Unofficial Minutes: School Committee Meeting 7/18/16 – Key Points and Commentary

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

Written by: 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; Dr. Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Theresa McGuinness, Assistant Superintendent; Craig Hardimon, Human Resources Director.

Audience members: Kate Coyne, WSS; Alyson Morales, WSS; David Stokes, WSS; Elaina Griffith; Shaunna Harrington; Ilana Mainelli; Mike Shephard; Charlie Breitrose, Watertown News; and Vicky Sax.

Public Forum #1

No speakers

Comparison of Enrollment Studies

Dr. Fitzgerald discussed the process that the district undertook to develop a new enrollment forecast based on past studies done by NESDC and DecisionInsite. The Superintendent and Michael van Hammel, SMMA (Symmes Maini & McKee Associates) Associate Architect, contacted both NESDC and DecisionInsite (DI) to discuss details of the enrollment forecasts. Both firms stated that the most accurate enrollment forecasts were for up to 5 years out (AY2020-21).

Dr. Fitzgerald outlined the process the district went through to evaluate the different forecasts and how a new DI baseline forecast was created.  This new DI baseline was then compared to the NESDC forecast and whichever forecast had the higher enrollment numbers (highlighted in green) by grade and year were chosen to be used as input into the Master Plan Study. Further discussion about the new revised enrollment forecast will be discussed at the Steering Committee meeting on 7/19/16.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that, down the road, when the District gets to the point in the process where a feasibility study is done, we will have fresh enrollment data, and the forecast can be further updated.

Candace Miller asked about getting monthly enrollment updates. Dr. Fitzgerald gave an example, that the current Kindergarten projection for the coming school year was 235, which is between the two forecasted numbers done by DI (202) and NESDC (266).  She stated that once PowerSchool, a new Student Information System (SIS) to replace iPass and iParent, is rolled out at the start of the new school year, it will be easier to generate the monthly reports that Candace is asking for. 

Candace asked about the rollout and progress of the PowerSchool rollout.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that iPass is now “turned off”, and that a consultant is working with the district to migrate all of the data to PowerSchool.  The Superintendent also stated that PowerSchool will be “live” at the start of the school year, that staff are being trained, and that parents will be trained after school has started.  Kendra Foley asked about training for the new PowerSchool tool for teachers and admins.   Dr. Fitzgerald mentioned that there will be different training for different jobs (teachers, guidance councilors, admins).   Her goal is to have everyone comfortable with the tool.

Overview of Process to Evaluate Superintendent’s Performance

John Portz opened the discussion by explaining that the School Committee will be using the same evaluation tool as last year. The first part of the evaluation covers the Superintendent’s goals.  The second part of the evaluation covers the four state standards (Instructional Leadership, Management & Operations, Family and Community Engagement, and Professional Culture).  The third part of the evaluation is an overall rating.  John asked that the School Committee members fill out the evaluation and send an electronic copy to him by 8/8/16.  He will then compile all of the information and present a summary at the August School Committee meeting on 8/17/16.

Candace Miller stated that she appreciates all the time and effort that went into the goals but that the Superintendent’s goals are difficult to assess.  She recommended that new goals should be more inline with the Department of Education (SMART).  She gave some examples and looked forward to creating a new Superintendent evaluation tool going forward as well as encouraging that future Superintendent goals be outlined in such a way that progress towards goals would be easier to assess.  John Portz also suggested that SMART goals be used going forward.

Superintendent’s Presentation of Accomplishments in 2015-2016

Dr. Fitzgerald presented her final goals report.  She began by stating that there are many responsibilities in her job and that her goals do not cover all of those responsibilities, as they are part of her overall job.  The 2015-2016 goals were as follows:

