Unofficial Minutes: School Committee Meeting 4/4/16 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes


Two WHS seniors, Julia Harrington and Emily Hart won gold key awards at the Boston Globe Scholastic Art Awards.

The School Committee welcomed Kathleen Desmarais, the new Special Education Director, and Theresa McGuinness, the new Assistant Superintendent. They begin in Watertown on July 1, 2016.

Public hearing on the FY 2017 budget

This hearing is required by state law to give an opportunity for public comment on the school budget. The School Committee will vote on the budget on Thursday, April 7.

WPS Superintendent Dr. Jean Fitzgerald presented the budget

Various enrollment numbers were presented. The numbers presented for the five schools for the current year were reported to be accurate as of Thursday, March 31. It is expected that enrollment numbers will increase. The consulting company, Design Insights, will show the impact on enrollments, if any, of new housing developments in Watertown.

In 2016-2017, there are projected to be a total of 48 out of district special education placements.  This is a drop from the 55 placements in 2015-2016.  The number of students on IEPs going to Minuteman is expected to increase from 36 students in 2015-2016 to 37 in 2016-2017.

The total number of English language learners last year was 217. This year the number has increased to 264. Spanish, Portuguese, Pashtun, Arabic, and Armenian are the main languages other than English spoken in our schools.

The budget presentation describes the vision, strategic goals, and budget priorities of the district. Strategic goals include supporting high academic achievement, fostering capacity for life-long learning, and promoting local and global citizenship. Priorities include: (1) safe physical environment conducive to learning, (2) academic programs to support the strategic goals, (3) student support programs (special ed, mental health of all), and (4) ancillary services (administrative staffing).

WPS Business Manager Charles Kellner reported on projected costs for next year and priority requests. He noted there are fewer known variables than usual this year.

The FY2017 budget request is for $44,149,696. The current FY2016 budget is $41,452,000. The FY2017 request is $2,697,696 higher than last year, an increase of 6.51%.

Last year the town appropriation included augmentation in the amount of $375,000 for one-time funds. Factoring in the one-time funds, the FY2017 budget request is 5.5% higher than FY2016.

The budget includes 20.25 FTE new positions. Another 13 FTE are scheduled to phase-in in FY2018.

Sources of funding besides the town appropriation include grants, circuit breaker funds, and major budget offsets. These sources and amounts are itemized on page 25.

The amount of circuit breaker funding depends on previous year expenses. Circuit breaker funds reimburse for certain high cost SPED costs per child. Expenses are reimburse-able at a certain threshold. The amount also depends on total state claims. We are advised to project about 70% reimbursement (a conservative projection). We will be able to carry forward about $800K to the circuit breaker fund next year.

Budget - Public Comment

Michael Dattoli remarked that it is great to see the foreign language piece in the elementary school plan. Given space restrictions, overcrowding, and enrollment projections for next year, how would we implement this foreign language program?

Dr. Fitzgerald responded that the foreign language teaching will be done in the classroom, and therefore doesn’t require additional space.

James Cairns expressed concern that short-term relief to overcrowding is not addressed in the budget. John Portz confirmed that the School Committee would request additional funds from the Town Council if necessary.

Alyson Morales asked about Middle School class sizes in the budget presentation – some numbers look off (p 6) WMS Principal Kimo Carter confirmed that a correction needs to be made to the report of enrollment for the current year. The presentation shows 7th and 8th grade to be the same size, but the 7th grade actually has more sections.

Budget - Discussion among School Committee members

For the vote on the 7th, School Committee members can request other information. More details will be prepared for the Town Council after the budget is approved. The approved school budget goes to the town manager who incorporates it into the full town budget for next year.

Candace Miller noted there is no narrative in the budget to explain how new initiatives will be implemented and how they support the budget goals.

John Portz responded that the narrative will be in the budget book for Town Council.  In the past it has been done in different ways, e.g., have had narratives related to cost centers.

Eileen Hsu-Balser expressed “a plea to include the one-time funds in our base: every year we need more books, more supplies, have more students – it really is part of the budget we need to run our schools.” She added, “Calling this part of the budget ‘one-time funds’ implies it’s extra when it’s really basic funding.”

