These updates have been lightly edited for clarity and accuracy.
June 5, 2020
This is my last school update as a School Committee member. I may send notes about other issues in the future, including issues related to the Superintendent search. However, if you would like to be removed from this list please let me know. No hard feelings! If you know people who would like to be added, they can do so here.
I want to tell you about the timeline of the Superintendent search and offer some background on the work the School Committee and School Administration have done around the issue of school suspensions in Arlington.
First, the timeline of the superintendent search. Over the next few weeks the consultant we hired, MASC (the Massachusetts Association of School Committees), to help us with the superintendent search will be conducting focus groups with APS (Arlington Public School) employees, including teachers, administrators, and staff. They will also conduct focus groups with community members, such as elementary school parents, SPED (special education) parents, and parents of ELL’s (English Language Learner’s), etc. In mid-June a survey will be sent to parents and community members asking for our views on the qualities we would like to see in the next superintendent. Survey results should be available in July. As a result of both the focus groups and the survey data that will be collected, the School Committee will develop promotional materials and select decision criteria. A superintendent search committee will be formed in the fall. The final make-up of that committee has yet to be decided, but likely it will include School Committee members, teachers, administrators, and 4-5 community members. Ideally the committee will consist of about 15 people. In late October and early November, the search committee will go through all the applications they receive and conduct initial interviews, with the goal of identifying finalists by mid-November. Once the final candidates have been selected the process becomes public (i.e., the final candidate names are released). The finalists will then go through an intense vetting process that includes meetings with APS staff and community members, site visits, and reference checks. If all goes well the School Committee should be able to hire a new superintendent before the winter break.
The School Committee was first made aware of the disparity in suspensions in 2015 when a resident brought a complaint to the Arlington Human Rights Committee (AHRC). As a result of that complaint a joint committee was formed consisting of members of the AHRC, School Committee, and School administration to delve into the data. Bill Hayner and I served from the School Committee. We met five times over the course of a year to discuss issues and look at numbers. Frankly, that black and brown students were being suspended at higher percentages than their white and Asian counterparts was not surprising to any of us in 2015, given the national conversation around this issue. However, we came to the conclusion that the particular complaint (that Arlington was worse than neighboring communities) was not justified by the numbers…which is not to say that there wasn’t an issue we needed to address.
When I became Chair the next year I initiated the practice of requesting a yearly report on our suspension numbers broken out by race. Since then the School Committee, along with many active citizens, successfully pushed for cultural competency training for all administrators, teachers, and staff. At the same time the Administration initiated a multi-year initiative on social and emotional issues, which included hiring a Director of Social and Emotional Learning, establishing building-level committees to identify barriers to social and emotional health, and training a significant number of teachers and staff in mental health first aid. Was progress slower than desirable? Decidedly yes. Nevertheless, there was some progress thanks to the work of many terrific advocates, especially those on the Superintendent’s Diversity Task Force.
I’ve heard some in the community claim sentiments to the effect of “I alone can fix this” or “I alone am raising this issue”! We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. That is especially true of any work I was part of. During my six years on the School Committee there were many excellent people advocating for issues connected with equity and inclusion. See Barbara Goodman’s note for an even longer historical perspective. As you can see from the numbers, we clearly haven’t solved the problem of disparate treatment of black and brown students. What we have done is shine a spotlight on the disparity. At the same time, I fully understand the perspective of those who say we didn’t shine the spotlight bright enough or long enough. My personal concern has been with out-of-school suspensions specifically, as there is evidence that they are especially devastating for our most vulnerable students.
Institutional change is hard. When institutions do not move faster on issues it is not necessarily because of ill will, but of inertia and a limited band-width, which is why advocacy (both internal and external) is so powerful. That change happens only as a result of advocacy is not a flaw, it is democracy at work. It is easy to gin up outrage and lob accusations. To effect change you need to work hard and be persistent, which is exactly what the Superintendents Diversity Task force did when they successfully pushed for cultural competency training at APS.
Below are our suspension numbers for the past 4 years, as well as a recent report to the School Committee highlighting the disparities in these numbers. Frankly, suspensions were higher before we started to get these reports, which is evidence of some success. Unfortunately, I have neither the full data nor the skills to analyze these numbers (for example I don’t know the racial breakdown at each level for each year), but I wanted to get them out there anyway. Note that the district-level racial break down does not reflect the secondary-level breakdown because diversity numbers are much higher at the grade school level, especially with respect to students identifying as multi-race (last year 10% of our kindergartners identified that way). However, to get a general sense of what the percentages look like note that during the 2018-2019 school year 3.7% of our High Schoolers were African American, 6.3% were Hispanic/Latinx, 4.6 were multi-race, and .1 were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
Some additional notes:
1) In the three years between 2015 and 2018 secondary school enrollment went up 13% (from 2,383 to 2,700)
2) The 2018/19 data doesn’t include suspension numbers at Gibbs as they were not in the original report (and Kathy hasn’t been able to get me this data). 2018 was also the year that a large group home focusing on kids with emotional challenges, Germaine Lawrence, closed. Germaine Lawrence students were transient; that is, they generally attended APS for only a few months. They were also more likely to be students of color.
3) 2017/18 was the year that 14 students participated in vandalism (and one student in hate graffiti) at the High School.
|Arlington District Out of School Suspension Data|
|Secondary Level – # of Students|
|Middle School Suspensions|
|Black or African American||5||6||5||4|
|High School Suspensions|
|Black or African American||6||9||13||3|
Here’s the link to the most recent report we received from the principal of the High School, Matthew Janger, which does have some further percentage analysis.
March 20, 2020
The School Committee had their regularly scheduled meeting last night by Zoom, where we heard about recent efforts in the district as well as plans for the future. I want to give a public shout out to our extraordinary teachers and administrators who have heroically stepped up during this difficult time. I also ask you to be patient with them as they transition to operating in an environment that no one had planned on being in.
Also, yesterday DESI (the Department of Education and Secondary Instruction) released guiding principles for districts in Massachusetts. It is important to note that these are guidelines not mandates. Dr. Bodie will be communicating with families soon about what the changes will look like in Arlington. Note that some of the recommendations may take longer to implement than others. I’ve attached the new recommendations, but here they are in brief.
- Districts must work to develop a remote learning model. Note that remote learning is not synonymous with online learning and districts are encouraged to develop curriculum that incorporates non-traditional instruction, physical activity, and engagement with the arts.
- It is recommended that “districts support students to engage in meaningful and productive learning for approximately half the length of a regular school day. We expect this learning to take place via a combination of educator directed learning and student self-directed learning.”
- The online learning schedule should provide
- Opportunity to connect with one or more educators multiple times a week
- Access to multiple hours per day of academic content directed by educators
- Time each day for physical activity
- Time each day for enrichment activities such as in the arts
- Feedback by educators on student work completed at home
- Although the new guidelines do allow the introduction of new material at the secondary level, DESI strongly recommends that districts and schools focus on “reinforcing skills already taught this school year and applying and deepening those skills.” At this time Arlington is not currently planning on having teachers introduce new materials.
This is all I know for now. The recommendations were released yesterday, so again I ask for patience as the district works to adjust to their new reality.
Stay safe and stay sane!
January 20, 2020
I’ve been meaning to send over an analysis of how our enrollment numbers compare to the projections we received four years ago from McKibbin. The answer is that they’ve held up surprisingly well, with some caveats. The school department is currently looking to hire someone to do another round of analysis, hopefully by the end of the year.
Overall enrollment numbers are remarkably close to the McKibbin projections. In the last four years the Arlington Public Schools added 728 students, 16 more than the projections, for a difference of less than a quarter of a percentage point. However, when you drill down to a subsets, such as at a school, the variance goes up. The overall story in Arlington is that we are retaining more students at the middle school level than we did in the past (understandable given the opening of a dedicated 6th grade at Gibbs and change in leadership at Ottoson) and retaining fewer students at the High School level (potentially related to worries about the effects of the upcoming renovation). Here are the details:
- Elementary schools, close to projections, added 308 students over four years (30 fewer than projected)
- Middle schools, higher than projections, added 256 students over four years (102 higher than projected
- The High School, lower than projections, added 164 students over four years (56 lower than projected)
At the individual elementary schools the projections are less accurate. Also, note that because we have buffer zones, we’ve been able to partially control the number of students at a school, so the actual enrollment doesn’t fully capture the demand at a particular school. For example, many more people wanted their children at Bishop than we were able to accommodate.
