Unofficial Minutes: School Committee Meeting 9/12/16 – 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; Dr. Theresa McGuinness, Assistant Superintendent; Craig Hardimon, Human Resources Director.

Audience members: Vincent Piccirilli, Town Council; Lisa Feltner, Town Council; Michael Driscoll, Town Manager; Pete Caron, WSS; Kate Coyne, WSS; Diego Hammerschlag, WSS; Alyson Morales, WSS; David Stokes, WSS; Mark Cotton; Elaina Griffith; Lily Tripler; Mike Shephard; Charlie Breitrose, Watertown News; and many more teachers, administrators, parents, and community members.

The entire meeting was broadcast live and can be watched on demand at http://wcatv.org/vod/school-committee-8/.

Recognition of Retiree

The School Committee recognized the 31 years of “faithful and efficient” service and contributions of Gaylene Fantasia, Personnel Assistant (and “Queen of Graduation”), on the event of her retirement from Watertown Public Schools Central Office.  Ms. Fantasia received a standing ovation from the entire Committee and audience, as well as a copy of the signed proclamation of the School Committee, conveying their “deep appreciation of [her] splendid service to our Town”.

Student Advisors

It is only day 3 of school, but things are going smoothly. Fall sports are doing well: football and field hockey won their recent games.

Superintendent Contract

Dr. Fitzgerald announced her retirement from Watertown Public Schools and read the following statement:

“We are “back to school” again after a summer of busy preparation and projects, such as teacher-led curriculum workshops, ongoing long-range facilities planning, and successful teacher contract negotiations. I would like to thank all members of the Watertown faculty and staff who worked diligently to make our schools ready to welcome students.

Every new school year represents a fresh start and an opportunity to explore new challenges. We reflect on what we have accomplished, set new goals, and begin the work required to move forward. As this school year begins, I have decided to make such a change in my own career as an educator. After a long and rewarding career in public education, I am today announcing my retirement from the Watertown Public Schools.  I will remain in my current role until the beginning of October to allow the School Committee to facilitate a transition.

I am very proud of what we have accomplished together in Watertown since I joined this great community seven years ago. During this time, we have

  • Implemented significant curriculum improvements emphasizing 21stst Century Learning initiatives to include Global Competency, elementary foreign language, and STEAM programs that will make Watertown students competitive in today’s world
  • Addressed inadequate and aging school facilities through local planning and the Massachusetts School Building Authority process
  • Upgraded facilities, programs, and practices to ensure the best available safety resources for Watertown schools
  • Improved school department business practices to establish an effective, efficient budgeting and finance system
  • Focused the professional development program to engage educators in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity
  • Established a Behavioral Health Department to address the social emotional welfare of our students
  • Strengthened relationships between school leadership and the Watertown Educators Association, and
  • Supported innovative programs like Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation curriculum that brought together Watertown students, teachers, and police officers.

With commitment to our schools and utmost respect for each individual’s worth and contributions, I worked every day to improve student success and wellbeing. I would like to express my deepest gratitude and heartfelt thanks to all faculty, staff, students, parents, and the community.

I wish you a happy and successful school year.”

John Portz then made an announcement that the School Committee would hold a public meeting on Monday September 19th at 7pm at Town Hall in the Council Chambers to discuss the process and timeline for hiring an Interim Superintendent and a permanent Superintendent. Public comment is welcome. For those that cannot attend, comments can be sent to all School Committee members at schoolcommittee@watertown.k12.ma.us.

Public Forum #1

For exact statements please refer to the video link at the top of the minutes.  The content below is our best attempt at a summary.

Julie McMahon, former School Committee member, spoke and expressed her sadness at Dr. Fitzgerald’s retirement and stated that you “never really know what you have until its gone.”

Holly Cachimeul, WMS Spanish teacher, stated that the district “will really miss you across the board” and that she was worried going forward as a teacher.

Lindi DeLorio, read a resolution against lifting the cap on Charter Schools and asked the School Committee to adopt the resolution. John Portz stated that it couldn’t be addressed during this meeting as it was not part of the agenda, but accepted a copy for consideration.

Elizabeth Lloyd, Innovation Specialist at Lowell Elementary School, spoke to thank Dr. Fitzgerald for her leadership and her “big ideas”.

Andrew Allegro, Watertown resident who works with kids, spoke to thank Dr. Fitzgerald for his first job at WMS with Dr. Carter.

