The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and school legal counsel have determined the educational opportunities for fifth-graders in the W-H district meet minimum guidelines for equity.
Referring to previous discussions on the legality of inequities tied to educational opportunities of fifth-graders, since they attend the middle school in Hanson and the elementary schools in Whitman, Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said on Wednesday, March 15, that he spoke with DESE officials as well as district legal counsel about the issue during the week.
The committee will likely revisit the issue on another agenda after the civil rights concern still remained for at least one committee member.
Counsel Andrew Waugh, who found “nothing in chapter law that what we’re doing is illegal,” recommended the calls to DESE, Szymaniak said at the Wednesday, March 15 meeting.
Heather Montalto, a problem resolution team specialist with DESE, and Ann Marie Stronach an administrator, who both said the district meets minimum requirement for the equity of instruction.
“I do want to stress this is the minimum requirement,” Szymaniak said. “That’s where we’re at right now.”
Stronach said it’s up to a school committee as to whether or not schedules are changed within a district.
“I just wanted to report back that we’re not doing anything illegal … but it is up to the school committee’s purview to change the schedules of the schools. That’s what we do,” he said.
Member Hillary Kniffen noted that the district actually exceeds the minimum time on learning requirements of 900 minutes for middle schools and 990 for high schools.
“The issue ant the topic that I brought forward wasn’t necessarily, ‘Can you ask DESE if we’re meeting regulations?’” member Dawn Byers said. “It was that there’s a Civil Rights Act of 1964, so I think the question really needed to be, ‘Are we violating a human being’s civil rights by not providing the same educational opportunity?’”
She said the district policy manual includes an equal educational opportunity policy (J-b), which references the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Agreeing with that point, Whitman Finance Committee member Rosemary Connolly said the 10-percent disparity in educational time afforded to Whitman students is a deficit worth $1.4 million taxpayers were charged, but school students did not have access to, suggesting that federal educational officials be called because “there are rules to Title 1 grants.”
“You can’t create inequities because of the way the regional agreement is written,” Connolly said. “Sometimes, it’s how you ask questions that gets you the right answer.”
Member Fred Small asked for the name of the DESE attorney Byers had said she spoke with on the issue as well as the date and time of that conversation.
“When I called DESE, they referred me to attorney George Hale, and when I explained the situation, his response was this is a school committee problem,” Byers said adding that she informed him that she is a school committee member and feels it is a problem. She said he did some quick research while she was on the phone and gave her the number for the Boston office of the Civil Rights Division, saying that someone could file a lawsuit.
Chair Christopher Howard said his recollection was that a concern was voiced from DESE that the district was doing something illegal, Szymaniak follwed up with DESE and they said that was not the case.
“Correct,” Szymaniak said.
“If there’s subsequent concerns, I’m sure they could be shared with the superintendent and he’ll look into it, but that was what was said last week,” Howard said. “Certainly, that could be done. … We could chase this in all different directions. Lawsuits can happen all the time for a whole host of reasons, that’s just the nature of the American legal system.”
Member Glen DiGravio argued that what’s happened shouldn’t matter.
“What we’re going to do should matter,” he said, adding that a solution would be to find some way to get the two schools aligned.