Having watched the February 27th Attleboro School Committee meeting last night I felt a need to write about one of the more heated issues that was discussed during the meeting.
The issue I am referring to is probably only important to a small portion of our community since it only affects those families who have children who are about to enter Kindergarten next year, but this is still a very important issue nonetheless and I think is a bit telling about the make-up of our new School Committee as well.
This subject has to do with the fact that currently Attleboro does not have a full day Kindergarten program for all students. And when a district that is receiving state grant funds for this purpose cannot provide the program for all students (supposedly because they are “ramping up” to full-day for all) a lottery needs to be held to determine what students get full-day and what students do not. Last year we had many concerns raised about this by parents, including the following:
- It should be full-day for all or full-day for none
- The lottery should be open to the public
- The lottery needs to be more transparent
- That all lottery members should be non-partisan (the current policy has a PTO/School Council parent as part of the team and too often this person has friends whose child is in the lottery)
- The lottery should be held in the evening, when parents can attend
- The lottery should be televised so those with young children can watch from home
- The lottery should be conducted earlier, in January or February, to give parents more time to deal with childcare issues
- Each student should have the same chance as any other student (meaning no bumping for demographics of gender, special education or low income as the current policy defines)
So between September and presently the Policy Sub-Committee has been working on a revised full-day Kindergarten Lottery Policy taking all of these things into account. Last month the Policy Sub-Committee voted to send a revised policy, resolving most of these concerns, up to the full School Committee for consideration. As you can imagine it takes a lot of work to revise a policy with these types of significant changes. Part of the policy development process is input from the administration, and at times the elected officials, who are responsible for policy development and approval by law, will not agree 100% (nor should they) with those recommendations. This would be the case here. The Superintendent had many concerns with what we were looking to change back in November and December of last year. At that time I reached out to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) who are responsible for the lottery guidelines and explained to them what Attleboro was currently doing and the feedback that I was given was that it ‘didn’t seem fair’. Interestingly the DESE came out with new guidelines in January that matched our concerns, so it was apparent that these changes are necessary for our district. Actually makes me wonder if the new guidelines were due to my calling them with these questions.
From what I understand the last major concern was that the Superintendent recommends holding five individual lotteries at the elementary schools and not televising them, while the majority of the Policy Sub-Committee believes that a central location, like the high school, with staggered start times and the lottery being televised, is more transparent and convenient for the families. I don’t know what the negative concerns are with doing this, but I do know that the administration provided a differently worded policy. Maybe if each individual elementary school was televised that could work, but then this has to be done five times with five different evenings, instead of just once. Is it fair for one elementary school's families to know if their child will be in full-day before another school's? Maybe...
So last night I was surprised at what I saw when this policy came forward. One member, who is not on the Policy Sub-Committee (Bill Larson (Ward 2)) immediately tried to amend the policy using effectively the identical wording that the administration provided. Although technically this was legal parliamentary speaking, it was something that I have never seen attempted with a policy before.
See the School Committee has standing sub-committees who are the “experts” in that area (or at least they are focused in that area). The Policy sub-committee members need to take the time to ensure that a policy is in accordance with state and federal laws and they need to research the various policies they are working on before they make the changes, often asking for input from all stakeholders, before it is sent up to the full Committee for consideration. And as I explained earlier, this was a policy that has been in the works for months. Usually if a member of the full Committee who is not on that standing sub-committee has concerns, they raise them when it is brought before the full Committee, and if the vote fails the policy is sent back to the sub-committee. If a non-standing sub-committee member has recommendations or concerns for a policy, he or she can either contact the Chairperson of the Policy Sub-Committee to discuss them, or can ask to be heard at the sub-committee meeting prior to deliberation on the actual policy. That apparently did not happen here.
The Policy Sub-Committee Chairwoman, Brenda Furtado, explained at the meeting that she felt that the actions of Mr. Larson were disrespectful, not only to she as the Chair but to the other members of the sub-committee as well. The School Committee Chairman, Mike Tyler, reiterated Mrs. Furtado’s concerns and stated that what Mr. Larson was doing went against the whole purpose as to why the School Committee even has standing sub-committees. And I have to agree with both of them. In some ways I wasn't sure if I should even write about this since Mr. Larson was my opponent in the last election, but then I realized that Mr. Larson is my Ward's representative and just because I was not re-elected does not mean that I cannot express my concerns and call a spade a spade when I see one. To me, this did not show a unified School Committee working in the best interest of our children and the citizens of Attleboro, but more politics as usual.
What is worse is that the timing of performing the lottery has been voiced as a concern of parents, who wanted the lottery to be held earlier, although the administration indicated that they could not support that change. So the lottery is scheduled for April, and due to this "gotcha" tactic at the meeting the policy needs to go back down to the sub-committee to be looked at yet again, delaying something that needs to be finalized.
In addition another member, Dave Murphy (At-Large), made claims at the meeting about the Kindergarten lottery that was incorrect. He stated that the lottery has always been held at the individual elementary schools, which was one of the reasons he explained for wanting to do the same (plus that's what the Principals have supposedly requested), but the truth is that the lottery has historically been held at the high school (just not "publicly" and definitely not televised). As a former PTO President, prior to serving on the School Committee, I served as the parent member of the lottery team for three years and I can tell you that it was always held in the small cafeteria at the high school with each elementary school going off into their own corner. Mr. Murphy also raised concerns with the Chairperson of the School Committee (or designee) being on the lottery team. I have to disagree with him on that one since the parents should be represented and the School Committee members are elected by the people to represent them, so this just seems to make sense and would be a better choice than a PTO or School Council member who is very likely to have friends who have a child in the lottery. To prevent even the appearance of impropriety this change seems necessary.
As far as the way those members conducted themselves at the meeting I am willing to chalk it up to inexperience, and hopefully things like this will not continue for the next 21 months! But beyond this one meeting this issue goes much further. The truth is that this lottery should not even be necessary since the Committee had already given direction to the Superintendent about having full-day Kindergarten for all students for next school year. But that is a much bigger issue that I may look at in the near future. I am still hopeful that when this policy comes back up it still includes all of these changes that will make the process more transparent, as all government issues should be, and that the members keep the politics out of it.