  • Goal #1: Conduct a comprehensive 2-year study of K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, Math plus Arts (STEM+A or STEAM) for the Watertown Public Schools. Focus: Provide students with increased access to rigorous and engaging interconnected real world learning experiences.
  • Goal #2: Conduct a comprehensive study of current educational conditions for Watertown Public School students to learn and participate in local and global citizenship activities.  Give a presentation of findings to the School Committee in June 2016.  Develop a comprehensive plan that will expand access to learning opportunities that support civic engagement and build global competency skills.  Present plan to the School Committee in June 2017. Focus: Promote local and global citizenship.
  • Goal #3: Create the implementation plan for the five-year comprehensive Foreign Language program at the Elementary School (FLES) implementation.  Present the plan to the School Committee in February 2016, in time to be included in the FY17 budget process.
  • Goal #4: Conduct a review of the current Special Education Programs housed in the District and present an overview of these programs to the School Committee in January.  Concurrently, research any new programming that may be needed based on our population.  Present findings to the School Committee in February 2016 so that said programs may be included in the budget process.  Focus: Provide appropriate programming for all students.
  • Goal #5: The District will work in collaboration with the Watertown Police Department and other partners to develop a “Youth Opposed to Using” (Y.O.U.) program in the secondary schools in Watertown.  Present results of the collaboration at the School Committee in December 2015 and update the School Committee again in June 2016.  Focus: Foster healthy lifestyles.
  • Goal #6: Develop a plan for the anticipated work with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).  This plan includes the accelerated repair approved project and the Statement of Interest for the high school.  Report to the School Committee at each meeting on the progress of these projects.

During the presentation of the accomplishment of goals, a few points were embellished upon:

  • In addition to the FabLab at the high school and the planned maker space at the middle school, there will be mini-maker spaces in the Elementary schools.
  • EDCO delivered the Special Education study to the Superintendent on 7/18/16.  Once she has shared it with key staff, it will be presented at an upcoming School Committee meeting, likely in September or October.
  • Student leadership were presented a STEAM opportunity:  a challenge to design their own Y.O.U. program.  The goal was to have the design of the program or “club” be student-developed.  One specific design element they decided to change was the club’s name, to the Raiders Against Drugs (RAD) Society. The students also requested that members be drug tested.  Drafted student plans will be presented to the School Committee in October before anything is approved.

Overview of District Goal Setting for 2016-2017

John Portz outlined the process for setting District goals for the upcoming 2016-2017 school year.  He is seeking input on the goals from the Superintendent, the School Committee, and the public.  The goals should connect to the District’s three strategic goals: support high academic achievement, foster the capacity for lifelong learning, and promote local and global citizenship.  He asked that input be sent to him electronically by 8/3/16 via the following link.

An ad-hoc committee made up of John Portz, Kendra Foley, and Dr. Fitzgerald will meet after the 8/3 deadline to review the input received and create a document showing the input as it was received and another list showing how it was adapted into SmartGoals.  The plan is to have a “first pass” to present to the School Committee at the September meeting.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer commented that she thought the timing was “crazy” and that it should be done as part of the budget process although she was not opposed to the effort.  The concern was that there may be goals that could have budget and staffing implications and therefore impossible to achieve because the budget was already set.  John acknowledged her concerns but suggested that any goals that had budget or staffing implications could be addressed during the upcoming budget planning and rolled into the following school year for implementation.  Candace Miller commented that John might want to extend the timeline for the “first pass” as creating SMART goals could be time consuming.

Establishing School Committee Protocols

John Portz introduced the topic as establishing a series of statements by the School Committee that will layout how they will conduct themselves.  He mentioned an example from another town that can be used as a starting point. The establishment of School Committee Protocols has been referred to the Policy Subcommittee.

Action Items

  • Acceptance of Gifts: all gifts were accepted
  • Approval of Staff Member’s Child to Attend WPS for 2016-2017 School Year: approved.  Eileen Hsu-Balzer raised the issue that, given the current overcrowding, this request and any future requests should be examined closely to ensure fairness.
  • Approval of Minutes for 6/13/16 School Committee meeting: approved.

Master Plan Facilities Study Update

John Portz gave an overview, as Liz Yusem was unable to attend the meeting.  The Steering Committee, made up of 16 school, town and community members, and the Educational Leadership team have met with SMMA to exchange information and ideas.  Discussion has covered such topics as: how to match physical buildings to different teaching and learning styles; enrollment forecasts; specific program needs; etc.  There have been three Steering Committee meetings and one Community Forum.  The fourth Steering Committee meeting will be held on 7/19/16 at 6pm on the third floor of the Phillips building.  The second Community Forum will be held on 7/27/16 at 7pm at Watertown High School to discuss different building options and the third Community Forum will be held on 8/24/16 at 7pm at Watertown High School to discuss SMMA’s recommendations.  Further information, minutes, meeting videos, etc. can be found at the Buildings & Grounds and Steering Committee webpage.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer and Kendra Foley stated that they had attended the first Community Forum and found it well run and helpful.

