Unofficial Minutes: School Committee Meeting 5/2/16 – Key Points and Commentary

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

Committee members: Marc Sideris, Craig Hardimon, Candace Miller, Guido Guidotti, John Portz, Elizabeth Yusem, Kendra Foley, Eileen Hsu-Balzer, Charles Kellner, Dr. Jean Fitzgerald

Remembrance
A moment of silence was observed in memory of Robert Galante, site coordinator for the Lowell School Extended Day program and director for Camp Pequossette – RIP Bob!

Recognition: Girls’ Field Hockey Team

The girls field hockey team was recognized at the ‘Girls and Women in Sports Day’ at Faneuil Hall for their recent achievements.

 

Recognition: Girls’ Basketball Team

The Girls; Basketball team recently won the Middlesex League as well as the title for Division II North Champions. The team finished the season with a record of 15-1 and competed in the state tournament where they fell 36-31 in the championship game. It was a great experience for the team and its members. This is the furthest a Watertown Girls’ Basketball team has gone in the tournament. A banner will be unveiled at the WHS gym.

Recognition: Will McDonough Writing Contest Winners

Watertown High School had 2 first place entries selected over 1,200 other participants.

  • Nicole Frisoli was the winner of the grade 11 division.
  • Sofia Farhadi was the winner of the grade 12 division.

Student Advisors

  • May 1st, National College Decision Day
  • May 19th, Senior Athletic Banquet
  • Seniors are completing the year book as well as the senior slide show
  • Math MCAS as well as AP exams are coming up for Sophomores
  • Graduation is scheduled for June 3rd

Public Forum #1

Several parents, colleagues, and friends expressed their gratitude to former Assistant Superintendent Darilyn Donovan for 29 years of service to the district and the community. Dari was praised for her commitment to the children, teachers, and the community as well as her leadership and mentoring.

Kate Coyne spoke regarding school start times. Kate highlighted the ample research highlighting the value of later school start times. The research is conclusive that later start times, not only improve academic outcomes, but also lead to better life choices. As parents and educators we need to ensure the best for the children of Watertown. A change in the school start times would be in the best interest of our community.

David Stokes thanked the School Committee and School Administration for their efforts to address the overcrowding situation in our schools. David requested, on behalf of Watertown Strong Schools, that the School Committee and School Administration move quickly and efficiently to finalize a plan to address the overcrowding issues. He also requested a schedule for meetings of the Building & Grounds Subcommittee to ensure progress is made.  David also indicated Watertown Strong Schools believes a decision to address immediate overcrowding issues for the 2016-2017 academic year needs to happen by June. Otherwise, there will be simply not be enough time for implementing the proposed solution for the 2016-2017 school year.   

Peter Caron, a parent from the Cunniff School, thanked and praised the Principals for their ability to manage and address overcrowding challenges thus far but cautioned on the impact this is having on families and educators. He indicated that the space issues at the Cunniff Elementary School are VERY SERIOUS and we are at capacity or near capacity in most other school buildings. Peter seconded the proposal for a taskforce to be formed immediately where parents, community members, School Committee, Town Council, and School Administration can work together to address overcrowding challenges near and longer term.

Judy Walsh, a former sleep technician with a degree in elementary education, also supported and encouraged the proposal for later start times indicating that start times as close as possible to 8:30 AM are desirable. Middle and High School students often get to bed around 11 PM and research indicates they need 9-10 hours of sleep. Judy indicated she had experienced the impact of school start times first hand while teaching in England.

Rebecca Grow thanked the committee for considering moving start times. She stated that later start times are important to the natural sleep cycle of teens and pre-teens. Disruptions to their natural sleep cycles and sleep needs can lead to addiction, suicide, and several other high-risk behaviors. A change to later start times would largely help prevent such behaviors.

