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WVN #236: SchoolCom rejects closure criticism

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  • waylandvoters1
    Dear Wayland Voter, An extraordinarily large crowd pummeled the School Committee with objections to the partial closure of Loker School, accusing the Committee
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 12, 2008
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      Dear Wayland Voter,

      An extraordinarily large crowd pummeled the School Committee
      with objections to the partial closure of Loker School, accusing
      the Committee of sloppiness at best, lying at worst. The
      Committee stood firm.

      Also in this newsletter: Field House renovations and problems
      with Board of Selectmen broadcasts.

      SCHOOL COMMITTEE STICKS TO CLOSURE PLAN

      The School Committee listened to harsh criticism from an
      overflow crowd of angry parents Monday night, then reaffirmed its
      decision to shut down part of Loker School by fall.

      The parents introduced videotape showing Cherry Karlson of the
      Finance Committee assuring the selectmen on March 26, 2007,
      that spending $735,000 on repairs to Happy Hollow School
      made sense because "we were told it would remain open."
      Complaining citizens interpreted this as indicating a "side deal"
      to spare Happy Hollow from closure.

      Committee members repeatedly denied there was a deal, and
      member Jeff Dieffenbach said, "I don't think the tapes show
      anything." Members' comments occasionally drew snickers from
      the crowd. Some parents could be heard in the halls later
      maintaining that there had to be a deal.

      The matter is not as simple as it may seem. There is no record
      of a vote involving Happy Hollow. An agreement made in private
      would have been illegal, and parties to an illegal agreement
      would be unlikely to admit it. Furthermore, the Committee's
      denials are consistent with events going back at least two years.
      More on that below.

      So many citizens showed up that the crowd had to be hastily
      moved to the large hearing room, occupying most of the chairs
      in a room that can hold hundreds. Dozens remained an hour for
      a second chance at public comment after the Committee's
      decision, something that hasn't happened in recent memory.
      The meeting lasted nearly 3-1/2 hours.

      PARENTS: CREDIBILITY, OVERRIDE ENDANGERED

      Speakers, including some who said they had no children at
      Loker, declared the Committee had lost credibility with voters
      and endangered passage of the property tax override on the April
      8 ballot.

      "We feel manipulated," one speaker said, adding that the recent
      formal process to select Loker as the site for all Wayland
      kindergarten classes was a sham to legitimize a decision made
      earlier.

      A traffic consultant hired by Loker parents, Michael Abend, listed
      seven reasons why Loker was a safer and better choice than
      Happy Hollow. He said the Committee had misinterpreted his
      earlier report to soften his conclusions. "Happy Hollow has clear
      safety deficiencies," Abend said.

      One speaker said the Committee had violated its own policy on
      school closures. That policy specifies a comprehensive closure
      study and encourages the Committee to seek outside expert
      advice and public participation before making a decision.

      By ignoring that process, speakers asserted, the Committee's
      choice of Happy Hollow for grades 1-5 means that students will
      have a smaller cafeteria, smaller playgrounds, longer bus rides
      and more traffic problems. The partial closure means that Loker
      will probably close completely should enrollment drop farther,
      some said, leaving Wayland without advantages that Loker
      presents in the long run. (The plan is to have 600 students at
      Claypit Hill and 400 at Happy Hollow. The town will be divided
      into two elementary districts instead of three, resulting in
      dislocations for many students.)

      Committee member Dieffenbach defended the partial losure as
      simply saving taxpayers money by acting a year before the
      change would otherwise be made.

      SECRET DEAL?

      Committee members consistently denied that they came to a
      closure agreement outside of public meetings. Member
      Heather Pineault said that when Loker parents approached her
      about the allegations in January she didn't know what they were
      talking about. "None of us were a party to making a deal," she
      said.

      So where did the FinCom member get the assurance that Happy
      Hollow would remain open to justify the high price of repairs?

      About two years ago Superintendent Gary Burton told the
      Committee that, should Wayland face the choice in years to
      come of closing a school because of declining enrollment, he
      preferred that Happy Hollow remain open, assuming that the
      roof and windows were replaced. He called the kitchen and
      auditorium preferable to Loker's. The Committee didn't question
      Burton's judgment then or later, and Burton repeated at this
      week's meeting that he had always favored Happy Hollow.

      When an override loomed in late 2005, one scenario to deal with
      a budget shortfall was closing Happy Hollow. When parents
      complained to the Committee, that option seemed to be taken off
      the table. A subsequent override passed, and in April 2007 Town
      Meeting approved the Happy Hollow windows.

      CLOSURE BACK IN PLAY

      In October 2007 the Committee approved a $538,000 contract for
      Happy Hollow windows. As the Committee began discussing
      how to cope with a possible failure of a 2008 override vote,
      Burton predicted that one school might close as early as 2012.
      Converting Loker to kindergarten-only in the mean time was
      discussed, but there was a consensus that nothing needed to
      be done immediately.

      When Loker parents complained, Burton appointed a committee
      of school officials to study long-term closure possibilities.

      Immediately reconfiguring Loker didn't come up until the
      Committee began dealing with Finance Committee budget
      guidelines and saw a need to cut about $100,000 from its
      preferred budget. The possibility of cutting skiing and some of
      the other 51 sports teams brought angry parents to the
      Committee. Committee Chair Barb Fletcher said it was time to
      reconsider reconfiguring the schools. She estimated the
      immediate savings at $400,000, more than enough to save the
      teams. (Loker parents say there wasn't enough research to
      derive an accurate figure.)