Kendra Foley asked if our practice of carrying forward funds to the circuit breaker allocation is the same as in other districts. Charles responded that not all districts carry the circuit breaker balance forward, but it is a goal because of the volatility of SPED needs. In some years we have had unanticipated placements and no funds (e.g., four unexpected out-of-district placements amounting to $600K one year). He advised that using the carry-forward we can build up a reserve. Not spending the circuit breaker if we don’t have to allows us to deal with unforeseen things in future years. Some other districts try to carry the full amount of circuit breaker forward to the next year. This is not something we can expect to happen in Watertown. He also reminded all that a couple of years ago the Town established a stabilization fund for SPED expenses. Carrying funds forward for SPED alleviates the need to build up that fund.

There was also discussion of Chapter 70 funds, which go to the town, based on education needs. They are not shown as an offset to the school budget but as part of the town’s budget. They become part of the town allocation to the schools. The amount of these funds was unclear.

Candace asked about enrollment and class size disparities. She noted that in some places of the budget presentation the numbers are off by a few, in some places they are off by 40-50. Enrollment numbers are to be revisited.

John noted a significant drop in out of district placements for SPED from 77 to 48. He suggested this data be reviewed more closely and in relation to our in-district programming.

There was discussion of new positions and health care costs, which are borne by the town. One way Mr. Kellner tried to anticipate these expenses is to review the new positions to see if incumbents are present who would become eligible for health insurance. Since not all positions will be new hires, the data is incomplete. Several PT positions will become FT.

The Chair expressed full support for the new positions, particularly for foreign language at the elementary schools, which the Committee started discussing 4-5 years ago. He mentioned a Globe article in today’s paper on the importance of developing bilingual skills, adding this program fits the global citizenship goal.

It was also noted that some of the new positions are critical to our reading, and English language learner programs.

Curriculum planning process in Watertown – 30K foot view

Dr. Fitzgerald presented an overview of curriculum planning, including maps and frameworks that come from the state.

Discussion related to integration of curriculum K-12; influence of state frameworks on planning; and curriculum cycles. Integration between lower and upper grade curricula is supported with structured meeting time for reading, math, and science coordinators as well as a K-12 STEAM team. Transitions between 8th and 9th grade have been assisted and there will be a focus on improving transitions between 5th and 6th grade. 

Curriculum planning cannot rely on the state frameworks because they get outdated. For example, the science tests didn’t change so classes had to retain older material while seeking to advance the level of education.

There is a goal to get on a five-year cycle for curriculum reviews. First there is a need to bring all subjects up to standard. The superintendent remarked that the administration was able to start planning again with the budget increase made three years ago. Before that, because of the lack of funding, she stopped asking for five-year plans.

There will be opportunity for a more in-depth discussion at the subcommittee level.

Third Party Review

A set of 29 recommendations from the third party review was distributed and assignments were made to follow-up on each. The work was divided among school administrators and school sub-committees. Reports on this work will be due to the School Committee in the Fall.

School hiring

Kendra Foley asked whether the schools could hire in advance of the town budget approval, subject to appropriation, to get ahead of the curve. The superintendent agreed to look into the possibilities for hiring staff in advance of the town budget approval. Other districts hire in February and March; Boston is hiring now. Replacements may be hired once their resignation letter is in hand.

Statement of interest (SOI) and capital planning

The School Committee and Town Council approved the SOI for a new high school and it was being submitted soon (due 4/8). Overcrowding is a key part of the argument. The town is permitted to update the SOI between now and when the MSBA deliberates at the end of December. If NEASC issues a warning about our building, this point can be included and would help our cause. Dr. Fitzgerald plans to add the new enrollment study data as well.

Mark Sideris recommended that we expand the capital project program, which may need additional funds, to upgrade what we have now. He said we need to do more than what we can do in the summer, a topic to discuss at the 4/11 Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee meeting.

Education program – Les P’tits Bous French Immersion

This private school based in Watertown operates in Kindergarten and 1st grade. Two representatives brought a request to expand to 2nd grade in AY2017. The school eventually would like to extend to the 5th grade.

