Unofficial Minutes: School Committee Meeting 6/13/16 – Key Points and Commentary

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

 Written by: Pete Caron, Julie Cotton, Kate Coyne, Alyson Morales, and David Stokes.

Committee members: John Portz, Chair; Kendra Foley, Vice-Chair; Guido Guidotti, Secretary; Eileen Hsu-Balzer; Candace Miller; Mark Sideris; Liz Yusem; Dr. Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Charles Kellner, Director, Business Services; and Craig Hardimon, Human Resources Director.

Audience members: Mena Ciarlone, Cunniff Principal; Elizabeth Kaplan, Lowell Principal; Bob LaRoche, Hosmer Principal; Kimo Carter, Middle School Principal; Shirley Lundberg, High School Principal; Donna Ruseckas, Director of Wellness & Extended Services; Toni Carlson, K-12 Educational Technology and Library Coordinator; Lauren Harwood, Accountability Data Manager; Michael Lahiff, Athletic Director; Todd Robbins, TV Productions; Vincent Piccirilli, Town Council Vice President; Michael Dattoli, Town Councilor; Tony Palomba, Town Councilor; Steve Magoon, Assistant Town Manager/Director of Community Development & Planning; Tom Tracy, Auditor/Assistant Town Manager; Brandt Brisson, WSS; Jim Cairns, WSS; Pete Caron, WSS; Julie Cotton, WSS; Kate Coyne, WSS; Diego Hammerschlag, WSS; David Stokes, WSS; Alyson Morales, WSS; Elodia Thomas; Mike Shephard; and many other parents, teachers, and community members.

Recognition Of Retirees, John Vitti, Boston/New England National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and Athletics

  • Retirees

o   Susan Cole, Hosmer Elementary Teacher, 36 years

o   Joan Corkery, High School Nurse, 31 years

o   Eleanor Donato, Middle School Teacher, 31 years

o   Margaret McDonagh, Evaluation Team Coordinator, 35 years

o   Judith Powers, ESL Teacher, 16 years

  • John Vitti:  The Superintendent and the SC wanted to recognize John Vitti for his years of tireless, unending devotion to journalism in WPS schools.  Toni Carlson recounted all of the great volunteer work done by John. Since 2007, John has volunteered his time, talents, and treasure to create and grow student newspapers in several WPS schools: Cunniff Kids News, Watertown Splash (WMS), and Raider Times (WHS).

  • Boston/National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences: WHS Senior Rebecca Grossman created and entered a poetic documentary titled “Latent” and won the 2016 Boston/New England National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Award for “Editor at the High School Level” and 3 additional “Honorable Mention” awards.
    • Athletics:  

o   Mr. Lahiff, the Athletic Director, gave out awards to seventeen seniors that participated in sports in all twelve seasons of their high school careers.

o   Girls Lacrosse was honored for winning the Middlesex League title.

o   Four track athletes (a relay team) will be going to Nationals in Greensboro, NC – although not as a WPS-sanctioned athletic event, in accordance with MIAA rules.

Public Forum #1

No speakers

DecisionInsite Enrollment Report

DecisionInsite (DI) had intended to present in person last week, but due to errors discovered with some of the data, and the presentation being rescheduled to this week, they were unable to attend in person. The DecisionInsite Enrollment study was presented remotely instead.  

The presenter walked through the slide deck, discussing the context of population and demographics in town.  Large-scale developments will primarily fall in the current Hosmer and Cunniff districts.

Historical enrollment numbers are all Spring-based enrollment numbers due to technical limitations from the District’s current systems in providing Fall data.  For the sake of an “apples-to-apples” comparison, the projected numbers are also Spring numbers.  Guido Guidotti asked what the numeric difference between WPS’s Fall and Spring numbers was.  DI wasn’t provided any Fall data and, as a result, was not able to answer this question.