Unit A Contract with Watertown Educators’ Association

Kendra Foley read the following statement:

“John Portz and I made up the school committee negotiating team for this new 3-year contract.  We would like to thank WEA President Deb King and the members of the union negotiating team for enabling an honest and thoughtful process.  And, thank you to the Superintendent, Business Manager and HR Director for their invaluable participation. 

As with any collective bargaining agreement, this one includes compromises by both parties, and in that context, I feel this contract has allowed us to tackle a number of important issues around school schedule, parental engagement, time on learning, and compensation.

Strong parental involvement is part of the foundation of any high quality educational system.  Parent/teacher conferences, scheduled in the fall and the spring, are an important tool for family engagement and communication.  Over the past few years, we have had four half days and one evening dedicated to parent/teacher conferences each fall and spring.  With two working parents, having daytime parent/teacher conferences can be a challenge.  Also, these eight half days over the course of the school year can erode time on learning for our students. 

This new contract has increased the number of evening meetings from 3 to 5, which will allow the School Administration to make a scheduling adjustment that will benefit both parents and students.  Instead of four half days and one evening for parent/teacher conferences, the Administration will have more flexibility to schedule fewer half days -- as few as one or two -- and two evenings each fall and spring.  The changes will allow for more time on learning for our students, fewer half days, and maintain the same amount of professional development, which we feel is an important support for our teachers.  This change will be reflected in the current school year. 

In the past, the school start date has changed from year to year – ranging from the Tuesday after Labor Day to the Thursday after Labor Day, which leaves uncertainty for families.  We have negotiated a change so that starting in the 2017/2018 academic year, the first day of school can always be scheduled on the Tuesday after Labor Day. 

As we embarked on the financial portion of the negotiations, we were careful to balance our strong support for our teachers with the financial constraints that exist. 

We have negotiated a cost of living adjustment over the next three years of 2.25% in the current academic year, 2% next year, and 2% in the following year.  In addition, we have increased longevity payments, which support our more experienced teachers who most often do not benefit from step increases.  And this contract caps the number of days eligible for sick leave buyback for all new teachers hired after July 1, 2016. 

Other changes in the contract include a reduction in the number of teacher work days from 185 to 184, continuation of the current practice of granting the WEA president half-time release with substitute costs paid by the union, and the possibility of additional days for bereavement leave. 

While this contract provides fair compensation to teachers, it will continue to allow the district to make investments in curriculum, programs, materials, extra-curricular activities, and more.  After many difficult financial years following the recession of 2008, the town has been generous with our schools, which we greatly appreciate.  In the current fiscal year, for example, the town provided a 5% budget increase.  The contractual costs for this agreement - the cost of living adjustment and the longevity increases - cost $720K this fiscal year.  Other projected move ahead costs that were not part of this contract negotiation are step increases, which are based on experience, and lane changes, which are based on education level, will cost $388K this fiscal year.  Including additional costs for other employees the School Administration has over $800,000 to invest in new staff, curriculum, program development, and other initiatives for the district. 

This contract is fair to our teachers, fair to the taxpayers, allows us to make additional programmatic investments in the coming years, increases time on learning for our students, and addresses a number of scheduling concerns from parents.”

Mark Sideris spoke in favor of the memorandum of agreement.  The Town Manager said that he could not support the contract due to the step structure.  The step structure in this contract has not changed, but rather it is our understanding that his objection is to the changes made to the step structure in a past contract, which is carried forward into the current agreement. The School Committee voted in favor of the contract unanimously, with the Town Manger as the only vote opposed.

The contract is expected to be posted at this website by the end of the week.

Superintendent’s Report

Dr. Fitzgerald asked the WHS Principal, Shirley Lundberg, to address scheduling at the high school. There have been some scheduling issues around singleton classes such as Music, Orchestra, Chorus, and some foreign language classes. Ms. Lundberg outlined the difficulties in moving information from iPass to PowerSchool, and that the effort required many additional hours of manual manipulation and clean up.  This effort resulted in a bit of a timeline slip:  normally, WHS tries to get the student schedules printed a few weeks before distribution on the first day of school; this year, even with the PowerSchool data scrubbing and conversion, schedules were printed and ready for and distributed on the first day of school.  The only piece that was not in place on time was the Parent Portal, which would usually have been available the week before Guidance counselors returned at the end of August, but is still waiting due to training for parents and some staff.