Here’s the actuals compared to the projections:
- Bishop, close to projections, added 14 students over four years (13 more than projected
- Bracket, close to projections, added 57 students over four years (5 more than projected)
- Dallin, lower than projections, added 4 students over four years (20 lower than projected)
- Hardy, lower than projections, added 30 students over four years (44 lower than projected)
- Peirce, higher than projections, added 46 students over four years (21 higher than projected)
- Stratton, higher than projections, added 58 students over four years (20 higher than projected)
- Thompson, close to projections, added 90 students over four years (3 higher than projected)
December 10, 2019
Apologies, once again, for waiting so long to send a school update. I keep thinking that life will settle down and I will have more time…but somehow that never happens. Here, in brief, are some of the things that we are focusing on this year.
First, the Superintendent recently formed a subcommittee to study calendar issues. We have been tasked with evaluating i) the school holiday schedule (whether to add to or eliminate holidays), ii) the physical look of the calendar, and iii) whether school should start before Labor Day. We are only tackling the first two questions this year, which means that school will still start after Labor Day next year (on Sept. 8th) and will end late in June (on June 29th with 5 snow days). I’m attaching data I gathered from 60 communities that are either part of the Town Manager 12 or within the I-95 corridor. Likely there are mistakes in this document. Feel free to send along any corrections. Tomorrow we are gathering to hear from the community about their thoughts on religious holidays. Currently, the Arlington Public Schools have no school days on four religious holidays—Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Christmas Eve, and Good Friday. The question is whether, giving the increasing diversity of the Arlington Public School System, this particular recognition still makes.
The location of the Forum in OLD HALL in AHS from 7:00-8:30 pm on Wednesday, December 11. If you are not able to attend the forum, but would like to offer your thoughts, please send them to email@example.com with the subject line: Calendar Committee.
High School Project
The High School project continues to be a major focus of attention. Thank you to Jeff Thielman and Kirsi Allison-Ampe for their extensive work here. This year the project is in the Design Development stage, where most of the design details (from specific materials to more precise measurements) are hashed out. As you may have heard the recent project estimate showed that the current design is 29.5 million more than the voter-approved budget of $290.8. The H.S. building committee is currently engaged in value engineering and design modification to stay within this mandatory budget limitation. You can find out more about the High School project and sign up for e-bulletins here.
We are beginning the process of searching for a new Superintendent. We are currently looking to hire a search firm to help us with outreach, form a search committee, and create a position description. The goal will be to hold outreach sessions this spring so that we can post the opening early next fall and hire someone next winter. Kathy is retiring a year and a half from now (summer 2021).
For the past few months I’ve been working with the afterschool programs in town, mostly those housed in our schools. They understand the frustration that many parents have. So far, we have tackled some of the easier issues—standardizing application deadlines and available program information. Space and capacity will continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future. While we did identify some places for modest expansion, we are frankly unlikely to see large capacity increases in the foreseeable future. Programs report that they are limited in their ability to expand due to i) space limitations, ii) problems hiring qualified candidates in a strong job market, and iii) concerns about managing programs over a certain size.
This year we added fewer students to our buildings than in the recent past—128 additional students over the 2018/19 levels (25 at the elementary level, 67 at the middle-school level, and 36 at the High School level). The previous two years we added 222 and 164 students, respectively, with a greater percentage of that increase going to the elementary schools. We now have almost 6000 students in our buildings. In a future mailing I would like to look at how our current building numbers compare with the McKibben enrollment projects that were completed in the fall of 2015.
School Start Time
Finally, remember that next year we will be starting secondary school (6th-12th grade) half an hour later, at 8:30 AM. From the outreach that we did last year we know that about 85% of parents and guardians are in favor of this time shift. The reasons they cite are often based on the extensive evidence that starting school even half an hour later can positively affect student safety, health, and achievement. However, parents also cite logistical benefits–the ability to help with a younger sibling in the morning, less time alone after school, etc. You can find more information on the research here.
However, the change will likely be harder for staff, who are negotiating traffic issues and family commitments. We plan to do outreach this spring to parents and guardians to address any remaining questions that the community may have. If there is a particular area of concern, or question that you have, please send it along.
April 5th, 2019
School Start Times
I wanted to update you on what has happened with the push to start school later at the middle and high school level. A few weeks ago, the Arlington School Committee voted to change both the middle and high school start time to 8:30 AM, starting in September 2020 (the year after next). However, it is possible that we may need to shift the middle school start time a few minutes earlier to accommodate bus logistics. We will have a better handle on the remaining details at the end of June.
5 Year Plan
The School Committee has long wanted to create a plan driven by its needs rather than a set funding formula. With an operating override being considered for June 11th, 2019, it seemed like an opportune time to develop a multi-year plan to help inform decisions that town leaders will be making on the override, with the aim that revisions to the funding formula will go before the voters as part of an override plan. Note that the funding we receive will likely not match the plan, and adjustments may need to be made along the way.
You can find details about the plan here. This is still very much a draft plan, and the community still has the ability to influence what it looks like. To that end we are holding a community forum on Wednesday, April 10th at 7:00 PM at the Gibbs School. If you cannot make the forum, you can share your thoughts with the committee by sending them to Karen Fitzgerald at firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, I wanted to share some demographic information on how Arlington’s schools have changed over the years. Likely you’ve heard many people mention that we’ve added 1,276 students over the past 10 years, a 27% increase in our school population. But even before that Arlington was adding students, albeit inconsistently and at a lower rate. Over the prior 15 years, 1993–2008, we added 811 students, for a combined 25-year increase of 2087 students, a 54% increase over the 1993 number.
The demographic shifts we’ve experienced are especially interesting. In 1993 the Arlington Public Schools had 3852 students, about 88% white. In 2018 the Arlington Public Schools had 5939 students, 71% white. The numbers for both Asians and Hispanic/Latino’s have almost tripled (from 4.5% to 12.9% and 2.3% to 6.2%, respectively) Note that it wasn’t until 2005 that the state allowed people to identify as more than one race, which likely explains the decrease in self-identified African American students over those years (from 5.4% to 3.5%). Last year over 10% of our kindergarten students identified as multi-racial. (Of course, it is the parent or guardian who is doing the identifying.)
March 9, 2019
Once again, I’ve fallen short on my intention to send out a monthly note. I do have some other material saved for a future mailing, so hopefully the gap won’t be as large next time.
The big school-related news remains the High School. I am super excited about this project. While the current High School certainly has some charm, its deteriorating facilities no longer meet today’s educational needs, nor the space needs of our growing enrollment.
Here’s what is happening next. On April 10th the MSBA Board of Directors is expected to vote on the Project Scope and Budget Agreement, which will also determine the state’s financial contribution to the project. Pending a successful vote, Arlington has 120 days to secure local funding for our portion of the project. You can find out more about the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority’s) process here. On April 29th there will be a vote at the Special Town Meeting to approve the appropriation for the Project Scope and Budget Agreement, pending a successful Debt Exclusion vote by the town. The Debt Exclusion vote is scheduled for Tuesday, June 11th. On the same ballot, but listed as a different question, will be an Operating Override to fund town and school services. Expect to hear a lot more about both the Debt Exclusion and the Operating Override soon.
Pending successful votes at both Town Meeting and on June 11th, the next steps are Design Development, Construction Documentation, and Bidding, with groundbreaking as early as July 2020. The new Performing Arts and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) wings are estimated to be open to students in 2022, with construction fully completed in 2024.
Calendar and Late Start Time Survey
In October, parents and teachers/staff were asked to fill out a survey giving their thoughts about possible changes to the calendar and school start time. You can find a report I created on the survey results attached. The upshot is that while there was consensus on a later start, especially among parents, there was little consensus on calendar changes. 68% of parents and 59% of teachers prefer to keep the start date after Labor Day. On whether to hold school during three of the four religious holidays, 58% of parents were in favor but 61% of teachers/staff were opposed.
