Emphasizing it could be years before a shovel breaks ground, the School Committee on Wednesday, March 13 approved the drafting of a statement of interest (SOI) to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for a new Whitman Middle School.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said he has asked Facilities Director Ernest Sandland to begin work on the SOI for a grade five through eight school to address structural problems and place a new school in alignment with programs now in place at Hanson Middle School.
“This is just the process [of] what we have to do to get in the queue for MSBA,” Szymaniak said.
Sandland said all documents would have to be in by April 12, but said he has been asked why the district is taking that route while it is facing budget problems.
“There is a process we have to go through and there’s a time frame we’ve got to go through and this is the beginning of it,” he said. “We’re trying to meet all those time frames.”
It could be two years before MSBA gives an indication that the district would be considered for funding, with eight possible categories for a district to apply under. WHRSD would be seeking funds for replacement/modernization of school facilities, one of eight possible categories. The school opened in 1972 and was last renovated in 1997. Boilers were replaced in 2007.
“We’re good stewards in trying to identify what’s going on at Whitman Middle,” he said. “It’s the story that we’re writing on the history of [the school].”
A past facilities survey on the WMS renovation outlined that the work was supposed to include replacement of the roof, a lot of the exterior façade and of lockers throughout the building — none of which was done.
“We’re going to tell that story and, once it gets to the state they’re going to read it and they’ll say, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to put you off for two more years, we’re going to put you off for a year,’” Sandland said. “But at least we start the process.”
Szymaniak said the facilities subcommittee has expressed concern with mold issues at the school.
“I’d like to see where we stand,” he said. “There’s no harm, no foul at this point.”
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said his experience with similar projects has shown the approval process for an SOI could take as long as five years.
“We don’t even know where the list is — what they are accepting, what they aren’t accepting,” Hayes said. “This is a first step. The commitment comes way down the road when you have to do a feasibility study. … This is not committing any dollars and cents.”
School Committee member Fred Small stressed that an SOI should make clear WMS has only had a partial renovation done.
Sandland said the MSBA has noted that W-H has an excellent capital plan, something 40 to 60 percent of school districts do not have.
The debt exclusion for the high school comes off the books in seven years, Hayes said.
In other business, Small suggested a separate subcommittee charged with reviewing the strategic plan as part of an effort to align them with small goals to begin working on the budget in August or September and obtain a clear idea from the towns about where the schools stand on the goal of developing a sustainable budget.
“I know we have to get through today first,” he said, suggesting it might be a way to determine what programs might be funded a year or so in advance through a debt exclusion.
Hayes agreed that the budget is difficult for other town departments at well.
“It costs more, it demands more, and everybody’s in this budget crisis,” he said. “Nobody’s putting the blame here. I think everybody wants better education for every student.”
Business Services Director Christine Suckow said year to-date expenditures are up by just over $13,000 for recovery high school tuition, and unexpected retirements have increased the salary reserve line. Special education accounts have increased by just over $600,000 in the current budget year due to contracted services, legal costs, transportation and out-of-district tuition costs.
Szymaniak attributed the special ed increase to a few movements of students already committed to a collaborative and transportation costs from $250 to $400 per day, depending on the company used.
The fiscal 2019 budget is currently frozen except for emergency expenses, which generally includes special education changes.
The committee also discussed Szymaniak’s midyear goals, part of the process of evaluating his job performance.
The goals involve ensuring a cohesive pre-k to grade 12 system of teaching and learning; keeping visible throughout the district to support teachers and staff; ensuring school safety and security; and a workable budget to deliver services to district students to prepare them for career or college.
“It’s out there right now,” he said of the budget. “I appreciate the support of what we’re looking at for level services … How do we progress through? I think, looking at a realistic budget that will maintain the level of services and add — without adding to the budget — a curriculum and curriculum leadership that we so desperately need.”
Szymaniak said the first goal involves reviewing which math pilot program the district would purchase as well as different programs to highlight for English classes next year. Changes in curriculum leadership are also being investigated. All changes being considered within the goal are budget-dependent, he noted.
Being more visible is a favorite part of the job for Szymaniak.
“We’re out and about looking at teachers that make a difference and celebrating that,” he said. “I’ve had several visits with principals formally to discuss things, and informally I pop into buildings to see [what’s going on]. … It’s important for me to be out, visible to teachers and staff and students know who I am.”
He said he and Ferro have both been seeing evidence of teachers doing a good job — in the absence, Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said, of an elementary English Language Arts curriculum and an expiring 7-year-old math program that is obsolete for today’s standards and cuts to the elementary science program.
Safety continues to be a priority, Szymaniak said, by keeping in communication via text with police and fire chiefs in both towns and the establishment of a district communication weather team to have the latest information in any emergency. He is also reviewing the “relatively antiquated radio system” for internal school communications. He is also exploring the expansion of the ALICE program to elementary schools.
School Committee member Christopher Howard said it would be very helpful for committee members to observe classes and programs for themselves without getting in the way.
“I think it would be really helpful,” he said. “We spend a lot of time talking about dollars and cents, we spend a lot of time talking about buildings, but the reason we’re here is for the education of children…. It would be very helpful to all of us and I think it allows us to think about how we can share that message back to the public.”
Szymaniak said there is an open invitation to all committee members to visit schools and classrooms.
“You get so much out of it,” said Small who recalled an art class in which fifth-grade students were discussing what message different colors convey in a PowerPoint presentation. “To me art class was where you take a piece of paper and draw a picture. … School has changed so much.”