By Tracy F. Seelye, Express editor
Strategic plan working groups will be spending this month examining issues to improve the district, with an eye toward fostering discussions involved in at the Aug. 17 meeting, the W-H Regional School Committee has decided.
The committee, at its Wednesday, July 6, following a pre-meeting executive session to discuss contract negotiation strategies, discussed and selected areas of focus for its strategic plan working groups, which are not designed to be public meetings.
“With all of these [issues], it’s a conversation,” said Chair Christopher Howard. “We’re doing analysis, we’re sharing ideas.” It doesn’t mean that, come Aug. 17, the committee would have detailed plans ready for a vote. “It’s to understand and to build that long-term plan, with the exception of start times,” he said.
The committee did vote 9-1, with member Fred Small opposed, to establish an advisory committee, including a couple committee members to determine whether school start times will change.
“Among the issues parents have been asking for is a change to school start times, particularly at the high school. That issue, however has been carved out for work by the school district leadership team due to issues such as logistics, financial and potential contract implications will be addressed before suggestions are brought back to the committee.
Four public comment emails had also been received from Shawn Kain, Joshua Gray, Ann Gray and Jennifer Cronin, according to Howard. Kain’s comments were relating to budget process while pulling the five-year plan in and looking for budget efficiencies and and the other three were regarding school start times and post-graduation readiness – preparing students for college and career.
Previously discussed strategic plan topics have been placed in groups — relating to security; student climate, culture and support; robust K-8 related arts; STEM and 21st-century learning; 1-to-1 technology and early childhood education. Committee members prioritized which issues they wanted to work on. The top three categories were robust K-8 related arts, post-graduation readiness and student climate, culture and support as the three main focus topics this year.
Member Dawn Byers suggested start time could be grouped in under student climate and support. She said it was not clear whether the committee is in total agreement as it was on all-day kindergarten, and “was not sure why the committee is not being invited to work along with that.”
Vice Chair Christopher Scriven said it was an example of collaboration toward a more efficient solution, as Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak has indicated he is willing to include committee members in that work.
“We’re not shelving it,” Scriven said. “We’re going to continue to be involved.”
He said he had no problem with administration and some committee members taking the lead on it, making a motion to that effect.
Member David Forth suggested doing the work under the umbrella of an advisory committee, which are not subject to the Open Meeting Law, and could provide the flexibility to bridge the concerns Byers voiced.
“I was going to take start times on with my leadership team myself,” he said. “Based on public comment, based on what people have been emailing me, based on research that we’ve talked about since 2012, this was going to be one of my goals with my team this summer and putting it forth to the committee … so the committee could focus on a couple other things.”
He said he was willing to take some committee members on board with him for the work, but said some of the areas involved in the student climate and culture group would make the job overwhelming to put forward.
“When Jeff and I spoke, his point was it may be a more effective prioritization, [and] to get this moving quicker, for his team to look at the logistics of what it would take, rather than for us to spend the summer [discussing it].”
Howard said moving the issue forward in that way would make it a higher priority and, while the committee would still begin the working groups in August, but that Szymaniak would add one centering on what implementing new starting times might look like.
“It kind of bumps this one to the top of the line, if we want to go that way,” Howard said.
Szymaniak also said the start time issue has financial and contractual implications, as well as the need to notify parents if there’s a change.
“It’s not something that I can throw out there next February or March [along] with the calendar, saying, ‘Hey, by the way, all the elementaries are going to be going in at 9:30,’ that might not be fair for parents who’ve already established day care,” Szymaniak explained. He said he would rather see a proposal and potential impact bargaining issues with the teachers’ association by December.
Vice Chair Christopher Scriven said he is “very much in support” of working on start times.
“I’m thrilled that you’re going to take that on as one of your iniatives,” he said to Szymaniak.
“We don’t need a discussion on it,” member Beth Stafford said. “I think we’ve all agreed with it … but what needs to be done is stuff that we can’t do.”
She pointed to busing logistics and budget impacts are more familiar to the district leadership team.
“If that gets things faster, let’s do it that way,” she said. “We have so many other things we can be working on if we know the administrative team is solely working on that one.”
Howard said another consideration was that setting up meetings to work on it would be easier with the leadership team than with the whole committee.
Member Glen DiGrazio asked what start time was actually based on.
“Long story short, in 2012, we cut the budget by about $400,000 and realigned all our start times,” Szymaniak said, noting it cut both bus routes and the number of buses needed to move the high school start time up 35 minutes – from 7:40 to 7:05 a.m.
Start time changes at the high school have a ripple effect to all the other schools.
Member Hillary Kniffen, who teaches in Pembroke, said making a start time change for that school district was a three-year process making 10-minute changes in each of those years.
“This is not shelving [work on start times], it’s prioritizing,” Scriven said, seeking to clarify the approach. “It’s not kicking the can down the road.”
Looking at the task ahead of the committee, member Fred Small, said that it would require meeting in smaller groups, looking into the individual items on the lists of topics divided between them.
“Unfortunately, in today’s world, some of it’s going to be financial — or what can and can’t we do — logistics … and also, what is the greater good,” he said.
While later start times benefit the four grades at the high school, he said a decision might crop up between that and a more robust related arts program that benefits eight grades.
Discussing information gleaned during July will be discussed toward making those decisions in August.
Forth said he saw valid arguments both for Szymaniak’s proposal and the inclusion of the full committee in the working group process, advocating a vote on that as well as votes for other top priorities in preparation for the Aug. 17 meeting.
Small suggested having committee members involved could potentially bog the process down. Howard said that if committee members want to participate, they would have to agree to Szymaniak’s schedule.