She acknowledged the improved, advanced, and student-centered capabilities that WHS now has with PowerScheduler, the scheduling functions in PowerSchool.  She also provided some detail about the constraints on the schedule that are programmed into PowerScheduler, including those related to teachers, students, educational necessity, and facilities.  She discussed how WHS has tried to prioritize classes and create rules that try to minimize schedule-conflicting “singletons” for students.

Candace Miller asked if there was a ballpark estimate on when the Parent Portal would be available. Ms Lundberg state that she was hoping for the week of 9/19, but she believed it would be ready by October at the latest.

Current Enrollments and Update on Elementary Student Assignment

Lauren Harwood presented current enrollment updates as of 9-9-16. She stated that since the centralized enrollment process began, 85 new students have enrolled in the district.  The breakdown is as follows:

  • Cunniff: 9 students
  • Hosmer: 22 students
  • Lowell: 21 students
  • Middle School: 23 students
  • High School: 10 students

Ms. Harwood stated that there was only one instance where a student was assigned to a school that was not their neighborhood school. That specific instance was in Grade 2 at the Cunniff, which is full, and the student was in turn assigned to the Lowell.  Ms. Harwood noted that the family was amenable to and in agreement with the assignment.

EDCO Report on Special Education

Kathleen Desmarais, Director of Special Education, presented the results of the EDCO report on Special Education. The detailed report will be made public.

Curriculum Goals Update

Elizabeth Kaplan, K-5 Math and Science Coordinator, Toni Carlson, K-12 Educational Technology and Library Coordinator, and Magen Slesinger, FAPA Coordinator, presented an update on STEAM Curriculum. Dr. Kimo Carter, WMS Principal, and Kraig Gustafson, 6-12 Social Studies Coordinator, presented an update on Global Competencies. The full report on Global Competency will be made public at a future date.

Compensation for Non-Aligned Employees

John Portz explained that non-aligned employees represent those staff that are not part of a union and include 33 staff members. The School Committee voted to approve $45,303 to provide a pool that represents the equivalent of a 2.5% salary increase for these employees.  However, the pool is distributed at the discretion of the Superintendent.

Revised School Calendar 2016-2017

The updated school calendar was discussed. Due to the newly approved teacher’s contract, the number of teacher working days has been reduced from 185 to 184. The resulting calendar change is to have no school on Election Day.  Parent-teacher conference dates will be discussed at a Principal’s meeting on 9/13/16 and will be made public in the near future.

School Committee Meeting Dates for 2016-2017

John Portz discussed the School Committee meeting schedule. All meetings will be held on a Monday, except the October meeting that will be held on Wednesday 10/5 with a location still to be determined.

Master Plan Facilities Study – Update

The final Master Plan Community Forum was held at the end of August.  The Steering Committee is waiting to receive a copy of the draft report from SMMA.  Once the report is received a final Steering Committee meeting will be scheduled to discuss it along with sequencing of potential construction projects.  Once the report is made final (a few weeks after the final Steering Committee meeting), it will be presented to a joint meeting of the School Committee and Town Council. Further information can be found at the Buildings & Grounds/Master Plan website, including meeting agendas, minutes and presentation materials.

Phillips Building Preschool Construction – Update

The main construction project at the Phillips is complete.  There are a few punch list items that will be completed in the near future.  There has not yet been an upgrade to the playground, but some new playground equipment has been ordered and will be installed in the near future.

Public Forum #2

For exact statements please refer to the video link at the top of the minutes.  The content below is our best attempt at a summary.

Barbara Barry, a 4th Grade Cunniff teacher, stated that she used to wonder why a district needed a Superintendent, but came to understand the value of the Superintendent’s role. She was sad to see Dr. Fitzgerald retire and noted that Dr. Fitzgerald will be terribly missed.

Cara Coller, a parent, thanked Dr. Fitzgerald for all of the help she has provided and worries that people looking at Watertown will see that the Superintendent left after a group of parents called for her replacement.

Mike Shepard, former School Committee member, was upset and disappointed that Dr. Fitzgerald will not be around to see the end results of programs that she started. He stated that there is a severe shortage of quality candidates for Superintendent in Massachusetts, and that Dr. Fitzgerald will be difficult to replace.

Erika Dorenkamp was upset with the certain school committee members and parents that she felt caused Dr. Fitzgerald’s retirement.  She felt that Dr. Fitzgerald embodied the sentiment that being a Superintendent is not just being an administrator, but that success is defined by personal relationships.  She blamed the School Committee for ultimately failing to do all in its power to shield Dr. Fitzgerald from the “toxic atmosphere” in Town, and then called on John Portz to resign as chair of the School Committee.

