Published in the January 17, 2019 edition.
By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD — The several dozen parents and citizens who came out for last night’s State of the Schools report and budget forum got a chance to hear about the district’s budgetary needs and priorities. But following School Superintendent Douglas Lyons presentation, the question and answer session quickly turned into a passionate debate over the need for a new high school and whether the town should
consider moving forward on its own without state assistance.
Lyons noted that Wakefield will soon be resubmitting its Statement of Interest (SOI) to the Massachusetts School Building Authority in hopes of getting state financial assistance in building a new high school or renovating the current one. The town’s request has been turned down in each of the last three years.
In a related area, Lyons noted that the high school’s accreditation had dropped a notch from “warning” to “probation” due to the condition of the physical plant.
But Lyons sought to reassure parents.
“We are not losing our accreditation,” he stressed. He said that as long as the town can demonstrate that it is making an effort to rectify deficiencies, the accrediting agency will not remove the school’s accreditation. Lyons also assured parents that the high school’s current probation status would not affect students’ college applications or chances of getting into college.
Lyons said that in his conversations with parents of elementary age students, the most frequent question he is asked relates to the condition of the high school and prospect of addressing those needs in the near future.
Philip Renzi, a Morgan Avenue resident and a parent of elementary school students, questioned Lyons on the School Department’s commitment and priority in addressing the deficiencies at the high school. He said that he knew of local parents who were sending their kids to high school elsewhere because of the subpar high school science labs. He suggested that a committee should be formed to look at other options, even to the point of the town self-funding a new high school rather than continuing to resubmit Statements of Interest to the MSBA year after year.
Lyons noted that it took Stoneham five attempts before it was accepted into the MSBA process last December. Lyons said that rather than just resubmitting the same SOI as last year, the School Department is now going through the SOI line by line to find ways to make a more compelling case.
Lyons said that he had not personally been involved in any discussions of the town self-funding a new high school without state assistance, noting that the cost of such a project would be between $100 million and $140 million.
Lyons noted that there had been some discussion of just building a new high school science wing, but one parent last night cautioned that such an approach would jeopardize future chances of obtaining MSBA assistance to address all the overall needs at the high school.
School Committee Chairman Thomas Markham pointed out that there are limited resources at the state level just as there are at the local level. He noted that the competition for funding is stiff and the MSBA’s position to date has been that there were schools with greater needs than Wakefield High School.
Markham expressed a measure of confidence that the approach of tweaking and strengthening the SOI would be successful this year.
“Our commitment is incredibly strong to make the high school the priority that it needs to be,” Markham said. He also cautioned that “raw speculation” about other options and approaches could be detrimental to the town’s chances when it comes to getting a new high school.
Markham added that it was also important to objectively appreciate that Wakefield fairly recently received a sizable chunk of state money for a new middle school and the state’s perspective might be that it’s “the other guy’s turn.”
Lyons also expressed confidence that success in securing funding from the MSBA would come sooner rather than later.
“We are going to get the support of the MSBA,” he said, “and I think we are going to be better for it when we do.”
State of the Schools and budget presentation
In his remarks last night about the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, Lyons stressed that the process would involve the voices of staff, parents and community, and would reflect what the Wakefield Public Schools need to continue on a trajectory of excellence while also being fiscally responsible.
Lyons reviewed the budget timeline and the process used to gather feedback on needs from faculty staff and parents, culminating with an anticipated March 26 vote by the School Committee. After that, the budget is presented to the Town Council and the Finance Committee before going before the voters at Town Meeting.
Lyons acknowledged that it was not feasible to invest in all areas of curriculum every year, so the schools have to prioritize areas for attention. He talked about the role that common assessments play as well as changes that are being implemented in science, world languages and health and wellness curricula at various grade levels. He also discussed integrating digital tools to enrich and personalize learning.
He talked about developing inclusive practices and using tiered strategies to meet the diverse academic, social/emotional and behavioral needs of all students.
Lyons talked about the state of the school facilities, beginning with the recent upgrade and expansion of the Walton School.
He also touched on the recent improvements at the Doyle Early Childhood Center, including the new playground that was added with equipment that is accessible for students with disabilities. He noted that the School Department would be seeking capital funding in next year’s budget to install sprinklers at the Doyle, as it is the only school in town that does not have fire sprinklers.
Lyons also noted that town funding would be sought for a new roof at the Greenwood School, but at the same time the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) would be approached for help in funding the roof work.
Turning to special education, Lyons said that “based on completion of programming and students returning to district, we are anticipating a reduction in our out of district placements for the FY ‘20 budget.”
He also said that the district is proposing an expansion of program options at the middle school level, which will include increased opportunities for language-based and social communication support. The district has also expanded social and emotional health and learning supports district wide, Lyons said.
Lyons also touched on some of the “emerging needs” that had been identified, including an elementary STEM curriculum coordinator, adjustment counselors at all levels, an art teacher at the high school and music teachers at the Galvin Middle School.
He also talked about the need for moderate special needs teachers, pre-K reading specialists and updated assessments and data tools to help monitor student progress.
Other needs mentioned were social studies curriculum materials, and a technology and engineering curriculum.