      When it decided to make Loker all-kindergarten, the Committee
      acknowledged that the decision had been quick. Loker parents
      aired their views for three hours at a Committee meeting on Jan.
      22. The Committee formally voted for the 2-1/2-school plan on
      Jan. 29 and the next day presented the budget to the FinCom,
      which expressed satisfaction. The next week the Committee
      began a public reconsideration of which school to downsize. The
      parents produced Abend's traffic study and a wide-ranging
      29-page study asserting that Loker was the better choice for
      grades 1-5 and the long-term efficiency of the schools.

      At Monday night's meeting Committee members defended the
      late public process, saying its validity was shown by the fact that
      three members changed their vote after hearing new
      information.

      What did Cherry Karlson's "we were told" mean? Though some
      Loker parents suspect a conspiracy, other explanations suffice.
      Some Wayland public officials know one another very well and
      often have worked together as members of other groups, such
      as the PTO. Call it what you will, there was clearly a shared
      atmosphere, an expectation, a presumption that Happy Hollow
      would remain open. Why else push for $538,000 for
      energy-efficient windows during difficult fiscal times?

      The path the School Committee took is consistent with the
      members' denial that there was an earlier formal agreement. It
      is not consistent with a picture of the School Committee as a
      governmental body guided by a long-term vision, following its
      own formal guidelines with a comprehensive, transparent
      process involving expert consultants and the public. First,
      members reassured Happy Hollow parents (many of whom live
      in a voting precinct that has been less supportive of recent
      overrides than some others). They accepted the
      superintendent's opinions unquestioningly. Recently they
      reassured supporters of Middle and High School athletics. But
      you can't please everybody all the time. Now Loker parents
      believe they are taking the brunt of a carelessly made decision.

      Some argued on Monday night that the only way the Committee
      can regain the trust of voters is to rescind the decision and start
      over, insisting on businesslike research and hard numbers. The
      Committee says it won't do that.

      One parent told the Committee, "You have a huge PR problem
      on your hands."

      -- Michael Short

      OVERRIDE HEARING

      Monday, March 17, 7:30 p.m., Town Building. Finance Committee
      public hearing on the fiscal 2009 property tax operating override
      of $1.896 million and debt exclusion of $1.896 million. Q&A will
      follow FinCom presentations. (An operating override increases
      taxes permanently. A debt exclusion lasts for the life of the loans;
      new debt is added as old debt expires.) The questions are on
      the April 8
      ballot.

      FIELD HOUSE RENOVATION

      This week's School Committee meeting might have been an
      unpleasant evening for officials and parents alike, but there was
      a piece of good news. The Committee voted to accept the gift of
      renovations to the main playing surface in the High School Field
      House.

      Residents raised funds to pay the entire cost, estimated at more
      than $500,000. The bleachers will be replaced and a new
      synthetic surface installed which Doug Sacra, an architect and
      Wayland resident, says should last for decades. The new floor
      and bleachers should be ready in late October.

      Because the new bleachers will be long but not tall, the floor can
      be opened up for more than 1,000 people for Town Meeting and
      rainy-day graduations.

      The aging Field House still needs a new roof and other
      renovations.

      This is the latest example of a trend, here and elsewhere, of
      private funds supplying amenities that budgets can't cover. Last
      year the Boosters raised at least 70 percent of the cost of
      artificial turf at the football field.

      OPINION
      CITIZENS DESERVE TAPED MEETINGS

      If you follow the Board of Selectmen meetings on television, have
      you noticed recent technical problems? Like most of the
      meeting missing?

      Take it from Jim Mullane, program manager of WayCAM, the
      cable channel which broadcasts the meetings along with a
      variety of other local programming: viewers notice. And when
      something goes wrong they bombard him with puzzled or angry
      phone calls.

      WayCAM isn't always the problem. Human error accounts for the
      most serious recent mishaps.

      When Wayland began broadcasting and taping selectmen's
      meetings, Jeff Ritter was the town's administrative executive
      and generally took care of the broadcasts without any difficulty.
      When Town Administrator Fred Turkington replaced Ritter, with
      bigger title, salary and responsibilities, he inherited the job of
      pushing the buttons to record and broadcast. Since then, there
      have been notable glitches.

      The most serious recent problem came on March 3, when a
      genuine technical problem knocked the live broadcast off the air.
      That in itself wasn't a huge problem, because WayCAM tapes
      for rebroadcasting. But this time there was no tape because
      somebody had stopped the recording. The meeting was, by the
      way, a significant evening that the selectmen might have been
      proud to show to voters.

      This is important because video and audio recording has
      become increasingly important in recording government action
      in U.S courts, legislatures and public meetings. Wayland offers
      good examples of its value. Just this week, Loker parents
      introduced taped evidence from a Board of Selectmen meeting
      during a presentation to the School Committee.

      When Selectman Bill Whitney was accused of failing to disclose
      a potential conflict of interest, there was no written record.
      Without the tape of his statement during a meeting there would
      have been no proof that he had obeyed the law.

      Of course recording can work against officials as well. WayCAM
      tape once disclosed that the selectmen had never taken a vote
      that was recorded in minutes.

      Why do the selectmen and their top employee seem careless in
      maintaining an important record? Nobody expects a town
      administrator to be omnicompetent. Delegation would be
      reasonable. WayCAM is a volunteer organization and says it
      can't spare someone to oversee every selectmen meeting.
      Meeting a need to keep the public informed doesn't appear to
      be exceedingly difficult. The selectmen are responsible for
      seeing that somebody does the job properly.

      One more point: The record should be permanent. The tape
      used in the School Committee meeting this week came from a
      citizen. The WayCAM original had been taped over for a later
      meeting. Surely WayCAM can find a way to maintain an archive
      for a reasonable period.

      --Michael Short

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      Wayland Voters Network
      Michael Short, Editor
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