Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the bottom of the minutes.
Written by: Kate Coyne
School Administration members attending: Dr. Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Beth Sahakian, Community Education Director; Bob LaRoche, Hosmer Principal; and April Romano, Early Steps preschool Director.
School Committee members attending: John Portz, Chair; Kendra Foley, Vice-Chair; Guido Guidotti, Secretary; Candace Miller; and Liz Yusem.
Audience members: Many parents of Hosmer and Cunniff PreK and Preschool students.
The Superintendent held a public meeting in the morning to gather feedback and to answer questions about the alternate short-term space proposal that was presented at the 6/6/16 School Committee meeting.
Dr. Fitzgerald gave a history on how we got to where we are, out of space. She started with the Early Steps program. This is an integrated preschool program, which integrates special education students with general education students. State law requires that the district provide special education students with services beginning at age three. The Early Steps Preschool is out of space and has a wait list. The district needs to create more preschool rooms. The new alternate plan calls for a new classroom to be created at the Phillips and to move an existing Preschool classroom from the Hosmer to the Phillips in the Fall of 2016.
Dr. Fitzgerald explained that in Jan/Feb the School committee asked her to look for space due to the bump in enrollment (specifically at the Cunniff). There is no more space at the Cunniff, nor at the other schools really, and class sizes are high. The district looked at how to create additional space. Rental space was explored: 8 different rental spaces were looked at and 3 were visited, but the rent for one year was $500K. This led them to look at renovating the Phillips School. Dr. Fitzgerald talked about the original plan, which was to move the Lowell PreK, Cunniff PreK and Cunniff Kindergarten to the Hosmer while moving the Early Steps program to the Phillips. This would free up much needed classrooms at the Cunniff and Lowell. She stressed that the meetings she has been having recently, are being held in order to be transparent and to allow for a fluid conversation. She mentioned that she has heard some rumors, one of which was that they were closing the Senior Center, which is wrong.
The Superintendent stated that they had two public meetings last week to address the original plan, and after receiving parent feedback, they developed the new plan. They thought there were too many transitions. Dr. Fitzgerald understands this and while it is late in the process, they will continue to look at possible solutions. She mentioned that another possible solution is to not move the PreK, but then this would impact class sizes, which would work against the district goal of decreasing class sizes. Ultimately, it is up to the School Committee to choose the right choice for our district and students.
There will be a Master Plan study going on over summer, which will be addressing our district’s needs for the next 20 or more years. She mentioned that Mark Sideris stated at the previous school committee meeting, “We may be putting the cart before the horse” with respect to renovations.
Parents had many questions most of which concerned these topics:
- Safety: Will the Watertown Family Network have access to the PreK, and preschool classes?
o Dr. Fitzgerald: stated that all of these concerns will be addressed in the design. The Family Network uses the smaller playground while there is a bigger playground for the PreK, and preschool students.
- Logistics of after-hours and before-hours care as this is a critical point for many parents. They must have this.
o Dr. Fitzgerald stated that they will have after- and before-hours care at the Phillips.
- Logistics on start times. Will the Early Steps and PreK have the same start time?
o Dr. Fitzgerald is not sure as this is up to the School Committee. She did state that the PreK would start at 8am.
- A couple of parents had concerns related to the fact that they signed up for Preschool/PreK at the Hosmer. This was not the experience they signed up for and now it is very late in the year to be trying to get a new preschool/PreK program.
Som e parents were also concerned about the fact that they had already done orientation at their schools and now would have to explain to their kids that they would be going el sewhere. In some cases without their siblings.
Parents wanted to know what is the long-term benefit for moving Early Steps and PreK to Phillips.
o Dr. Fitzgerald stated that moving all of Early Steps classrooms to the Phillips would be the best idea, but this could not be done by Sept. The Early Steps is geared toward younger kids and special education students and they need bathrooms in the classrooms and some other special accommodations. The PreK is a program that stands on it’s own. Both solutions would allow the schools to achieve smaller class sizes.
- Other parents were concerned that this new proposal would not address the overcrowding at the Cunniff, which is the most impacted school to date.
