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Virtual School

Virtual school trustees ready to move on

No plans to use Greenfield schools for services

GREENFIELD — Trustees from the Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School do not plan on contracting with Greenfield School Department for administrative services next academic year.

The now-independent cyber school got its start three years ago as a branch of the town’s public school system, which provided administrative services even as the cyber school became a separate entity.

The cyber school’s board of trustees could pay the school department as much as $248,000 by the end of this school year to complete “central office” tasks for the cyber school — like superintendent duties, special education administration, data services, payroll and financial management, grant development and personnel hiring.

“We’ve worked exceptionally hard at building up our own competencies so that we can take over a good portion of the things we needed your help with,” trustee Chris Joseph told the Greenfield School Committee last week.

Trustees have said they’ve been preparing to run the school by themselves ever since Greenfield School Superintendent Susan Hollins’ retirement announcement earlier this fall. Cyber school Principal Carl Tillona has become the school’s first executive director.

This was the first time the cyber trustees officially told the school board of their intentions. The virtual school trustees have not yet given 90-day notice to end the contract with Greenfield, and its unclear if that will happen until the spring.

A School Committee meeting agenda item called “virtual school transition” — which Hollins said was intended to be a simple report to the board — attracted the attention of Joseph and cyber school trustees Chairman Ed Berlin. They attended last week’s School Committee meeting and were invited to answer a half-hour of questions by the board, most of them by acting Chairwoman Maryelen Calderwood.

After three years as a Greenfield school, the virtual school became an independent entity in July. But when Greenfield school employees spend their last hour on virtual school business, whenever that is, it will signal the beginning of a new chapter in the school’s autonomy.

It’s the very thing that some Greenfield school board members were wary of in February — when they voted to not submit an application to the state to transition the Massachusetts Virtual Academy into a state-authorized virtual school. Then-chairman John Lunt said that the school would essentially be a charter school and the school board was not in the business of opening new schools independent of — and in essence in competition with — the public school department.

But one month later, after pressure from parents and students in the school, the board voted to submit an application. The Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School officially opened in July and now has about 500 students.

Until now, the virtual school has provided free online courses to Greenfield School Department brick and mortar students and free tuition to online students from Greenfield. There is no guarantee that arrangement will continue going forward, however.

And while school officials have previously expressed frustration with the state’s department of elementary and secondary education, Berlin told the School Committee that he feels that’s no longer the case.

Although there are daily challenges with being the state’s first and only virtual school, Berlin said that both local and state leaders are working through them.

“We understand that they’re really trying to figure it out, too,” said Berlin. “I really feel that, recently, we’ve become more ... like partners.”

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

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