School choice has again been approved for the 2017-18 school year at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School, despite a lengthy debate on whether the program puts local student-athletes at a disadvantage.
Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak advocated maintaining 20 school choice slots for the incoming freshman class, 10 sophomores and to keep space open for any current student who moves out of district. This is the fourth year of W-H’s participation in the program.
“The program has grown and, in my opinion, is successful both for our students and financially,” Szymaniak said. “I think kids come here for athletics, I think kids come here for academics, I would love to say kids come here for band — they don’t yet, but I’m getting there. I have a student who’s doing band and chorus who’s a school choice student.”
He said the funds brought in through school choice have funded the hiring of seven teachers at the high school, added programs and lowered some class sizes.
School choice allows students to attend schools in other districts for their education, which brings a stipend of money — usually about $5,000 per student — to the receiving district. For fiscal 2018 that would mean an additional $260,000 in the high school’s portion of the budget, less about $70,000 for out-of-district special needs placements, for net gain of about $190,000.
W-H students who leave the district — 16 of the 40 now taking part in school choice — during their high school years are also permitted to continue attending until graduation under the program.
“The other part of that is, we’ve added some diversity to our school with students — from Weymouth, Brockton, East Bridgewater, Middleboro, Rockland, Abington — all in the adjoining areas that are a benefit to our students,” Szymaniak said. “Parents who sent their students here for school choice are committed to the school.”
On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the committee voted 5-2, with Chairman Bob Hayes abstaining, to maintain school choice participation. Members Christopher Howard and Michael Jones voted against the proposal with Stephen Bois, Daniel Cullity, Fred Small, Alexandra Taylor and Robert Trotta voting in favor. Members Kevin Lynam and Robert O’Brien were not present.
“Since we’ve gone to school choice, with the financial resources we have, we’ve been able to focus more on K-8 education because the high school has been able to separate some of its own revenue,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner, noting it helped address class-size problems at the elementary level. “It does allow some focused funding. … Without school choice money, the high school program will definitely suffer, because that’s a significant revenue source.”
But, some of the committee members who cast supporting votes also expressed concerns on the athletics issue. Cullity explained the committee has received calls from several residents alleging that out-of-town athletes are recruited to attend W-H under the school choice program.
Both Szymaniak and Athletic Director Bob Rodgers emphatically denied the accusation, explaining it is against MIAA rules and is something the school’s coaches would not do on ethical grounds.
Rodgers said news reporters, the MIAA and the school choice students have vetted the soccer program’s rule compliance. The only member of the girls’ soccer team approached by its head coach David Floeck about coming to W-H was his own daughter.
“He’s been at W-H for a very long time and is a man of his word,” Rodgers said. “It’s disappointing [to hear the rumor] because W-H has had a lot of success before school choice and would continue to have it if the vote tonight was different. This decision should not be made because of athletics.”
“I have to trust my number two,” Szymaniak said of Floeck, who is the assistant principal as well as the girls’ soccer coach. “He’s a good man and said, ‘Absolutely not. I would never put you,’ meaning me, ‘in that situation.’ … Any time a program I successful, people look to tear it down.”
Szymaniak noted that Floeck was Coach of the Year in 2008 and 2009 — and had All-American players on the team — before school choice was adopted by W-H.
“We run a good program and we run it clean,” he said.
Szymaniak did say that W-H teachers who live in other districts tell people they know that they should send their kids to W-H, but that no athletic recruiting is being done.
Rodgers and Szymaniak said there are school choice athletes on four W-H teams, and that there have been some local students cut from the girl’s soccer team in favor of school choice students.
“When I accept a student, they become a Panther,” Szymaniak said.
Rodgers said there are now 14 school choice students, four in multiple sports, participating in W-H athletics, with only six taking part in a cut sport — girls’ soccer — in which only two girls were cut from varsity to JV. In most cases, they fill out rosters with vacancies, such as fall and winter JV cheerleading. There were also no cuts made in gymnastics and varsity cheerleading.
“Most students come here for academic reasons, but there’s no question the girls’ soccer team is one of the best in the state,” Rodgers said. “When girls [who play soccer] are not happy with their home district, they look to W-H.”
Taylor Kofton, an All-American soccer player on the girls’ team, is a school choice player from Norton. Her national team coach advised her to find a Division 1 high school team so she would be eligible to go to a Division1 college. Norton is a Division 3 school and W-H is Division 1.
“I’m concerned that the word is out to come to W-H to play soccer,” said Trotta, who has never been a strong supporter of school choice. He asked if Rodgers could prepare a report before the issue comes back before the committee next year on whether, indeed, school choice has an effect on local students’ participation in sports. Rodgers agreed to prepare such a report.
Jones, who opposes school choice as a revenue source, wondered how many Whitman and Hanson students were reluctant to even try out against the student-athletes coming here through the program.
“How many come through school choice to play sports is irrelevant,” Taylor argued. “I think we do a huge disservice to our district and our children if we cut school choice because that’s too much revenue.”
“Our obligation is to our towns’ pupils,” Small said, adding he would not like to see a Whitman or Hanson student forced to go to the back of the line on a sport. “That being said, is it the greater good by accepting school choice?”
He thought a report from Rodgers would be helpful for next year’s decision and voted yes.
At least one person in the audience was not completely persuaded.
“As a parent, if my child was a child who was cut I’d be here screaming and hollering if a kid from another town got to play his position,” retired teacher, and Hanson resident Margaret Westfield said.
Rodgers said for three of the six school choice girls’ soccer players, sports was not the main reason they came to W-H, noting their parents had citied academic, staffing or building quality concerns in their home districts.
fact of life
Gilbert-Whitner also said school choice is not her favorite program, but said surrounding communities offer it, and attracts W-H students away.
“We are charged to find more revenue and it’s one source of revenue that’s there,” she said. “It’s a fact of life in Massachusetts until it changes.”
Szymaniak also said school choice helps maintain student population at a time of decreasing enrollment from Whitman and Hanson. He would like to maintain a high school population of 1,200, but is “well below that” now. An enrollment drop at the high school could also force league and division level changes for the athletic program, which would affect all WHRHS students, he argued.
School choice has not affected students’ ability to get into an AP class at W-H, other than in regard to course times, Szymaniak said.
School choice applications must include academic, discipline and MCAS records.