Pete Caron, a Cunnif parent, relayed the story of a teacher in another district with very little funding who won an award for bringing her students to amazing levels of academic achievement in one year's time.  When asked how she did it she responded that she had seen the IQ test scores of her class in the office.   She knew how smart they were and expected a lot from them.   In the end it turned out that those were their locker numbers.  It isn't only what we supply our kids with in the classroom that matters, it is what we do with it that counts.   Given the amazing presentations on curriculum during the evening, it brings great excitement that our kids will be continuing through these amazing programs and curriculum with the amazing faculty in Watertown.

Chairman’s report

John Portz reiterated his earlier announcement that a public meeting would be held on Monday 9/19/16 at 7pm at Town Hall to discuss the process for hiring an Interim Superintendent and a permanent Superintendent.  Public comments on the process are welcome.

The next School Committee meeting will be held on October 5th.

Commentary

Kate Coyne

I was surprised to hear that Dr Fitzgerald would be retiring.  I am appreciative of all the work she has put into the past couple years for Watertown Public Schools.  I look forward to the process of finding a new interim Superintendent, which I understand will be a challenge. Going forward, I’m hopeful that the parents, teachers, administrators and town can come together to make this transition one which works for all.  I am confident that our community can come together and is up to the challenge.  I’m hopeful that the process to find the interim Superintendent will be one which is well thought out and transparent.       

With respect to other business, I was also glad to hear about the union negotiations but wonder if the ½ PD days were on the table during this negotiation (considering many parents and teachers have voiced wanting this). Good to know that we can start school on the Tuesday after Labor day and will have evening conferences (and less ½ days!).          

It was great to get enrollment data.  The enrollment shows that we received 85 students from August.  I’m hoping that going forward they will be able to provide the previous months enrollment so that trends can be shown.         

Looking forward to the STEAM initiative and would love to hear more about the vision over the years. 

The master plan still has very many questions.  The report is supposed to come out soon and I hope that this will help answer some of the questions.   I would also like to hear about the process going forward.  I’m also still concerned that the Phillips School (one of our schools in Watertown) is not included in the Master Plan.  I would think that one of the options offered by SMMA would be to have thePhillips renovated for preschool/pre-k in, lieu of right side of the Hosmer (especially at a cost of 100M!!).  This space could also serve as a swing space for the other schools prior to making it to a preschool/pre-k…this may or may not be the answer but this school should be part of our Master Plan regardless (and have it’s own renovations in the plan).

Alyson Morales

Dr. Fitzgerald announced her retirement from the Watertown Public Schools tonight.  It was definitely a surprise to those in the audience. Again, John Portz has encouraged everyone to attend the public meeting that will be held on Monday 9/19 at 7pm at Town Hall, where the process to find an interim and permanent Superintendent will be discussed.  Public input is welcome and encouraged.

I would like to thank everyone that was involved in negotiating the new WEA Unit A contract for all of their hard work.  The contract will be posted by the end of the week.   The additional evening parent-teacher conference days, making it easier for working parents, and the additional certainty added with the set start day of the Tuesday after Labor Day were great additions from a parent perspective.  From a financial standpoint, it is also important to ensure our teachers are well compensated and it seems that this contract achieves that goal. Again, thank you to all involved.

The WHS scheduling difficulties brought up at the meeting were concerning and I appreciate Ms. Lundberg discussing them and being open about the challenges.  From what I understand, the conflict most often seems to be between Honors classes, Orchestra, Band, Chorus and World Language and that this has been a challenge for several years. Students should not have to make the choice to drop an Honors course, drop Band/Orchestra/Chorus (which many students have been participating in since 4th grade) nor drop or switch a World Language.  I hope the new PowerSchool program will help eliminate some of the scheduling challenges, but if not I hope other solutions can be found.  If more funding is needed I hope the request is made and that it finds its way into the FY18 budget process.  These are unfair choices to ask our students to make after multi-year commitments to certain paths.

It was great to get the updated September enrollment information.  It would have been even more helpful to have a historical data point (June 2016) included to provide additional perspective on the increase in students.  While not an ideal circumstance, it was encouraging to hear that only one new student had to be reassigned away from their neighborhood school and that the family was agreeable to the move.  It will be important to keep an eye on the enrollment data, in order to both monitor the current situation as well as have the most up to date information as we continue the conversation about the need for renovations/additions to our current school buildings.