The School Committee and Administration remain interested in exploring possible calendar changes. They are open to all ideas, including the idea that there will be no calendar changes. The reason to explore this issue further is that for years in which Labor Day is late, and we also have snow, the last day of school is at the very end of June. For example, during the 2020-2021 school year, were we to have five snow days, our last day of school would be Tuesday, June 29th. Another issue is that given the increasing diversity of Arlington’s students, prioritizing some religious tradition’s holidays over others no longer feels appropriate (at least to me).
As to starting school later, 73% of parents were in favor of starting High School at 8:30, with 12% having no preference and 15% opposed. (Those numbers were 63%, 18% and 19% at the Middle School level). Among teachers/staff 40% were in favor of a later start time, 31% had no preference, and 29% were opposed.
The School Committee also reached out to the community for their opinions and received thoughts by both email and in person. I sat at those meetings and read through every e-mail. I estimate that we heard from approximately 60 households, with 9 in 10 strongly in favor of moving the start time and 1 in 10 strongly opposed. Not surprising, those who are indifferent between those two options did not reach out.
Unfortunately, it looks likely that there will be no start-time changes for next year. Since the survey was released teachers and staff have expressed concerns that deserve to be, and are in fact being, taken seriously. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic that there will be a solution that works for everyone. The evidence is clear that starting secondary school at 8:30 or later decreases the sleep deficit in teens. The benefits of just a few minutes extra sleep, and at the right time (when REM sleep happens) are huge–academically, social/emotionally, and for physical health and safety. You can find out more information on the benefits of starting school later here. A press release from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending that school for Middle and High School students start no earlier than 8:30 can be found here.
For the past few months, the School Committee and School Administration have been working on a 5-year budget plan for our schools. Fellow School Committee Member, Len Kardon, especially, has put a tremendous amount of work into this effort. The goal is to create a new paradigm. Rather than begin with an appropriation number and work to squeeze the district’s needs into that amount, we would look at what the needs are over the next five years and present that information to the town. I am optimistic that these efforts will result in additional funding for education in Arlington. This year the Governor’s budget for Chapter 70 aid (the money that the state gives to local communities to fund education) was very generous to Arlington. Assuming that the final budget number is similar, and assuming that Arlington succeeds in passing an operating override, there should be additional funds for education in Arlington.
Arlington is an amazing town. Certainly, it is a town that values education and cares about our students, as evidenced by many years of support from both town leaders and its citizens. Nevertheless, our huge enrollment growth continues to present budgetary challenges. The schools need additional funds to keep class sizes within reason, close the achievement gap between those who are succeeding academically and those who are struggling, continue to attract, retain, and develop talented staff, and continue to improve instruction so that our students are well equipped to enter a complete a post-secondary degree program, pursue a career, and be an active citizen in an ever-changing world.
Be on the look-out for outreach on the 5-year budget plan in April.
If you know someone who is interested in signing up for these newsletters (which might someday be monthly), they can do so here.
August 29, 2018
I hope your remaining days of summer are going well and that you are keeping cool.
The Big News
The current seniors were the first class to see a bump in enrollment after many years of pretty predictable class sizes. Last year there were 333 of them.
The current kindergarten is likely to be over 600. Yes…over 600. The numbers won’t be finalized for many weeks, but that is what we are currently anticipating.
New High School
The MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) board met last week and voted a favorable recommendation on Arlington’s preferred option (what was once called option 3A). The final vote is expected on August 29th. Information about Arlington’s preferred option, FAQs, and other great stuff can be found here: https://ahsbuilding.org/
The vote on August 29th will mark the end of Module 3 – Feasibility Stage. The next stage is Module 4 – Schematic Design, where many of the details of what the school will look like—both inside and out—will be developed. Remember that the picture that is currently on the website is only a massing drawing that roughly indicates where programs and building elements will be located. The final design will be a lot more interesting, and will likely pay tribute to some of the design elements that people like in the current building. This is also the module that will develop the final scope, budget, and schedule for the project. Previous numbers and timelines were estimates only.
The goal is to finish the Schematic Design this spring, with the expectation of going to the voters in June for a Debt Exclusion to pay for the project.
Finally, the primaries are just around the corner – on Tuesday, September 4th. I will send my thoughts about them soon.
All the best!
December 13, 2017
We are currently at the beginning of the Feasibility Study. This is the stage where we decide where to locate the building (not a lot of options, of course), whether to renovate, tear down or do a little bit of both and what our educational space-needs will be. According to the last building committee meeting, I attended they are looking to have many of these fundamental questions answered by April 2018.
The Hardy principal search has just begun. The position was posted last Friday. Dr. Bodie will soon solicit two parent volunteers to serve on the search committee, as well as organize a focus group.
Arlington made Money Magazines’s 10 best places in America to Raise a Family Now.
November 16, 2017
Recently I’ve had some fun playing with Excel sheets and wanted to share data about our district’s enrollment growth. The first chart is familiar. It shows our enrollment growth over the past 15 years. You can see that until 2008 the district’s numbers were fairly stable. Since 2007 we have added 1,138 students to the Arlington public schools (a 26% increase), 771 of those students were added in the last five years (a 16% increase), and we expect to add another 500 students in the next five years (for a 15-year increase of about 40%). You can also see that most of the growth so far has been at the elementary level; it is only in the last few years that we have seen significant growth at the middle and H.S. level. Over the next few years we expect elementary growth to be more modest, and middle and H.S. growth to increase more dramatically.
The second chart shows the number of elementary classrooms in use at the Arlington Public Schools over the past 15 years, from 110 in 2002 to 137 today. With the exception of Stratton and Peirce, all of our elementary schools are very crowded; spaces that were once used as teacher-resource rooms, after-school rooms, computer labs, science rooms, breakout rooms, etc. have been repurposed as general education classrooms. The recent six-classroom addition to Thompson and the planned six-classroom addition to Hardy should help alleviate some of the strain of that growth.
The next two graphs are about class sizes at the elementary level. Class sizes at the middle and high school level have also increased, but that increase is harder to capture. The first shows the average elementary class size over the past 15 years, and the second shows how many of the elementary classes over time are in the desired 19-23 range (in yellow), below 19 (in green), or above (in red). These cut-off numbers are entirely mine and do not necessarily reflect either the Administration or any other School Committee member’s opinions. In the past 15 years elementary class sizes have increased from 20.14 to 21.96 (state average is 19.9 and national average is 21.1)*.
You will see that class sizes increased significantly in 2010 and have stayed at that inflated level since, despite the mitigating effects of the 2011 debt exclusion. For the most part class sizes have remained large because of the budgetary strains of our increasing enrollment, but lately another reason has been the lack of space in our buildings.
Note that class size variance is inevitable in a district that prioritizes district schools. The tools we have to reduce class size are crude. When students start at a school we can use buffer zones to help equalize class sizes. However, once kids are at a particular neighborhood school the only way to reduce class sizes at a grade is to add another teacher, which doesn’t always make sense.
I also want to say that I do not think that class size is the most significant metric in a district. Larger class sizes have not been shown to negatively affect academic achievement, especially in middle-class communities such as ours. The most important determinants for academic achievement are family background and teacher quality, and Arlington has terrific teachers. It is also important to remember that prioritizing smaller class sizes is one of the most expensive things a district can do. It may, and often does, make sense to trade a reduction in class sizes with other things we want to do as a district. It may be more important, for example, to add social workers and a Director of Guidance and Social and Emotional Learning than to add a few extra class room teachers. Nevertheless, class size numbers are useful in providing a snapshot of how our enrollment growth is straining our resources, which it most definitely is.
* Data is from 2015 as compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (https://nces.ed.gov/). It was interesting to compare state averages. 12 states had averages below 19 and 9 states had averages above 23.
November 12, 2017
I apologize for not keeping up with the School Updates lately. Partly this is because there is now so much information available about our schools that the need hasn’t felt as great. However, I will start sending more frequent updates soon. Meanwhile, here are some places to find a wealth of information about our schools and town:
(Drop down menu is hard to find; it is in the upper left corner of the picture)
Gibbs School Renovation:
Building Project: https://ahsbuilding.org/
H.S. Project Blog: https://ahsbuilding.org/blog/
School Budget Info: http://www.arlington.k12.ma.us/administration/budget/
Visual Budget: http://arlingtonvisualbudget.org
Public Annual Finance Reports: https://www.arlingtonma.gov/departments/town-manager/public-annual-financial-report-pafr
May 31, 20
It has been a while since I last sent a School Update. A lot has happened since then. We had an election (thank you to the 9% of Arlington that came out to vote!) and Jeff Theilman became Chair of the School Committee (thank you for your support last year as I stumbled about as Chair).