Significant factors affecting the prediction of enrollment numbers over the next five years include: Kindergarten enrollment numbers, “cohort aging”, and new unit developments in Watertown.  DI referred people to their Methodology White Paper for additional detail on their methodology.  Cohort aging describes the trend of enrollment of a particular grade as they move from one grade to another.  DI stated that Kindergarten enrollment has been on a downward trend over the last few years. They also stated that they normally see enrollment increase from Kindergarten to first grade as students leave private Kindergarten programs, home schooling, etc., to join the public school system.  However, they describe seeing the opposite trend in Watertown; there is a decrease in students from Kindergarten to first grade. They did not have an explanation for this trend.

There are 1,398 new units that will be coming online through 2019 that are estimated to add a total of 273 students (a 10% increase) in the next four years across all schools.  Since this data is dependent on known developments in town through 2019, their predictions are as follows over the next 4 years (2016-2019):

  • Cunniff Elementary: 307 to 282 = Loss of 25 Students (-8%)
  • Hosmer Elementary: 540 to 602 = Gain of 62 Students (+11%)
  • Lowell Elementary: 403 to 404 = Gain of 1 Student (0%)
  • Middle School: 584 to 633 = Gain of 49 Students (+8%)
  • High School: 695 to 752 = Gain of 57 Students (+8%) 
  • Totals over 4 years: 2,529 to 2,673 = Gain of 144 Students (+5.7%)

In summary, there are predictions of fluctuation in enrollment across the various schools in the district culminating in a net gain of an additional 194 students over the next five years.  According to this study, there is a downward trend of enrollment at some of the schools due to some classes aging out to the middle/high schools.

Assistant Town Manager/Director of Community Development & Planning, Steve Magoon spoke to questions raised about residential development (“teardowns”) in town beyond the large-scale developments.  He estimated residential development that resulted in a net gain of housing units to be approximately 10 per year on average.  It was his opinion (with agreement from DI) that this number wouldn't be statistically relevant for the sake of planning and didn’t add additional data to the data used by DI. The Superintendent stated that the District isn’t tracking the number of students coming from “teardowns”.

More questions about empty nesters moving out and families moving in without a net change in units available were again assumed to be statistically irrelevant.  It was the opinion of Steve Magoon that these numbers wouldn't add useful information to the planning process and would average out across the District.

Revised FY17 Budget

Charles Kellner presented the revised FY17 Budget.

Candace Miller asked what amount we have in revolving funds, etc., that is not stipulated for grants or any other purposes, which would be available to fund the construction costs at the Phillips.  Most of the available money is in the circuit breaker carryover amounts. This part of the discussion got a bit confusing for the audience members as there was no documentation, and all of the discussion was verbal.  Some of the discussion was tabled until the presentation on Proposal #3 (for renovating the Phillips School), which was next on the agenda.  The total estimated available funds after subtracting costs associated with the new proposal (personnel, construction, etc.) were approximately $1.2M. 

Candace Miller asked if we should be voting on any re-appropriation of funds. John Portz stated that the School Committee wouldn’t have to do that now, but could do that later.  Candace stated that she wanted to ensure that the budget was transparent so that we know from where the funds are coming and to where they are going.

The revised FY17 budget was approved.

Plan to Renovate First Floor of Phillips Building and Allocate Classes

The Superintendent recommended Proposal #3, which creates space for two Early Steps Preschool classrooms at the Phillips building.  One classroom will be a new classroom to accommodate students on the waiting list, while the other space will be occupied by an existing Early Steps classroom that will move from the Hosmer into the Phillips.

There will be some shuffling of space within each of the three Elementary schools. The Hosmer will create a needed 4th grade classroom with some creative shuffling to take advantage of the vacated Early Steps space.  The Lowell will gain a needed 1st grade classroom by moving the Computer Lab to the library and using that vacated space.  The Cunniff will create a space for art/music (depending on the project and/or class) with some internal shuffling, including combining some special education space into space vacated by co-teachers that will be moving into classrooms. The Cunniff 2nd/3rd grade classroom will be in the space currently used by the third 4th grade class, which was previously the art/music space.