Presentation & Discussion: Overview of the Chef Ann Foundation Grant

Stephen Marshall, Food Services Director, discussed the Chef Ann Foundation Grant recently awarded to WPS. The grant was awarded to 5 out of the 40 districts that applied and is approximately $120,000. Stephen toured the foundation’s Colorado facilities to learn about running our program more efficiently while providing healthy choices. As part of the grant, an assessment of equipment and the development needs (menus, financial, HR, equipment, facilities) is being started. The ultimate goal of the study is to improve our food service program. After the assessment, we will be eligible for additional $50,000 towards equipment and software.

Candace Miller asked when the report would be provided. The assessment will be provided before the end of 2016. Stephen indicated that while the assessment will be completed, implementing all recommendations and changes would likely take multiple years. As part of this effort, we will likely partner with a collaborative for local food procurement.

Kendra Foley asked about additional goals to which Steve indicated that the grant requires that schools pledge to remove 7 ingredients: most notably antibiotics, artificial sweeteners, and artificial coloring.

Presentation & Discussion: Wellness Committee on Research & Study of School Start Times

Donna Ruseckas, Director of Wellness & Extended Services, presented and recognized the team that helped put together this study including parent and student participants in addition to various professionals. Donna also requested School Committee further research the topic and look into the policies/solutions/practices of neighboring districts. Donna thanked School Committee Chair John Portz for his support.

The Wellness Committee reviewed all survey results and created a report detailing the findings: 

  • 122 WHS students responded
  • 127 WMS students responded
  • 205 WHS parents responded
  • 186 WMS parents responded
  • Regarding a 15-minute later start
    • 61% indicated positive impact & 13% indicated negative impact amongst WHS students
    • 47% indicated positive impact & 17% indicated negative impact amongst WMS students
    • 53% indicated positive impact & 13% indicated negative impact amongst WHS parents
    • 64% indicated positive impact amongst WMS parents
  • Regarding a 30-minute later start
    • 40% indicated positive impact & ~30% indicated negative impact amongst all students
    • 46% indicated positive impact & 31% indicated negative impact amongst WHS parents
    • 55% indicated positive impact & 17% indicated neg ative impact amongst WMS parents
  •  Regarding a 45-minute later start
    • ~50% indicated a negative impact across all students
    • 33% indicated positive impact & 46% indicated negative impact amongst WHS parents
    • 34% indicated positive impact & 45% indicated negative impact amongst WMS parents
  • 1 hours later start was highly negative due to work, family, and extracurricular conflicts

Donna elaborated that Watertown students do not have significant commutes making this change more viable than in other communities with greater transportation challenges. She also stated that extracurricular activities are a big concern if start times are delayed more than 30 minutes. Current research is very clear on the need for later start times.

The Wellness Committee’s recommendation was:

  • WHS should start 15 minutes later at 8:10 AM.
  • WMS should start 30 minutes later at 8:10 AM.
  • Elementary school start time should be largely unaffected depending on busing needs.

Eileen Hsu Balzer asked if the teacher association or individual teachers provided input. Most teachers indicated that it would be good for students and some adjustments may need to be made to the professional development schedule. There was some discussion on the negative impact for families that rely on an older sibling picking up or dropping off a younger one. The Wellness Committee believes that the Extended Day Program may be able to address some of the drop-off / pick-up challenges but it needs further investigation.

Candace Miller indicated research is clear and it is the School Committee’s duty to support best academic practices. The Wellness Committee mentioned that research also indicates that even small changes can have large positive impact and busing and cost are more significant concerns in larger communities but Watertown could make this change with lesser impact.

The Committee also indicated the research data also shows positive impact on sports.

Guido Guidotti indicated that in 10 years all districts will be doing this and we have to start earlier rather than later. All parties agreed that a change to later start times was desirable and a motion was made and approved to refer the matter to the Policy Subcommittee.

Presentation & Discussion: 2016-17 School Year Calendar (Discussion Only)

Dr. Fitzgerald indicated every effort is made to have professional days on election days such that kids are not in school at the same time as voters are going in and out of the school buildings. If this is not possible, a police detail is added.