We are also currently doing a search for a new Assistant Superintendent (here is a list of the finalists), and a search for a principal at Ottoson. Thankfully Dr. Woods has indicated that she is willing to stay on next year if needed.
The big, and recent, news is our kindergarten numbers. As of May 15th these are our numbers:
Bishop – 55
Brackett – 81
Dallin – 67
Hardy – 83
Peirce – 64
Stratton – 63
Thompson – 72
The current total of 485 is expected to increase as enrollment continues throughout the spring and summer. Some schools, such as Thompson, traditionally experience a pretty significant enrollment bump over the summer. This year’s surprise is Peirce, which will have three Kindergarten classrooms next fall. Luckily Peirce has the space to accommodate this current enrollment surge, but they do not have enough space to accommodate three classrooms at every grade level, should these enrollment numbers become the new normal.
To put our enrollment numbers into perspective, as of April 1st we had a High School graduating class of 292, but a kindergarten class of 543.
Here is what is going on in the various school building projects:
Stratton – The Stratton renovation is proceeding on time and under budget. They are currently installing new windows and other finishing work on the classrooms. The gym and cafeteria will be completed over the summer. Classrooms are expected to be ready for occupancy by teachers at the end of the summer.
Thompson – The Thompson addition is behind schedule because of two delays in steel delivery. We have asked for, and received, a new construction schedule that includes weekend construction. As of now we still expect that the addition will be open in September, but there is a chance that the opening will be delayed.
Gibbs – The Gibbs design is almost complete, and work is expected to start at the beginning of July. The Gibbs committee is meeting to discuss colors and other matters. The Gibbs principal has been chosen – Kristin DeFrancisco, current principal of Hardy elementary school – which means that work on the curriculum and other details can begin over the summer. Recently parents had an opportunity to meet with Ms. DeFrancisco, and on Tuesday, June 13th there will be a parent forum at Town Hall to talk about Gibbs in greater detail.
Arlington H.S. – The High School building committee has created several subcommittees to focus on specific tasks. One of these subcommittees was tasked with choosing an Owner’s Project Manager (OPM). The OPM is one of the most important choices we have for the project. This is the person who will be our liaison between the architect and the administration, will help make sure that the project is proceeding on time and under budget and will help create opportunities for stakeholder engagement and input. The subcommittee is considering its final prospects now, with the hope of having recommendation the next time that they meet.
As these projects continue you should look here for more information
I want to recommend a couple of articles that the Advocate published recently about the balancing act that many municipalities, including Arlington, are dealing with as the state cuts education spending.
And here is an article that specifically talks about Arlington:
In the paper version there was a chart laying out the percentage of the operating budget that has come from state aid over time. In FY 02 21% of Arlington’s budget was from State Aid (17.3M out of 82.64M budget). In FY 17 that percentage had dropped to 13% (18.64% out of $147.5M).
What happened? Remember that in 2000 Massachusetts voters passed a ballot initiative requiring the state to reduce the income tax to 5 percent, from the then current rate of 5.85%. In 2002 Beacon Hill passed legislation allowing for a gradual reduction of the state income tax by 0.05 percent a year for each year in which certain economic conditions are met. Since then, there have been enough years in which these economic conditions have been met to trigger reductions, leading to the current tax rate of 5.10. However, it is hard to maintain the same level of services with a diminished revenue stream, especially given that an increasing percentage of the state budget is devoted to health care costs. The upshot is that because cities and towns are getting less help from the state they need to pass more operating overrides.
One additional piece of news. Despite its flawed methodology, it is still nice to see that Arlington H.S. is held in high esteem (12th in the state) by the U.S. News and World Report.
February 15, 2017
This morning the Arlington High School Project was officially invited into the Feasibility Study period by the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority). I was there for the vote, which was expected, but exciting nevertheless.
January 20, 2017
It has been a while since I’ve sent a school update. I’ve wanted to fill the community in on the various school building projects we have around town, but was waiting for more concrete information for a couple of them. Here is a summary of what I know so far.
S C H O O L P R O J E C T S
Gibbs – The Gibbs planning is going very well. After this fall’s community forums with teachers, parents/guardians and community members the architects worked with the school department to develop a plan that incorporates the priorities expressed in those forums, meets program space requirements and fits within the constraints of the building. I went to the community forum on Tuesday night. The design plan is impressive. Community members had questions and concerns about various details, which will hopefully be worked out by the advisory committee.
If you were not able to go to the presentation you can follow the Gibbs design process through documents posted on the district’s website:
Because many people have expressed concern to me about the Gibbs principal selection I would like to give you my thoughts on the matter. These are my individual thoughts; they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of either the Administration or the School Committee.
I understand the desire to have a search that results in an innovative educational leader who can help shape the vision for the dedicated sixth grade. We have a unique opportunity to provide a truly transitional space between the relative protection of a K-5 education and the heightened demands of a secondary school education. It is an opportunity we do not want to waste. I do believe that there are visionary educational leaders already in Arlington who can play this role, but if it turns out that no internal candidate is suitable an external search could always be done next year. We would lose the advantage of having someone involved in the planning process a year earlier who already knows the district, but those costs would be worth bearing if there are no appropriate internal candidates. I suspect an external search will not be necessary, because there are potentially some excellent internal candidates, but the option is not completely closed off. Unfortunately we cannot open up this year’s search to external candidates, as we do not currently have money for the position in the Fiscal Year 18 budget.
In the next couple of weeks Dr. Bodie will form the Gibbs principal search committee, potentially from the members of the Gibbs advisory committee (if they are willing), as well as invite applicants to the Ottoson principal search committee.
Regarding the opportunity to hire candidates with diverse backgrounds. The same number of administrative-level positions will need to be filled through external searches, whether we hire externally for Gibbs or not. We are still doing an external search for the Ottoson principal, and if we hire an internal candidate for Gibbs we would need to hire someone to fill that newly vacated position. I encourage people to spread the word about Arlington to your personal networks. The reality is that we are always in competition with neighboring districts—many of which pay more than we do. Sometimes a personal connection can make the difference. I truly believe that the Arlington Public School District is a great place to work. Help us spread the word.
Stratton – Last summer modular classrooms were set up in the field next to Stratton. Students’ main classrooms are in those modular units, but they also use the cafeteria and gym in the main building. The project is proceeding on time with no major issues. Next summer work will be done on the cafeteria and gym. The newly refurbished Stratton will open next fall (Sept. 2017).
Thompson – Work on the Thompson addition began this fall, immediately following both the School Enrollment task force vote and the Town Meeting vote. The project has been slower than expected, due to permitting and drainage issues. We expect the steel to go up in February (weather permitting. It is scheduled to open next fall (Sept. 2017), provided that there are no major problems during the spring and summer.
Hardy – The School Enrollment Task Force met on December 21st, and voted to recommend a six-classroom addition to Hardy and to study the adequacy of the common spaces. The final plan is not yet settled but the Capital Planning Committee has agreed to fund the project out of their budget at 3.5 Million. The plan is to begin work this summer, to be open in the fall of 2018.
High School – We are almost finished with Modular 1, the Eligibility Period. Arlington submitted all the necessary documents a couple of months ago. Since then we have been meeting with the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) to determine the design-enrollment number, which we are close to an agreement on. We fully expect to be invited into Modular 2 and 3, where we form the Project Team and do a Feasibility Period, at their February board meeting. The Feasibility Study, which Arlington voted to fund last June, in an intensive process whereby all possible scenarios are considered—where to locate the school, whether to renovate or build new, what programmatic spaces to include, etc. Appropriate for the scale of this project this will be a thorough process of measuring eight times before any construction is done.
The MSBA has tons of information available on their web site. One good place to look is here: http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/building. As the project develops there will be more information specific to Arlington here: http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/node/40010
November 3, 2016
I wanted to send a note about upcoming events in our community. I hope to send another note soon, giving an overview of where we stand on the various school building projects. But before I do that, I wanted to remind people that one great way to get news about happenings in Arlington is to sign up for the Town’s notices. You can do that here.
If you are interested in the notes from the two very interesting Gibbs Visioning Meetings—one with teachers and the other with parents and community members—you can find that here.
