February 2016 Newsletter

Dear Watertown Strong Schools Supporter, Welcome to the first newsletter of 2016!  We plan to send out a monthly newsletter to keep you updated on our efforts and all things related to education in Watertown. For up to the minute information, please look to our website and Facebook page (links provided at the bottom of this newsletter).

2016 Goals/Initiatives WSS held a meeting of the leadership team at the end of January to discuss 2016 advocacy efforts.  We identified two areas that we wish to focus on and have set up a working group for each area.  These working groups will hold their first meetings to finalize 2016 goals in early March.

  • The Overcrowding/Class size working group will focus on advocating for short-, mid-, and long-term solutions to the physical space issues facing our district and causing overcrowding issues especially in our Elementary schools.  Class size is also an area of advocacy and is related to physical space solutions.
  • The Communications/Information Infrastructure working group will cover several areas of advocacy: improvement of school/parent/community communication; improvement of the district website to make it easier to find information; posting of draft School Committee and Sub Committee meeting minutes; a better parent information portal allowing parents to see student assessment information, grades, progress reports, teacher feedback, homework; etc.

Unofficial Meeting Minutes Because it is often difficult for parents and community members to attend all of the meetings they are interested in, and because “official minutes” are often not posted until up to a month later, it can be a challenge to stay up to date on everything.   Therefore, in an effort to keep the community as informed as possible, WSS has started taking “unofficial” meeting minutes, providing associated commentary and posting it to our website and Facebook page within 24hrs of the meeting.  We have received a lot of positive feedback from the community and plan to continue this practice.  See below for links to recent minutes.

2016 Volunteer Survey In early February, WSS sent out a survey looking for volunteers.  Thank you to everyone that filled out a survey and indicated their interest in becoming more involved with Watertown Strong Schools.  It was a great success!  The survey is still open to anyone interested.

School Start Times The Watertown Public Schools’ Wellness Committee is studying school start times in relation to the sleep needs of teens. The committee is seeking input from Watertown parents/guardians, students, and educators.  The parent survey was sent out on 2/24/16.  The Wellness Committee plans to report its findings at the May 2016 School Committee meeting. We encourage everyone to fill out the survey and provide your feedback.

Several WSS parents have joined together and started a local chapter of the national Start School Later organization.  If you are interested in joining or would like more information about healthy school hours, please visit the website. Check out the Superintendent's Notebook to hear Dr. Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent, Elizabeth Kaplan, Lowell Principal, Laura Alderson Rotondo, Career and Technical Education Coordinator, and Magen Slesinger, FAPA Coordinator discuss STEAM initiatives in Watertown.

[embed]http://wcatv.org/vod/superintentents-notebook/[/embed]

Thank you,

Watertown Strong Schools [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]

Unofficial Minutes: Budget & Finance Subcommittee 2/11/16-Key Points and Commentary

Buildings & Grounds Agenda Note: These are not official minutes.

Subcommittee members: Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Charles Kellner, Business Manager; John Portz, Chair; Guido Guidotti, Candace Miller

Attendees in the audience: Mark Sideris (TC president), Kendra Foley (SC), Eileen Hsu-Balzer (SC), Liz Yusem (SC), Kate Coyne (WSS), Alyson Morales (WSS), David Stokes (WSS), and Ilana Mainelli.

FY16 Update

Charles Kellner, Business Manager, discussed the FY16 School Operating Budget, Summary Report by Object Code as of 1/25/16 which was provided as a handout.  The report detailed the following by object code: FY16 revised budget, Expenses, Encumbrances,  Expenses + Encumbrances, Projections through 6/30/16 and the variance.  As of 1/25/16, the school operating budget is expected to have an excess of $1.031M.  This amount is subject to change as we finish out the school year.  It is expected that whatever excess money remains at the end of the budget period would be carried over into the circuit breaker account. One of the causes for the excess is due to grant monies being allocated differently.  In the past some salaries were paid out of the grant.  This year, some tuitions were paid via the grant.  The object code line item for "Tuition Non-Public", represented the largest projected overage with $906,768.  This object code is largely, if not entirely, made up of out-of-district private special education tuition.  While some tuition object codes held overages, some salary line items were in the negative.

Minuteman

The Superintendent gave an update on discussions that have been had with the Town Manager.  The decision whether to become member of the Minuteman district or to continue as a non-member town is a Town decision. Minuteman just got approved for a state grant to build a new high school in Lincoln. Member towns will have to pay a portion of the capital costs to build the new high school.  The Superintendent and Town Manager decided that it was premature to decide whether or not to become a member town as seven towns are deciding whether to stay as members or leave. Once the towns have had their town meetings, the Superintendent and Town Manager will restart their discussions on the pros and cons of becoming a member town.  If some towns decide to leave, the remaining towns will have a larger share of capital costs to pay.  John Portz referred to a recent Boston Globe article on the topic. The Superintendent mentioned a few other schools as an alternative to Minuteman that were available to Watertown students: Waltham and Keefe in Framingham. Watertown currently sends 63 students to Minuteman.  Ilana Mainelli, a parent, raised her concerns about Watertown students being able to attend Minuteman after the upcoming Freshman class starts in Fall 2016 due to changes to Chapter 74 rules that would make it so that Minuteman must take all of its in-district students first, regardless of qualifications before taking any out-of-district students.  The Superintendent stated that this was just the beginning of the conversation.

FY17 Budget Process

The budget calendar was provided as a handout and was discussed. The following are upcoming meeting dates:

  • 2/29/16 - WPS presents Capital Improvement Plan to the Council's subcommittee on Budget & Fiscal Oversight
  • 3/3/16 - Move-ahead costs and new positions
  • 3/7/16 - Regular Monthly School Committee Meeting
  • 3/14/16 - Special Education, new initiatives, and other non-salary drivers
  • 3/21/16 - Draft Budget Summary, Grants and Revolving accounts (Budget offsets)
  • 3/26/16 - Budget & Finance Recommend Budget for Public Hearing at Full School Committee Meeting

Candace Miller suggested that the district look at creating a 3 to 5 year plan to be worked on after the current budget process is done.  The plan would be intended to outline a vision for the district and the associated costs.  John Portz mentioned that this is something the town has been asking for for several years.   There was some discussion from the audience concerning the plan, both in favor and opposed.  Some issues of concern that were brought up included: needing the town to provide additional information regarding the number of students to expect from new development; what financial model would be used; whether it was appropriate to have central administration develop such a plan; and that the town is satsified with the way the budget process went last year and that there may not be a need for a 3 to 5yr plan. In the end, no decision regarding a 3 to 5 year plan was made.

Commentary 

I think that suggesting the district work on creating a 3 to 5 year plan once the budget process is finished is an important part of the planning process.  Many districts develop plans to guide them as they work to improve their district.  Such a plan, will allow the district to lay out it's vision, the steps needed to achieve that vision and provide the associated costs. One important part of being able to forecast that vision is being able to project student enrollment. NESDEC (New England School Development Council) presented an enrollment forecast through 2025 at the January School Committee meeting. Several in the room suggested that the forecast was inaccurate. If that is the case, is a new professional study that includes a deeper analysis needed if we can't do it in-house?  Developing a solid enrollment forecast is very important to planning for the future, as it is a key factor in future needs for space, staff, etc. Other important factors in developing the plan would be outlining a plan for future programming needs and projecting the costs associated with those initiatives such as: additional STEAM programming, FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools), additional Fab Labs, etc.  Another theme of those opposed to creating a 3 to 5yr plan is that it would be inaccurate, things change, there could be an unexpected spike in students, unknowns around the impact of new development in town, etc.  My argument would be that no forecast is ever 100% accurate, as nobody can predict the future.  A forecast is an educated guess based on informed assumptions.  The fact that we can't predict enrollment or other factors with 100% certainty should not be an obstacle to stating assumptions and making and developing an informed projection.  The plan can be fluid and can change as conditions and priorities change.  If we don't move forward with this, how do we plan for future programming, staff and space needs?  I hope that this issue will be revisited and that Watertown chooses to create a 3 to 5 year plan as both a way to communicate the district's vision to the community as well as to use it as an important tool in the planning process.

Written by: Alyson Morales

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Explore Ways To Get Involved

Are you worried about overcrowding in our schools? Do you wish there was more communication between the schools and the community?

Budget season is about to begin and Watertown Strong Schools (WSS) has been meeting to set advocacy goals for 2016.  Our goals focus on two areas: 1) Overcrowding and class size; 2) Communication/Information Infrastructure.  We have already started working on these goals by attending School Committee, and sub committee meetings and posting our own "unofficial" minutes from those meetings on our Facebook page and website.  There is much more to come.