A proposed school calendar was distributed with a start date of Thursday, September 1st for teachers and staff. Note that there are 2 professional days and Monday, September 5th is a holiday hence the first day of classes for the students is Wednesday, September 7th.

Kendra Foley expressed concern that this year the report cards were distributed 3 weeks before parent teacher conferences. Kendra though it would be more useful to have report cards distributed closer to the conference dates.

The School Committee also indicated there is a contractual obligation not to start school before September 1st and this may be revisited during the next meeting.

The proposed school calendar should be now available on the web site.

Update: FY17 Budget

After budget was voted, some additional work was done between the Town and the school administration to address some discrepancies and update previous assumptions.

The original FY17 Budget approved by the School Committee was $44,149,696.  This was adjusted to take into account the following:  increase due to one additional SPED Minuteman tuition +$4,500, 4 fewer total Minuteman tuitions currently -$65,856, charge two IAs to PreK revolving account -$50,552, additional circuit breaker use for Non-Public SPED tuition -$85,788 for a total budget reduction of $197,696.  Also, $375,000 of one-time curriculum related materials costs were taken out of the operating budget and will be funded through one-time funds from the Town.

As a result, the updated appropriation is $43,592,000, which includes $375,000 for one-time curriculum material costs. The Town Council has scheduled the WPS budget presentation for May 31st and will vote on the full budget sometime in June. 

Update: Capital Planning

John Portz indicated the importance of the capital plan is growing given the current and projected overcrowding concerns. An update on projected enrollment for the elementary school was provided. The WPS Administration is looking at all options near term as well long term. Dr. Fitzgerald indicated that enrollment numbers are being updated weekly to stay on top of trends.

Dr. Fitzgerald and Stephen Romanelli, Director of Facilities & Transportation, already investigated 15 rental spaces and visited 4. In addition, WPS have asked the Town’s on-call architect to perform assessments of spaces/options as needed.

Dr. Fitzgerald indicated that it would not be feasible to get modular classrooms in place before September. She stated all options were being explored and that she had also looked into changing grade configurations (K-1-2 and 3-4-5). Minimal redistricting to accommodate class sizes and balance students across schools was also being considered. The Chair of the Buildings and Grounds subcommittee was asked to hold a meeting the week of May 16th  to further discuss and explore space options.  Dr. Fitzgerald was very pleased with the collaboration with the Town and the Zoning Board.

The June 6th School Committee meeting will have phase I of the DecisionInsite study report. John Portz is looking at existing buildings in town – regarding their viability and cost. Candace Miller indicated concerns over class sizes and encouraged WPS to think about centralizing registration. Dr. Fitzgerald indicated she was pleased that the current version of the FY17 budget includes a registrar, which is key position in order to stay on top of enrollment trends.

Kendra Foley expressed concern about Hosmer enrollment numbers. Dr. Fitzgerald indicated some of the larger than expected numbers were due to ELL students moving into the school hence projections show some additional growth.

The key grades identified due to projected large class sizes across elementary schools were:

  • Grade 1 at Lowell (projected 24 students per class)
  • Grade 3 at Cunniff (projected 25 students per class)
  • Grade 4 at Hosmer (projected 24 students per class)

It was noted that the current projections do not account for potential changes in special education space needs. Several members shared concern over the 300+ apartments being completed in the 2016-2017 school year and potential impact on school enrollment.

Dr. Fitzgerald indicated she would favor solutions that maximize the money applied to the longer-term solution. John Portz indicated that School Committe and Administration acknowledge that there are serious space concerns and nobody expects the DecisionInsite study to conclude anything but an increase in student enrollment. The only debate is the size of that increase.

Candace Miller asked whether the study would provide demographic details. Phase II of the study due in the fall will include that detail but the initial study will not.  Concern was expressed about accounting for services beyond space (ELL, SPED, etc.).  

