Unofficial Minutes: Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee Meeting 10/24/16 – Key Points

Note: These are NOT official minutes.

Written by: Diego Hammerschlag

Committee members: Elizabeth Yusem, Kendra Foley, and Eileen Hsu-Balzer.

Others in attendance: Mark Sideris, School Committee member and Town Council President; Dr. Theresa McGuinness, Acting Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent; Steve Romanelli, Director of Facilities and Transportation; Deigo Hammerschlag (WSS), and David Stokes (WSS).

Shed at Hosmer Elementary School

The donation was previously approved. All concerned parties have approved the purchase and proposed location for the shed.

Given that the donation was from Lowe’s, Eileen Hsu-Balzer requested that the purchase be made from Lowe’s provided that the price and quality are comparable to the current quote provided by Home Depot. A request was also made to ensure that a ramp and a lock be provided if needed. Steve Romanelli indicated that it can be evaluated and provided at the time of the installation.

Buddy Benches in Memory of Bob Galante

A donation for the purchase of ‘Buddy Benches’ to honor Bob Galante was already approved. The money was raised through a GofundMe campaign coordinated by Maria Hinkson, a Lowell parent. The goal is to place the benches at all 3 elementary schools (Cunniff, Lowell, and Hosmer) as well as the Middle School and Victory Field.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer noted that Victory Field may not be a good location given near term renovation plans. All locations may require additional town approval given that they are not the sole responsibility of WPS. A motion was made to ensure that the cost of the installed benches not exceed the $3,540 donated and that the placement and distribution of the benches are to be coordinated by the Principals of the 4 schools mentioned.

Unofficial Minutes: Policy Subcommittee Meeting 10/20/16 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the end of the minutes.

Written by: Kate Coyne

Subcommittee members: Guido Guidotti, Chair; Eileen Hsu-Balzer; Liz Yusem; Dr. Theresa McGuinness, Acting Superintendent;

Others present: Donna Ruseckas, Director of Wellness & Extended Services; and Kate Coyne (WSS).

Drug Screening and Intervention Policy

Donna Ruseckas presented on the new state mandated drug screening law.  She presented what she would like to have changed in the policy. She explained why the changes should be made and how things would work.  The committee reworked some of the wording and settled on a draft, which Donna will present to the full SC on Monday, 10/24. 

Donna explained that they must have an evidence based screening tool and that WPS has adopted SBIRT.

Verbal screening of students is required at two grade levels in middle and high school.  Watertown has chosen to do the verbal screening in 7th and 9th grade. WPS will start in 9th grade this year, and move to both 7th and 9th grade next year.   Those grades were chosen based on data collected by WPS and information about which grades are best to perform interventions.

The School nurses will be trained and will conduct the verbal screenings.  It was stated that students could opt out if they felt uncomfortable or parents could opt their child out. 

There was some worry that parents may be very concerned about this new verbal screening.  The Subcommittee wants Donna to be ready to answer some of the privacy and screening questions that many parents are expected to have at Monday’s School Committee meeting.

Donna expressed that there will need to be a good bit of communication to parents and students around the new policy.   Parents may need to sign off on this screening as they do with many other items at the beginning of the school year.  The WPS website will need to be updated to include and explain this process. Once the full School Committee approves the policy, guidelines will be worked on to clarify the process.

Donna is to present on Monday and there will be a first reading. The vote on the policy will take place at the Tuesday School Committee meeting on 10/25 after the second reading.

Process for Hiring Interim Appointments

A copy of the policy was not handed out to the audience at the meeting, but was later posted.  The overall theme was that when a position needs to be filled for <1 year, the Superintendent has the authority to do hire an interim.  The Superintendent will send a written letter to the School Committee informing them of the need to hire an interim position.

Other agenda items

Other agenda items (Change Athletic Subcommittee to Student Development Subcommittee, and Development of School Committee Protocols) were not discussed at the meeting and were tabled for a future Policy Subcommittee meeting.

Commentary

Kate Coyne

The new mandated verbal screening for drugs, I believe, may be helpful to our children and families going forward.  My concerns (as I’m assuming other parents and students may have) are with the details of the process and privacy.  What happens if there is a red flag in the conversation? What is the process and how will this be kept confidential?  Also, this needs to be well explained to both the students and parents.  I’m hopeful that these details will all be clearly stated to the parents and students, prior to implementation.

