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Virtual School

State disappointed in Greenfield’s axing virtual school

GREENFIELD — State officials were surprised and disappointed Friday by the Greenfield School Committee’s decision to not submit an application to continue operating a cyber school.

A law passed in January gave the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education control over any future virtual schools — public schools set up like charter schools, that would teach students via the Internet.

The law had allowed Greenfield the opportunity to transform its three-year-old cyber school into a new state-supervised virtual school, and state officials said they talked dozens of times with Superintendent Susan Hollins over the last six weeks to try to facilitate the transition from a mostly town-controlled school.

But the School Committee decided Thursday it wasn’t interested.

“We were very surprised. A lot of folks went to bat for Greenfield to get them grandfathered into the law,” said Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the department of elementary and secondary education, in a phone interview Friday.

“We knew it was a difficult transition but we thought we were on track for getting it done. ... We didn’t believe there were any insurmountable obstacles,” he said.

The vote means that there will be no virtual schools during the 2013-14 school year. Greenfield’s Massachusetts Virtual Academy had 470 students, including a dozen Greenfield students, and they will have to find a new school to attend this fall. Wulfson said there is little the state can do at this point to help in that effort.

“Had we known Greenfield was not interested, we probably wouldn’t have spent any time working on their transition,” he said. “We might have been able to focus on getting some new schools open.”

During Thursday’s meeting, Mayor William Martin argued that the state did not really want Greenfield to operate a school this fall.

Wulfson refuted that claim, saying that despite state concerns with the school’s past test scores, the department had no judgment about the school’s academic performance and was ready and willing to work with the district.

He said that the law’s requirement of a local board to run the cyber school ensured that the district could maintain influence over the school — something that committee members expressed worry about at Thursday’s meeting.

And to comments criticizing the short period of time that Greenfield had to submit an application to the state, Wulfson said that the state was forced to act quickly since the law wasn’t signed until January. And his staff had been working with Greenfield administration over the past six weeks to try to help the district along with the process, he said.

Chariman John Lunt said on Friday that he believes the School Committee made the right decision and that its vote was final.

“I am sorry DESE is disappointed, but the way the law is structured, we have no choice,” said Lunt. “We are not in the business of creating charter schools.”

Superintendent Susan Hollins said Friday, “There were two possible votes last evening — one to wait until the committee’s March meeting to see a plan and finally decide, allowing the committee, parents, and public more information, or 2) to decide the future last night without full information or a plan.”

She added, “It has always been my position that a superintendent’s job is to propose and the school committee’s responsibility is to dispose or decide. I respect whatever decision the committee makes. It is a concern to me, though, that the school committee and community have full information on cost and benefit of any proposal. I’m not sure we had that available.”

When reached by phone Friday, Sen. Stanley Rosenberg — who had pushed for a clause in the law that guaranteed Greenfield would be able to operate a virtual school next fall — said he had no opinion about the vote.

“I was doing my job representing them by ensuring they had the opportunity. If they’ve chosen not to do it, that’s their decision,” he said.

In late summer, the state will put out a request for proposals — identical to the one it released this month for Greenfield — for new virtual schools. As many as three schools could be open by fall 2014.

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

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