WSS strives to be a community organizing and advocacy group for education related issues. We will continue in our efforts to work towards ensuring a quality education for all students, promoting transparency from our school and town officials, and bringing quality data to the decision making process.

We need your help whether you want to be an occasional volunteer or part of the leadership group.

Please fill out our Watertown Strong Schools Member Survey to explore the many ways you can support quality education in Watertown.

Thank you,

Watertown Strong Schools  [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]

Unofficial Minutes: School Committee Meeting 2/1/16

2/1/2016 School Committee Meeting Agenda [embed]http://wcatv.org/vod/school-committee-19/[/embed]

Note: These are NOT official School Committee minutes

MLK Essays: Congratulations to Roua Alwaz, Grade 8 from the Middle School and Stella Varnum, Grade 11 from the High School on being recognized for their prize winning MLK essays!

High School Student Advisors: Spoke about a new Fab Lab class being offered at the high school.  Students now have an official class to take, rather than using it during study period and other free time.  She also spoke about upcoming events.

Public Forum #1: No speakers

Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES): Adam Silverberg, 6-12 World Language Coordinator spoke about the proposed program. He has been meeting monthly with 10 people (high school language teachers, elementary principals and elementary teachers) putting together recommendations.  They have also worked with a World Language consultant, Gary Duncan. The goal of the program is to reach all learners in all schools.  The language teacher will speak only in the target language. Recommendations were:

  • Start in the PreK and Kindergarten next year in all Elementary Schools
  • Spanish is the recommended language
  • Meet 5x per week for 30 minutes

The general education teacher will remain in the classroom when the foreign language is taught. While the recommendations is to teach language 5x per week for 30 minutes, that can be scaled back to 3x a week for 30 minutes if needed, but it is not recommended.  The importance of getting full support from the teachers before implementing the program was discussed by the School Committee, they want general education teachers to feel that the foreign language is adding education value, not taking it away. What programming will be given up in those 30 minutes? No clear answer was given.

The program is expected to cost 0.45% above the current school budget and will require 3 language teachers in year one ramping up to 9 teachers eventually.  Each year a new grade will be added, eventually spanning PreK-12. It was disappointing that FLES information was not provided in presentation form and the budget projections were not provided to the public in a handout.  I had to ask a SC member for the actual program costs. The importance of fully committing financially to this program before implementing it was discussed. Nobody wants to offer it for one year and then have to cancel it.  Further discussion will happen at the Budget and Finance Subcommittee meetings.

Estimated program costs:

  • Year 1 $187,212.  This includes adding 3 teachers (assuming M1 salary level), professional development, teaching and learning materials, and technology support (computers, projectors,etc).
  • Year 2 $109,886. This includes 2 additional teachers, teaching and learning materials and technology support.
  • Year 3 $54,943. This includes 1 additional teacher, teaching and learning materials and technology support.

Class Size (Current and Projected): In light of enrollment trends and current over crowding in the elementary schools, class size information was provided via handout at the meeting. Current class size information is as of 2/1/2016.  The classes that stand out currently are a Grade 2 class at the Cunniff with 25 students and the two 4th grade classes at the Cunniff with 26 and 28 students. Next year, at the Cunniff there is projected to be a class with 24 students and one with 25, and the Hosmer is projected to have three large classes (two at 24 and one at 25). In the current 4th grade class at the Cunniff, there are 9 students on IEPs and 6 ELL students making the overcrowding that more challenging for the students and staff. The Cunniff school principal Mena Ciarlone, discussed how they are handling the large 4th grade classes. She met with parents in the affected classrooms last week and starting today, a smaller group of students are taken out and moved from space to space every other day except Wednesdays when there is no open space available.  While I commend the creative thinking on the part of the Cunniff school staff, this situation is less than ideal and needs a better short term solution as soon as possible. I would personally like to see the town lease a modular classroom for a few months while the district figures out other solutions. The Hosmer principal stated that his school is currently at capacity. Classroom space has been made out of one of the gyms and in other spaces.

See a summary of the class size information provided below (I believe current guidelines in Watertown for Elementary class sizes are near 20 for the lower grades and below 25 for the higher grades):

  • K: No class sizes currently over 18 at any school; Next year the Cunniff is projected to have 2 classes with 20 students.
  • Grade 1: Currently, all Cunniff classes are below 20, Hosmer has 3 classes over 20 (2 at 21 and one with 23), all the classes at the Lowell are at or above 20 students (two at 20 and two at 21). Next year, the Cunniff is expected to have all classes above 20 (one at 21 and one at 22), Hosmer will have all classes at or below 20 students, and the Lowell will have all classes below 20 students.
  • Grade 2: Currently, all Cunniff classes are above 20 students (23 and 25), Hosmer has all of its classes at or below 20 students, Lowell classes are all above 20 students (two at 22 and one at 23).  Next year, all Cunniff classes are projected to be below 20 students. Homer will have several classes above 20 students (two at 21, and one at 23), while the Lowell will have two classes above 20 at 21.
  • Grade 3: Currently, the Cunnif has one class above 20 students with 22. Homer has three classes at 21 and all classes at the Lowell are above 20 students (two at 22 and one at 23). Next year, the Cunniff will have both classes above 20 students (24 and 25). All classes at the Hosmer will be at or below 20 students.
  • Grade 4: Currently, the Cunniff has two very large classes (26 and 28). All classes at the Hosmer are above 20 (two at 21 and two at 22). The Lowell classes are all below 20. Next year, Cunniff classes are projected to be above 20 (22 and 21).  The Hosmer is projected to have all classes above 20 (two at 24, one at 25, and one at 21). The Lowell classes are projected to all be above 20 as well (two at 22 and one at 23).
  • Grade 5: Currently, all classes at the Cunniff are above 20 students (21, 22) with the exception of the inclusion class which has 12 students. All classes but one at the Hosmer are below 20 (21). All classes at the Lowell are above 20 (two at 23 and one at 24). Next year Cunniff is projected to have two classes at 21. All Hosmer classes are projected to be over 20 (two at 21 and two at 22), while all classes at the Lowell will be under 20 students.

Rennie Center Report: There was a discussion about the Rennie Center Report on the Condition of Education in the Commonwealth.  The report's focus was on recommendations around Social/Emotional Learning. The superintendent will give a presentation at March's School Committee meeting showing that Watertown is ahead of the curve on all that it is doing in this area. Stay tuned.

Subcommittee Assignments: The following subcommittee assignments were voted and approved.

  • Budget and Finance: John Portz, Chair (one year transition); Guido Guidotti, Candace Miller
  • Buildings and Grounds: Liz Yusem, Chair; Eileen Hsu-Balzer, Kendra Foley
  • Curriculum: Eileen Hsu-Balzer, Chair; Candace Miller, Liz Yusem
  • Policy: Guido Guidotti, Chair; Eileen Hsu-Balzer, Liz Yusem
  • Athletics: Kendra Foley, Chair; Guido Guidotti, Candace Miller
  • Contract negotiating committee for Unit A: John Portz, Kendra Foley

Buildings and Grounds Report: Liz Yusem gave a detailed report on the meeting.  Those minutes should be posted soon.  See the earlier Buildings and Grounds unoffical summary post for further details. Several School Committee members asked about timing of the RFP and expected study results. No firm timeframe was given. The impression was given that the study may not be completed in time to have recommendations in time to be implemented for the Fall.  Members pressed to move quickly on the RFP and resulting study.  Concerned parents and residents should press the Buildings and Grounds committee for a timely turnaround so plans can be implemented for the upcoming school year.  There seems to be some confusion as to the scope of the study. It was my understanding that this was to be a study to discern short term solutions. A study focusing on longer term solutions may be necessary in the future, but we need something to help us make decisions in the short term to address overcrowding.  This needs to be resolved in a timely manner.

Public Forum #2: Paul Weeden spoke, asking about the potential use of two basement classrooms at the Cunniff as a way to ease overcrowding.  The superintendent said the business manager and the interim facilities manager can relook at that space, but she feels that it is not appropriate for a classroom as it is below ground and has water damage, etc. Mike Shepard, former School Committee member and former Chair of Buildings and Grounds stated that the space was declared unsafe, lacked a sprinkler system, was in the oldest part of the building and was too expensive to fix.

Chairman's report: A search will start soon for a new Assistant Superintendent and a new Director of Special Education. There will be public forums on these two positions once finalists have been chosen. This is expected to take place after the March School Committee meeting where dates and times for the public forums will be announced.  There will be a meeting of the Budget and Finance subcommittee Monday February 8th at 6pm. Location to be determined.  The long awaited third party audit of school finances is near completion. It is expected to be presented to a joint Town Council/School Committee meeting in March.