Costs associated with this proposal totaled $400K+ ($219,000 in construction and architectural costs + $232,148 in salary costs + $11,905 in other costs = $463,053). Dr. Fitzgerald also stated that part of the new proposal is to hire a full-time Registrar (rather than the 0.5 Registrar that they originally requested in the FY17 budget), allowing the District to begin centralized registration, with a goal of assigning students to schools based on class size.

The Superintendent then presented the new 2016-2017 WPS Elementary enrollment projections. The Lowell 3rd and 4th grade will have the largest projected class sizes in the district under the new proposal.  Also, the Cunniff seems to be projecting a decline in K-5 enrollment, while the Hosmer and Lowell are projecting increases.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer was grateful to the Superintendent for the third plan and thanked her for basing her recommendation not on a political decision, but rather what is best for the students of WPS.  Eileen had concerns about the cap on enrollment but thought this was the best plan so far.

Mark Sideris stated that he felt that the biggest issue during this whole process was communication.  He apologized for the lack of communication and feels we can do a better job.  He believes this proposal is the best option because it causes the least problems for parents and students.

Kendra Foley thanked the Superintendent for her work and thanked parents for attending meetings and being involved in the process.  She went on to explain why she felt that the current recommendation was the best one.

Candace Miller still had concerns about the current proposal and wanted to know how growth in enrollment will be handled if we gain students in grades that have reached capacity at schools that have no more available space.  Liz made a motion to table the question, and it was never answered.

The Superintendent’s recommendation was approved.

Mark Sideris made a motion to direct the Superintendent to accept new student registrations, but to delay placements of any students until the end of August, starting immediately.  The motion included a referral to the Policy Subcommittee to work out the details of assigning new students to schools.  The motion was approved after much discussion.

Special Public Comment Related to Space Concerns

Diego Hammerschlag spoke about the lack of communication throughout the process.

Michael Dattoli, Town Councilor and Lowell parent, spoke about concerns with the recommended proposal and felt that it didn’t do much to free up space.  He was concerned how MAP testing would be handled, as the Lowell is moving its computer lab to the library in order to make space for the new first grade classroom.  He was also concerned about the size of the room.  Elizabeth Kaplan, Lowell Principal, stated that they started using Chromebooks for MAP testing in the upper grades, so testing should be ok. She is working with the Librarian to envision how to arrange the library space to include the computers. She also stated that the computer lab is an appropriate size for a classroom.

Michael Dattoli also commented on modular classrooms. He stated that they would have been a better option.  He said, while they aren’t perfect, they can be connected to the school, and that they are often nicer than some traditional classroom spaces.  He currently teaches in a modular classroom.

Eleanor Donato, retiring WMS teacher, stated that the conversations around space reminded her of 1984 when Watertown started closing schools.  She thought it might be beneficial if a town-wide PTO was created, similar to the PTU that was created back then.  It was a solution that provided parents and teachers from the different schools an opportunity to come together as a single community, around a single purpose, and share with one another and the Superintendent their concerns and solutions.  She stated that there are several people in town that could advise how the former PTU group was created and used.

Kate Coyne, a Lowell parent, stated that she agrees with Diego Hammerschlag’s concerns and was also very disappointed. She stated that they (School Administration & School Committee) had dropped the ball with respect to overcrowding, not only this year but in the past couple years. This has been an ongoing issue.  Many of the solutions, like modular classrooms, were not looked into in an earnest and in a timely manner.  There is no data even to date for modular classrooms, we cannot make a decision for or against without it!  There was time to get this data in Feb and March.  Looking forward, she was hopeful that the Master Plan Steering Committee would bring open communication and good solutions for our children’s education.  She then reiterated what Diego stated about the lack of communication.  Everyone in the room had been affected by the lack of communication and timeliness.  Hopefully, the School Committee and Administration can do better going forward.