Phillips School/Preschool Construction Update

Dr. Fitzgerald provided the update that a contract was signed on 7/15/16 with GTC Construction and that documents have been sent to the Town attorney.  Building permits are in process.  There will be a pre-construction meeting once the documents come back from the attorney.  Construction is expected to be finished on 9/2/16.

Kendra Foley asked about the Watertown Family Network (WFN) space and about whether playgroups would have access to the bathrooms.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that she would discuss the issue with the program director, Arlene Smith.  If the playgroup is large, Dr. Fitzgerald felt that that particular program might have to be held in a different “pop-up space” as is currently being done.  She stated that the WFN would always have its offices in the Phillips building, but she would discuss program specifics with Arlene.

Policy Subcommittee Minutes and First Readings

Guido Guidotti read the minutes and the first readings of several draft policies:

Please refer to Watertown Strong Schools Unofficial Minutes: Meeting of the Policy Subcommittee on 7/6/16 – Key Points and Commentary for a full review of the Policy meeting.

Candace Miller asked that Guido change the end of the minutes to reflect that the reason she didn’t attend the meeting was because she wasn’t notified.  Guido refused, stating the town sent out notification of the agenda. John Portz felt that the minutes were fine as is, since it was stated that the changes to the Athletics Subcommittee were not discussed because there was nobody there to present on the topic.  He didn’t feel that there was any implication beyond that statement. The minutes were approved with no changes.

Candace asked about the implications of draft policy IHAMA: Teaching about drugs, alcohol and tobacco on the Y.O.U. program described earlier.  The referenced draft policy states “...the District shall provide developmentally appropriate, evidence based alcohol, tobacco and drug prevention education programs in grades K-12.” Candace mentioned that she had searched for evidence showing the effectiveness of the Y.O.U. program but couldn’t find any and was hoping that the Superintendent could point her to the research.  The Superintendent believes the policy to be relevant to curriculum, not after school clubs.

Candace also asked about the draft JC: Attendance Areas policy and if it would be possible to add more specificity to the process and a decision tree.  Eileen Hsu-Balzer reiterated her statement made at the Policy subcommittee about the danger of making policies too specific.  Candace suggested that the policy could refer to accompanying documents with more specific policies and procedures of the District that could be adjusted as needed.  It was stated that the Superintendent would present more detail around the enrollment policy that will be used by the central registrar at the August School Committee meeting.

Public Forum #2

Shaunna Harrington, a member of the WMS Site Council and parent of a rising 8th grader wanted to describe her positive experience with the Superintendent and the School Committee.  She stated that, as an educator at Northeastern University’s School of Education, she sees many “best practices” coming out of the Superintendent’s office and School Committee.

Kate Coyne gave feedback on the Master Planning Study going on.  She mentioned that she had gone to all the sessions except the meeting held on 7/6/16, but watched the video.  She stated that the video was frustrating due to the fact that only speakers were shown and not the slides they were discussing.  Thus there was not much context to what the specifics were. She asked if this could be changed.  She agreed that we do not want to show our school floor plans, but that Michael van Hammel from SMMA, as a professional, should be able to show this data in another format and that this information is already on the WPS website in the 2014 Facilities Assessment study.  She mentioned that this is a great opportunity to get input from many in Watertown about the futures of our schools; we need to engage and inform our residents. 

Ilana Mainelli stated that she hoped the draft drug policy read also included alcohol.  Concerning the Master Plan process, she stated that everything she has seen so far has been very high level and she is concerned about whether there is sufficient time to get from the high level view to something more concrete in the time allotted.  She also mentioned that she attended the first Community Forum and witnessed several residents leave as the presentation and discussion was very high level and that their concerns weren’t being addressed. 

Ilana also mentioned that she would like the School Committee to invite Minuteman to come and give an informational presentation to the School Committee at an upcoming meeting.  She feels that there are many parents that don’t know about Minuteman and thought it would be a good opportunity to get an update on the new school building process, as well as the costs involved in potentially joining the district.

Chairman’s Report

John Portz stated that the next Master Plan Steering Committee meeting is on 7/19/16 on the third floor of the Phillips building at 6pm.  He also stated that he would like the School Committee to do a self evaluation in the Fall and that the MASC (Massachusetts Association of School Committees) has a self-evaluation instrument that they can use.  John mentioned that the School Committee would discuss the schedule of School Committee meetings for the upcoming year at the August meeting.

Superintendent’s Report

The Superintendent stated that the district would have a central registrar in place in August.  She also welcomed the Interim Lowell Principal Phil Oates.