Superintendent's report: Watertown's relationship with Minuteman is being discussed with the Town Manager. Currently, Watertown is not a member of the Minuteman district. Watertown pays tuition to send our students to Minuteman. Currently 71 students attend Minuteman and the Superintendent just authorized 10 students to attend.

This Friday 2/5 or Monday 2/8 a survey will go out to parents and students regarding school start times.  Parents and students are encouraged to take the survey and share their thoughts. Watertown is considering pushing back school start times at the high school and middle school.  The Superintendent is working with Deb King of the WEA to craft a survey to get the perspective of teachers.

The Superintendent is rolling out a TV show called "The Superintendent's Notebook". This working with Watertown High School students to produce the show.  The first show will cover STEAM and the next show will be about Global Competency.  Please tune in.

There will be a showing of the film "Most Likely to Succeed" on 2/4 at the high school. Everyone is encouraged to attend.

Next Meeting: March 7, 2016

Minutes written by: Alyson Morales [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]

Unofficial Minutes: Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee 1/25/16

Subcommittee members in attendance: Liz Yusem, Chair, Kendra Foley, John Portz, Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Charles Kellner, Director of Business Services

Partial list of those in the audience: Eileen Hsu-Balzer(SC), Candace Miller (SC), Mark Sideris (SC & TC), Mike Dattoli (TC), Lisa Feltner (TC), Tom Tracy (Auditor/Assistant Town Manager for Finance), Kate Coyne (WSS), David Stokes (WSS), and Alyson Morales (WSS).

- As was discussed at the last School Committee meeting, enrollment is projected to grow in the coming years. Watertown needs to look at short-, mid- and long-term solutions to our current space issues. Some near-term solutions that were discussed were moving PreK to the Phillips building, making more classroom space in the Hosmer gym, moving 5th graders to the Middle School, modular classrooms, etc. The 2014 study done in preparation for our SOI to the MSBA was discussed, but this study's purpose was to determine the health of the physical structures of our schools and was not meant to address class size or programming needs. It was determined that in order to best cost and identify solutions, a professional study to address classroom and programming needs was required. The Building and Grounds Subcommittee has asked the administration to put together an RFP for such a study. A larger more comprehensive multi-year "Master Plan" study was also discussed as a longer term need, but no final decision on this was made.

- The Statement of Interest to the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) for Watertown High school will be refined and resubmitted in the coming months. The open period to apply to the MSBA is January - April, 2016. The MSBA makes their decisions public in December, 2016. The SOI will come before the school committee and town council in March for review and vote. This is a longer term solution to Watertown's ongoing space issues. This will be the third year that Watertown has submitted at SOI. It has taken Belmont approximately 10 years to become a finalist for Belmont High School. The final decision will be made by the MSBA later this month.

- The project to replace windows at the Watertown Middle School is moving forward, but due to the way the areas around the windows were built, it seems there are limited window options. Further information will be forthcoming on how that may effect the project cost.

- Stemetakis Playground was discussed, but no decision was made as the school business manager and the town auditor have to have further discussion on whether the town will take ownership of the playground.

Minutes written by: Alyson Morales

Official minutes are now posted

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FY16 News! Proposed 6.8% Increase for Schools

Hello Watertown Strong Schools supporters, Budgets are a reflection of priorities, and we are proud that our Town Council has prioritized the educational needs of our students. Tonight the Town Council will have a public hearing and vote on the FY16 budget, which includes the 6.87% increase requested by the School Committee.

Please come to the Town Council meeting tonight, June 9th at 7:15pm to show your support for the school budget appropriation. The public hearing and FY16 budget vote are at the top of the agenda!

View the FY16 School Budget Presentation here (PDF).

Thank you,

WSS

Update: FY2015 budget process -recap

Dear friends and neighbors, The FY2015 budget process is over. We are taking stock of what we have achieved and planning for the future. For exact percentages or write ups of the final budget, please see the Tab, Watertown News, the Residents for Strong School's FB site, or Town documents.

We all worked together displaying our unwavering commitment to Watertown Public Schools. We took a substantial step forward and we've made new connections and relationships across town. Our town hasn't seen such a high level of engagement on the part of parents and other members of this community in many years. Whether you attended meetings, emailed and or called elected officials, displayed a lawn sign, signed up for the WSS updates list, or engaged on the Facebook page, you helped to make this happen. Thank you so much for your efforts!

While we may adjust our pace, we can't lose our momentum. We must continue this effort together. Our schools did not get the full budget that they asked for and this puts administrators in a difficult position, trying to figure out how to meet the needs of all kids. While we will be engaged in the future budget efforts, we must also work together to fill the gaps.

What can we (as a group) do? What do we (WSS) plan to do (please join us)?

  • Get involved in the Community Planning process. The Comprehensive Plan Forum is tonight June 18, 2014 @ 6:30pm at the Watertown Middle School Auditorium. Our School Committee Chairperson mentioned that schools and education received little attention in the plan and didn't earn a spot in the Table of Contents of the long document. Come and speak up. Child care provided.
  • We'd like to bring together Site Councils across the schools to understand the unique needs of each school better and brainstorm on how to meet the needs that have not be met through the budget process.
  • We have a new Business Manager, a new Director of Special Education, but we are losing key staff as well. We'd like to begin conversations with our new professionals and understand why we are losing some of our other folks.
  • The Town Council voted to conduct an external audit of the school system. We'd like to put to rest all accounting and budgeting problems from the past and focus on a strong process, tools, and systems moving forward. We want to be engaged and shine light into this process so that past mistakes never again impede WPS from obtaining the resources they need to educate Watertown's students.
  • The next School Committee meeting is Wed, June 25, 6pm – 8pm at the Watertown High School Lecture Hall. We expect to hear about how the schools will use the 2015 budget and what they won't be able to fund. We'd like to work with the Watertown Education Foundation to help identify donations and resources for some discrete, non-staff items. We'd also like to ask for community engagement so that we can fill in some of the gaps so that all Watertown children get the education they deserve, even when our local budget falls short. WEF, we are reaching out to you shortly!
  • We'll have a planning meeting in late August. If you have ideas, share them. Please stay engaged!

Lawn signs: Please save them for next year! Most people purchased signs, so hold on to them. If you prefer, we can hold onto them. You can drop them at 14 Center Street, front porch.

All the best,

Candace and the rest of WSS

Chairman's Statement, June 3, 2014

Town Council Budget Hearing June 3, 2014 Good evening. I want to recognize our educational professionals for the extraordinary effort each of them has put into creating the School Department budget document.  Their combination of thoughtfulness and expertise has helped develop a budget that is very specific about what it costs to serve our students’ needs, both legally, and properly. It is these professionals who make teaching and learning a reality for every child, in every classroom, every day.  We talk the talk—they walk the walk.

Because we have had so many public discussions about the School budget, I think most of those here tonight have heard many times over the themes of the crippling budget constraints under which our School Department, like many other municipalities’ School Departments, has labored during the past five recessionary years.  There are certainly many statistics and excel spreadsheets available on line for those who are interested.  If you want more than numbers, visit the schools, speak to the teachers and the parents, and make up your own minds about whether the schools currently represent the best our town can do.

I have looked at a copy of the Comprehensive Development Plan commissioned by the Town of Watertown, and I have read all 220 pages.  Most of it does not directly touch on the schools.  There is a lot of information and numerous recommendations about traffic flow and historic preservation and zoning.

However, in the section titled Economic Development, a mention of the schools appears in Goal 4.  Economic Development Goal 4 is: Align education and training opportunities with careers in the region’s growth industries.  And number A. underneath, elaborates: Ensure children and young adults are prepared to participate in the Town’s employment base.

In another section, that employment base is highlighted as heavily weighted toward many of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).  That is the employment base the Watertown schools are exhorted to prepare its students to enter.

We are not doing that.  We cannot do that.  We do not have the resources to do that.

Why?  First, STEM preparedness is cumulative.  Each step builds on a knowledge and skill base acquired previously. At the simplest level, if you can’t add and subtract, you can’t move on to multiplication and division.  With teachers spread thinly, working with large class sizes of extremely diverse learners, they are prohibited from addressing each particular child’s issue on a timely one-on-one basis. That student’s difficulties grow and hamper future learning.  The child begins to associate that subject of study with personal failure. The STEM curriculums, which build year to year on each previous foundational step, become less and less attainable for that student.  Without a sound, doors close for that student’s future.  Like tooth decay or a leaking roof, this is not a problem that resolves by itself.