Vote on EDCO Amended Articles of Agreement

EDCO provides programs for kids with special needs as well as various other programs addressing a variety of needs. EDCO also offers professional development for educators. Over 2,000 educators have been trained. Last but not least, EDCO provides School Committee training. Watertown students and educators have participated in many of its programs. Some in-district training, mentoring, coaching and development has also been performed. EDCO is seeking approval for Amended Articles of Agreement, which was indeed approved. EDCO is currently in the process of doing an evaluation of WPS’s SPED programs. Elizabeth Yusem highlighted the value that EDCO has provided and thanked the Director.

Approval of Program of Studies

John Portz indicated School Committee members would rather have additional time to review and move to approve at the next School Committee meeting. The risk of not approving the ‘program of studies’ is that students are already signing up for programs that could possibly be changed / rejected by a future School Committee motion. As a result, the program was approved but several School Committee members would still like to review and provide feedback.

Candace Miller shared concerns about the limited time the School Committee devoted to reviewing the program of studies. Given the importance of the curriculum to academic success, School Committee should look at it more closely and provide more meaningful input. Guido Guidotti questioned what kind of feedback could School Committee members provide. Candace Miller responded by providing the example that many employers are requiring Computer Science as a requirement. Computer Science is not currently clear in the program of studies and those type of questions need to be asked before approval. School Committee needs to ensure students have all basic skills required by current and projected job market needs.

John Portz acknowledged the concerns but he indicated he was unclear when the right time for those conversations would be since it also impacts registration. John committed to revisit this topic and address the concerns.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer indicated computer literacy is a requirement specified on page 4. She indicated that a Curriculum Subcommittee meeting would be held on May 25th and that STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) would be discussed. She also stated a concern around the timing of the budget.  She feels that the budget needs to happen earlier or in a better way to ensure that those planning have a better idea of the funding that will be available.

The program of studies was approved but John Portz committed to revisit the concerns expressed by Candace Milller and Eileen Hsu Balzer.

Vote on “School Choice” Program

Dr. Fitzgerald asked School Committee not to participate in school choice and the motion was approved

Kendra Foley asked if Watertown ever participated in this program. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that Watertown had never participated as far as she was aware.

Approval of Minutes:

  • March 14, 2016 Special School Committee Meeting
  • April 4, 2016 Monthly Meeting
  • April 7, 2016 FY17 Budget Vote
  • April 11, 2016 Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee Meeting
  • Motion was made and approved

Reports: Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee

Elizabeth Yusem reported on the meeting held April 11th. The meeting was well attended. John Burns was honored by alumni and a plaque was donated to be placed at WMS. Contracts went out to WCAC to broadcast from various venues. The overcrowding challenges and the NESDAC study were discussed as well as modulars and various options to alleviate current overcrowding issues and possibly address future projections. The Cunniff Elementary School 4th grade overcrowding situation was noted. Concerns were shared about impact on teaching. Community members questioned the long-term strategy.

The following motions were approved:

  • Accept report
  • Plaque for Mr. John Burns at WMS
  • WCAC cameras for broadcasting from all auditoriums
  • Repurposing of fund for emergency ceiling repairs
  • Allow Mr. Krasner to form gardening group for the Hosmer Elementary school

Eileen Hsu-Balzer indicated it is important to note that not only we have overcrowding challenges but building health is also a concern and it is likely to appear in the accreditation reports when they are back.

Public Forum #2

Jim Cairns, a Cunniff parent, thanked the School Committee and the Superintendent for sharing current information and plans on how to address overcrowding issues. Jim stated their sharing helps build trust with the community. Jim also stated he is hopeful the ongoing study will help show student population demographic trends and needs for the next 2-3 years. Jim also expressed great concern from Cunniff Elementary School parents whose patience is running thin given the overcrowding issue was raised almost 2 years ago. He highlighted the importance of leadership and vision from School Committee and School administration. Jim also advocated for a community wide taskforce.