One parent from Cunniff suggested having a moratorium and not taking in any more students.
o Historically, Dr. Fitzgerald stated that the Cunniff was already starting at a deficit with regards to music and art. There was no dedicated music/art room originally designed in the building. There used to be classrooms in the basement, but we are not putting classrooms there!
o Kendra Foley stated that this plan would not work without a centralized registration.
o The Superintendent then stated that they could do centralized registration, but that it is not a good idea. It could, however, possibly be used in the very short term. This would be a temporary solution, as students would be bouncing around town. The issue is that this would not work for long as the other elementary schools are also crowded. Only certain grades could be sent to a different school depending on their class size.
- Parents asked about the timing and were concerned that this should have been done earlier in the year. This is very late.
o John Portz interjected that there was a delay as they were looking to get an update on the enrollment for the Fall. This has taken longer than expected. They were late doing this, but we need to move toward something for the Fall.
o Dr. Fitzgerald did not think we were late on this, as all the students from development went to the Cunniff. According to Jean, the predictions did not see this large increase in students. The district has hired a new firm to look at housing developments and provide enrollment projections for growing communities. This new study by DecisionInsite will be presented on Monday 6/13.
o Candace Miller stated that in early February that they, the School Committee and School Administration started to receive letters from Cunniff 4th grade parents concerning the bad situation their kids were in (28 kids in a class then smaller classes with a third roaming class).
o Liz Yusem mentioned that she is happy that all parents have the opportunity to speak and that comments are difficult but helpful. Having these meetings is part of the learning process. She also explained that they were busy with the SOI and some other large issues going on since January.
John Portz wrapped up the meeting by stating that going forward it is the School Committee’s responsibility to provide the best experience. This doesn’t mean an inferior experience, but one that is different. There may be other opportunities, with all the PreKs in one location. We just don’t know this at this time.
Here we are, in June, without a plan in place for the overcrowding issue. This is not a new issue, but came to an acute head this year at the Cunniff. I keep asking myself, why was this left with no action in Feb and March? I understand that Superintendent Fitzgerald was busy with the SOI for the High school, and the budget, but we have a very capable budget manager and many administrators along with School Committee members who could have taken on the urgent task of researching all the possible solutions and their details. The fact that plans were not being discussed in March is a failure. Overall, the process itself, communication, listening, urgency, and data collection, has all been dismal with respect to this crisis.
Here we are with plan A and B. In April, the second meeting for Buildings and Grounds occurred. The 4th grade Cunniff parents all came out to in order to express their concern at the lack of action and information with regard to this crisis (they had been writing letters and had meetings with Dr. Fitzgerald prior to this). We then had plan A, in May, which did address the overcrowding for all the schools. Many preschool, Kindergarten and PreK parents were upset and for good reason as now this is end of May/June timeframe! The meeting on June 8th addressed plan B, with now the Cunniff K parents swapped out by the Hosmer PreK parents, again all concerns valid!
For me, it comes down to what is best for all of our children in Watertown. I do not believe that plan B truly addresses the overcrowding issues at the Cunniff (only at the Lowell and Hosmer). I understand the hardship that the Kindergarten, PreK and preschool parents would have, though I would hope that some of these could be remedied with transportation. There are currently 294 kids at the Cunniff, an increase of 17 since October, Lowell went from approximately 400 to 426 this past year and the Hosmer is at 562. This is a lot of kids, which are affected both in programming and learning from the overcrowding issues. I know plan A is not popular and I do not have a PreK, Kindergarten, or preschool child. My child is going to the Middle School this year, but I have seen classes of 25/28 which are not acceptable at young ages. I believe plan A is the only plan that does address the issue to date. I would have loved to see actual data on renting/purchasing modular classrooms. The bid put out in April, again why not in Feb, to get data was dismal with no details, which in my opinion, is why we are not getting any bids!
The other elephant in the room, given either plan A or B, is timing. I am also very skeptical that work could be done for PreK at the Phillips let alone preschool as they have a bit more design implementations from what I have understood.
Either plan will disrupt a group of families in a very untimely way. As many parents stated, if this would have been discussed sooner, their expectations and logistics would have been a bit better (still very disruptive) to deal with. I’m left as frustrated, angry and upset as all the parents of all the grades. Not one child will be unaffected by any of these plans or no plan in place. This is the question, which, we as a community, need to sit back and reflect on: What is best in the short term for all our kids’ education?