The School Committee, following its annual public hearing on school choice participation on Wednesday, March 8, tabled action on school choice pending an opinion from counsel on available options after members split down the middle on the issue.
The district must vote by June 1, or it accepts K-12 school choice by default, as, without at least a 6 to 4 vote either way, the district will take part in school choice.
A motion by Committee member Fred Small to accept school choice for grades nine and 10, with kindergarten through grade eight open, at the superintendent’s discretion, only to siblings of those high school students enrolled through the program, was deadlocked 5 to 5.
Voting yes were Small, David Forth, Beth Stafford, Dawn Byers and Steve Bois. Voting against were Christopher Howard, Christopher Scriven, Hillary Kniffen, Glen DiGravio and Michelle Bourgelas.
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak noted that school choice is open to all schools and that all school committees must vote to close a district to school choice, or limit its participation, stating their reasons for doing so before June 1. The vote would have to be whether or not to close the district to school choice.
“You’re voting not to do something,” Chair Howard said before the discussion began.
Szymaniak also noted that athletics has also been the subject of conversation centering on school choice in the past, and provided committee members with a list of current choice students, where they are from, the sport they play and which are former W-H students whose families moved out of town, but who wanted to stay to graduate from WHRHS.
“It’s a data point … just to see where we’re at,” he said, adding that, of 45 school choice students, 34 are high school students and 12 are identified as playing a sport.
From a purely financial viewpoint, Whitman Finance Committee member Kathleen Ottina noted district enrollment has gone down 15 percent since school choice was first accepted in 2012. She argued that, eliminating a program that increases enrollment would bring even greater scrutiny on the district budget than they are currently seeing.
“In the past, we’ve closed school choice to every grade, except grades nine and 10 and students who were staying in the district if they chose to move out,” Szymaniak said. “We didn’t have school choice grades one through eight or 11 and 12. We chose to close those grades because of enrollment. Last year we chose to close all grades to the district.”
He added that there are financial implications to the decision before the committee talks about budget or approve an assessment.
Vice Chair Scriven asked, if the district votes against accepting new school choice students, does that mean students whose families move out of the district would be unable to continue attending W-H.
In those cases, Szymaniak said, he would ask the superintendent of the new district if they are willing to pay the costs of such students to continue at W-H.
“They don’t have to,” he said. “If it were choice, they’d have to do that. It would be a conversation [otherwise].”
Szymaniak said he already has a parent asking about that now, but he has held off contacting the Pembroke superintendent until after the committee votes.
Stafford asked about the circumstances of the nine non-high school students now attending W-H schools under previous school choice votes. Szymaniak explained they were in-district students before their families moved.
“That would kind of be a stipulation, I would think, for anything we would do,” she said, but she expressed concern that it was “picking and choosing who gets to stay.”
She said she has heard from a parent with a child in the district now, but they are from a different town – and are on the list, but are not in sports.
“They have a child in seventh or eighth grade and wanted to come but can’t if we vote no and she was very upset about that, because her older child has had a wonderful education here and the other child is not going to [be able to] do that,” Stafford said. “We have a lot more students here [on the list] who came here for a reason other than sports.”
She said committee members have to be careful about arguments that school choice students at WHRHS are taking opportunities for playing sports with kids they grew up with, since the same could be said of high school students whose families move to town when they are in those grades.
“Whenever we discuss things, we have to be careful of our choice of words,” Stafford said. “I don’t even really care about the money issue. My point is, look at all the kids who came just for an education.”
She pointed to girls’ soccer seems to be the main concern regarding soccer, and said no students have been kept out of AP courses because of school choice students.
Kniffen said she spoke about the issue last meeting and stands by her comments, advocating that students moving to W-H in their freshman year, obtain a waiver from the MIAA to be cleared to play a sport.
“Whether we want to admit it or not, sports are the thing that develops culture and community for the students at this school,” she said. While she agreed students weren’t kept out of AP classes, Kniffen said 30 kids in an AP class “isn’t great,” either.
“It is so important that we take care of our own,” she said, noting the district receives $5,000 per school choice student and it costs more per student to provide and education. “It does not provide opportunities, it takes them away.”
Michelle Bourgelas echoed Kniffen’s points.
“We talk a lot about equity,” she said. “How does school choice offer equity to our W-H high school students?”
DiGravio asked if any school choice students had disciplinary problems at their home district schools.
Szymaniak said they have to take the students who apply so long as there are spaces for them under school choice, but said there are “ways to have a conversation with families,” including the requirement that the parents are solely responsible for transporting the students. If there are more students than school choice spaces, a lottery is held.
While there have been school choice students who have posed disciplinary problems, they tend to move back to their home districts.
“In my tenure the number of students presenting disciplinary cases has been slim to none,” Szymaniak said.
Byers, who supports school choice noted that a fair number of W-H sports teams are no-cut, with volley ball – with one school choice student – being an exception.
“It’s the right thing to do to be inclusive,” she said.
Howard’s main concern was that the money coming in with school choice students doesn’t fully cover educational costs.
“When I have students in front of me, I don’t care if you’re from Dighton-Rehoboth, W-H, whatever, I’m going to give it all to you, and I know a lot of people say the same,” said WHEA president and history teacher Kevin Kafka, who noted there are five staff members tied to partial funding through school choice.
Like Stafford, he cautioned people to be very careful in linking a process to a legal process. There have been no investigations or proof that school choice has been used improperly.
Forth, who attended WHRHS with school choice students said such students become part of the community and made an impassioned argument on their behalf.
“They’re not a ‘school-choice kid,’ they’re a Panther,” he said, noting that students also come to W-H via move-ins, the foster care system or McKinney-Vento – which requires homeless students placed in shelters out of town to be transported back at district expense to attend school in their home districts – or English language learners. “They either are impacted by the district, or they contribute … they enrich our experience, they are our peers. They’re not ‘someone from another town.’”
In response to a question from Committee member Small, Szymaniak said school choice students do not have a great impact on class size because the 45 students are spread out across grade levels.
“Class size at the high school is very good with the exception of foreign language,” he said. “I think it’s been a good thing for our school … but I also hear where people are.” He said if a student lost a specific opportunity, such as a part in a school play, as a parent he would be upset.
“To me, this is an issue of community and access,” Scriven said. “The relationships that we nurture, and the people that we interact with on a daily basis in our community really, really matters for a lot. … Kids in our community should be our top priority.”
He argued that it is the average student that is most negatively affected by school choice.
In other business, the committee heard a review of budget numbers, their impact on the district’s hold-harmess status and possible ways to use excess and deficiency funds to improve the towns’ assessment figures. No changes have been made to the budget from the previous week.
“I thought it would take a lot longer to get out of hold harmless than it looks like we’re going to, because we just made up a substantial amount of it in one year alone,” Business Manager John Stanbrook said.
When the district comes out of hold harmless, Chapter 70 funds should increase to the district,” Szymaniak suggested, adding that the district had thought it would take until FY 2028 to get this far. Stanbrook agreed.
“We get credited more [toward emerging from hold harmless] for English language learners, low-income students and [increased] overall enrollment, and from going to half-day kindergarten to full-day K,” Szymaniak said. “There was a definite increase in our foundation budget, which then lowered our hold harmless.”
Howard noted it has decreased from about $4 million to $500,000 to $600,000.
“When we talked about it last year, no one expected a jump that big,” Howard said. “So there’s some cause for optimism going forward.”