With regard to the policy of hiring Interim positions, I would hope that there would be a bit more wording put into the policy encouraging the Superintendent to involve parents and other community stakeholders in the Interim hiring process if possible.

WSS Answers Questions About Our Position on Question 5

Since Watertown Strong Schools (WSS) released our “Fund Schools First” position statement on the CPA tax, the conversation on both sides of the issue has ramped up.  We want to take this opportunity to clarify our position and clear up some misinformation that is circulating.  We have also released a video of similar content for those that may prefer that media.

Is it true that “Yes on 5 Doesn’t Harm Watertown Schools”?

Watertown Strong Schools believes that passing the CPA now will be harmful to the future school renovation effort while CPA proponents believe that Watertown voters will pass BOTH the CPA and the future debt exclusion override in the next two years.  WSS disagrees; we are not willing to gamble that passing the CPA now will not jeopardize the coming debt exclusion vote.  Therefore, we ask you to vote NO on Question 5 now, and continue the CPA conversation after funding has been secured for renovating our school buildings.

We believe that everyone in Watertown wants better school buildings for our students, and we hope that everyone would vote to strengthen and upgrade our schools when asked.  However, Watertown is an economically diverse town.  Not everyone in Watertown can afford two tax increases – no matter how small – in a short period of time.  Many may have to prioritize their vote, especially given the tax increase on 2-family homeowners in the past year. For many of our neighbors it will simply come down to affordability, priorities and tax-fatigue.

Is Watertown Strong Schools anti-CPA and anti-tax?

No.  WSS has no position on the merits of the CPA itself.  We are against the timing.  We agree that investment in preserving and enhancing our community in the areas of historic preservation, affordable housing, and parks and open spaces are worthwhile goals.  Nevertheless, at this time, we do not see any of the needs or opportunities in these areas as rising to the same level of priority as the needed renovations of our schools.

We are not anti-tax. Our property taxes continue to fund our schools.  We will be advocating for the debt exclusion override tax in a few years and will advocate for any other tax if it maintains or improves the learning of our students and their environment.

Why is renovating our school buildings so urgent right now?

The urgency has been growing.  For the last 3 years, Watertown Public Schools has applied to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for matching funds to build a new high school per the 2014 recommendation from Oudens Ello Architecture, as a way to stave off overcrowding in our schools.

This year, however, our Elementary schools’ overcrowding became critical.  In the last year (since 10/1/15), our K-5 enrollment has grown 3.5%.  The Cunniff Elementary School has been hit the hardest, but each Elementary School has had to make adjustments:

  • Last year, at the Cunniff, art/music rooms were turned into classrooms in the middle of the school year, while Art was delivered via a mobile cart.  This year, a physical divider split a single room in two, for a 2nd grade and a 3rd grade class.
  • The Lowell had to move their computers out of their Computer Lab into their library to create a classroom for its growing enrollment.
  • A preschool class was moved out of the Hosmer in order to make space for an additional classroom.  The preschool class moved into the Phillips building, alongside an additional preschool class that was needed to meet its state-mandated enrollment requirements.
  • Enrollment was centralized this summer to the Phillips building, in order to minimize overcrowding.  If a new student’s neighborhood school was already full for their grade, that student was placed in the next closest school that had space.  Thankfully, to date, very few students have had to be placed in schools that are not their neighborhood school.

Latest enrollment forecasts project continued enrollment increases over the next 10 years:

Gr. K-5:       +112 students

Gr. 6-8:         +64 students

Gr. 9-12:       +74 students

Total:          +250 students (~9%)

For our overcrowded schools, any increase can have a significant impact.

How has the school district addressed these projected enrollment increases?

The district hired SMMA, an architecture firm specializing in education, to conduct a Master Plan Study identifying options to solve our physical space needs over the next 10 years.  A Master Plan Steering Committee – made up of a cross-section of Watertown residents, school administrators, teachers, Town Councilors, and Town planning employees – met all summer and held 3 public community forums.

This summer work resulted in several options with real drawings and associated building costs.  The final Master Plan document will be released soon, and Watertown, as a community, will need to discuss the prioritized recommendations and decide how best to proceed.  SMMA shared at the public community forum in August that the total cost estimate for all 5 schools ranges from over $160 million for the most minimal renovations to $400 million if the town decides on new construction.  WSS expects the favored option to be renovations of all 5 schools that include some reconfigured spaces necessary for 21st Century learning, which has an associated price tag over $200 million.