Steering Committee for Master Plan Study

John Portz announced the recommended Steering Committee members.  The Steering Committee will meet every two weeks.  The first meeting will be held on Wednesday, 6/15/16 at 6:00pm in the Innovation Room on the 3rd floor of the Phillips building.  The list of Steering Committee members is as follows:

  • Liz Yusem – School Committee – co-chair

  • John Portz – School Committee – co-chair

  • Jean Fitzgerald – Superintendent, Watertown Public Schools

  • Charles Kellner – Business Manager, Watertown Public Schools

  • James “Kimo” Carter – Principal, Watertown Middle School

  • Toni Carlson – Coordinator of Digital Learning, Watertown Public Schools

  • Debra King – WEA President, Middle School teacher

  • Michael Dattoli – Town Councilor, Chair of Eductation Subcommittee

  • Vincent Piccirilli – Town Councilor, Vice President

  • Steven Magoon – Director, Community Development and Planning, Assistant Town Manager

  • Pete Caron – Community Member (Cunniff and Early Steps parent)

  • Elaina Griffith – Community Member (Cunniff parent)

  • Chris Lowry – Community Member (High School parent)

  • Alyson Morales – Community Member (Middle School parent)

  • Lindsay Mosca – Community Member (Lowell parent)

  • Mike Shepard – Community Member (Middle School parent) 

The Steering Committee members were approved.

Approval of Student Handbooks

Shirley Lundberg remarked on the few minor changes to the WHS Student Handbook.

John Portz identified that the School Committee members listed in Handbooks were not completely accurate.  Jean said that she’d be sure the list gets fixed, and that that was usually caught during the final review before publishing.

Kimo Carter and Bob LaRoche confirmed that there were no significant changes (only minor tweaks) to either the WMS or Elementary Student Handbooks.

Acceptance of Gifts

The Suicide Prevention Funding Group donated $200 to the Hoops for Hope effort at WHS, which was accepted.

The Watertown Community Foundation donated $5,000 in the form of a grant for the Parent-Child Home Program, which was accepted.

Approval of 6/6/16 School Committee Minutes

The minutes were approved.  Candace commented that she appreciated the timeliness and completeness of the minutes, given that the meeting had only occurred 1 week ago.

Public Forum #2

Jim Cairns asked that the School Committee include maximum recommended class sizes in the new policy and follow that when placing students.

Chairman’s Report

John thanked the Superintendent, the Business Manager, and the Central Office staff for their work in putting together the revised FY17 budget.

Superintendent’s Report

Jean noted that today (6/13) she accepted another $150,000 grant from the Massachusetts Office of Victims Assistance (MOVA) for next year.  She expressed much gratitude and excitement at the fact that WPS will be able to have another dynamic speaker come to Watertown, along with other smaller activities, because of this grant.

Next Meeting

The next School Committee meeting will be held on Monday, 7/18/16 at 7:00pm in the Council Chamber at Town Hall.

New Business

In the vein of his comments about better communication with the Community, Mark requested that the School Committee agendas have the supporting documents linked to each item (provided they are available at the time of the agenda’s publication), as the School Committee had agreed and started to do back in November.  Jean said that she was not aware that the agendas did not have links any longer, and that she would make sure all agendas going forward did provide links to the supporting documents.

Commentary

Alyson Morales

I would like to start by thanking all of the retiring teachers for all of the amazing work they have done on behalf of our students. Congratulations on your well deserved retirement!  Thank you to Mrs. Donato for her great suggestion on a town-wide PTO to connect parents at different schools to discuss concerns and solutions.  If any of you are ever bored with retirement, Watertown Strong Schools would welcome your insight and benefit from your experience!

Regarding the DecisionInsite (DI) report, aside from the technical difficulties, I found it lacking.  The report left me with more questions than answers.  I feel we would have been better served having a meeting solely devoted to this presentation, so that there would be more opportunities to discuss their methodology and assumptions.  I don’t know much about forecasting enrollment, but I feel I do know when things don’t look right.  Some of my questions include the following:

  • DI is projecting no new K-5 students next year, does that make sense? WPS Administrators are projecting growth.

  • If we subtract DI’s forecast for students from new development from the total forecast, our enrollment would be in steep decline. Does it make sense that we would lose 258 K-12 students from the 2015-2016 school year to the 2024-2025 school year without new development?

