiguration plan is chosen by the School Committee. They would have to delete the cost of the reconfiguration from the budget and then ask the School Committee to deal with the budget reduction by delaying the reconfiguration. Legally, the Committee could decide to make the reductions elsewhere in the budget. But School Committee Chair Barb Fletcher commented that, in such a case, they would probably honor the will of the voters.

      Discussion Continues

      At Thursday night's meeting, the second of the week, the discussion continued. Fletcher asked the committee to first decide if there is a need to act at all, either immediately or eventually, as a threshold question. Member Donna Bouchard said there isn't enough time to vet the issue before the Town Meeting deadlines. Stein told the committee he needs a decision before the end of January to be able to initiate preparation for a September implementation. Fletcher suggested a dedicated meeting to thrash it out.

      In Stein's view, there are two serious issues justifying immediate action. Having kids in a school for only one year, as the kindergarten is in Loker, is a problem. Teachers' knowledge of students is lost after only one year. And the last part of the year is taken up planning for transition. The second problem is that Happy Hollow needs more space; art and cafeteria space is too limited. Little can be done about that without some change. Secondary issues include lack of flexibility to deal with unexpected enrollment increases, and that Claypit Hill is considered just too big. It's not an emergency, he said, but if nothing is done the issues will persist.

      If action is postponed, Stein asked, what should he do with the extra time beyond the consideration already done? A fundamental issue that constrained the options is that the existing buildings are not the ones needed to deal with the current population distribution. But the reconfiguration committee did not consider extensive building projects to be an option. If that assumption were changed, there would be a new conversation.

      Member Ellen Grieco agreed that change is needed. But the proposal would add significantly to the budget on a permanent basis. What else could be done with that money? she wondered.

      Member Malcolm Astley agreed that the elementary program should be beefed up, but wondered if very much would be gained from the proposed reconfiguration.

      A separate meeting will be scheduled to deal with this issue, presumably next week.

      Tonight’s School Committee meeting is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m.

      -- Tom Sciacca


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