High School Play – Friday, November 4th and Saturday, November 5th
“The Tony-winning play, based on the best-selling novels, upends the century-old story of how a miserable orphan boy becomes the legendary Peter Pan.”
Friday, November 4 at 7:30 PM
Saturday, November 5 at 2:00 PM & 7:30 PM
Tickets are available online here link, (with a small surcharge), from cast members, at the AHS main office, and at the door. Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for students and children high school age and under.
True Story Theatre – Sunday, November 6th
Support our town volunteers, and learn what inspired them, at True Story Theater’s annual performance and fundraiser BASH, Sunday November 6, 1-4pm at the Arlington Center for the Arts, 41 Foster St, Arlington, MA.
True Story Theater is an Arlington-based theater group, and an international leader in Playback Theater, an improvisational form which aims to build stronger, more inclusive communities. During True Story performances, audience members share their stories; then troupe members reenact those stories on the fly. The fundraiser will feature performances that dramatize the stories of town volunteers and the people they’ve served. The proceeds will support Arlington’s Living Brochure, a 2-year series of public performances and workshops highlighting and supporting volunteers on town committees.
In addition to performances by True Story Theater, there will be refreshments and a silent auction. Please buy tickets ahead of time for a $10 discount off the $35 admission price. The performance will start around 1:30. For more information, go to: www.TrueStoryTheater.com
Enrollment Task Force Meeting – Monday, Nov. 7th
The Enrollment Task Force will be meeting on Monday at 7:00 in the School Committee room on the 6th floor of the Arlington High School.
Election Day – Tuesday, November 8th
I suspect many of you are aware that Tuesday is election day. Last I checked about a quarter of our town’s registered voters have already voted. If you haven’t yet voted I urge you once again to vote NO on Proposition 2. Boston’s mayor Marty Walsh had a great editorial in the Boston Globe last week that is worth reading. You can find it here.
If anyone is available for sign holding please reply and I will connect you to Linda Hanson, who is organizing that effort. They are looking for people to hold signs from 7:00 AM – 9:00 AM, 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM and 4:00 PM – 8:00 PM.
Community Dialogue on Education – Wednesday, November 16th at 7:00 in the Lowe Auditorium, AHS
Arlington residents are invited to attend a free public screening of the critically acclaimed documentary “Most Likely to Succeed”. It’s the story of a high school which was rethought from the ground up with intriguing results. It touches on a range of topics including innovation, curriculum, and school design. The documentary will be followed by an open discussion about the movie’s themes and our community’s definitions of success and excellence in our public schools.
Arlington’s Vision 2020 Education Task Group is working in collaboration with the Arlington Public Schools and Arlington School Committee to bring this thought provoking documentary to the community. The documentary and book have been used in thousands of community discussions about public education. http://www.mltsfilm.org/
Vision 2020 is planning a series of sessions over the 2016-17 school year to engage the Arlington community in a dialogue about how we define success and excellence in our public schools.
When the town made the decision to convert Gibbs back to a school many people in our community expressed the hope that a place would be found for one of its valued tenants, the Arlington Center for the Arts (ACA). Due to tremendous effort by both our Town leadership and community volunteers, ACA has identified what could potentially be a great home in the old Central School, home to the current Senior Center. While they have succeeded in reaching their first funding milestone they still need more money to make this new home a reality. They are looking to raise $600K, or about $33 per household. To donate to the fund please go to: http://www.acarts.org/future-fund
October 4, 2016
On November 8th Arlington voters will go to the polls to elect the next President of the United States, as well as our representatives for state and national offices. We will also be asked to vote on four ballot questions. I am writing to urge you to vote NO on Question 2.
A vote on Question 2 is not a vote for or against charter schools in general. It is a vote for or against this particular ballot question. A yes vote on Question 2 would allow the state to add up to 12 additional charter schools per year, or 1% of the Massachusetts student population in perpetuity without any restrictions. In my opinion such legislation would be a mistake.
I think that Massachusetts does a better job than most states at monitoring charter schools and shutting down ones that are failing. There are some great charter school in Massachusetts, just as there are some great public schools in Massachusetts. Similarly, there are some problematic charter schools in Massachusetts, just as there are some problematic public schools in Massachusetts.
The problem is with the funding mechanism for charters, and with the fact that there is no local control. Arlington currently sends eight students to charters, which costs us about 100K. This amount is taken from our Chapter 70 funds without us having any say in or oversight over their governance, such as we have for the Minuteman Regional Vocational Tech School.
A few months ago there was the possibility of a Waldorf style charter school being set up near Arlington. I suspect that some Arlington parents would be interested in sending their children to such a school, not because Arlington schools are failing (they are clearly not), but simply because they like the Waldorf philosophy but can’t afford private school tuition. Suppose that tomorrow 1% of our students were to go to this new charter school (about 55 students). The amount that the state would deduct from our Chapter 70 funds would be more than half a million dollars. Needless to say the savings that the Arlington Public Schools would realize with 55 fewer students would be significantly less than half a million dollars. The end result would be that our budget, which is already 10% less than the districts to which we compare ourselves to, would be stretched even farther.
This year the Legislature tried to craft a compromise piece of legislation; an effort which failed. But that does not mean that all future attempts are doomed to failure. Regardless of your opinions about charter schools in general I urge you not to support this flawed piece of legislation and to vote NO on Question 2.
Feel free to reach out to me with questions and comments. If you already know that you are voting NO on Question 2, please send me your name and address so that the campaign can cross you off their lists and direct their resources elsewhere.
September 11, 2016
For those with kids in the school system I hope your transition went well. For others, September is often a transition as well. I hope that went well too.
I wanted to pass on some information we received at our last School Committee meeting. The big news is our continued enrollment growth. As of last week there were 558 kindergarteners in the Arlington public school buildings. Thankfully, the buffer zones enabled the class-sizes to be pretty consistent–between 22 and 24 per class.
The number of kindergarteners exceeds our previous record two years ago of 510. To understand the scale of this growth consider that last year’s senior class had 318 students and that this year’s senior class has 304 students. But students were added at all levels. This year we had the same number of students in 9th grade as there were in 8th grade last year (338), despite sending 30 students to Minuteman. District-wide there are 5,498 students in Arlington schools. Last year there were 5,252, a 4.7% increase. Note that these are unofficial numbers. The official numbers will be generated on October 1st, and certified by the state a month or two later.
The Stratton modulars are in place. ACMI has done a great segment on them, which you can find here: http://news.acmi.tv/segments/stratton-modulars/
The Thompson modulars are also in place. They did a great job integrating them into the current building.
On October 5th the School Enrollment task force will meet to decide whether to add a permanent addition to the Thompson. Thompson was designed for 380 students. This year there are 464 students, and it is projected to exceed 500 in the next few years.
On October 19th there will be a town meeting to hopefully authorize the funds for the new Thompson addition. Although in June the town voted overwhelmingly to raise the tax levy to fund an addition, Town Meeting still needs to vote to authorize the funds for that purpose. At that Town Meeting we might also be asking for money to fund some modulars at Ottoson until the Gibbs is available.
The architect Feingold Alexander Architects has been chosen for GIbbs. There is a new process whereby the architects works in conjunction with three pre-certified contractors to develop design documents. That work is occurring right now, with the expectation that they will begin work next July when the current tenants’ lease is up.
We are moving along on with the High School building process. The final Building Committee has been chosen. There are 17 members, 2 of which are from the School Committee, and 7 of which are community members. Look for an official announcement in the coming weeks.
Other news. Rob Spiegel, the APS’s human resources officer, is looking for substitute teachers, substitute secretaries, and substitute crossing guards. If this is something you would be interested in doing please contact him at email@example.com.
Finally, don’t forget to vote on Tuesday, September 20th for Minuteman building project. Polls will be open from noon until 8:00 PM at your usual polling places (with the exception of the polling places that usually vote at Stratton). Shoot me an e-mail if you have any questions about where your polling place is.
A lot has happened over the last several weeks. Yesterday the Board of Selectmen decided hold an election on Tuesday, June 14th to exclude from Proposition 2.5 the money needed to: i) create a feasibility study of our options for a High School rebuild or renovation, ii) expand capacity at the Middle School level, iii) add capacity at Thompson with a permanent addition, and iv) pay for a potential rebuild or renovation at Minuteman.