  • What assumptions are they using to determine the number of students coming from new development? Did they look at historical Watertown rates for the number of students in large developments? In 2016, DI seems to be assuming that there are students in 17.5% of the total apartments from new development, and that rate increases to 22.68% by 2025. The current 2016 rate in Watertown for students in large apartment complexes is 6% for total occupied units, and 12% for 2-3BR units. Looking at historical Watertown data, the DI assumptions seem high.

  • From the questions and answers during the discussion, it seems that “teardowns” were not factored in according to DI and Steve Magoon.  It would have been helpful to see the data.

  • Also from the questions and answers during the discussion, it seems like “generational” turn over (older people moving out and young families moving in), was also not a factor considered according to DI and Steve Magoon.  Mr. Magoon seemed to suggest that the effect would be negligible.  I would have liked to see the data on this, as we have heard anecdotally that the surge in students is coming from this effect more than from new development. I am not sure they actually have data on this and I think this is more of an opinion on his part.

We have now had two enrollment studies done and they offered very different results. The NESDC study done in January was based on births among other things and did not factor in new development.  The NESDC study forecasted an additional 123 students in K-5 by the 2024-2025 school year.  DI forecasted that we would lose 81 K-5 students in that same timeframe.  The NESDC study, forecasted that we would gain 239 K-12 students over this time period, while the DI study forecasted a gain of 59 K-12 students over this time period.  SMMA, the architectural firm contracted to conduct the Master Plan Study, will have its work cut out for it trying to reconcile these studies and coming up with an enrollment forecast to help inform our space needs going forward.

Regarding the short-term space plan recommended by the Superintendent and approved by the School Committee, I understand why it was chosen.  Our backs were up against the wall, time was running out, and it was the easiest choice to make.  I am still not convinced it was the best choice. Centralized enrollment will help but I am skeptical that it will save us.  I will be surprised if we don’t see a “Cunniff-like” situation crop up during the coming school year, most likely at the Lowell. I sure hope I am wrong.   

I still feel that modular classrooms are the best short-term solution as we try to determine our long-term space needs.  I don’t think that they were ever properly investigated as an option.  They are not “trailers” as the Superintendent and Eileen Hsu-Balzer like to describe them.  Many towns use them to solve short-term space issues.  The Master Plan study will provide us with some options, but we will still need to decide which option is best for Watertown.  We will need to have community-wide discussions, and build town-wide support.  I don’t want us to rush the process, as this decision will have long lasting financial and educational implications.  We need to ensure that we choose the right solution.  I believe modular classrooms could buy us that time and they could be repurposed in the future as swing spaces during any future construction.

The discussion around the motion for centralized registration and to not assign students to schools until August was also a bit confusing.  I hope that when the issue is taken up by the Policy Subcommittee, some clear guidelines and procedures are put in place.

I found the discussion about finances hard to follow.  The FY17 Revised Budget was straightforward enough given that there was a handout, but the following discussions about available funds and the costs associated with the approved short-term space plan were very hard to follow and understand.  I understand that Mr. Kellner has to answer verbally when asked unexpected questions, but the information was very hard to hear and track.  He really needs to remember to turn on his microphone.  The question about costs associated with the short-term space plan recommended by the Superintendent was anticipated, but the audience was not provided a copy of the document.  It would have made it easier for the audience to follow the discussion.

The bottom line to this whole process is that better communication is needed.  Parents felt jerked around at the end of the school year from proposal to proposal.  This could have been avoided if the School Committee took up this space issue earlier.  As others have mentioned, we have known about this issue for several years.  The district needs to do better going forward.  We have an opportunity for more transparency and better communication this summer with the Master Plan study.  As a member of the Steering Committee I will do my best to work towards that goal.

Julie Cotton

I found this meeting to be, overall, quite frustrating. Certainly, we're at an impasse now where there are very few options that can be implemented quickly; still, it seems we're in more of a holding pattern for another year than creating forward momentum towards viable overcrowding solutions (though I remain optimistic about the Steering Committee's work to be done over the summer). I found it refreshing that Candace Miller questioned the fact that the third proposal came late, with few details, and was the only option left on the table by the time the School Committee was asked to vote. I understand the need for an expedient decision but was glad to see that there was still a call for clarification and accountability-- we are where we are, but certainly we can highlight why we should never have been in this position to begin with.