There are 40 students this year; 47 expected next year. Two locations – Medford, Watertown. They expect to have 60 students all together and are seeking a new location to support expanded programming. Students come from Arlington, Lexington, Waltham, Watertown, Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, and other nearby towns.

Ten families moved to Watertown from France, Switzerland, and other French-speaking countries. (It was implied they were attracted to Watertown because of the French school.) 

State law requires the School Committee to approve changes like this for private schools; the vote supported the request.

There was talk of connecting French language students and teachers with the school.

Increase early steps integrated preschool tuition

The School Committee was asked to vote on a tuition increase – the first in three years. In discussion, Candace Miller asked about the intent of the program. She commented that the preschool is pretty low cost compared to private options but still prices out low-income families. Adding that 30% of our kids qualify for free or reduced meals, she asked if these kids are represented in the preschool, noting the positive impact that high quality preschool has on early learning skills. She commented that for many families the tuition increase wouldn’t be a big problem but wondered about low-income families.  

John Portz expressed interest in exploring how sliding scales work and potentially applying them to the preschool program.

Eileen Hsu-Balser commented that the original purpose of the preschool was to offer mandated services to children from age 3 who have special needs. It is not a means tested program – people get in by lottery. She added that the program started as SPED support with some general education students mixed in. She advised that the SC needs to decide to pass or not pass the increase so current parents know what they’re facing for next year.

Candace expressed appreciation for information about the intent of the program. She agreed with Eileen that the question of changing the program or providing one to support low-income families might be pursued at a different time. The preschool is an important resource that could help improve reading district-wide.

The SC supported the tuition increase.

Budget & Finance Subcommittee Report

Topics discussed at recent meetings:

March 14 –new initiatives – maker space at MS, 1:1 chromebooks, Project Lead The Way, foreign language in the elementary schools, music, preschool

March 28 – budget overview, revised list of new positions, grant history, revolving accounts, preschool tuition, budget by cost center and object code – these minutes are online

Chairman’s report

Collective bargaining process negotiations have started.

At a retreat a few weeks ago, facilitated by MASC, the SC discussed roles, policy, and management issues. Protocols on how to communicate within the SC, with the superintendent, and with the public were also discussed. Another retreat addressing substantive topics will be held in June.

Superintendent’s report

The school start time survey was re-opened and sent out again.

The district is purchasing Power school, a student information system. Administrative assistants are training on it now and changes will take effect for parents in the Fall.

On April 11, WPS & Watertown Police are giving student leaders from the middle school and high school a design challenge to create a club to help oppose the use of drugs/alcohol. Kimo Carter will work with the students along with innovation specialist.

They will report back in June when the full program plan is ready.

New business

Candace Miller asked to consider expanding the Athletics Subcommittee scope more broadly to student development, including topics like mental health, school start times, alcohol, drug, health issues, music arts/extracurriculars relating to the whole person. She did not find a clear articulation of the subcommittees in the policy document. The topic was referred to the Policy Subcommittee.


Several good ideas were mentioned in this meeting:

·      Expanding the athletics subcommittee scope to look at student wellness: there are several important health issues (e.g., mental health, opioid abuse) that the School Committee in partnership with other town agencies and WPS offices could help the town, the school system, and families to address

·      Getting ahead of the teacher hiring curve

·      Exploring possibility of expanding public preschool opportunities with the aim of strengthening district-wide literacy and leveling the playing field for low-income families

·      Carrying forward funds to support unforeseen SPED expenses – I support this approach; at the same time, should there be so many funds to carry forward? Eight hundred thousand seems like a lot of money; if we have this much left over, might we be using some of it on such things as newer text books rather than purchasing older ones that cost less?

·      Foreign language for elementary school students is a great idea – glad to see that program in the budget

·      Support those who request a stronger narrative in the budget, connecting plans with educational goals. We need a narrative that expresses the plan more coherently.

·      Wish the reported enrollment numbers were consistent. There are a lot of unknowns but, at least the known numbers for the present and rolling into the next year should be reported accurately.

Written by: Rebecca Grow