Reading, MA — Several School Committee members expressed concern to Superintendent John Doherty over the “two-day on, two-day livestream” hybrid model currently being used at the high school. While praising the rigor of the remote learning portion of the model, Member Thomas Wise stated, “My concern is about the emotional health of the students.” Member Erin Gaffen continued, “I believe our remote learning is a strong platform, but we need to get our high schoolers in school more.” Member Carla Nazzaro agreed, “We made a commitment to get students in full hybrid.”
Nazzaro continued, praising the efforts to get the district’s “highest need” students in classrooms this week despite the rest of the district being remote and asked that the same effort be applied to transitioning the high school to a full hybrid model. Member John Parks critiqued this association. “You are talking about only twenty-five students, as opposed to 800.” Parks stated. “It’s an apples to oranges comparison.”
The results of a recent survey shared by Doherty show that parents prefer a full-hybrid four-day-on, four-day-off model, while teachers prefer the current model. Doherty indicated that a meeting to discuss plans to move forward was scheduled for Friday morning. According to Doherty, staffing and other issues have prevented the change in the model from moving forward. He added that only one application had been received for open paraprofessional positions at the high school.
Gaffen suggested that transitioning the model, if possible, could occur at the beginning of the second semester. Doherty again replied that a meeting was planned for Friday to discuss the issue but would not commit to a timeline for a change. “I am just as frustrated as parents that we cannot get students in [school] more.” Doherty shared.
These questions occurred as Doherty gave his “Winter Hybrid Update,” in which he shared statistics and reasoning behind the full-remote model being employed and the cancellation of athletics activities this week. Doherty explained that while there have only been three in-school transmissions of COVID, rising numbers in the community and concern over students and staff returning from the holidays prompted the changes.
“We did what we thought was best for the safety of our students and staff,” Doherty said.
Doherty was also questioned regarding evening out the in-person days for the cohorts due to the change. “It’s too early to try to adjust the calendar to balance the cohort days.” Doherty shared. “We need to wait for the situation and the weather to stabilize.”
Cohort ‘B’ will return to school next week, along with all high-needs, preschool, and kindergarten students. Athletics and in-person extra-curricular activities will also resume next week. Doherty shared that there had been some “health and safety fatigue” leading up to the break and that health and safety measures will be a renewed “point of emphasis” as students return to class.
The committee meeting began with a prepared statement from Parks apologizing for not coming to High School Principal Kate Boynton’s defense at the December 17 meeting while she was being questioned regarding changes to the high school handbook. “I was wrong to sit and not voice my objections to how Principal Boynton was treated.” Parks shared.
This was followed by a statement on behalf of Reading principals, read by Parker Middle School Principal Richele Shankland, in reference to the questioning Boynton received regarding a vote of the school council on the handbook issue. “It is unacceptable for personal attacks to occur in such a public forum.” Shankland read. “We have never before felt the challenge of trust in our honesty and integrity by the School Committee.” She continued.
Wise responded, stating that he had received several comments from community members, some of support and some of criticism. He also shared that he had reviewed the YouTube recording of the meeting “several times.”
“I never once raised my voice,” Wise stated. “I called it a miscommunication multiple times.” “There was never an attack or an attempt to impugn integrity.” Wise opined, stating that while it is the duty of the committee to support the staff, the committee also represents parents. “I’m sorry people saw it as an attack.” He continued. “I was trying to make sure that clarity was happening.”
The committee’s primary focus was to begin to review the $49,695,998 proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget. Two cost centers were reviewed in depth by Chief Financial Officer Gail Dowd: the Administration cost center and the District-Wide Programs cost center. The Director of Facilities, Joe Huggins, reviewed the Facilities and Capital expenditures cost centers.
The Administration cost center represents 2.5% of the total budget. It has a 4.9% increase over FY 2021, most of this being an upgraded Director of Human Resources position and cost of living adjustment increases for staff. Dowd did share when asked that the budget anticipated a return to historic enrollment levels once the pandemic was over.
The District-wide program’s cost center covers budgets for athletics, transportation, health services, technology, and extra-curricular expenses. This cost center represents 4.3% of the total budget and anticipates a 4.3% increase over the FY 2021 budget. Anticipated increases include facility rental for the hockey and swim teams, transportation fees, and malware protection for the school department network. Chair Chuck Robinson asked if investigations had been made to determine the costs of bringing transportation “in-house.” Dowd responded that such inquiries had not been made, but it might be something to look into for the future as the transportation industry changes. The number of available vendors is shrinking, weakening the district’s negotiating position.
The Facilities cost center represents 3% of the total budget and anticipates a reduction of 7.5% from FY 2021. Most of this reduction is represented by expenses incurred that were COVID-19 related. Capital expenditures are anticipated at $865,000, which includes $500,000 in design work for a replacement of the roof at Parker Middle School and repairs to the stadium turf and track at Reading Memorial High School. Both of these issues will be prioritized in the capital plan pending a vote of Town Meeting in April, according to Town Manager Robert LeLacheur.
The School Committee will review the Regular Day and Special Education cost centers at its next meeting on Thursday, January 14, with a public hearing on the entire budget scheduled for Thursday, January 21. It is expected that the committee will vote on the budget on January 25.
The School Committee adjourned at 9:50 pm.