2013-09-26 / Around Town

Regionalization Debated

By Theresa Hillman

In Middletown, the School Committee began its monthly meeting calendar on Thursday, Sept. 19 with praise for extraordinary teaching, consideration of bus crowding, and debate about regional school models. Reporting on the schools’ opening, Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger remarked, "We’re excited about the school year."

Success for the 117 students who participated in the MOST summer intervention program was attributed to the intensive and individualized work of teachers, according to Deanne Reilly, District Intervention Coordinator. Student tests showed the majority demonstrated progress and that fully one-third or more attained their targeted learning goals. Chairwoman Theresa Spengler called the reported progress "phenomenal.”

New cuts in bus service have resulted in complaints about crowded buses and 40 requests to change bus stops. Director of Facilities, Ed Collins, said it takes time to balance load counts with safety, walking distance, and the capacity of the buses. "The reality is when you cut something like this, expectations need to change because you’re changing the service level you can provide, and 95% of everybody understood that." Superintendent Kraeger said that there was an extra bus ready if it was needed. “The bus company would never take the chance of having students sit on the floor and move, nor would we allow that."

“There was one particular bus that was an issue,” said Michael Mancieri, Principal of J.H. Gaudet Middle School. "But, I can confidently say that none of our buses have driven off our property at or any closer than 3 to 4 to capacity.” Mancieri said, “We decided on policy that we’re not allowing students just to go onto another bus if it’s to go to a friend’s house.”

Controversy erupted when committee member Paul Mankofsky reported on a visit to a Holden, Mass. high school that he and town council members Richard Adams and Barbara VonVillas recently undertook leading them to conclude that Wachusett Regional (WRHS) offered a successful and excellent model for Middletown’s regionalization. Chairwoman Theresa Silveira Spengler complained that the School Committee was not consulted. "There needs to be educational perspectives and expertise involved in this process, and I don’t see that happening coming from a Town Hall perspective." While Mankofsky praised WRHS’s breadth of programming and physical plant as worthy of incorporation into Middletown Town Administrator Shawn Brown’s model for high school regionalization, Spengler detailed significant reasons to look elsewhere.

The numerous lawsuits, cuts, eliminated programs, and budgeting failures at Wachusett demonstrate that "the system is in trouble and the funding is not adequate.” Chairwoman Spengler remonstrated members not to look to the cost savings from the district that has the lowest regional budget in the state. "While the per-pupil cost is low, it is not low because they are doing a good job." She cited a statement by WRHS’s own Superintendent Anthony Gasbarro: "Teachers have less than $1 per student for supplies in some cases."

While member Kelly DiPalma Simeone urged the committee to continue to investigate neighboring states and “to learn from things that haven’t worked out as well," Spengler differed. "I don’t think that any Massachusetts program should be a model. It should be within our own state, with our own laws and guidelines that we are required to follow." Spengler specified crucial differences that make a Massachusetts model unacceptable. Their special education reimbursement is significantly greater than Rhode Island's. They also reimburse twice the dollar amount for construction. Since their funding formula is structured according to ability to pay, there is a wide disparity of fiscal responsibility from town to town. While Rhode Island suggests a town’s contribution, the Bay State mandates it, causing conflict, hardship and inflexible budgets. Our neighboring state also allows “pay for play,” which means that WRHS can and does charge $400 per pupil to be in a sport or music program.

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