Julie Cotton, a Hosmer parent, expressed concern regarding special education programs and how the overcrowding challenges affects them. Julie requested that any plans need to pay close attention to the needs of special education students and be a key part of the discussion.

Alyson Morales spoke in support of moving start times later. She stated all the research and data shared at this meeting validate the move and it is indeed in the best interest of Watertown students.

Reports: Chairman’s

Working on retreat per MASC (Massachusetts Association of School Committees). Hoping for an update by June 6th

Reports: Superintendent’s
June 3rd is WHS graduation.

Upcoming days to keep in mind

  • Week of May 16th, Buildings & Grounds subcommittee meeting
  • May 25th, Curriculum subcommittee meeting on STEAM curriculum
  • May 31st, WPS budget presentation to the Town Council
  • June 6th, School Committee meeting, DecisionInsite to present initial enrollment study findings

Commentary:

Diego Hammerschlag:
It continues to be encouraging to see Town Council, School Committee, and school administration working together towards improving our schools on all aspects. Collaboration amongst all members of the community will certainly yield the best results.

On the overcrowding issues, it is important to note that Cunniff parents had shared their overcrowding concerns over one year ago and such issues have not been foreign to the other schools so I think all parties involved would have been better served should plans and assessments had been in place; even if forecasts would have needed some adjusting which they often do. Similarly, the enrollment study is very valuable but it has become evident to all interested parties that such issues are here to stay and immediate near term solutions are needed as well as long term plans. The sooner a long term plan is in place, the more effective the near term solution can be. Dr. Fitzgerald expressed the desire to maximize the investment towards the long term solution. While this is certainly desirable, I believe we may have to come to terms that there will be a cost associated with the near term needs that cannot be avoided and it will not be insignificant. A community taskforce could be very valuable in ensuring continued focus and progress on the near and long term challenges as well as leverage the collective expertise available in Watertown. It is imperative for the near term solution to be finalized soon if impact on students and teachers in the 2016-2017 year is going to be minimized.

It continues to be great to see the athletic and academic success of various WPS teams and individual students. This is certainly a trend we all want to continue to see.

The discussion about the program of studies is certainly a good one to have and I hope the next cycle improves on this process allowing for comments from School Committee members and the community through the appropriate subcommittees. I hope to see more activity from School committee members publicizing appropriate meetings discussing such topics.

The Wellness committee’s findings indicate the desire to align with current research and move towards slightly later start times in the best interest of WPS students. These findings also seem to support that such change is feasible and desirable to most stake holders.

Finally, I am encouraged by the continued support from Town Council and Town Manager to the commitments made to WPS in 2014-2015.

Alyson Morales:

While initially concerned that overcrowding/space discussions would be delayed as we wait for the results of the enrollment study, I was encouraged to learn that a Buildings & Grounds meeting will be scheduled during the week of 5/16.  I look forward to learning more about the options that the district has been researching (rental space, modular classrooms, and space reconfiguration).  I am hopeful that the upcoming Buildings & Grounds meeting will be more open to discussion and feedback compared to the 4/11 meeting, where attendees were limited to one opportunity to speak and ask questions.

I appreciate the work done by the administration to track enrollment on a weekly basis and for providing an update at the School Committee meeting.  I would find it even more helpful if the data was presented for both the FY16 (current class sizes) and FY17 projections along with the changes in number of students per class since the last update. I look forward to future updates as the process moves forward.

Thank you to the Wellness Committee and the Administration for their work on later school start times. As I mentioned during public comment, I would like to support the second recommendation of an 8:30am start time for WMS and WHS.  I look forward to further discussion at the upcoming Policy Subcommittee meeting. For those interested, you can read my full set of comments here.

I was encouraged to see so many speakers at both the first and second public comment session.  I would like to encourage others to attend these upcoming meetings and share their thoughts and concerns.  It is important that the School Committee and Administration hear from as many parents and community members as possible on these important issues.

Minutes written by: Diego Hammerschlag and Alyson Morales