It is important to recognize what is at stake. If voters decide not to raise taxes to expand capacity at the middle and elementary school level, then those projects will be threatened and we are looking at extremely overcrowded schools. If voters decide not to raise taxes to pay for a Minuteman rebuild or renovation, we are still on the hook for that money and we would have to pay for the capital costs by cutting town services (teachers, public safety, and road repair). Frankly neither scenario is attractive. I urge you to vote YES on June 14th and to volunteer your time and money, if you are able. I will send information soon on how to do that. The campaign is titled Build Arlington’s Future.
On Thursday April 28th the School Enrollment Task Force (SETF) is meeting at Town Hall at 7:00 to hear a report from HMFH Architects on the cost and feasibility of the remaining two options for expanding capacity at the middle school level—adding to Ottoson or repurposing the Gibbs for school use. On Monday, May 2nd the SETF will offer their recommendation. If the recommendation is to repurpose Gibbs for school use, then the School Committee will have an important decision to make. We will need to decide whether Gibbs will be a town-wide 6th grade or a smaller 6-8th grade middle school. In making the decision we will have to weigh the logistical challenges of each option. In the case of a town-wide 6th grade there are logistical challenges involving our Special Education programs. In the case of a smaller middle school there are logistical challenges involving splitting up grade-level teachers, ensuring equity across schools of different sizes, and maintaining the current cluster model.
But we will also have to weigh competing visions. On the one hand there is the vision of smaller neighborhood middle schools that 68% of our students can easily walk to. On the other hand there is the vision of a school that offers a transitional space to accommodate the unique social, emotional, and academic needs of 6th grade students. For information on Ottoson teachers’ perspective please see the April 14th Middle School Option presentation in the following link:
I have some tentative good news about our financial picture. So far we have seen the Governor’s and the House’s proposed budget. The Senate’s budget is expected at the end of May. As of now it looks as if the kindergarten grant is not going to be eliminated, which will allow the Arlington Public Schools (APS) to hire full-time kindergarten aids. Also it looks as if Chapter 70 money may be slightly higher than we expected. Under the current Town Manager’s budget proposal the APS receives any money above what was initially budgeted. It looks like we have the potential to receive an additional $171 thousand dollars, which will likely be used to address our expected enrollment growth.
Over the past three weeks the School Enrollment Task force has had two meetings, at which they decided to take the options of the 8th grade at the H.S. and building a new middle school on recreational land off the table. The two remaining options to address the enrollment challenges at the middle school level are to expand Ottoson or to reclaim the Gibbs for school use. The Task Force agreed to do a more detailed study of the costs of these two options, to be paid for by both school and town reserves. These studies are expected to take around six weeks and will be completed before the Special Town Meeting in late April.
Among political officials there is broad consensus that we will need to go to the voters for several debt exclusions to pay for our school building needs, but there is not yet a consensus as to the timing or scope of these votes. Our first debt exclusion vote could happen as early as this spring or as late as November 8th. If in the spring June 18th is the date that is most often mentioned.
Included on the ballot will be costs for a feasibility study for the High School, a likely addition at Thompson, and middle school renovations at either Gibbs or Ottoson. A ballot vote to authorize the town to borrow money for a new High School will happen after we have better numbers from the feasibility study (which is expected to take at least a year). It isn’t clear when we would go to voters for a solution to expected overcrowding at Hardy, or if we can shift enough students with buffer zone expansions to avoid that project.
Complicating matters is the strong possibility that the Town will need to go to the voters for a debt exclusion for Minuteman if the building project is approved. Arlington’s share of a new Minuteman building is expected to be between $34 and $40 million. Here is the timing for Minuteman.
- Over the next 60 days the 16 towns that are part of the Minuteman regional
district, including Arlington, will vote on whether to approve the new building.
- As soon as one town says no (which everyone expects to happen) the Minuteman
School Committee is likely to call a regional vote to approve the building. This vote
is expected to happen sometime in mid May.
- If the vote passes by a majority of residents across all 16 towns, then Arlington will
have to find a way to pay for the building, which means that we will need to ask
voters for a debt exclusion.
A brief explanation of the difference between a debt exclusion vote and an override vote. A debt exclusion is similar to a mortgage. To fund a project–e.g., new building or large-scale renovations–the town borrows money for either 20 or 30 years. Taxes are raised to pay for the financing of the debt. Similar to a mortgage the amount we need to pay each year is fixed, which means that the real cost of the project to taxpayers will decrease over time, because inflation will erode the value of those fixed payments. Also, similar to a mortgage, the cost will eventually go away, albeit in 30 years.
An override is an increase to the tax base. In 1980 voters in Massachusetts passed proposition 2.5%, which is a restriction on how much the average taxes in a town can go up each year. The only exception to the 2.5% cap is new growth. Arlington has very little new growth, but what it has ensures that tax receipts can effectively go up by around 3%. In towns with lots of open space for new business development (Burlington, for example) their taxes receipts can go up by much much more, which allows them to avoid overrides.
Other towns, like Arlington, have less open space on which to build and so need periodic overrides because the cost of services are going up by more than 3% a year. Arlington will always have what is known as a structural deficit (costs going up by more than 3% a year) as long as costs for health insurance, pensions, and special education are going up by more than 3% a year, which they are. Additionally, the cost of educating Arlington’s students is currently going up by more than 3% a year because of our rapid enrollment growth.
In 2011 Arlington passed an override that was expected to last three years. Because of sound financial planning in the town we are currently in the 5th year of that 3-year override, but eventually we will need to go to the voters for another one. According to the Town’s current five-year financial plan the latest another override can happen is in 2020.
So, Arlington is facing many tax increases in the future: our need to fund building projects to handle school enrollment challenges, the Minuteman building, our new High School building, and an upcoming override vote.
Passing these tax increases will not be easy. They will require troves of dedicated community members. We have done it before, and we can do it again, but no one should underestimate the amount of work it will take.
I have been meaning to write something about school financing for a while. The Arlington Public Schools (APS) gets most of their funding from the Town. This year the proposed Town appropriation is a little over $57 million dollars. The Town does get some money from the State for education via Chapter 70 funding, but Chapter 70 money accounts for less than $11 million dollars. The rest of the Town funding comes from money that is collected in taxes and fees (94% of Arlington’s property taxes are residential). While most of the funding for our schools comes from the Town, the APS also gets money from two other sources: grants (estimated to be little over 2 million) and revolving fees and reimbursements (estimated to be about 3.5 million). Combining these three sources of revenue results in a proposed school budget for the 2016/17 school year of over $62.6 million.
You can read the entire 197 page proposed budget here:
This Thursday 2/25 at 6:30 in the School Committee Room (6th floor of the H.S.) there will be an opportunity for the public to comment on the school budget.
A couple of months ago the School Committee and Administration successfully lobbied for an increase in what is known as the enrollment growth factor. This is the amount that the APS receives from the Town for each additional student enrolled. While the increase is less than what we feel is needed, the negotiations did result in a net increase to our budget of over 3.2 million dollars. Most of that money will go to contractual and salary increases, giving us a little over 1.5 million for additional investments. Additional investments are needed to handle enrollment growth, State mandates such as the Common Core, and the need to close the achievement gap for our high needs students. While the 1.5 million is welcome, the actual amount that curriculum leaders and the administration felt was needed this year is over 3.8 million. Not funding these additional requests means that class sizes across all levels will remain high, we will continue to have difficulty recruiting and retaining Teaching Assistants, High School students will have more directed studies than is desirable, and some old and worn out curriculum materials will not be replaced. You can find more information about the impact of not funding these requests means in the link above.
It is helpful to compare our level of funding with other communities across the commonwealth. There are two sets of communities that we compare ourselves to: The Town Manager 12 Communities and DART communities. The Town Manager 12 Communities are communities that are most comparable to us in size and fiscal situation. They are Belmont, Brookline, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Natick, Needham, North Andover, Reading, Stoneham, Watertown, and Winchester. Per pupil spending in these towns ranges from $11,915 to $17,291, with a median of $13,499. The DART communities are communities that the Massachusetts Department of Education has decided are educationally most similar to us in size, number of low income students, ELL students, students with disabilities, etc. The basket of communities changes each year. This year our DART comparison communities are Ashland, Burlington, Lexington, Milton, Natick, Shrewsbury, Wachusett, Walpole, Westborough and Winchester. The per pupil spending in these towns ranges from $11,131 to $17,700, with a median of $13,501. In contrast Arlington’s per pupil spending is $13,085 and the State average is $14,518. All numbers are for the 2013/14 school year, or Fiscal Year 2014, which is the most recent year for which we have reliable numbers.