Next Meeting

The next School Committee meeting will be held on 8/17/16 at 6pm at Town Hall.

New Business

Candace Miller asked about repairs to the air conditioning unit at the middle school as it had stopped working, and this is the location of the Pequossette Summer Program.  The Superintendent said that it was fixed.  Candace stated that she didn’t believe it was, as she was there later in the day.  The Superintendent said that it was being worked on.  Candace asked when the issue was expected to be resolved.  The Superintendent said she wasn’t sure, but that it is being worked on.  During this exchange, Guido Guidotti made a comment that seemed to question the need for air conditioning. Candace mentioned the safety concerns of the staff, as there are Massachusetts regulations about temperatures and children.  An evacuation happened during the day due to fuses being blown as the issue was being worked on.

Candace also asked about formalizing the process to appoint Interim Principals and other Central Office level staff.  John Portz asked if she would like to make a motion to refer it to the Policy subcommittee.  Candace said she would. Mike Shepard spoke from the audience without acknowledgement of the chair stating that motions can’t be made during new business.  Guido said that it shouldn’t go to the Policy subcommittee because picking Interim Principals is at the discretion of the Superintendent and claimed it was against the law.  John Portz stated that there was no vote being taken during new business and that he felt a motion to send it to the Policy subcommittee was okay.  He also stated that Candace’s motion was not to have the School Committee approve an Interim Principal, but was asking to put a policy in place so that there is better transparency around the process the Superintendent will use. The motion to send the matter to the Policy Subcommittee was approved by a 3-2 roll call vote.

Commentary 

Kate Coyne

This was a very full meeting with a lot of information and discussion. 

With respect to Dr. Fitzgerald’s goals, I agree with Candace Miller and the Department of Education that goals should be SMART goals.  The goals need to be clear and tasks specified.  I would encourage all parents to not only look at the Superintendent’s special goals, but her overall job description and send feedback via this link (per John Portz’s request) by 8/3/16 with your thoughts on new goals for 2016-2017. Also, in my opinion, if you have feedback with regard to the Superintendent’s performance from this past year, you should send that to the School Committee Chair too.  You can find on slide 2 our Superintendent's job description

I have to say that some of the interactions last night were less than stellar.  What I would call reasonable questions were asked, with curt and angry responses.  The School Committee and all residents involved do not need to agree but we all need to be respectful of each other’s ideas, listen and discuss in a civil manner.  We are all passionate about our children and their education.  Anyone that spends their time at these meetings: School Committee members, Administrators, and residents all are committing time and energy to help our children and our schools.  I would ask that everyone try to check their egos at the door, so that we can all work for the better good.

Alyson Morales

Regarding the reconciling of the different enrollment forecasts, while I am okay with the overall trend line and appreciate all of the hard work done to resolve the differences between the forecasts, the end methodology of picking the “largest number” seems a bit arbitrary. 

In general terms, the NESDC study showed the most growth over the long term, with most of the growth coming from grades K-5 and a bit from 6-8.  The original DecisionInsite (DI) study showed growth peaking in 2020 and then dropping off quite a bit and most of its growth was coming from grades 9-12 and 6-8 with K-5 declining.  The latest version of the DI study is stated to have better information on the number of new students generated by the new development compared to the other studies.  This may be true, but that information was not shared.  The end result is a lowering of the earlier DI study by about 200 students in the final year of the forecast.  So while the students generated by new development may be more accurate, I continue to question the underlying forecast. 

There was a recent study done looking at regional growth and how it impacts the infrastructure of greater Boston. There was a lot of interesting information in the report but given the situation in our schools, I was most interested in the population data. The report included some population forecasts that suggest our area (Inner Core) would see some large growth (23.2%) in 0-15yr old population through 2030 and overall growth of 17.5%.  I then went to the MetroBoston DataCommon for data specific to Watertown, where I found a similar trend.  The data showed that the population of 5-19yr olds (roughly school age) is projected to grow 19.9% from 2010-2030. 

The point of this long explanation is that I don’t agree with the overall trend of either version of the DI forecast showing a peak in 2020 and then declining enrollment. If anything, given regional growth, development in town, an improving school system and the increasing enrollments faced in neighboring towns, I think Watertown will increase in its attractiveness over time and that our overall enrollment will not decline anytime soon.  Both enrollment studies were fairly high-level looks in my opinion and diverged greatly in their results.  This current level of information is probably okay for this stage in the process, but I feel we need a really deep serious look at our enrollment trends, regional growth, population migration, etc. to get a better handle on what future enrollment will look like before we move from this Master Plan phase into a Feasibility Study and make any final plans regarding our school building needs and start committing any town money towards construction or renovations.