Won’t it take 10 years to renovate the schools?  Why are we talking about an override in 2 years if we don’t have a plan yet?

While it may take 10 years to renovate all the school buildings, the funding and initial plans for those projects will need to be completed in the next 2 years.

The first step in the process, the Master Plan, is nearly complete.  The next steps will involve community conversations to select from the recommended options and finalizing a plan of action within 6-12 months.  Once a plan is agreed upon, feasibility studies for each school building will further refine the plans and their associated costs.  When the final details and costs are identified, the Town will determine how best to pay for the renovations.

Similar to the last time our schools were updated (1998), WSS expects that some of the new renovations will be funded through the normal capital improvement plan (CIP), while some will be funded through a debt exclusion approved by Watertown residents.  The current debt exclusion will come off the tax rolls in 2018.  We anticipate the new debt exclusion vote to appear on the ballot in two years, and we expect it to cover the entire plan for all 5 schools rather than having a separate vote every few years for each phase (school) of the project. 

It will not take 5 or 10 years to solidify the funding for the school building renovations – it will take two.

What about the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) – won’t they pay for most of our school renovations?

For the last three years (2014, 2015, and 2016), Watertown has applied to the MSBA for monies to help rebuild Watertown High School, which was the priority school identified in 2014 by Oudens Ello Architecture.  We will learn in a few months if Watertown has been accepted into the program. 

It can be a long process, with multiple applications before the MSBA accepts a town into its program.  It took Belmont 10 years to be invited into the program.  Watertown might not be able to wait that long, and instead could choose to self-fund the high school renovations.  The MSBA will only fund the renovations for a single school, and would only fund about 48% of that single-school project.  As of right now, MSBA applications have only been submitted for the high school, and it is our opinion that our Elementary Schools are in more urgent need of renovation.

Doesn’t Watertown have to pass the CPA now, if it is on the ballot?

No.  Watertown already rejected the CPA once, back in 2005.  If the CPA is rejected now, it can be put on the ballot again in the future, either through a gathering of signatures or by a majority vote of the Town Council.

Can’t CPA funds be used for schools directly?

While there are benefits to passing CPA, those funds cannot be used for school renovations, unless the school is designated as “historically significant” or is on the State Register of Historic Places.  We don’t believe any of our schools currently hold either of those designations.

 

In short, WSS opposes the passage of Question 5 because the timing is wrong.  Major school renovations are urgent, imminent, and will carry a hefty price tag, which will have to be passed onto all taxpayers and likely to renters as well.  For our children, there is a lot at stake.  Quality, currently relevant education cannot be delivered in cramped, antiquated classrooms.

Let’s be sensitive to the mounting financial stresses placed on Watertown taxpayers.  Yes, some may be able and willing to pay for the CPA tax and a debt exclusion for all the school renovations, but this is a risk that parents and the community should not have to take.  Are you willing to take this risk?

 

WSS stands by its position – Schools First and then the CPA!

Unofficial Minutes: School Committee Meeting 10/5/16 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the end of the minutes.

Written by: Diego Hammerschlag

Committee members: John Portz, Chair; Kendra Foley, Vice-Chair; Guido Guidotti, Secretary; Eileen Hsu-Balzer; Candace Miller; Mark Sideris; Dr. Theresa McGuinness, Assistant Superintendent; Craig Hardimon, Human Resources Director.

Recognition: Benjamin S. Lowry, National Merit Recipient for 2015 PSAT

Postponed

High School Student Advisors

Several clubs have started their 2016-2017 activities.

Teaching & Learning Showcase: Environmental Initiatives at Watertown High School

AP Environmental Science is open to juniors and seniors. Several experiments and activities have been performed to raise awareness. For example, blind tasting of water, etc. The Environmental Club is not currently active but students hope that it will be restarted in the near future. As per future plans, they hope to start a Hydroponic garden and small scale composting.

Kendra Foley suggested environmental initiatives are good for presenting at Science Night and other events around town.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer shared several examples where small individual choices can make a larger impact on the environment.

Public Forum #1

Maria Baia, Chair of SEPAC, spoke about reaching out to the Watertown Community. Maria indicated that all SEPAC events are open to the community and most of them are of interest to all families. Detailed information about mission, schedules, and contact information can be found on the SEPAC web site or Facebook page. A SEPAC booklet was passed out as well.

