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Virtual School

Virtual school’s fate will be decided tonight

GREENFIELD — The Greenfield School Committee has a busy evening planned, as members will make a final decision tonight on the district’s virtual school future and look at next year’s budget.

At its 6:30 p.m. meeting in the Greenfield High School library, the committee is expected to vote again on whether or not it should continue hosting a cyber school that uses the Internet to teach students across the state.

And the meeting will also be the first time the full school board looks at next year’s $17.1 million draft budget — an 8.5 percent increase from last year. Special education funding stands to see about $500,000 more this year, an increase of 3.1 percent.

Cyber school re-vote

It has been three weeks since the committee voted to not submit a proposal to the state to transition its three-year-old virtual innovation school into a new state-authorized virtual school. Tonight, the committee is expected to vote again.

The Massachusetts Virtual Academy — with 470 students, including a dozen from Greenfield — is mandated by law to close on June 30, but the committee could apply to start a new virtual school on July 1.

The committee said last month it wasn’t interested in opening this new type of virtual school, but clarifications of the law and public pressure to keep the school open has caused some members to reconsider.

Innovation subcommittee members Doris Doyle, Chairman John Lunt and Mayor William Martin are now all in favor of sending in a proposal to the state.

The subcommittee would like the School Committee to elect a new board to run the school, as mandated by the law, and then step away on July 1. The new school would not be locally subsidized, could contract services with the Greenfield school district and would continue to provide free virtual education for local students, they said.

And they said it would continue offering a haven for students who, for a variety of reasons — ranging from athletic and artistic endeavors to adverse neurological or biological conditions — cannot attend a brick-and-mortar school.

But in order for Greenfield to send in the proposal, the subcommittee will need to convince at least one of the four members — Maryelen Calderwood, Marcia Day, Daryl Essensa and Francia Wisnewski — to cast a favorable vote.

Calderwood said that when the School Committee started the virtual school in 2010, by signing a contract with for-profit curriculum company K12, it made its decision “on the heels of a lot of emotion when we had approximately a $1 million deficit.”

“My fear is that we are once again acting in haste,” she said. “Charter schools are predators for public school funds. I am not in the business of opening a charter school.”

Day was hesitant about opening a state-run school, but has listened to input from community members and parents. The “picture is changing” for her, she said, although she still has questions she’d like answered tonight.

“I know firsthand how disruptive it is to have a school committee close your children’s school unexpectedly, with very little time to find alternatives,” she said. “Most of the folks who have spoken to me have expressed concern for those students whether or not their families reside in Greenfield.”

She added that she was pleased to hear more clarification about the law from the state, and to learn that there would be room for “more local control than I originally understood.”

Essensa — who said she was out of the country for 10 days, and was unable to provide public comment on the issue or attend subcommittee meetings as a public observer — was pleased to learn that the committee would vote again and had always wanted the district to have more time to make its decision.

“I’m happy with a process where people can gather information and change their minds,” she said. “I think it’s OK to change your mind. I think it’s healthy.”

Although she declined to say which way she would vote, Essensa added that she believes the new information will allow the committee to “move forward in a way that minimizes or mitigates our concern and supports these families and children who clearly need this type of education.”

Wisnewski called tonight’s vote a “difficult moment” for the school board and one that will have lasting impact on the district. She stressed that public schools are not businesses and was fearful that opening a new for-profit enterprise could put local families and children at a “grave disadvantage.”

“We should not open the door to the privatization of public education. This opportunity supports a for-profit operation, not an altruistic foundation,” said Wisnewski. “Multiple independent reports support this view.”

“Running schools like a for-profit business undermines the public interest and diminishes our capacity to locally protect and steer public education,” she said.

Families, state official attending tonight

Last month, only Doyle and Essensa voted to move forward with the transition. The committee felt overwhelmed by a short deadline to submit a proposal to the state and felt it could not justify running what it viewed as a state-operated entity,

Since then, families of the school’s students have engaged in an advocacy campaign to save the virtual school. They said their children could not attend brick-and-mortar schools. And they believed their best and only option for free cyber schooling would soon disappear at least for a year unless Greenfield went forward under the new arrangement.

Family members have attended three innovation subcommittee meetings since the vote and plan to come tonight as well.

“(We) have been cautiously hopeful. We’re definitely a lot more optimistic,” said Krysten Callina, a mother from Somerset. “We’re hopeful that (the three subcommittee members) can at least get one more person convinced that this is the right thing for these kids.”

The state’s department of elementary and secondary education extended Greenfield’s deadline and expressed a willingness to work with local officials on the transition. The state assured Greenfield school board members that the new school would still be a locally run entity, albeit with slightly more state oversight.

Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson plans to attend tonight’s meeting to answer any questions that members may have.

If the committee voted to go forward with the school, it would then need to write and send a proposal to the state for review by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Since the state has agreed to help Greenfield with its proposal, it bodes well for the likelihood that the board would respond favorably.

Superintendent Susan Hollins, who advised the School Committee in February to gather more information before taking a vote, called it a “strength of character to adapt one’s opinion based on new information, and that is what has happened.”

“I would have worked with whatever the School Committee decided but I applaud the mayor and Mr. Lunt for rethinking their position based on new information and the appeals of children and their families,” said Hollins.

“One never is sure what the future will bring, but my prediction is that three to five years from now, Greenfield’s school system and residents are going to reap very considerable benefits from advancing this first virtual school in Greenfield,” she said.

Budget discussion

The committee will also analyze its proposed $17.1 million draft budget, an 8.5 percent increase from last year. Special education funding would increase by about $500,000.

School officials said the budget accounts for a growing student population and an expected increase in state aid.

The entire draft budget is available on the district’s website, at gpsk12.org/budget/fy2013-14/budget13-14.html. The site also includes links to a budget summary and revenue charts.

Part of tonight’s meeting will include a mandatory budget hearing for people to share opinions with the committee.

Lunt, the committee chairman, said the school board will then finalize its budget at a special School Committee meeting on Thursday, March 28.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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