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Virtual School

Full school board to vote on virtual school plan

Subcommittee finishing proposal this morning

GREENFIELD — A subcommittee charged with drafting a proposal for a new state-authorized cyber school hopes to finish the 60-page document this morning, just hours before the full Greenfield School Committee needs to review and vote on it.

After talking for nearly two hours Wednesday, the Innovation Subcommittee decided to “pause” its meeting and continue it again today, at 8:30 a.m. at the Davis Street administrative offices. The full committee will meet at 6:30 p.m. at the high school.

The proposal outlines the new virtual school’s governance structure, budget, curriculum, policies and staff. It needs to be sent by Monday to the state for approval.

First though, the full committee needs to sign off on it during its meeting tonight. But the members have yet to be sent a copy.

“Between (Wednesday) and (today), we have to have a document to be voted on and we haven’t seen anything,” said Mayor William Martin, during a Wednesday morning subcommittee meeting. “How can we act without seeing it?”

Superintendent Susan Hollins said that the school department has been pressed for time, because Greenfield was given only two months to respond to a state request for proposals. And for a three-week window in March, she reminded the subcommittee, it seemed that Greenfield would not be pursuing a new state-authorized virtual school to replace the one it has run for the past three years.

About 470 students currently attend the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, including a dozen from Greenfield. It is managed by the school department with curriculum services contracted to the Virginia-based company K12. It costs $5,000 per student and is paid for by their host districts, similar to the School Choice model. Greenfield schools get to attend for free.

Tonight, the subcommittee — made up of Martin, Doris Doyle and School Committee Chairman John Lunt — will recommend that the school department apply for a five-year Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual School certificate.

The school would be its own entity — detached from the School Committee and run by a separate board of trustees — that could contract services with the school department, with the town and with curriculum company K12.

The School Committee would choose the first of the board members, from a variety of determined career backgrounds, before the end of this school year. The board members would be paid $200 per monthly meeting.

With a 500-student cap lifted and high school enrollment now open, the subcommittee is preparing to ramp the new state-authorized virtual school up to as many as 1,750 students by 2017. The real size of the school might be much lower, since at least 2 percent of the students must live in Greenfield by state rules.

The subcommittee has yet to finalize a budget plan, although all members agree that the current model of $5,000 per student is inadequate to operate a school.

On Wednesday, members were leaning toward increasing tuition to around $9,000 — a figure they said would still be less than any Massachusetts public school in per-pupil spending. School districts would also have to cover special education costs, they said.

The state drafted its proposal form to include 39 information requests that are listed in the new law. Hollins told subcommittee members on Wednesday that the state did not ask for this information in order and had not even included all 39 items.

State officials have told Greenfield that it is still developing virtual school procedures and that it will be flexible with the town’s proposal. Since Greenfield has the first and only virtual school in the state, and would operate the first state-authorized one, there is nothing in the school department’s proposal that would be written in stone, they said.

Still, Lunt has urged the subcommittee to use this proposal as an opportunity to make clear to the state exactly how a successful virtual school should be run and how much money is needed to pay for it.

The passage of a new state law in January — which gives the state more oversight over cyber schools — set off a tumultuous four months of back-and-forth votes, special meetings and public hearings.

The School Committee voted on Feb. 28 to not transition its three-year-old virtual innovation school, which is forced to close on June 30, into a state-authorized one.

The committee then reversed its decision three weeks later, citing more clarification about the state law driving the change and a desire to help students from across Massachusetts who would otherwise be without a virtual school to attend this fall.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education then pushed back its March 25 proposal deadline to April 22, to give Greenfield school officials more time to submit a proposal.

The state needs to review it and submit a recommendation to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, who will vote on it during its June meeting.

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