Second, STEM teachers are expensive.  One way the school district has addressed financial constraints is by hiring good new teachers who happen to be at the bottom of the salary scale, because they are just beginning their careers.  However, in certain disciplines, which include the STEM fields, teachers are hard to find, and when you find them, they are not necessarily beginning their careers.  Physics and math, for example, are highly sought teacher specialties, and these teachers are expensive.

Third, in addition to specialized staff, STEM curriculum requires specialized equipment, consumable supplies, and uniquely configured workspaces. These are expensive curriculums, often requiring frequent professional development and annual goods and materials replacement to continue to remain up-to-date.  If you don’t have the funds to provide the qualified staff or the equipment or the lab to offer an engineering curriculum, then you try, as we do, to offer the after school Robotics team as a limited hint of what engineering might be, for a small group of hardworking students which raises most of its own funding.  At last night’s School Committee meeting, we heard a presentation about the Continental Math League success achieved by fifth graders at the Lowell School.  The group placed first in the nation.  Four students made perfect scores.  The Continental Math League team is funded by the Lowell PTO, not by the School budget.  I wish more students in the elementary schools could have access to this kind of program.

I would love to offer computer science and engineering courses in the curriculum. Many new STEM companies are coming to Watertown.  The Town Comprehensive Plan is very clear on that. Why shouldn’t our own Watertown students have a fighting chance to qualify competitively for employment and careers in these areas of Town growth?

The Town Comprehensive Plan clearly and correctly views the Town as one whole, with its many parts functioning together to contribute to the vision of a prosperous future.  The Schools want to play their part in that future.  There is a mutual interdependence between the health of the Schools and the economics of a successful town.  Our students’ families, our School District employees, our School Committee, are your neighbors, your friends and relatives, your customers, your co-workers and your citizens.  We want what you want. We are you.

Mr. Sideris and I are continuing our dialogue with each other, with our respective Council and Committee, and with our administrators.  We all recognize that the budget document you have before you tonight is a step, but not the final step, toward the goal of charting the wisest course to address our Town’s pressing school funding issues on a sustainable basis.  While I was preparing these remarks, I took a look at my horoscope in the Boston Globe on Saturday.  It read: Don’t expect everyone to agree with you when it comes to financial, legal or medical issues that you are facing. You may have to compromise in order to keep the peace and find a workable solution.  After nineteen years on the School Committee, I accept that to be true.  Understanding another person’s point of view is an essential part of working together.

We all want excellent schools.  The School Committee’s mandate is to tell the Town Council accurately and frankly what financial support our professional staff needs to provide a good education for our children.  The Town Council’s mandate is to tell the School Committee what funds the Town is able to allocate for that purpose.  The separation of these two spheres is specifically set forth by law, and allows each body to exercise control over the issues in and for which they have the most expertise and responsibility.  Both Council and Committee can be speaking their own truth, and not agree on a final number.  That is not anyone’s fault. That tension is what makes this issue so challenging. We both wish the Schools needed less money.  We both wish the Town had more money to allocate to the Schools

The School Committee will be meeting on Thursday, June 5,  at 6 PM, in the High School Small Lecture Hall, to consider a budget revision the Superintendent and her staff are preparing which is sensitive to the constraints on the Town’s bottom line, while remaining responsible for fulfilling the educational mission of the Schools.

I am grateful for the vast number of hours the Town Hall and the Town Council have given to the FY15 School budget. Thank you to those who were able to attend some of our meetings.  Thank you for engaging in many, many discussions in person, on the phone and by email.  In particular, thank you Mr. Sideris, who as Town Council President and School Committee member is laboring mightily to integrate the needs of two worlds fairly and creatively. That effort is ongoing even now. When the FY15 budget process has concluded, we hope these numerous conversations will continue as we consider future budgets, as a normal and collegial part of doing the business we all promised the voters we would do when we last asked them for their votes.

In successful municipalities, the schools and the town are partners working toward a shared vision. We have every element we need to reach that goal of partnership. Above all, here in Watertown, we are lucky enough to possess an extraordinarily precious asset, which we must not squander.  We are the beneficiaries of an engaged and passionate citizenry.  How fortunate we are to live here and serve them.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer Chair, Watertown School Committee

Letter to the Editor: Wilson Lowry

Town CouncilTown of Watertown Watertown, MA

June 1, 2014

Dear Councilors:

I am writing in the hope of clarifying issues surrounding Watertown’s pension funding decisions.

Recent media articles repeat the misleading claim, made by the Town Manager in the April 29 budget presentation document and again during the May 27 budget presentation, that moving the end-date for eliminating our unfunded pension liability from 2022 to 2019 will save the Town $32 million. This inaccurate claim leads to the false and damaging impression that the pension appropriations for FY2015 and subsequent years cannot be reduced because doing so would eliminate substantial savings. To the contrary, in order to realize $5 million savings by 2022 (not $32 million!), by 2019 the Town must make $10 million more in contributions than had been previously scheduled through 2019.

Before addressing arcane aspects of pension funding, we need to ask: Why is this important to the Town Council?

The misunderstanding about the $32 million has the effect that pension contributions have been inappropriately taken off the table for discussion, thereby avoiding any consideration of using the rare good news in the most recent pension review (valuation) as an opportunity to improve current town services. Prior to the completion of this 2013 valuation, the schedule used by the Town to fund the liability was already one of the fastest in the state: the projected full funding date of 2022 put us in a tie for fourth place among all governmental entities in Massachusetts. The new “fund to 2019” schedule will surely move us even higher in the rankings, suggesting that we prioritize pension funding more highly than do other towns with similar populations, budgetary needs, and cost pressures.

The problem of unfunded liability began with the inception of municipal pension plans during the early to mid-20th century because most towns and cities, Watertown included, did not properly fund for their future benefits before the 1980s. The current generation of taxpayers is already burdened by having to pay unfunded costs for previous generations’ pensions in addition to current costs. Shortening the funding period exacerbates this intergenerational inequity by concentrating the burden on a compressed subset of residents.

Finally, the urgency to revisit funding schedule decisions is due to a provision in Chapter 32, the state law governing pension plans: each subsequent year’s contribution must be 95% of the prior year’s contribution until the plan is nearly fully funded. Despite Watertown’s status as an early-funding town, we are subject to this restriction, too. The additional $1.6 million in the Town’s FY2015 contribution, which increases from $10.6 million in FY2014 to $12.2 million in FY2015, locks us into making payments of at least $11.6 million (95% of $12.2 million) for FY2016 forward. In fiscal 2016-19, yearly $1.5 million increases are also scheduled, bringing the FY2019 contribution to nearly $18 million.

Now we can return to the explanation of why adopting a shortened schedule that includes moving up $10 million of payments from fiscal 2020-2022 to fiscal 2015-2019 does not result in $32 million of savings... fasten your seatbelt!

As background, a pension plan promises benefits to retirees in the future, requiring savings now; “unfunded liability” arises when not enough money is saved for future payments. Unfortunately Watertown, like most cities and towns, did not begin “funding” (i.e., saving for) its pension plan until the 1980s. The pension plan is reassessed every year or two. Each new actuarial assessment (“valuation”) re-calculates the unfunded liability based on actual history of demographic changes and salary increases, refreshed projections based on assumptions for future growth in benefits, and updated asset values.

All these factors interact and must be taken into account together to calculate the yearly schedule of contributions that will lead to full funding. The liability includes benefits being earned by current employees who have yet to retire along with the value of all future benefits already earned by current retirees; meanwhile, a portion of the assets already in the plan are constantly being used to pay benefits to current retirees. Each time the Town resets its pension funding schedule, we must submit it to the state’s pension regulator (PERAC) for approval. These valuation reports are prepared at the end of each year and the new schedule begins the following fiscal year.

The key to this analysis is the difference between the 2012 and 2013 valuations. (Because of the lag in report preparation, the FY2014 appropriation is the same in each schedule; differences begin in 2015.) From 2012 to 2013, two things changed.

First, based on the 2013 valuation, the yearly contributions required to fund the liability over the period from fiscal 2015-22 would have been $27 million less than those derived from the 2012 valuation. This change happens because the 2013 valuation resulted in a liability that was much lower than had been projected in 2012. The good news was the result of a combination of several factors: the adoption of less conservative assumptions, slower than expected growth in projected benefits, and asset growth. Had we simply adhered to the schedule from the 2012 valuation all the way through 2022, the updated projections from the 2013 valuation show that the previously planned $114 million in scheduled contributions would have over-funded the plan by $27 million.

