The manner in which Chromebook purchases were included in the level-service fiscal 2019 school budget was the subject of terse discussion during a review of one-to-one devices in the region’s schools by the district’s IT Director Chad Peters during the Wednesday, June 6 meeting.
“As you know, money was put in the budget to begin a plan to add one-to-one devices to the school system,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said in introducing Peters’ report.
Peters said about 600 more Chromebooks have been added over the course of the school year, bringing the total number to about 1,760 devices district-wide. He requested a $140,760 four-year lease for 600 more devices, which the School Committee approved by an 8-1 vote. Member Fred Small voted no based on how he felt the program’s inclusion in the FY ’19 budget was presented. Member Rob O’Brien was absent.
“We looked at a one-to-one, where every student got one, or going to a cart-based system,” he said, noting the cart-based approach was preferred to ensure that no teachers were left scrambling if a student forgot their device or forgot to charge it. The goal is to provide a cart of 25 devices for every classroom.
“In order to fully get to that one cart in every classroom, it’s going to take about 4,000, so we do have a little ways to go,” Peters said. “But because we had the money put into our budget this year — $40,000 to start this initiative to little by little increase the number of devices — we were able to get 600 new devices for next year.”
That point raised questions for Whitman School Committee members Small and Dan Cullity. Both said their understanding was that the one-to-one initiative had been part of the “extras” above a level-service budget that had been cut to bring the assessment increase down to 9.5 percent, and that they had “sold” it that way at Town Meeting.
“It was my understanding that we were doing only level services,” Small said. “I know we go up on Town Hall floor and we stated that we were asking for exact level services.”
Cullity said that had been his understanding, as well.
“Service does not include this,” he said of the one-to-one device initiative. “We went and sold [the budget] to the town … we told them we were taking this out.”
Gilbert-Whitner said that would have meant selling students short and was never stated by the district. She said the only cuts that were made were a plan to add two special ed liaisons at Whitman Middle School and no-cost full-day kindergarten.
“We said the things that we took out to get to the [9.5 percent] increase in the assessment were the exact positions we said that would be, but we never once said we were taking the [computers] out,” Gilbert-Whitner countered. “We felt that they were instructional supplies that are needed absolutely to provide level services as we move to testing that has to be done online.”
The 600 new devices were divided between the middle schools in support of the math and science curriculum and the high school, where standardized testing is going to be exclusively online in coming years.
Duval’s fundraising has put that school “three or four carts away” from having a Chromebook for every student, Peters said.
“In my thinking, these are supplies that our students need,” she said. “What used to be a textbook that we would have put into a budget, can’t be a textbook anymore.”
The middle school math and science program, for example, is “absolutely dependent” on the use of Chromebooks. Pulling the devices would have put students behind.
“There was no intent by anyone — the leadership team, the administrative team — to say that those had been cut,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “We were extremely clear in what we said. … There was no intent to try and fool somebody or to say we’re not doing what we’re doing. I think we’re very transparent — maybe we need to be more so in the future.”
In other business, W-H Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak, who becomes superintendent in July, introduced the new principals hired at district schools.
Succeeding Szymaniak at WHRHS will be Dr. Christopher Jones, who had been principal of Seekonk High School. He was introduced to the staff June 6.
Whitman Middle School’s current Assistant Principal Michael Grable will take the helm as principal when Principal George Ferro assumes his new position as assistant superintendent of schools in July.
Jill Cotreau will be the new principal at Indian Head School in Hanson. She was introduced to the staff last week. A new Duval School principal was expected to be hired by Friday, June 8. There are still vacancies for assistant principals at Indian Head and Whitman Middle School to fill.
Indian Head Principal Dr. Elizabeth Wilcox is taking a new job in Hingham and Duval Principal Julie McKillop is taking a position in Scituate.
“We had several search committees,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “We had wonderful people helping us with those.”
Szymaniak also lauded the search process.
“I think we have fantastic people in place right now,” he said. “The staff reaction to the folks that are here has been extremely positive, they were accessible and answered questions.”
Cotreau thanked the search committees for the opportunity.
“I’m so excited to be part of Indian Head and part of your school district,” she said. “I’m excited to jump right in and get started and for the opportunity to show you what we can do.”
“I hear great things about W-H and I really look forward to stepping into this position and taking it to even greater heights than it already is,” Jones said. “Thanks for the opportunity.”
Grable joked about the famously casual nature of Ferro’s attire — generally featuring cargo shorts and, occasionally sandals — at some past School Committee meetings.
“I just want to apologize for the way I’m dressed,” he said of his khaki slacks and black polo shirt. “I just found out I was going to be introduced tonight. I think George was a little excited to go on [the eighth-grade trip to New York] and he forgot to tell me.”
“I am very excited about my new position,” Grable said. “I can’t wait.”
“He didn’t forget,” Small joked.
“He’s got pants on,” Cullity quipped about Grable.
Special Education Parent Advisory Council co-chairman Tina Sidstone and co-chairman Jim Fitzgerald reviewed the SEPAC’s past year and plans for the 2018-19 school year.
Sidstone said they had taken a relatively inactive PAC and revitalized it, holding eight meetings and doubling participation to about 24 parent members. A representative from each school has also attended and SEPAC has also surveyed members about potential programs.
“We are very excited for the next school year,” Fitzgerald said. “Back in September I didn’t know what the SEPAC was and now I’m the co-chair.”
He said the group will be producing informational brochures and he and Sidstone will sit down for an interview with the Whitman-Hanson Expressover the summer to help raise awareness of the group. There are 10 SEPAC meetings slated for the next school year, starting in September.
SEPAC is also planning what is intended to be an annual family picnic day as an opportunity to meet first responders and hopes to build on speaker programs with a resource fair in the early fall.
Small suggested School Committee members could find it beneficial to attend SEPAC meetings as well.