Here is a quick snapshot of the per pupil spending in communities that Arlingtonian parents sometimes compare ourselves to:
When comparing per pupil spending it is helpful to compare the percentages of low income, students with disabilities, and English language learners in each community. Some communities, such a Belmont and Winchester whose per pupil spending is lower, also have lower percentages of students in each of these categories. You can find those percentages here: http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/state_report/selectedpopulations.aspx, and you can find a wealth of other information at the Department of Education’s website here: http://www.doe.mass.edu/
One more issue: The Foundation Budget. In 1993 the State came up with a formula for how much it costs to educate a student in Massachusetts. For political reasons the formula was not updated until last year, when a Commission met to come up with a more honest (though still conservative) picture of what a 21st century education costs in Massachusetts. The Commission did make recommendations as to how to revise the Foundation Budget, but it will be up to the Legislature and Governor to implement those recommendations and allocate the necessary funding. Were the Foundation Budget to be fully funded Arlington would receive an additional $3.5 million dollars in Chapter 70 money.
So how can you help get more money for education in Arlington? Here are some ideas.
- We can lobby our legislators to increase Chapter 70 money. This year any additional Chapter 70 money above a certain amount goes to the schools.
- We can lobby our legislators to fully fund the Foundation Budget.
- We can work to pass the “Millionaire Tax” which would increase funding for education and transportation.
- We can lobby town officials to increase education spending in Arlington.
- We can work on overrides and debt exclusions to fund educational needs in Arlington.
- And, we can stay informed about all aspects of the budget process.
Our State legislators are supportive of public education, but it is helpful to them in their lobbying efforts to be able to point to a high volume of constituent communications. If you are interested in lobbying your State legislators they can be reached here:
If you are interested in sending your thoughts to the Budget Subcommittee of the School Committee you can do so here: ASCBudget2016@gmail.com.
As many of you have probably heard the MSBA voted unanimously this morning to move forward in addressing the needs of the Arlington High School. This past year there were 97 applicants to the MSBA grant program, of which Arlington was among 26 districts selected to continue. Another formal vote will be taken in the spring.
I am still trying to figure out what Arlington needs to do before the spring vote. My guess is that at minimum we will need to form a school building committee and go to Town Meeting to secure money for a feasibility study.
There were two important meetings on Tuesday, January 12th. The Enrollment Task Force meet in the evening. By unanimous vote they agreed to recommend to the Special Town meeting on January 25th that we install two temporary modulars at Thompson for the 2016/17 school year. They did not recommend permanent construction at this time. Some members of the school committee (me, for example) are worried about the delay. If enrollment trends continue, as we believe they will, Thompson will need an additional two classes in 2017/18 (for a total of four) and Hardy will need one additional class (for a total of 5 classes needed in East Arlington by September 2017). For permanent construction we will need time to draw up architectural plans, create construction documents, put the job out to bid, etc. Ideally some of this work should be done this spring and summer.
My notes on the second important meeting are long. Read only if you have the time.
The second important meeting was the Long Range Planning meeting. At that meeting the school department continued to argue that they need more money from the Town. There are two components to the ask: They would like to increase the base amount that they receive from the Town, and they would like to increase the “enrollment growth factor”, which is the extra amount the school department receives for each additional student enrolled. This extra amount is calculated as a percentage of per-pupil spending. Currently the enrollment growth factor is 25%. Here’s a simplified example of how this works. Suppose that enrollment goes up by 100 students this year and per pupil spending is $13,000, then next year the Arlington Public Schools would get an additional $3,250 per additional student (.25 x $13,000) or $325,000 from the Town. The money is received a year after we have had to make spending decisions to accommodate the growth, but it is still valuable. The problem it that in the last few years the 25% hasn’t fully covered the cost of adding 534 students.
So how have we managed? Where we could we have tried to keep elementary classes below 25 students. However, we have had to cut corners in other areas. For example, we have spent next to nothing on curriculum supplies. Our current 7th grade geography books were published in 1983, 1990 and 1998. Current science materials are over 19 years old. At the elementary level there are 33 doubled-up gyms across the district, mainly because we do not have enough gym teachers. At the middle-school level our specialist class sizes are much too large, the nurse’s office is stretched thin, and we had to cut back on some foreign language offerings. At the High School we have delayed repairs and 25% of our classes have more than 25 students. Were we to keep the current funding formula H.S. students would end up taking more directed studies than they do now.
In addition to the Growth Factor the Arlington Public Schools also gets a percentage increase in their General Education and Special Education allocation. Most of that amount is used to cover contractual obligators such a salary increases (which include cost of living adjustments and extra compensation for longevity and additional academic credentials), but a small amount is left each year to handle additional needs. Our additional needs are dictated by our enrollment increases, new state and federal mandates, and other assessed needs. From 2011-2014 that percentage increase was dictated by the promises made for the three-year override we passed in 2011—a 3.5% increase on General Ed Spending and a 7% increase on Special Education spending. Last year the finance committee argued that we should decrease the rate of growth in General Ed spending to 3.25% next year and 3.0% the following year. Town budgets were also reduced to a 3.25 annual increase last year and a 3.0% increase next year. The reduction was put in place to delay the date when we would need to go to voters for our next operating override to cover our structural deficit. Under the current plan the three-year override will last 8-12 years.
The likely result is that the schools will get a small increase to both the base and the enrollment growth factor. The need to balance the Town’s budget means that the increase will likely be less than we think is needed, and likely more than the current formula would have allowed.
I hope everyone has had a relaxing break. Mine was happily rich in friends, family, and too many cookies.
The Enrollment Task Force is meeting on Tuesday, January 5th at 7:00 in the Lyon’s Hearing Room in Town Hall
On Thursday, January 7th at 7:00 in the Town Hall Auditorium there will be an interactive public meeting to discuss our enrollment challenges. We are still finalizing the details for the small group break-out discussions. If there is a subject you would particularly like to discuss please reply to this e-mail with your idea(s).
We are extremely encouraged by the news that the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) will be recommending to their board that Arlington H.S. be considered for renovation or rebuilding. The board is meeting on January 27th, after which we hope to receive a favorable vote.
If we are invited into the grant program on January 27th the Town has 270 days to:
* Form a School Building Committee and submit the names of the committee to the MSBA for approval.
* Secure funding from Town Meeting for a feasibility study.
* Execute a Feasibility Study Agreement, which establishes a process in which the Town commits to work with the MSBA to secure an architect and other professionals to conduct a feasibility study.
All this will take time. The benefit of the potential partnership is that it allows our school district to receive up to 55% reimbursement from the State. Throughout the process there is ample opportunity for the public to comment on the various options identified by the feasibility study. All meetings will be open to the public.
Were we to be accepted by the MSBA the High School could be completed by the fall of 2021.
I suspect that the School Enrollment Task Force will be discussing the process in more detail at its meeting on Tuesday, January 5th at 7:00 p.m. at the Lyons Hearing Room in Town Hall. We will also be providing more details at the Community Forum on January 7th in the main space at Town Hall.
A lot has gone on in the last few weeks. There have been two meetings of the Enrollment Task Force. A third meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, December 22nd at 7:00 PM in the Lyons Hearing Room. So far the focus has been on what to do about enrollment growth at the elementary level in East Arlington, specifically at Thompson. The current recommendation by the School Administration is to add six permanent classrooms at Thompson, potentially using one of the classrooms as an auxiliary gym space. The Thompson community is interested in expanding their common space. Currently they have one of the smallest gym spaces in town (though Stratton and Bishop are smaller) and smallest cafeteria spaces.
If you are interested in getting involved in the East Arlington decisions, or finding information about enrollment issues in general, you should visit the following page created by some Thompson parents:
The Enrollment Task Force has not yet grappled with the decision about what to do about enrollment growth at the Middle School. Currently there are 1130 students at Ottoson, making us the 7th largest middle school in the state. The current projections anticipate that we will have over 1300 students in 2020, and over 1400 students in 2025. It is because of enrollment growth at the Middle School that we are considering reclaiming the Gibbs, though there are other possible solutions, including bringing the 8th grade to the H.S., or building a 6th grade building on the Cusher lot wooded area next to Ottoson (as well as many more possibilities).
