School board confident that elementary school configuration will change

There is good and bad news for parents who strongly dislike the current elementary school setup.

The good news is that several Board of Education members Monday night nearly promised that the configuration will not stay as it is.

The bad news is that the seemingly unpopular K-2/3-5 configuration in place now will not go away next school year, but will likely be in place until the following year.

The year delay really isn’t bad news, according to teachers and administrators who spoke at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. They said rushing to move teachers and students into a different school configuration by this coming September would stress students and teachers, and would mean that a lot of curriculum work and progress  would come to a grinding halt.

A Long Range Planning Committee has been studying various aspects of the public schools and is expected to make recommendations on grade configuration, and other matters, in March.

The matter of grade configuration came up this week when John DeRosa and Dr. Heidi Gold-Dworkin, new board members elected in November, and Chris Saley, who was re-elected in November, asked for a special board meeting to discuss “budget assumptions and priorities” in next school year’s budget.

Budget assumptions and priorities are a part of the budget package, and they were approved by the board in the fall, before the new members were elected. Those assumptions and priorities state that the budget for the next school year will be based on a grade K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 school building configuration, which is in place now.

DeRosa made a motion to change the wording in that assumption so that it would include an additional choice of configuration, grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12, which is the way the schools used to be arranged.

Board member Tracy Casey took great exception to the proposal, pointing out that budget books were scheduled to be delivered to board members the following day, and she wanted to know how the board could discuss changing a guiding part of the budget when the first draft of the budget is already done.

“I’m finding it awkward that we’re having a discussion on budget priorities when the budget is in production,” Casey said.

She explained that the school configuration had to be spelled out so administrators could prepare a budget on schedule; they started the process months ago. The board will have only 25 days after it gets the budget plan in hand to review it, approve it or change it and forward it to the mayor, Casey said.

Several board members said they were confused by DeRosa’s attempts to change the wording in the budget assumption because the budget was indeed drafted based on that assumption. They questioned if DeRosa intended to change the entire budget plan.

Chairman Susan Glennon added that changing the words might derail the efforts of the Long Range Planning Committee, which might come back with other recommendations besides the K-5 elementary school arrangement. She noted that there had been talk of a K-4, 5-8, and 9-12 configuration.

“The committee will make several recommendations, and the final decision is the board’s,” Glennon said.

She urged the board to wait for the committee’s recommendations, saying she’d like to spend considerable time discussing the options after they are presented. She argued that now is not the time to discuss school buildings and configuration of grade levels.

“The work begins in March,” Glennon said.

Board member Earl Whiskeyman helped get to the heart of the matter when he asked DeRosa what his intent was in changing the budget assumptions.

DeRosa said he just wanted it known that the board is committed to changing the school configuration. He said that when he was campaigning, many parents told him they are unhappy with the current configuration. He said he wanted to be sure the board was accountable to the community.

“This board put the parents of this community in a bind,” he said.

The elementary schools were set up to house kindergarten through fifth grade classes until about four years ago, when changing demographics and financial concerns led administrators to change to a K-2, 3-5 configuration.

Since then, parents have complained that the setup makes it hard for them, especially if they work and have to meet several different bus stops for children in different schools. Others have said the arrangement minimizes parental involved in their neighborhood schools.

Michael Cummings was acting superintendent when he recommended the new configuration in response to a $2.2-million drop in anticipated school funding. He said Monday night that if he had to do it again, he might not do it the same way. But at the time, it was the best option for maintaining desired class sizes with diminished funds, he said.

He and other administrators and teachers urged the board not to move too quickly and try to change the setup by September. They said they would do whatever the board directs, but that an additional year would give them the time they need.

Casey said she is confident and “fully expects” the school configuration will change. Suzanne DiBiase said that based on Long Range Planning Committee meetings, she believes schools will ultimately return to the K-5 configuration. Glennon said she is confident the city will not keep the K-2/3-5 configuration, but she could not commit to a change by September.

DeRosa ultimately withdrew his motion to change the written budget assumptions, saying he was satisfied with the board’s comments about changing the school configuration.