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Tri-Town Questions School Choice… June 15, 2016

By Ann Needle
Though it is no longer offered by the Nashoba Regional District, school choice became a key topic of conversation at the June 8 Tri-Town meeting in Stow. Officials from Nashoba’s three towns also heard an update on the re-accreditation process at Nashoba Regional High School, along with an update on Minuteman High School’s search for district approval of its proposed building project.

Looking at the recent scrutiny of Nashoba’s business operations by the MA Association of School Business Officials, Nashoba School Committee Chair Lorraine Romasco of Bolton explained that, after reviewing MASBO’s report, the SC has prioritized researching the district’s more than 50 revolving accounts. Stow Selectman Brian Burke said that MASBO observed that the district’s decision to end school choice last year could mean a substantial shortfall in that account in the future.

“How are you going to pay for that decision over the long term?” Burke asked, referring to the $5,000 per pupil paid every year (including by Nashoba) to send a student to school outside its district though the program. While he acknowledged the reasoning behind the decision to cut school choice – that it has lead to overcrowding and paying for more resources — Burke stressed,  “In terms of our bottom line, you’ll have to make this up somehow.”

Romasco countered, “I think it’s more important to identify why they’re [students are] leaving Nashoba. Rather than chase the dollars coming in, we need to get to the route cause of why students leave.” However, with district Excess & Deficiency (free cash) dropping by $600,000 for fiscal year 2017, Romasco agreed losses such as those from school choice will hurt if they do not find other sources of revenues.

Turning to the high school’s re-accreditation last year by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, NRHS Principal Dr. Parry Graham reviewed the steps administration has taken to remedy a single issue NEASC pointed to in the process. He stressed that, while NRHS received a full 10-year re-accreditation after last spring’s NEASC evaluation, the organization asked NRHS to provide a letter by Sept. 1, outlining how it was addressing some shortfalls under the School Culture and leadership Category. These areas centered on assuring high school staff is involved in decision-making, and that the principal has autonomy to make decisions regarding the school, Graham said.

Graham reported that the administration has taken steps such as assuring the department heads are involved in strategic decision-making throughout NRHS; establishing several “late-start” days, giving teachers more time for planning and collaboration; and forming a NEASC follow-up committee.

Minuteman Building Plans Discussed
With all three Nashoba towns also members of the Minuteman High School district, Minuteman Superintendent Dr. Edward Bouquillon attended the meeting, offering an update of what the Lexington vocational school is doing to overcome a road block in securing district-wide approval of spending on a new school building.

Bouquillon explained that Belmont was the only district member at this spring’s town meetings that did not approve its share of the debt needed to pay for a new school. Construction is estimated at $144 million, but the MA School Building Authority pledged to pay about 40% of that cost if the Minuteman district voted the project spending by June 30. The good news is that the MSBA has given Minuteman an extension until Nov. 30 to secure Belmont’s approval, Bouquillon said.

To help win Belmont over, Bouquillon said Minuteman is working on discussing the project’s merits with small groups of Belmont Town Meeting members (Belmont has a representative TM), with two of these members on a Minuteman school tour the previous evening. From the discussions held, Bouquillon maintained that it appeared voters did not entirely understand the issues surrounding the outdated Minuteman building.

To reverse its vote, Bouquillon explained that Belmont could hold another election. If the vote in Belmont failed again, he said Minuteman could hold its own district-wide election within 60 days. However, if that happens, Minuteman School Committee Rep. Jennifer Leone of Lancaster noted that the district should be prepared for some complex logistics, such as assuring polls are set up in all 16 voting communities, and open at the same times. She remarked, “It would be a lot easier to get Belmont on board instead.”

In another issue for Nashoba’s towns, Tri-Town attendees agreed it was time to push the state for more help in addressing the traffic dangers in front of NRHS. Bolton Selectman Jonathan Keep outlined some of the more troubling situations students face, both as drivers and as pedestrians around Rte. 117 in front of NRHS. These included students crossing the road to reach the pizza shop; Forbush Mill and Green roads feeding into the route at difficult angles; and a speed limit (45 mph) that seems too high for the student area. He urged Nashoba’s three towns to get behind putting in some solutions.

Bolton Town Administrator Donald Lowe said he would speak to his town’s selectmen about drafting a letter to the MA Dept. of Transportation, inviting a representative to a public meeting on the issue that would be arranged by the district.