Emotions Run High at School Reconfiguration Public Hearing
In the past year, the School Committee appointed a District Steering Committee (DSR) with four subcommittees charged with studying facility usage and economic feasibility in the areas of high school, middle school, elementary school and transportation. A study of population trends and the most efficient use of the district’s buildings found that schools with a population of fewer than 300 students are extremely inefficient, and both Macy and Stall Brook Elementary schools had populations in the 200s.
The DSR came back this spring supporting the recommendation to close Macy and reconfigure the schools, with K–3 attending Stall Brook and South Elementary schools, grades 4–7 attending the middle school and grades 8–12 attending BHS. The change would take place beginning with the 2015-16 school year, giving the district a full year to incorporate the plans.
The meeting featured many parents extolling the virtues of Macy School and its staff and arguing against the school’s closing. Additionally, parents expressed concern regarding the incorporation of an additional grade into the high school, because of problems with both the building size and the effects of combining 13-year-old 8th graders with 18-year-old seniors.
Superintendent Edward Fleury outlined the strengths and challenges of the reconfiguration plan. For strengths he noted the alignment of curriculum for fourth grades, equitable distribution of class sizes, and expanded course offerings. On the negative side, he noted the need to recertify certain staff members and add more support staff.
Fleury described the“school within a school” model for the middle school. Instead of one school with a principal and vice principal, there would be a principal for grades 4–5 and a separate principal for grades 6–7. Fourth and fifth grades would be treated as elementary school students with a primary homeroom teacher and limited switching between classrooms, in a separate wing of the school. Both fourth and fifth grades would have recess, which fifth graders currently at the middle school do not have.
Bellingham parent Krista Felaco cited a study from the University of Minnesota that found that younger configurations of students in middle school resulted in a drop in test scores and a rise in behavioral issues. Felaco emphasized that the debate is not just about the finances, but about the best model for the town. Curriculum Director Matthew Bolduc countered that the cited study compares a middle school model to a K-8 model, which is not what Bellingham currently has. He said that the study does not compare middle schools that start in 5th grade with those that start in 4th.
Maintenance Director Roger Oakley described both Stall Brook and Macy schools as aging buildings, both soon in need of repairs for boilers and roofs that have outlasted their lifespans. Oakley answered questions about the potential savings of shutting down a building, but couldn’t “reasonably commit” to the cost of relocating the equipment, technology and building materials.
Parents Tracy Kelly and Judy Bombard questioned the viability of voting on the reconfiguration before the numbers are figured. School Committee Chairman Daniel Ranieri asked the audience if anyone present doubts that money will be saved yearly with one fewer school in the district.
Selectman Michael Connor noted that every year the financial needs of the school district increase because of fixed items such as utility costs, insurance premiums and contractual obligations, as well as increased unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments that local municipalities have to incorporate into their own budgets.
In last year’s budget, the school department drew from their “rainy day funds” or program balances to fund the budget in order to reduce the need for staffing cuts. This year the town drew from their program balances to give the school department the resources needed to fund the budget. Connor admonished that there are no more “rainy day funds” to draw money from. Next year, without cutting costs, positions will need to be cut, class sizes will increase, and courses will be cut.
Middle school and high school parent Cindy Murphy expressed concerns about how incorporating an additional grade at the high school would affect students at the school. Can the additional teachers be incorporated into the building without the need for teachers sharing classrooms or teaching off of rolling carts? Can eigth-grade students be separated from the general population of the high school? Even if classrooms are separate, will restrooms and locker rooms be shared (drug usage and smoking realistically happen)? She noted that the middle school operated as a junior/senior high school for many years and has separate wings. However, the high school was designed as one school and has no separation.
High School Principal Peter Marano emphasized that he sees this change as an opportunity. He hopes the savings can be used to provide more choices and more opportunity. This year they were able to hire another art teacher at the high school, giving the 251 students who were previously not able to take a desired class the opportunity to have the classes they want. Marano hopes to provide this opportunity in other areas for other students.
Selectman Mike Soter closed by asking all parents to support the hard decisions made by their elected officials and to work together to create a smooth transition.
written by Lynn S. Ulsh.