The School Committee on Wednesday, Nov. 14 voted to request that Business Services Director Christine Suckow seek lower increases in annual costs for the bus and custodial services than are currently contracted over the next two years. She agreed to make the requests and come back with information in December.
“It’s in writing that we have the right to exercise these options,” School Committee member Fred Small said. “The question is, by what date do we have to exercise the options and isn’t it worth a phone call to say, ‘We’re looking into doing our own [transportation] perhaps, etc., would you consider doing something that we would lock in for two years. … It’s still the same contractual obligation, we’re just not tying our hands for that extra year.”
He had suggested earlier in the meeting, during a report on a recent Mass. Association School Committees conference, that the district might want to consider purchasing its own fleet of buses to save money in the long run.
“I’m just looking at it as is there any harm in asking,” Committee member Christopher Howard said. “What do we have to lose?”
Suckow reported that contract extensions put out to bid for optional years four and five of the First Student bus and SJ Services custodial contracts and four through six for Collegiate Press for copy center services during her report on the fiscal 2019 budget update.
First Student will increase by $60,128 for next year’s budget and another $41,630 for fiscal 2021, or 3.5 percent and 2.5 percent respectively. Suckow said the figures were brought in during November to enable her to plan for building the fiscal 2020 budget.
“Do we have to agree to do both years, or could we do one year at a time?” Small asked about the transportation increases. Sukow said it was a decision for the committee to make, but she suggested they adopt both years of the contract extension, especially with First Student, which has little competition.
Committee member Robert O’Brien Jr., said he did not object to voting on a two-year figure, but argued it didn’t hurt to seek a better percentage. When contracts were put out to bid, they were negotiated for three years with options for four and five.
A vote also requested that Suckow ask for a similar reduction involving the contract extension for SJ Services — which included 3 percent hike of $29,000 and a 2-percent increase of $29,000 for fiscal 2021.
The Collegiate Press contract, which does not include increases in the three-year extension, was approved without discussion.
Suckow also expressed concern that transportation and out-of-district placement costs for special education and mandated costs for homeless student transportation, which is already $2,950 in the red, will increase.
“The rest is pretty status quo,” she said of the budget. The federal homeless transportation reimbursement, which has been 30 percent, is sometimes not received until the year after it is spent, Suckow said.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said the district is working to “brining the program in” with more services at the middle school level to help keep students in the district and control out-of-district placement costs.
“We might be spending money for next year’s budget to make money by keeping our kids here,” Szymaniak said, adding the district’s legal counsel has been consulted and had made a “stong recommendation to build a couple of programs” in language-based middle school programs that are now placed out. The expense would add a couple of teachers and paraprofessionals to work towards saving money in the future.
“We’re really looking at how we can be more effective and efficient,” Szymaniak said. “Our kids want to stay here and we want to keep them here.”
Small said inclusion is important.
“It’s nice that we save money, too, but keep our kids here,” he said.
“We’re like our peers,” Assistant Superintendent of Schools George Ferro said. “We are in the middle. … How do we get out of the middle?”
He indicated the district should not focus so much on what the state tests, but to look at the tools it provides educators in order to prepare students to succeed on the tests as well as out in the world.
“Our focus is clearly on learning and meeting standards … but we also have to make sure we’re giving our kids the playbook in which they’re going to have success,” he said. “We also need to embrace and change the lives of our elementary teachers.”
W-H schools arre among the 74 percent of individual schools in the state not requiring state assistance or intervention. The district also was part of the 90 percent of districts not requiring state assistance or intervention. It was also among the 53 percent of state districts that partially met every target for every school and student category.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has come up with a new accountability system in grades three to eight, according to Ferro.
New test results will be “exceeding expectations,” “meeting expectations,” “partially meeting expectations” or “not meeting expectations.”
He said it is important to note it is not just a change of names in the grading approach.
“The test that students take right now is much more rigorous, as far as the standards for reaching MCAS scores,” he said. “It is much more difficult, and they made it that way for certain factors. They valued readiness for the next grade level and consistent expectations across grades.”
Success is now based on student achievement, student educational growth rates, high school completion rates, English proficiency, chronic absenteeism and advanced course work.
“They’re trying to take a whole look for the district,” Ferro said. “Right now the state can look at every single teacher, every single student and every single time a teacher and a student interface at a data point.”
He said there are an average of 84,000 data points in a school year.