Second, in response to the 2013 valuation, the Town decided to move $10 million of contributions from later years to earlier years: from fiscal 2020-22 to fiscal 2015-19. Making contributions earlier allows for more time for investment returns to accumulate and therefore reduce future contributions, in this case a savings of $5 million. Put another way, adding $10 million to the previously scheduled $66 million in contributions over the next five fiscal years will allow us to reduce contributions by $5 million (not 32 million!) over the entire eight year period.

Needless to say, over-funding the plan is not on anyone’s agenda. In response to the favorable 2013 valuation results (the first change), the Town could have chosen to maintain the original funding date of 2022 and reduce total contributions by an estimated $27 million, from the scheduled $114 million to $87 million. Instead, the Town made the second change: we chose to adopt a new schedule that not only maintains the contributions for fiscal 2015-19 but increases them by $10 million in order to move up the date for full funding to 2019 (disregarding a small, residual liability for the Housing Authority). Total scheduled contributions (increasing until 2019 and dropping off steeply in 2020) for the eight years from 2015-2022 are now $82 million. The $10 million of incremental increases in contributions for fiscal 2015-19 produce almost $5 million of expected investment return over the eight-year period from 2015 to 2022. Therefore, the $27 million in reduced contributions and the $5 million in extra asset growth from investment return combine for a total reduction over the eight years from $114 million to $82 million.

It’s important to reiterate that most of the $32 million reduction in contributions is the result of the new 2013 actuarial valuation, NOT the shortening of the funding period. Furthermore, to achieve that last reduction through the $5 million of investment return over eight years, the Town must, in the next five years, direct an extra $10 million of revenue – over and above its previously scheduled contributions – away from other purposes. In FY2015, the pension contribution increases 15%, the largest increase of any material line item in the budget. In FY2019, the new scheduled contribution will be nearly $18 million, a 67% increase above the FY2014 contribution, or an average of 11% per year.

I urge the Town Manager and Town Council during this year’s budget deliberations to fully weigh the costs and benefits of higher current pension contributions against the costs and benefits of underfunding other crucial needs.

Wilson Lowry Fellow, Society of Actuaries 114 Marshall Street

C: Manager Driscoll

Letter to the Editor: Alyson Morales

To the Editor: Watertown Strong Schools has spent a lot of time focused on understanding the state of Watertown Public Schools. We analyzed data, met with town leaders and residents, interviewed administrators, and surveyed teachers. What we have concluded and have worked to clearly and objectively explain, is that the schools are at a crisis point. If left unchecked and underfunded, the problems will continue to get worse.

While the Town Manager’s current education budget has made many positive steps and is larger than it has been in the past, it will not address class size in any meaningful way. We need additional funding to cover new mandated (required by law) and new core teaching staff at a minimum to address the problem. While we believe additional staff is needed in the areas of guidance, STEM, music, etc., our priority must be adding core classroom teachers.

Throughout our work to advocate for Watertown’s students we have heard many arguments against additional funding. I have been asked to respond to several of the more recent statements made. All of the information presented below is sourced from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Revenue.

Watertown spends less on education because we have fewer students to educate. This is not true. Watertown doesn't spend less on education because we have fewer students. When Watertown is compared to other towns with similar student enrollment (+/- 500 students) we are at the bottom in terms of spending. We spend 49% (including insurance and retirement) of our budget on education, while other towns with similar enrollments spend 67% on average.

Watertown has better student to teacher ratios than its neighbors. This statement is misleading. While true, one has to look deeper for a better understanding. Watertown has a much higher population of special education students than its neighbors (WPS 21.9% vs 19.4% in Newton vs 13.9% in Arlington vs 9.2% in Belmont). These special education students often have classes that are small and range in size anywhere from one to twelve students per teacher. When a town has this high of a population of students with disabilities, it skews the top line ratio and makes it look better than it is. Elementary class sizes right now are as high as 28 students per class.

Watertown spends more per pupil than its neighbors is also misleading. Again, while true, one has to go beyond the surface to get to the truth. Watertown spends 33.4% of its operating budget on special education, which is more costly and therefore drives up the total per pupil expenditure. This is much higher than its neighbors, again because of our unique student population and needs. Newton spends 25.2%, Arlington spends 22.5% and Belmont spends 21.8%. Because of this, Watertown looks better at a top line when compared to its neighbors.

Many of these issues are not obvious to those that have not been spending months looking at all of the information. I urge residents to weigh all of the information and make up their own mind. Go to watertownstrongschools.com and take a look at our documents. All of the data is objective and sourced. There are no smoke and mirrors. We are an independent group that is not on “anyone’s side”. We continue to advocate for all of the children of Watertown, special education and general education alike.

Alyson Morales Chandler Street

Letter to the Editor: Candace Miller

Down to the Wire for WPS Dear Editor,

I am the mom of a current and soon-to-be WPS student, as well as a public policy researcher who has worked for two decades across four continents with colleagues in government, business, and academia. I became focused on WPS when I realized that across the fifth grade, students were receiving minimal feedback, spending more time memorizing worksheets than engaged in project-based learning, and experiencing increased behavioral problems. Examining MCAS results, I noted that 20% of WPS students who were proficient in math in third grade, no longer met minimal standards by fourth grade, despite the fact that statewide, students perform better from year to year. As a mom, I am deeply concerned to see Watertown children falling behind, disengaged, and exposed to growing behavioral issues.

Watertown Strong Schools formed as parents came together, sharing concerns about increasing class sizes, overburdened teachers, and a decline in student wellbeing.  WSS focused on understanding the situation at WPS, the budget process, and school and town dynamics. We analyzed data, examined budgets, met with leaders, attended town meetings, held community meetings, interviewed administrators, and surveyed teachers.

The data clearly demonstrate that WPS has declined over the last decade forcing administrators to request a sizeable increase for FY2015. WPS is on the edge of compliance for special education, has inadequate staffing, overcrowded classrooms, insufficient guidance staff, and serious safety concerns. In classrooms with 28 students, teachers are unable to implement the differentiated learning approaches needed to motivate students and keep them out of trouble.

The primary problem is that WPS are deeply underfunded. Resources have not kept pace as state mandates have expanded and student enrollment has grown with greater percentages of low income students, English Language Learners, and students requiring individualized education plans.

In 2014, administrators prepared an industry standard budget that articulates WPS needs across schools, grades, subject areas, and special and general education. Increased funding would ensure that WPS are in compliance with federal requirements and state accreditation standards, reduce class sizes, and improve school safety.

We hoped that by sharing accurate data, understanding local leaders’ perspectives, and interacting respectfully, we could build relationships and repair communication so that town officials would fully understand what our education professionals need to operate safe and effective schools.

As we move to the final stages of the FY15 budget process, I am pleased that our town has a better understanding of WPS. I am encouraged by leaders who are working tirelessly to bridge the gap between the town and WPS. I am concerned as other town leaders—elected and appointed—still refuse to discuss facts, continue to discredit WPS administrators, and assign blame for problems created years ago, rather than identify solutions. The old arguments that we debunked using accurate data resurfaced last week in a letter that defended the behavior of town leaders who refuse to acknowledge facts so they may continue to underfund WPS. I urge readers to get informed, rather than believe arguments presented to confuse and conceal the real situation, and undermine our educational professionals.

If by June 10th, we fail to agree on an adequate budget and leaders choose to underfund the schools, our youngest residents will suffer the most, on a daily basis, for years to come. Currently, the Town Manager’s proposed budget is shortsighted, further locking WPS into the downward trajectory of worsening educational outcomes, behavioral problems, and continued teacher and administrator turnover. Be assured, the costs of not funding the FY15 budget far exceed the resources requested by WPS.

 

Dr. Candace Miller Senior Researcher, Mathematica Policy Research Westminster Avenue

Letter to the Editor: Lani Gerson

Although a relatively new resident of Watertown, I began my career as a librarian in this community 35 years ago. My first position with the WFPL was as joint public librarian/school librarian at the old Brown School. In those days there was great access to libraries in Watertown including school libraries, branch libraries and a combination of the two. Things sure have gone downhill since then. I join the many voices demanding full funding for the schools – including fully staffing the school libraries. I despair at what the school children in this town are missing out on. Without full funding of the schools, many, many needs will not be met and many important programs will suffer, and libraries will continue to take fatal hits.

Today, just as 35 years ago, every school child deserves a strong and vibrant library program, yet Watertown has been one of the districts in the Commonwealth gradually eliminating those programs and access to library resources and library professionals. It is not the case that every district is getting rid of librarians and school library programs. Of the top 50 school systems (as rated by Boston Magazine) the great majority has dynamic school library programs.