Many information-heavy parts of the meeting were difficult to follow. Technical issues with the DecisionInsite conference call muddied the sound volume and clarity, creating significant challenges for the audience in following along with the presentation. This is especially disappointing given the number of questions that remain surrounding the content of the enrollment report, and considering the fact that a DI representative would have been physically present for the presentation last week if they had not made a significant data error in the first version of that report. In addition, Charlie Kellner's presentation of financial information was challenging to follow without his microphone turned on and with no data in front of us with which to follow along-- a handout would have been incredibly helpful for navigating that volume of information. Considerations like that would show that the School Department truly values keeping the community informed and empowered on these matters.

Community input in these processes is critical and I'm glad that it became an important part of this process in the past month. I echo the sentiment of many other parents and community members, however, when I say that the community has been communicating concerns about overcrowding for quite some time, and there has been ample opportunity to hear those concerns well enough in advance to not be down to the wire with few options as we are now. I truly hope that this experience is taken as a serious lesson by the school department and administration and that our plan for 2017 is well-planned, carefully considered, and proactive rather than reactive.

David Stokes

First of all, if you have read all the way down this far from the beginning, congratulations – and condolences!  You now have some idea about the experience of sitting in the audience during the meeting Monday night.

I acknowledge that the School Committee has had (and continues to have) much work to do.  I commend them for attempting to get it all done in a timely fashion.  However, how can anyone expect parents and community members to stay engaged and sit through 3+ hours of a meeting on a school night?  Lack of seating, lack of air conditioning (although Mark did finally get it going), and various technical and acoustic difficulties all contributed to the poor audience experience of the meeting. 

Monday night was not the first time that I have sat through one of these marathon meetings, so I don’t wonder at all why there are usually so few parents in the audience.  However, I might request that the Committee consider either conducting more frequent meetings with fewer agenda items (that are not expected to last more than 2 hours), or moving the venue to a more hospitable location that can accommodate a larger audience (although I fully understand why the Council Chambers are used, since live broadcasting of the SC meetings are highly desired).

Don’t get me wrong:  all of the agenda items Monday night were important.  Especially the recognitions (we’ll miss all the graduating Seniors and the retiring faculty, but look forward to continued Athletic achievements in the Fall and the announcement of any additional awards for Rebecca Grossman’s video!).  And the DecisionInsite Enrollment Report.  And the votes to approve the revised FY17 budget, the plan to renovate the first floor of the Phillips Building and allocate classes (Proposal #3), and the members of the Steering Committee for Master Plan Facilities Study.  Not to mention the Committee’s normal monthly Action Items, Forums, and Reports.  All were important, but increasingly, to me, there just seems to be too much to cover in one monthly, two-hour meeting.

Perhaps as part of their “retreat” next week, the School Committee might also consider that presentations, like the DecisionInsite Enrollment Report, might be better conducted in an open forum where, if parents and School Committee members are given the information in advance, an actual dialogue can be achieved.  I am sure that I am not alone in wondering how much of an impact that report – for which we all waited these long weeks with bated breath – actually had in informing the construction of Proposal #3 and the SC’s decision to approve it, with such limited time for review and digestion.  Specific questions about the study and the details continue to be raised by the parents and others not on the SC, which might go without a public, transparent answer, since those questions were not posed during the Public Forum opportunities of the SC meeting.

Agreeing with all the comments made by my fellow WSS commenters above, I have much concern about the immediate future, the start of school in September.  One concern in particular:  The Policy Subcommittee’s task to hammer out all the details around the use (and then stopping use) of the Central Registration to assign incoming students to a school before the end of August is not small, nor insignificant.  It requires much transparency and communication, so that the parents and residents (and prospective residents and families) of Watertown will know exactly what will transpire at the end of August and throughout the next school year.  I encourage all parents and Watertown residents to continue to ask our elected officials to be more transparent and communicate with us “early and often”.