David Stokes spoke on behalf of Watertown Strong Schools (WSS) urging the School Committee and public to vote NO on question # 5 on November 8th. Our schools need substantial updates in the near term, which could cost $200-400 million dollars per estimates from the recent Master plan study. WSS acknowledges the merits of the CPA but urges Watertown officials to table the CPA discussion until plans for the school buildings are finalized and tax implications are better understood. WSS believes a tax override for the CPA could jeopardize a future tax override to fund necessary school renovations. Please read WSS’ “Schools Before CPA” statement on our website.

Presentation & Discussion: Boston College Family Engagement Study

Rebecca Lowenhaupt, Ph. D. presented a study that started in 2015 as a partnership. She also reported additional grants from several universities were awarded to further fund this study. A ‘Needs Assessment’ was done across ~2600 students and their families. The study found the 5 top non-English languages spoken amongst families are Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Armenian, and Pashtu. The study looked into the demographics of various organizations that connect parents and schools (PTO, Site Council, etc.). The study confirmed healthy, active PTO and Site Council organizations and ~95% attendance of families at parent-teacher conferences. It also highlighted strong parent-teacher ties and an increasing number of family engagement activities (Movie night, Science night, etc.). Some of the gaps identified were:

  • Logistical issues for parent-teacher conferences at the high school.
  • Lower attendance rates for English as a Second Language (ESL) families.
  • ESL families also have less participation in PTO / Site Council (due to unawareness, language barrier, etc.)
  • Gaps are consistent with state and nationwide issues.

Several recommendations were made to increase school engagement with families. It was first recommended to work to minimize barriers, mainly time and schedule, and to try to reach out to families in the language spoken at home whenever possible. Also mentioned, was the importance of fostering 2-way communication instead of the traditional announcement type communication. The study plans to pilot the use of family liaisons and interpretative services.

The study also found that there is a ‘snowball’ effect when successfully reaching out to families. Interestingly, WPS web sites are of limited effectiveness given language and access challenges and texting (SMS) was found to be much more effective. Lastly, time sensitive handouts can also pose a challenge to families who do not speak English for the obvious reasons.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer identified with the findings; her Mom did not speak English fluently and engaging in school organization was not in her cultural background.

Candace Miller inquired about how the study managed to reach out to previously unreachable ESL families. She also suggested WPS add the ‘Google translate’ button wherever possible the web sites. This is a free service, which provides translation into most languages.

Presentation & Discussion: Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS)

The results of the YRBS survey were presented by Stephanie Sunderland-Ramsey and Melanie St-Pierre. In the future, a digital version of the survey will also be available. One of the key goals of the survey is to identify preventive strategies. The detailed presentation is available on the School Committee site. The following are some of the findings:

  • Tobacco use in high school is down significantly consistent with National trends
  • Alcohol use in high/middle school is slightly down. This is one of the more concerning risk behaviors given its easy access.
  • Marijuana use in high/middle school is flat. Legalization is seen as a negative step since it makes it more accessible.
  • Non-medical use of prescription drugs in high school was measured for the first time
  • Depression & suicide in high school was up. This may be due to higher incidence or due to more data available. It is being watched closely.
  • Depression & suicide in middle school was measured for first time in 2014. The data looks for periods of 2 or more weeks of sadness.
  • Bullying in high/middle schools shows a stable trend and close links to body image.

Kendra Foley asked the definition of lifetime use of drugs. This means at least 1 incidence of a minimal amount dependence on the drug.

Candace Miller re-iterated the need to convert the Athletic Subcommittee into a Student Development Subcommittee that could better addresses students’ social/emotional development.

Guido Guidotti inquired whether any substance is of greater concern. Answer was alcohol given its easy access.

Elieen Hsu-Balzer reminded all that e-cigarettes are no longer allowed in WPS properties.

Presentation & Discussion: ELL Student Progress Update

School committee and WPS administration were thanked for recent funding allowing an additional 1.5 FTE for the 2016-2017 academic year. According to the presentation, 11% of WPS students qualify as English Language Learners (ELL).

The summer program has been very successful. Amongst other things, it has prevented ELL students from regression academically and in language over the summer. ELL students face an additional challenge in that they have limited exposure to English over the summer vacation.

As in our schools during the academic year, the ELL summer program experienced some space challenges due to all of the competing programs that run in the schools. For example, it prevented concurring adult classes in the same building while the kids were in the summer program. These are important since services for adults will further whole family exposure to English as well as help with school engagement and outreach.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer indicated it was all very inspiring and confirmed the summer program is currently funded through Title III.