Too often libraries are viewed as holding places, study halls or as the final resting places for dusty books. This is WRONG – headed! There is ample research documenting the crucial role that access to fully staffed school libraries play in helping students to achieve.

Test scores tend to be higher in all types of schools where there are school librarians, and where library staff spends more time delivering library/information and literacy instruction to students. In addition, students do better when library staff spend time collaborating with teachers on instructional units and also training teachers in successful information access. Finally, test scores tend to be higher for all of types of schools when students have frequent opportunities to visit the school library.

These optimal conditions do not exist in any of the Watertown schools. Unless the town manager and the town council can be persuaded to listen to the outcry in this community for better-funded schools, the educational needs of our children will not be met. I ask the town to begin the process of bringing back libraries and librarians to the Watertown schools and to better funding the schooling of our children.

Lani Gerson 4 Washburn Street Watertown, MA 02472

Letter to the Editor: Paul Miller

To the Editor, Strong schools are essential to enable our children to thrive in the 21st century. In the last decade alone, amazing technological and medical advances have permeated our lives and workplaces. We can barely imagine the transformations that will occur in our children’s lifetimes, from exciting new innovations, to global competition for employment. Graduates with the skills to work in high-tech fields will be well placed to play important roles in improving health and technology or in solving major problems, such as climate change. Language skills and cultural competency will enable young workers to manage increasingly diverse international workforces. While family and friends transfer some of these skills, strong schools are the mechanism that societies use to prepare children to flourish in this modern world.

Watertown is an ideal location for success in the 21st century. We are situated in one of the world’s preeminent regions for science and technology: according to various metrics, the Greater Boston area ranks no.1 in the U.S. for jobs in the life sciences, including pharmaceuticals, biotech, and medical devices; ranks top-5 in the U.S. for tech jobs in general; and ranks no.1 in the world for scientific research, thanks to our leading academic institutions. Additionally, Watertown is a vibrant hub of cultural diversity, providing students from pre-k to grade 12 opportunities to learn how to work well with others—at least 30 different languages are represented in the homes of our schoolchildren. However, a strong school system is essential for these advantages to truly benefit the next generation of Watertown.

In our children, the talent is there—5th grade Math league was no.1 in the country. In our teachers, the dedication is there—they work extra hours, offer numerous activities to help our kids learn and work to obtain external resources for our schools. These educators know how to help our children excel.

In our town, is the commitment there to give WPS what they need to succeed? Right now, the educators of Watertown are being denied in their request for full funding. They are not suggesting we build a state of the art $200 million school like Newton North. They merely want to ensure classes always have fewer than 25 students, so those students can receive the help they need to keep learning.

Elementary classrooms with 28 kids are not the only symptom of schools being lower than the “high priority” stated in Watertown’s budgets. I wonder if other town employees buy their own air conditioners to ensure a suitable working environment as teachers do? Or whether other town employees wait over 16 months for essential repairs after water damage, as occurred in our high school? For too long now the WPS Superintendent and Principals funding requests have gone unheeded. Let us—through our Town Council—put right this oversight and give our children the chance to reach their full potential and compete without disadvantage for 21st century jobs.

Dr. Paul Miller, Professor of Biology, Brandeis University Westminster Avenue

 

Chairman’s Report, School Committee, May 5, 2014

As the Town budget process heads toward the finish line, I want to thank my fellow School Committee members, the Watertown Public Schools staff, the Town Hall staff, and the Town Council members, all of whom have engaged in various capacities in the fiscal conversation. In particular, the thoughtful public conversation driven by interest and concern from parents and community members has been very encouraging. Through the debate over numbers and data analysis, I find it useful to keep in mind the reason we are all having these conversations.  A budget represents the priorities of the person or entity that created it.  Building a budget begins with assumptions about some often-silent questions: What is my highest priority?  What are the things that will be deferred in deference to other priorities?  What philosophy underpins the choices that have led to the creation of that particular budget?  I emphasize the word choices, because that is what this process entails.

No one on this School Committee believes that we should ask for money for money’s sake.  We respect the challenge the FY15 School District budget presents to Town Hall. Our dual mandate as a School Committee is, first, to speak the truth about what our District needs, and then, second, to work within the constraints of the funding we receive to meet our students’ needs to the best of our ability.

At our last meeting, a mere month ago, the School Committee voted on a budget request to send to the Town Manager.  The budget was the result of months of painstaking number crunching, long work sessions, many of them public, and exacting analysis of budgets from years past. The result was our professional staff’s best estimate of student needs for FY15. The School District budget was built on a foundation of listing classroom needs down to the last glue stick.  For detail, I invite you to find information on the Watertown Public Schools website, and courtesy of the parents there is also useful information on the Watertown Strong Schools website.

Last Tuesday, the Town Manager revealed his budget at a Town Council meeting. On Friday, three days later, while the Superintendent was in a meeting with State Representatives Lawn and Hecht, she was notified that an additional out of district residential placement student had become Watertown’s responsibility, at an annual cost of $238,000 in tuition.  That means that three days after the Manager’s budget presentation, before the proposed budget has even been voted on by the Town Council, the School Department budget request is already ¼ million dollars in the red.  When I hear people say, “You have to get Special Education costs under control,” I don’t even know how to respond.

All school districts navigate through a thicket of regulations, some of them, but not all of them, related to Special Education.  To disregard any of these regulations would be wrong educationally, perilous legally, and ultimately punitive financially.  To quote our Special Education director: “I'd rather pay for good staffing that meets the needs of the students than pay for increased litigation and out-of-district placements because we don't have the proper staffing.”

The result of this budget pressure is perhaps similar to what happens when a restaurant plans to open.  There are regulations with which the restaurant must comply, from the building inspectors, from the health department, from the zoning board, etc.  Many of these regulations add cost to the budget, and are non-negotiable. A restaurant owner who is strapped for cash may then look to trim the budget in other ways, such as lowering the quality, size and variety of the food, decreasing the number and wages of staff, and letting needed repairs languish unaddressed.  In this metaphor, the customers are the students, and the meal they are consuming is the education they are receiving.  If the customer eats only occasionally at that restaurant, the harm is small.  But if that restaurant is the customer’s primary source of nutrition, if that restaurant represents to the customer the standard the world considers to be satisfactory, what is the effect?  A direct quote from a letter the School Committee received last week from a 2013 graduate of Watertown High School reads:  “The schools have been dealing with dwindling resources since my family moved here in 2008.  While I understand that the status quo is to allow the schools to continue to survive at their current semi-functional level, this status quo is incredibly destructive. No students in the school system are being served as well as they should be.”

An article in the Saturday NY Times Business section this last weekend discusses how to pick a town to move into.  Conventional wisdom lists good schools, value for housing price and distance of commute as the three top factors.  The article suggests an alternate way to assess the attractiveness of a town, based on the fit between the values of the community and your own, and describes some ways to research those values.  As always, schools are central to that research.  You will be hard pressed to find a single analysis of the desirability of a community anywhere that does not include an evaluation of the health of and town support for local schools.

Why is that?  I am not alone in believing that schools are a window into the values of a community.  Very few, if any, towns have unlimited financial resources.  They make choices on how to allocate their precious tax dollars based on community values.  I think this is worth repeating—towns make choices, based on community values, about how to allocate their tax dollars.

The budget discussion that Watertown is having is really a discussion of choices.  The School Committee and the School Administration have tried their best to provide a data-driven presentation of the needs of the school district.  After 5 years of diminishing services, the data show the increasing strain on teaching and learning caused by a lack of resources.

At the end of Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, the Town Council President allowed a 15-minute public forum.  Many citizens expressed their wish to have the School budget increased above the Manager’s budget number. One speaker said he felt the schools were fine, and that the discussion was characterizing the Town Council as the bad guys and those in favor of increasing the school budget as the good guys. I want to go on record as saying that I do not characterize anyone on either side of this issue as bad or good.  What I will say is that we have a bad situation, which calls for us to work together toward a good solution.  This conversation is not about bad or good people.   I wish it were that simple and obvious.  It is not.  This is about choices and the differing priorities people place on these choices.   Precious tax dollars are meant to be used to fund the priorities of the citizens.  We have arrived at a fork in our road, and as a community we must choose which path to take.  We are selecting our municipal priorities. Where there is choice, there is opportunity.  Virtually all of the citizens of Watertown understand from their own life experiences the necessity of facing hard decisions, and they know that most of us cannot have everything we want.  They know that making one decision often necessitates adjusting another.  They are realists.  Let those of us honored to serve in public office not be less willing to face these difficult choices than those members of our community who have entrusted us with their votes.

