Unofficial Minutes: Superintendent’s Meeting Concerning Short Term Space Proposal 6/1/16 – Key Points and Commentary

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

Written by: Alyson Morales

School Administration, School Committee Members, and Town Council Members in attendance at one or both meetings include: Dr. Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Bob LaRoche, Hosmer Principal; Mena Ciarlone, Cunnif Principal; John Portz, School Committee Chair; Guido Guidotti, School Committee; Kendra Foley, School Committee Vice Chair; Eileen Hsu-Balzer, School Committee;  Candace Miller, School Committee; Elizabeth Yusem, School Committee; Mark Sideris, Town Council President; Vincent Picirilli, Town Council Vice President; and Lisa Felter, Town Councilor.

The Superintendent held two public meetings to gather feedback and to answer questions surrounding the short-term space proposal that will be presented at the 6/6/16 School Committee meeting for a vote.  Both meetings were well attended by parents and community members and each meeting lasted approximately an hour and a half.

Current Short-term Space Proposal

The current plan as outlined by Dr. Fitzgerald will involve several moves:

  1. Move the Early Steps Preschool (5 classrooms) from its current space at the Hosmer to the first floor of the Phillips building, which will be renovated over the summer to allow space for six classrooms to accommodate the growing enrollment at the preschool;
  2. The Lowell PreK classroom will move from its current space in the Lowell to one of the vacated classrooms at the Hosmer;
  3. The Cunniff PreK/K, and the two Kindergarten classrooms will move from their current space at the Cunniff into vacated classrooms at the Hosmer;
  4. The Hosmer ELL class will move from its current location at the Hosmer into one of the vacated classrooms.

These moves are intended to free up classroom space at the Cunniff, Hosmer and Lowell to keep class sizes from getting too large and to accommodate the growing enrollment of the Early Steps Preschool. As was outlined at the last Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee meeting, several space options were considered including rental space, a move away from neighborhood schools to grade level schools, modular classrooms and several other options.  Please refer to the WSS Unofficial Minutes from that meeting for more detail.

It will be Dr. Fitzgerald’s recommendation to the School Committee that the short-term proposal outlined above is the best short-term solution.  The only other option available at this time is to leave the situation as is, which will lead to large class sizes.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that she is grateful that the School Committee and the Watertown community values lower class sizes and that 28 students in a classroom is “way too many”.  She also stated “we are out of space”.  At the last Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee meeting, funds were approved to have the architect draw up plans for the construction of classrooms on the first floor of the Phillips building.

Several other studies/work designed to inform decisions concerning our space issues were outlined: 

  • The DecisionInsite enrollment study will be presented at the 6/6/16 School Committee meeting.  This study will factor in the development growth in Watertown.
  • The Master Plan study will be started in the next few weeks.  This study is intended to provide longer-term space planning options for the next 2 to 10 years. SMMA, the chosen firm, will hold three community meetings during the summer and meet with a steering committee and education leadership team as part of the process.  The School Committee is looking for community members for the Steering Committee. Letters of interest are due by noon on 6/6.  See the WSS Facebook page or contact John Portz for more information.

Dr. Fitzgerald stated that this is the beginning of a journey. Many longer-term options will be considered as part of the Master Plan study. There may be redistricting down the road.

The plan for the vacated classrooms at the elementary schools as outlined at the last Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee meeting is as follows:

  • The Lowell PreK space will become a new grade 1 classroom;
  • The Cunniff PreK space will become a special education classroom
  • The Cunniff Kindergarten space will become a new third grade classroom
  • The use for the second Cunniff Kindergarten space has not yet been outlined
  • The Hosmer ELL space will become a new fourth grade classroom

Parent and Community Questions and Concerns

Parents and community members voiced their frustrations around process, timing, and lack of communication.  Most of the comments and concerns were around the difficulties and feasibility of multiple drop offs, start times, transportation challenges, early drop off and after school care.  There weren’t a lot of concrete answers, because the proposal has not yet been approved by the School Committee, but the Superintendent listened to all of the concerns, took note of them and stated that she is working on several of them.  She did offer some answers.  Several people brought up the issue of having a full time nurse at the Early Steps Preschool.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that yes, there will be a nurse available full-time, and when the nurse is needed to assist at other schools, the nurse at the high school would be available.  As people voiced concerns about the multiple drop offs/pick ups and start times, Dr. Fitzgerald stated that busing might be an option.