Town-Wide Visioning Meeting
There will be a town-wide Visioning Meeting on Thursday, January 7th at 7:00 in Town Hall. There we will engage in exercises designed to bring out our thoughts, hopes, fears, and questions about decisions surrounding our enrollment growth. Please tell friends and neighbors. We welcome the entire community, whether you currently have kids in the schools or not.
There is a special Town Meeting on Monday, January 25th. At that Town Meeting we will be voting on money to fund the modulars at Stratton during their rebuild. The plan is to rebuild the Stratton classrooms during 2016-17, and then rebuild the common space during the summer of 2017. At the Special Town Meeting there is a possibility that we will be voting on money for additions at Thompson then as well.
We should know soon whether we have been accepted by the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Association) to rebuild the High School for this year. We were told that we would know the decision sometime between December 21st and December 31st.
On Thursday, December 17th the School Committee voted to administer PARCC in the spring of 2016. The following year (spring of 2017) all students in Massachusetts will be taking MACAS 2.0, which will be heavily based on the PARCC test. It was thought that it would be valuable to try out PARCC next year to prepare for the next generation test. Arlington’s approach this year is that we are just “testing the test”. We will not be doing any additional test prep, and students, parents, and teachers will be told that this is a trial year. Officially our results will be “held harmless” by the State, which means that our ranking cannot slip over the next two years. The current thinking is for students to take PARCC next year on IPads at Ottoson and one or two elementary schools. Students at the remaining elementary schools will take PARCC on paper. Current 10th grade students will still take MCAS. Current 7th grade students, and younger, will need to take MCAS 2.0 on a computer when they get to 10th grade. One difference between PARCC and MCAS is that PARCC is timed. It is unclear whether MCAS 2.0 will be timed.
The School department is going before the Long Range Planning Committee on Monday to request additional money for our operating expenses. Because of a variety of factors, including unfunded mandates such as the move to the Common Core, and our need to ensure that ALL our students are making adequate yearly progress, the costs of educating students is going up. However, the biggest stress on our budget is our enrollment growth (534 students, an 11% increase, in the last four years). Because of our enrollment growth we have had to spend additional money just to maintain level services. Next year we are in crisis. We cannot maintain level services within our current budget plan. Under the current budget plan general education costs can only rise 3.25% (a .25% drop from last year), SPED costs are allowed to rise 7.0% and we get 25% of per-pupil spending for each additional student added to the APS (currently we get a little over 3K). The problem is that it the marginal cost of educating an additional student in Arlington is more than $3K. We are looking for an adjustment in the “enrollment growth factor” (the percentage of per pupil expenses we receive for each additional student).
The next two Enrollment Task Force meetings are on Wednesday, December 9th and Tuesday, December 22nd. Each is at 7:00 in the Lyon’s Hearing Room at the Arlington Town Hall.
The time when we will learn about the decision by the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) has been pushed back a little. We will have a decision about the high school no earlier than December 21st, but before December 31st.
For those of you who are not on the list to receive the Superintendent’s Newsletter I encourage you to register here:
Here is a link to the latest newsletter:
The first meeting of the School Enrollment Task Force is on Monday, November 30th in the Lyon’s Hearing Room at Town Hall. This is an open meeting, which means that the public is welcome to watch, but it will also be a working meeting, so opportunity for public involvement will be limited to brief comments at the beginning or end.
I would encourage people who are interested in following the discussion to work out arrangements with larger interest groups. For example, each PTO might want to designate someone to go to the meetings and report back to their community.
Other things coming up:
* In December the School Committee will vote on whether students will take PARCC or MCAS this spring. In 2017 all districts will be required to take MCAS 2.0, which will be a combination of the best of MCAS and the best of PARCC. All districts are expected to move to an entirely computerized exam by 2019.
On January 7th we will be holding a public Visioning Exercise to help guide us in our decisions on our enrollment challenges. Snow date is Wednesday, January 13th.
On January 25th there will be Special Town Meeting to vote on funding for the Stratton modulars. There is a possibility that we will also be voting then on modulars to handle enrollment growth at Thompson as well.
Beacon Hill just announced the results of their Foundation Budget Review Commission. This is the first time since 1993 that our legislatures have looked at how much it costs to fully fund education in Massachusetts. To no one’s surprise it turns out that the state has been underestimating the cost of, and as a result underfunding, education in our State for years. The School Committee is working on how to best use the results of the Review Commission to advocate for more spending on education in Arlington.
As expected, Mitchell Chester issued a recommendation to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education today that the state transition to a next generation MCAS test. This new generation test will be given for the first time in spring 2017. The new state assessment will be based on PARCC, but will be under state control. The school committee will have to made a decision soon about which test Arlington students will take this spring.
The School Enrollment Task Force (SETF) is soon expected to set a date for their first meeting. As of now it consists of Adam Chapdelaine, the Town Manager; Dr. Kathleen Bodie, the Superintendent; three members of the School Committee (Bill Hayner, Cindy Starks, and Jeff Thielman); and two members of the Board of Selectman (Joe Curro and Diane Mahon). There will also be representation from the Capital Planning Committee, Finance Committee, and Permanent Town Building Committee. They expect to meet about twice a month.
Task force meetings are open to the public and there will be an opportunity for public comment, similar to the way that comments work at Board of Selectmen or School Committee meetings. To solicit thoughts, ideas, and information more widely from the public we are also looking to hold a “visioning” meeting in the first week of January. By then we should know whether the High School has been accepted in the MSBA’s (Massachusetts School Building Authority’s) grant program.
I’ve attached a document I created listing all the options that have been suggested so far to handle enrollment growth. These are options that people in the community have offered in either public meetings, e-mails, or personal conversations. The ideas range from practical to creative, as is appropriate at this stage. If you have any additional suggestions or comments, or if you think I missed a significant concern or advantage, please send them along soon. I hope to present the “final” draft to the Task Force at their first meeting.
The big news this week is that Michael Chester, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, is considering recommending a third option for our state assessments, MCAS 2.0. On November 17th the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to vote on whether to adopt PARCC or stay with MCAS. Adopting a third option would allow us to keep control of the test within Massachusetts. Out of the original 23 states + D.C. that were originally in the PARCC consortium only 7 + D.C. are left. As of now we have no idea what such a move would mean for mean for which assessment Arlington would administer. Last year the Arlington School Committee voted not to adapt PARCC a year early. I voted against early adoption primarily because the status of the test seemed to be in flux.
Plans are underway for a town-wide committee to address our enrollment challenges, called The School Enrollment Task Force. Representation from the School Committee includes Dr. Bodie, Cindy Starks, Bill Hayner and Jeff Thielman. The Town Manager, Adam Chapdelaine, is also expected to be a member, and we expect representative from the Board of Selectmen, the Capital Planning Committee, the Permanent Town Building Committee, and perhaps the Finance Committee. They are looking to hold the first meeting sometime in early November. Meetings will be announced at least 48 hours in advance and will be open to the public.
I forgot to mention the High School last time I wrote. Last month representatives from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) toured the H.S. in what is known as a Senior Study. Such a study is a prerequisite for being accepted by the MSBA into their grant program. We will know whether we have been accepted for this year sometime in December.
Here is what acceptance would mean. Because Arlington’s tax dollars are stretched thin, in order to build a new High School we need help from the state. Once we are accepted by the MSBA then the State is committed to paying for at least 40% of the costs of the building. After acceptance the next step is to go to Town Meeting to request money for a feasibility study. The feasibility study will generate several options, one of which the MSBA would decide to fund. After that we would need to go to the voters and ask for a debt exclusion to fund our portion of the costs. Were we to be accepted this year we would potentially go to the voters in November of 2018 and we could move into the High School by September 2021. According to Dr. McKibbin’s forecasts our enrollment numbers in 2021 are expected to be 3177 at the Elementary School level (compared to 2870 today), 1432 at the Middle School level (compared to 1130 today) and 1467 at he High School level (compared to 1256 today).
To learn more about MSBA process go to http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/building
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