Respectfully submitted, Eileen Hsu-Balzer Chair, Watertown School Committee

Letter to the Editor: Alyson Morales

To the Editor, After attending the Special Town Council meeting on 4/29, I was heartened and disappointed at the same time. I was pleased to see concerned parents and citizens packing the Council Chamber, pouring into and filling up the hallway to show support for increased funding for Watertown Public Schools.  I was encouraged to hear so many residents addressing the town during the public forum.

I was very disappointed by the Town Manager’s proposed FY15 budget. The funding proposed for the schools is needed, but is clearly insufficient. The budget will not address the need for more teachers in any meaningful way, nor will it address our overcrowded classrooms.  In this proposed budget, the increase in the town appropriation will be largely consumed by the cost of existing contracts, preventing the hiring of desperately needed new staff.  While the parents and citizens of Watertown understand the dire situation of our schools, many of our town leaders are choosing to ignore data and facts.

The Town Manger repeatedly described the town’s excellent financial position and the AAA bond rating. But our financial rating cannot be Watertown’s ultimate goal. It is a means to helping us reach our shared vision of a strong community. Watertown needs to adjust its priorities and make the quality of Watertown Schools one of the key pieces of the Town’s vision going forward. Watertown is ranked last or next to last in how much we allocate to education as a percent of total expenditures when compared to towns with similar school enrollment and populations (49% on education in Watertown compared to the average of 67% for towns with similar enrollment and populations). We cannot continue to prioritize our town’s bond rating over quality education.

Residents without children in schools should still be deeply invested in Watertown schools. Public schools are the cornerstone of strong communities, uniting past and future generations and neighborhoods. The reputation of public schools matter too. Across Massachusetts, the majority of towns with the largest increase in home sales in the first quarter of 2014 had high ranking schools. Despite our location and great town, real estate agents say that new buyers pass over Watertown in search of towns with reputations for strong schools. For most people, a house is the largest retirement asset and its value could be protected by demanding strong schools. Research conclusively demonstrates that strong public schools drive economic development. Investments in schools are rewarded in the housing market. Schools are one of the best economic investments our community can make. Public education provides economic benefits to everyone in the community, not just students.

I call on our town leaders to do more than give lip service to supporting strong schools by sending the budget back to the manager to increase education funding. Real progress must be made. The budget, as it stands, does little to address the serious problems outlined by our Superintendent and Principals.

Sincerely,

Alyson Morales 21 Chandler St. Watertown, MA

Letter to the Editor: Rebecca Grow

To the editor: Watertown Public Schools need to hire 32 additional full-time equivalent teachers and a business manager to meet the basic requirements of educating our 2,700+ students. This means we need an increase of about $6m to the Town’s appropriation for education.  Research shows that small class sizes lead to student achievement. Yet even before the economic downturn of 2008, elementary school enrollments in Watertown were increasing while the number of teachers decreased. Our student-teacher ratio average of 16 looks good on paper, but Watertown has an unusually high proportion of special needs students which skew the statistics. We actually have elementary class sizes ranging from five to 29. Both our special needs and our general education programs require additional teachers. The superintendent’s request to hire more teachers covers only the basic needs of the schools. To continue on the current path, without increasing the education budget, means our programs will deteriorate and our children will fall behind.

Improving the schools is in the interest of all who live in Watertown, whether they have children in schools or not.  Studies show close relationships between strong schools and flourishing communities. As the economy continues to improve, Watertown should thrive. Investment in our schools should be an integral part of our long-term plan for the town. Moreover, excellent education fosters the good citizenship that makes democracy work. Watertown is rich in diversity and the teachers we have do excellent work given our limited resources. To sustain our strength as a community, our town leaders must find ways to support education and build the Watertown school system, for our children now enrolled, and for the many more who will attend Watertown schools in the future.

Sincerely,

Rebecca Grow 4 Gay Road Watertown

Update: Town Manager Driscoll is building the budget. Will the Needs of WPS be met?

“Schools are one of the best possible economic investments our community can make.

Public education provides economic benefits to everyone in the community...”

Quick Review:

After  years of underfunding (see slides 20-25), in March 2014, the School Committee (SC) voted in favor of the WPS FY2015 Budget of $42,861,507 (which is $6.1 million over FY 2014.)

Last week, the Town Council voted to delay the Town Manager’s (TM) submission of the FY 2015 budget to April 29, 2014. In his public comments, TM Driscoll asked the Superintendent to prioritize the list of school “needs”.

Since last Tuesday:

  • TM Driscoll, Superintendent Fitzgerald, SC Chair Hsu-Balzer, and Council President Sideris have been discussing the budget.
  •  Superintendent Fitzgerald is working with WPS Principals to determine whether the budget can be reduced (e.g. hiring below the budgeted average salary, what items can be cut etc.)
  • However, in building the budget, WPS Principals were only allowed to include what their school “needed” so it is difficult to say what can be removed.

WPS FY2015 Budget, in considering priorities, we understand that:

  • WPS must meet contractual obligations (for salaries and other services)
  • One-time costs (or costs that will not be incurred for another 3+ years such as math curriculum) are easier to meet than recurring costs
  •  Mandated costs, (i.e. special education, English language, and adaptive physical education teachers) are required costs
  •  We believe the at-risk items in the FY2015 budget are the non-mandated, reoccurring costs essential to quality schools, teaching, and learning. These include general education teachers, specials curriculum teachers, guidance and push counselors, behavioral supports, and instructional assistantsSee slide 11 in our PPT for these positions.

All of these positions and costs must be in the 2015 budget and beyond to repair WPS. Watertown is in a strong financial position (see our Q&A). Repairing our schools requires a realignment of Watertown’s priorities and generating new revenue. We can do this.  WPS Leaders and Principals identified staff and materials essential to student performance, mental health, and school satisfaction; ensuring safe schools; improving test scores and Watertown’s reputation; and building a stronger community. See our Platform Document.

As the Manager builds the budget, we are developing the Watertown Strong Schools vision to ensure the all investments improve WPS.The vision includes:

  • From WPS: Stronger financial management and accountability with a new business manager; improved, more transparent financial processes; and better tracking of efforts with evaluation of key results
  • From our School Committee: Strengthened capacity around best practices in financial management and budget oversight, policy formulation, identifying needs, measuring district performance, and evaluation of key efforts
  • Clear roles and responsibilities for WPS, SC, TC and Town Manager’s office
  • Greater parental and resident involvement, etc. Have an idea? Contribute to the vision!

The time to act is now. The second grader struggling to read cannot wait years, the 7th grader with behavioral problems needs supports today, and the high school junior diligently building her future needs daily opportunities to become confident and competitive in today’s workplace. See our Op Ed.

Again possible sources, for FY2015, see our PPT for sources for 2016 and beyond.

Source

Amount Available for 2015

Savings that we didn’t know we’d have when the Town Manager first released the 2015 budget.

The Massachusetts Group Insurance Commission rates: 1% increase rather than the budgeted 6%. $700,000 (5% of $14 million) (TM's original budget allocated 6% to this line item, but there was only a 1% increase)
Additional Chapter 70 money allocated by the state. $400,000

Line items from other sources that could be allocated to education if the political will to strengthen the schools exists.

The Stabilization Fund in Capital Improvement Projects $500,000–$2 million
Capital expenditures could be 5%, or 6% of operating budget (not 7.5 –8%) until the schools are in decent shape  $1 - $2 million
The Unreserved Fund Balance: ($9 million)•     Based on the Budget and Policy Guidelines, we allocate 10% of expenditures to this fund. Most other towns allocate 2% or 3%. We can change this with a vote by the TC. Other towns with Aa3 bond ratings also allocate 2-3%. $2 m is generally spent per year, but more could be spent. 
Tax assessment overlay monies (which normally cover assessment appeals): $700,000–$1 million
Transfer from prepayment of the unfunded Pension Liability fund:•     The debt can be paid off by 2022, rather than 2019; also terms could change moving forward. We are paying this down aggressively, which we should do, if we WPS hadn’t deteriorated. $250,000
Council reserves: Normally used for union contract payments but this does exist. $1.4 million

Have questions? Contact us at WatertownStrongSchools@gmail.com or https://www.facebook.com/watertownstrongschools.