Some questions and concerns included:

  • Waiting list for extended day
  • Concern over start times. “Impossible” for Cunniff and Lowell parents to get to Hosmer in the time allotted when they have children at multiple schools. Some parents will be dropping off at three schools.
  • “How can the schools make this change without having a solution”
  • Willl Cunniff teachers report to the Hosmer or Cunniff Principal? Answer: Hosmer
  • Concern about number of students at the preschool with medical needs, will there be a full time nurse? Answer: Yes.
  • Will students moved to the Hosmer, go back to their neighborhood school after PreK and K? Answer: That is the plan.
  • Concern over how the drop off line at Philips will work. Answer: The current plan is for parents to drive down Marshall St, turn into the parking lot, have their child met without having to park, then exit back onto Marshall St.
  • Concern over this year, but worried about plan for next year. “Where is this going?” “Will it be decided that next year that the Lowell Kindergarten will move to Hosmer?” Answer: Conducting Master Plan study to address longer-term plans.
  • What will happen to Watertown Family Network? Answer: The current plan is to keep them in their current space.
  • Concern about timing. Space has been an ongoing problem for years. This feels like a “reactive response”.
  • Council on Aging representatives expressed frustration with the process surrounding the use of the Phillips and its impact on the Senior Center. “Why weren’t seniors brought in for input?” “Don’t feel included.” Answer: It was not intentional to shut out seniors. Will work on communication and will set up a meeting with seniors.
  • If modular classrooms wouldn’t be ready for September, when would they be ready? Answer: Not until next year. The bid is still open. They are still on the table and may be a future solution.
  • Want to see preschool construction plans. Want to make sure it is done right. Concerned because of quick process. Answer: Plans will be available to see after 6/6 meeting.
  • Concern over drop off/pick ups at Hosmer. Increased traffic. Hosmer drop off/pick ups already difficult. Answer: Preschool students leaving and Cunniff and Lowell students coming in are a pretty even swap. Will add another drop off area.  Drop off areas will be by grade level.
  • Don’t want to move children to Hosmer, want to stay in neighborhood school.
  • Will the construction be ready in time?

Commentary

Alyson Morales

While there was a lot of frustration from parents and community members surrounding the short-term proposal, I would like to thank Dr. Fitzgerald for holding these two public meetings.  It was a very important step in the right direction to improve communication around a very difficult issue. The Superintendent is now aware of parent and community concerns and has the opportunity to work on solutions.

The main things I take away from this process are the importance of planning and communication.  The School Committee (past and present) and School Administration dropped the ball.  Many of the frustrations voiced revolve around parents feeling uninformed, and rushed to make adjustments to the plan proposed.  While the plan is not ideal, I think it is workable with some additional planning and accommodations. I think offering busing to Cunniff, Lowell and potentially Preschool students will help solve the issue of multiple drop offs/pick ups which would be nearly impossible in the 15 minute window allowed with the current elementary start times. I also think before and after-school care options will also be important to help parents.  The details of these solutions will need to be worked out quickly so parents can plan for the coming school year.

I don’t think it is an option to keep things the way they are.  We all know enrollment will continue to increase, and classes with over 25 students, or worse yet, classes of 28 like the Cunniff 4th grade, are totally unacceptable.  I feel it is important to do as much as possible to make the current short-term solution work and turn our energy to the Master Plan study to ensure we have a plan for the future that IS ideal.