Presentation & Discussion: 2016-1017 Goals & Priorities for the District

Chairman John Portz distributed tentative draft goals which are available on the school committee site. SMART goals for the Superintendent have been delayed pending the hiring of a new Superintendent.

Candace Miller suggested draft goals should be better framed and cited examples such as FLES, larger language goals and STEAM fit into entire scheme of the Math & Science curriculum.

John Portz acknowledged initiatives should be better framed. 

Acting Superintendent Theresa McGuinness shared that WPS has a document that track all ongoing initiatives across the schools. She indicated WPS should be able to share this info with school committee.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer agreed with feedback about framing and stressed the importance of hiring a new Superintendent.

Appointment of Dr. Theresa McGuinness as Acting Superintendent, effective October 8th, 2016

Dr. Theresa McGuinness was approved as Acting Superintendent although approval of the contract has not happened yet.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer expressed the concern that the contract may require separate approval given that it may have impact on salary amongst other things.

Guido Guidotti questioned whether there were policies that state the Assistant Superintendent automatically becomes Acting Superintendent in any circumstance. School committee indicated that is not the case.

John Portz indicated that we are 3-4 weeks away from selecting an Interim Superintendent.

Vote on Resolution Opposing Question # 2 – Expanding the Number of Charter Schools

School committee passed resolution on opposing question # 2. This is a NO on expanding the number of charter schools and consistent with the position of teacher unions and a large number of school committees in Massachusetts.

Approval of WMS Overnight Field Trip to Washington, D.C. (April 24 – April 28, 2017)

Donations can be made. Check should be made to Watertown Public Schools and sent to the middle schools with a memo ‘Washington Trip’. Donation funds are used to help fund students that otherwise could not go.

Reports: Student Enrollment

Handouts with monthly enrollment report are available on the school committee web site. The recommendation was made to use October numbers since September numbers frequently have a number of graduating and moving students unaccounted for. Need some clarification on out-of-district students in handouts.

Middle School Principal Kimo Carter indicated churn rate numbers are misleading since they are not done across the same cohort.

Update: Interim Business Manager Search

Applications are due October 10th

Update: Interim Superintendent Search

The search committee has been identified and the position was advertised in late September. The search committee met to review applicants on 10/5. A community forum will be scheduled for October 20th. The goal is for the search committee to recommend 2 or more candidates to school committee.

The search for a permanent Superintendent search is targeted to start, in late November or early December. The permanent Business Manager search is planned to begin once the permanent Superintendent is selected.

Update: Master Planning Study

Elizabeth Yusem indicated that a draft should be complete 10/7 and is hoping to distribute the Master Plan report after the Columbus Day weekend on 10/11. A special effort has been made to make the report especially clear such that the new Superintendent, not having been part of the process, can make the most effective use of it.

Acknowledgement

School Committee acknowledged the contributions and dedication of retiring Superintendent Dr. Jean Fitzgerald and retiring Business Manager Mr. Charlie Kelner throughout their years of service. 

Next Meeting & New Business

While the next School Committee meeting is scheduled for November 14th, due to the search for Interim Superintendent and Business Manager, it is highly likely that the School Committee will meet one or more times before then.

Candace Miller requested a calendar be announced with tentative Subcommittee meeting dates. There is a great deal of activity ahead of us and publishing a calendar early would help all interested parties.

Candace Miller also requested that new School Committee members be provided a tour of all schools in the district.

Commentary

Diego Hammerschlag
It is evident that there are a number of important hiring decisions ahead of us. Two important challenges stand out. One is that several positions, such as Business Manager, are essential for the day to day operation of WPS and should be addressed, whether temporary or permanently ASAP. The second one is that we should use all our past experiences to ensure a sound, clear, and transparent process that leads us to the best hires for our district.

The engagement study showed some clear value in engaging the community and also helped identify some strategies that may help non-english speaking families in our district. This study tied nicely into the progress that has been made with ELL students and hope to continue in the future.

I also want to acknowledge our Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Theresa McGuinness, for not hesitating to take on the additional responsibilities during this challenging transitionary period. I hope we can all support her throughout this time.

Of no lesser importance was the Youth Risk Behavior Survey presentation, which clearly identified many of the challenges in our community. I believe the findings should help us implement measures towards a healthier community and successful youth.