Regarding the Superintendent evaluation process, I agree with Candace Miller’s suggestions about a new evaluation tool.  Goals should be clear and allow for progress towards goals to be easier to measure.  I also think it would be helpful to incorporate a 360 degree evaluation of the superintendent that would include feedback from School Committee, her direct reports, teachers and the community.  In addition, I would love to see the district conduct a teacher/staff satisfaction survey that could be used to learn what things are going really well and where there may be challenges from a teacher/staff perspective.

There were several new processes and procedures unveiled tonight.  I was really encouraged to see the new process for district level goal setting that opens it up to the community.  I encourage everyone to send in their ideas and thoughts on where they would like to see the district go.  See above for deadline and details.  Given some of the behavior at tonight’s School Committee meeting, I am happy to see that some protocols will be put in place.  While it is good and necessary to have differing viewpoints, it is also important to maintain respect and keep conversations constructive.  I was also happy to hear that John Portz plans to have the School Committee do a self-evaluation in the Fall.  It is always important for any governing body to identify areas of best practice as well as areas for improvement.

As a member of the Master Plan Steering Committee, there is definitely room for improvement, especially regarding communication and community engagement.  I hope to see a better effort to engage the community and get the word out ahead of the next Community Forum to be held next week on Wednesday 7/27 at 7pm at the Watertown High School, where SMMA will discuss different options for school building renovations.  While the initial Steering Committee meetings have been very high level, it is important that the community become engaged in the process by: attending meetings and forums, reading the information on the website, watching the meeting videos, or sending questions or feedback to the committee co-chairs John Portz and Liz Yusem (see contact information here).  This is an important process that will have long term educational and financial impacts and it is important to engage the entire Watertown community in the decision making process.

Regarding the draft policies, I agree with David Stokes’s commentary in the Watertown Strong Schools Unofficial Minutes from the last Policy Subcommittee meeting and Candace Miller’s comment about the need for additional specificity.  If it is inappropriate to add specifics to the policy itself, there should be a public companion document that outlines the procedure for assigning students to schools given the current overcrowding issues.  I look forward to the Superintendent’s presentation on this issue at the upcoming School Committee meeting in August.

David Stokes

Other commentary before mine have made solid, valuable points with which I concur.  I will focus my brief comments on Candace’s point about the need for SMART goals, with which I also wholeheartedly agree.  The Superintendent’s goals, while important to complete, do not have context.  As a parent, I want to know why we are doing these specific actions, why they are taking the time that is allotted, and what the next steps are after the reports are written or the deliverables delivered.  The big question that I have after reading those goals is how do these goals help make WPS better, and more specifically, how will they improve our students’ learning?  Are they parts of a whole?  Do they stand alone?  Going to as many of these meetings as I do, I know the answers to some of those questions.  But I also know that most parents do not.

So, perhaps a goal for the Superintendent next year should be to work on improving the communication with parents.  I’m sure that our School Improvement Plans (SIPs) that the Site Councils work so diligently on all throughout the school year have many suggestions and opportunities that could be expanded to include the Central Office.  I would like to suggest that the School Committee and the Superintendent read those SIPs, as they move forward with assessing last year’s performance and thinking about next year’s goals.

Another mode to provide the context that I crave might be found in an annual report template that I helped create in 2013.  At that time, I was a community representative to the Goals Measurement Advisory subcommittee of the School Committee, which was charged with developing a reporting template that the Superintendent could use annually to answer the question “How are Watertown schools doing?”, or “How do we measure the progress WPS has made against its strategic goals in the past year?”  Some might call it a “report card” of sorts.  I have yet to see any completed draft of this report, and here it is more than 3 years later!  Again, I believe that some context might be delivered to parents and community alike in that document, if it were ever to be used as intended.

Going forward, even if that report is never used, I would like our elected officials and School Administration to find ways to add more context to their comments and presentations.  Many viewers at home (whether the meeting is broadcast live or watching a video after-the-fact) usually need more information, as a review, to bring them up to speed on the current issue(s) being discussed or presented.  Perhaps it is as simple as starting with a slide or two about “How did we get here, and why?” in the beginning of a slide deck, and a slide or two about “What do we go from here?” and “What are the next steps toward achieving our specific goal(s)?”