School budget approvedMiddle school reorganization discussed
Having pored over the 2014-15 Block Island School Budget at its last three meetings, two of them budget work sessions, the School Committee voted on Feb. 10 to approve a budget of $4,816,760. A total of $4,665,676 is requested from the town.
The requested allotment reflects an increase of $176,384 or 3.9 percent over this year’s budget — which Superintendent Robert Hicks said was “$3,188 under the maximum percentage levy increase (four percent) available under state law.” Chair Bill Padien hoped the town would realize that “in the past our requests have been well below the 3.9 percent request.”
Hicks pointed out that there were still a few unknowns. “We still don’t know health care rates,” he said. While anticipating a 10 percent increase, he acknowledged he was hoping it would come in lower, allowing the town to reduce its allowance accordingly.
The other uncertainty to date, Hicks said, derived from being “still in negotiations with the teachers.”
Changes to middle school discussed
On another matter, Hicks announced the receipt of a letter of resignation from middle school teacher Marlee Lacoste. Hicks recommended that the committee “accept the resignation with deep regret, and recognize Marlee for her 31 years of extraordinary service to the school.”
Notice of Lacoste’s retirement launched a lively discussion on the nature of her position going forward and potential changes to instruction in the middle grades (fifth, sixth and seventh). Currently responsibilities for these classes are divided among Lacoste, Shannon Cotter Marsella and Bonnie Swienton.
“In the middle grades there seems to be a real need for a stronger writing and language arts program. When you replace that position [Lacoste’s], perhaps we can emphasize writing and the language arts,” said parent Molly O’Neill.
Hicks explained that Lacoste’s was an elementary position, and daily academic allotments of time for each subject area were “not equally divided.” They are arranged as follows: one and a half hours for language arts; one hour for math and a 47-minute period each to science and social studies. Hicks said, “A lot of time goes into the language arts, and I would want to be sure to continue that.”
The current division of labor is that fifth grade teacher (Swienton) teaches math to all three classes; sixth grade teacher (Lacoste) teaches social studies to all three, and the seventh grade teacher (Cotter Marsella) teaches science to the three grades. Hicks stressed, “All three teach language arts for each of their classes. All three can and do integrate language arts into their content subjects. All three are certified elementary teachers, which covers all subjects.”
Another parent, Lisa Stiepock asked, “Would we want to dedicate one person to language arts and writing?” Hicks responded that he and Co-Principal Kristine Monje had “been discussing the possibilities.”
Lisa Nolan added, “Wouldn’t this be a good starting place [to strengthen] writing and language arts? To me, having a strong language arts program is important.” Stiepock wondered if to do that, “you’d have to have one of the three teachers be trained” in that discipline.
She said she was speaking “not only from my own experience, but for other parents who suggested” changes might be needed. She added, “We’re just saying: Could it be considered?”
Hicks agreed that it was “definitely the right time to look at how the middle grades should be organized; we need to look at how to divide the students in subject areas.” O’Neill asked, “Are you thinking of making it a middle school and not middle grades?”
Indicating that kind of change might have a fundamental impact on the structure of the high school, Hicks said, “That might make it much tougher to schedule classes.” However, he said, “It’s definitely the right time to look at how the middle grades should be organized.”
Noting that it was “a valid conversation,” Hicks said Lacoste’s retirement might be the time for “reorganizing.” He added that the School Committee had charged him to “prepare for this discussion.” Padien noted the subject would “be on a future agenda.”
Reached after the meeting, Hicks said he understood that parents were looking at “reorganizing the middle grades with a focus on writing.” To that end, he said, “I’ve started to organize materials for [this] conversation — to bring them back to a meeting in March or April. He added that he hopes that ongoing research on blended learning “can show us how it might fit into high school course offerings and how it can support teaching and learning in the elementary and middle classes, as well.”
Hicks presented the committee with statistics prepared by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), an organization that helps schools in the northeast plan for future enrollments. Hicks noted they “indicate an expectation that actual enrollments are likely to be higher than projections” for several reasons: “Improvement in the housing market and steadying of birth rates.”
Though some committee members had difficulty following the graphs, Hicks’ report stressed that favorable changes in housing affected what is termed “in-migration”—a positive “indicator,” Hicks said, “for young people attempting to establish lives on the island.” The statistics also suggested an increasing number of births into the future that seemed to bode well for an increasing school population, though some of the language of the report was ambiguous. After some perplexity among board members, Padien said, “It’s not an easy document to understand.” The board appeared to be willing to continue the discussion to a later meeting.
Reporting on average daily attendance in the second quarter, Hicks said it was 92.8 percent, just a bit over the first quarter rate of 92.4 percent. He compared these figures with 93.1 for 2011-2012 and 93.8 for 2012-2013. He called it “a typical variation.” On Nov. 26, the day before Thanksgiving (often a day of poor attendance), Hicks said, “Attendance was 95.5 percent.”
Padien called attention to the upcoming winter recess, scheduled from Feb. 21 to Feb. 28.
The next meeting is scheduled for March 17 at 7 p.m.