Thank you,

WatertownStrongSchools

Letter to the Editor: Jim Cairns

To the Editor, I am writing in response to the report that the Watertown School Committee has adopted the proposed FY 15 budget for the Watertown Public Schools (WPS).  A strong community needs strong schools and for several years now WPS has been in decline.  This new budget, however, makes a statement that the WPS leadership and the School Committee are committed to getting back on track towards high-quality schools.

Now it is time for the Town Manager and Town Council to make the same kind of commitment.  In the budget that gets presented to the Town Council on April 29, we need to see that they understand the importance of making an investment in our schools -- both in FY 15 by finding the funds needed to get the schools stabilized and on a path to success, and in working together with school and community leaders to set out a sustainable budget strategy for the next 5-10 years. In both the short and long term approaches, it is critically important that funding the schools does not reduce funding for the other essential services we all rely on, but there do exist a number of sources for the additional funding needed.

When our family first moved to Watertown five years ago with very young children, we were ambivalent about whether we would stay in the town because of the mixed reputation of the schools compared to surrounding towns.  Now that our kids are at the Cunniff School we have been extremely impressed by the leadership and vision of the principal and teachers to work for a high quality education for every child in that school.

Now they and their colleagues at all of Watertown’s schools need the resources to carry out their plan.

It is essential that we – all of us who call Watertown home – work to encourage our town leaders to invest sufficiently so that our schools are no longer a source of uncertainty for people thinking about coming to our community. Instead, let our schools be one of the main reasons why people are moving into and staying in Watertown to raise their families and contribute to a growing and thriving community. This will make sure our future together stays Watertown Strong.

Sincerely,

James Cairns 171 Warren Street Watertown MA 02472 617-393-1503 Pelton.cairns@gmail.com

4.24.14

Update: New date for FY budget, TC at WPS, and budget sources for 2015 and beyond

Dear friends, 1. Last night the Town Council voted to delay the submission of the FY 2015 budget from April 22 to April 29, 2014 to allow for the continuation of dialogue and consideration of the proposed budget.

  • We’ve been told that Superintendent Jean Fitzgerald, School Committee Chair Eileen Hsu-Balzer, Town Manager Mike Driscoll, and others have had several long discussions about the budget.
  • Town Manager Driscoll has asked the schools to prioritize their “needs” for 2015. (i.e. prioritize line items such as classroom teachers, special education teachers, instructional assistants, guidance counselors, math curriculum etc.) and to highlight the one-time expenses versus ongoing costs.

2. Our Town Councilors are going to school! Hosmer Principal Robert Laroche hosted Susan Falkoff on April 15th. Kenny Woodland heads to the Hosmer today and Angie Kounelis and Principal Laroche are scheduled to talk. We hope there will be more visits, particularly for those who don’t currently have children in WPS.

3. Our meetings are continuing. We met with Vinnie Piccirilli on Monday night. We are meeting with Jean Fitzgerald today and we’ll meet with Mark Sideris tonight.

  • What do we talk about? We are trying to focus on: Where will we find the funding sources needed to hire the staff and secure the materials and curriculum for WPS for 2015 and beyond? Got any ideas?

4. Thank you to the Town Council Education Subcommittee for last night’s meeting where Councilors Dushku, Palomba, and Woodland, led the discussion of possible funding sources. In our Advocacy Platform (summary) we suggested a variety of line items for 2015 and new sources for 2016 and beyond. The Town plans to look into some of these possibilities. Below are line items in the town budget that we advocate using for 2015. Note, we are asking the town to shift priorities to fix the schools that have deteriorated on our watch. We are NOT advocating to take money from other departments:

Source

Amount Available for 2015

Savings that we didn’t know we’d have when the Town Manager first released the 2015 budget.

The Massachusetts Group Insurance Commission rates: 1% increase rather than the budgeted 6%. $700,000 (5% of $14 million) (TM's original budget allocated 6% to this line item, but there was only a 1% increase)
Additional Chapter 70 money allocated by the state. $400,000

Line items from other sources that could be allocated to education if the political will to strengthen the schools exists.

The Stabilization Fund in Capital Improvement Projects $500,000–$2 million
Capital expenditures could be 5%, or 6% of operating budget (not 7.5 –8%) until the schools are in decent shape  $1 - $2 million
The Unreserved Fund Balance: ($9 million)•     Based on the Budget and Policy Guidelines, we allocate 10% of expenditures to this fund. Most other towns allocate 2% or 3%. We can change this with a vote by the TC. Other towns with Aa3 bond ratings also allocate 2-3%. $2 m of this fund is generally spent per year, but more could be used, particularly in an emergency, such as faltering schools. 
Tax assessment overlay monies (which normally cover assessment appeals): $700,000–$1 million
Transfer from prepayment of the unfunded Pension Liability fund: 

Also, the debt could be paid off by 2022 or later, rather than 2019; The terms could change moving forward. We are paying this down aggressively, which we should do, if WPS hadn’t deteriorated.

$250,000
Council reserves: Normally used for union contract payments but this does exist. $1.4 million

 

What can you do? 

Get informed (using the info below) & speak out!

Online letter to Town Manager and Councilors: http://www.watertownstrongschools.com/take-action/

Call or write your own letter:  http://www.watertownstrongschools.com/act-now/

Send letters to your neighbors or businesses: http://www.watertownstrongschools.com/share-with-neighbors-template/

Get a sign:  WatertownStrongSchools@gmail.com

Come to meetings: Learn more at: http://www.watertownstrongschools.com/

Talk about your vision of Strong Community and

Watertown Public Schools!

Best wishes, Candace and the rest of Watertown Strong Schools

 

Watertown Strong Schools Op-Ed

Our Op Ed was recently posted to the Wicked Local Section of the TAB. You can read it in it's entirety here or on the Tab Wicked Local site. Posted Apr. 5, 2014 @ 9:49 pm to the Tab Online

Prioritize and fund Watertown Public Schools

WATERTOWN

Watertown Public Schools began a downward spiral during the 2008 financial crisis. We are now at a tipping point. Over the last 6 weeks, The WPS administration has carefully explained the staffing and resources needed to stop this trajectory. The time to act is now. The second grader struggling to read cannot wait years, the 7th grader with behavioral problems needs supports today, and the high school junior diligently building her future needs daily opportunities to become confident and competitive in today’s workplace.

Watertown Strong Schools—a collaborative of parents, residents, and business owners—strongly support the WPS Administration in their urgent request. This budget represents essential resources that will enable WPS to return to adequate staffing levels and purchase the vital curriculum and materials needed for a quality education.

We have examined the town budget in detail with town officials and believe that resources exist to meet the needs for 2015 while maintaining all the town services we rely upon. We urge our Town Councilors and Manager to support the budget request. We are committed to working with our town leaders to identify resources for 2015 and beyond. We know that we must work through a legacy of problems with the finances in WPS and mistrust between school and town officials. Our schools need both strong financial management and effective coordination among town, school, and community leaders. Moving forward, our children should not pay the price for past financial problems or mistrust.

Watertown is uniquely complex. Our students are diverse: 1 in 10 students utilize the English Language Learner Program. The percentage of students from low income families has nearly doubled in the last decade. WPS has experienced growth in students with developmental delay, emotional problems; health problems, and autism. Watertown has one of the largest populations of children with special needs in the state. Consequently, WPS must spend more on special education than nearly every other town. So, while our average per pupil expenditure looks similar to surrounding towns, we spend significantly less per pupil on general education.

This budget squeeze has put WPS in an untenable situation. We are out of compliance for some special education students, while in general education, we see increasing class sizes, inadequate support services, and a lack of curriculum materials. MCAS performance is worsening, while districts across Massachusetts are improving. Watertown’s graduation rate, once around 90%, is stagnant around 85%. Our SAT scores in reading and writing are lower than the state average. Furthermore, Watertown has higher superintendent, principal, and teacher turnover than the state average.

We applaud the town’s strong financial management; however the school budget has failed to meet the needs for years. Although town funding for WPS has increased, federal and state grants have decreased, thus the budget has never kept pace with costs. Watertown spends less total revenue on education than nearly every other town in Massachusetts, including towns with a comparable total and student population. Most towns allocate 55%-65% of revenue to the school system, while Watertown allocates 45% including insurance and retirement costs. Moving forward, investing in WPS is financially responsible because it will yield financial benefits for students throughout their career and for Watertown. Research conclusively demonstrates that strong public schools drives economic development and investments in schools are rewarded in the housing market.

Finally, we ask Watertown residents to participate fully over the coming weeks as the School Committee and Town Council vote on FY2015 budgets. We ask residents to attend public meetings, read our platform document, write to town leaders, and learn more at WatertownStrongSchools.com.

Sincerely,

Watertown Strong Schools