January 4, 2010
The school committee will be making a momentous decision regarding the Gateway District at its January 13th meeting (7:30 PM in the Performing Arts Center). The essence of this decision is whether Gateway will continue to run five elementary schools or consolidate its elementary schools. The process leading up to this moment has been long (beginning in March of 2009), sometimes contentious, filled with public input and much research from many different parties. All of the information has been routinely put on the district’s website (www.grsd.org) so that all interested parties could follow the process and review the information gathered. The last critical pieces were recently shared with the school committee and added to the website including the letter from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the final compilation of savings and three comparison charts outlining the services the district can offer at the elementary level at various funding levels using two-school and five-school models.
If you review the information, it’s clear that there are many additional student services provided under a two-school model verses the current five-school model, all done without increasing average class sizes throughout the district. In addition to keeping small class sizes and adding services, the two-school model, under all budgetary models, also eliminates the need for multi-grade classrooms while the five-school model increases both the number of multi-grade classes as well as the number of grades in a class (up to three grades in one class). Additionally, a two-school model conservatively saves the district $400,000 per year, savings that may prove necessary given the forecast for less state aid for education over the next two years. These savings are after paying back the state for its share of the building project costs. It may also be of interest to note that the towns that would get their buildings back (Blandford, Russell and Worthington) have paid for these buildings in their assessments (meaning that the other four towns have not paid to provide updated buildings to those towns). If turned back, the towns can sell, lease or use these buildings for any purpose they consider appropriate, thus recouping some or all of the construction and maintenance costs of said buildings. Although the issue of bussing continues to plague the district, it’s important to realize that as a district all students should be treated as equally as possible. Under consolidation, no student would be on the bus any longer than some elementary students are already on the bus.
The most heart wrenching part of the process is the understanding that elementary schools are often the center of activities in a small town. There is no easy solution to what happens if these schools were to close and much of this depends on the individual town and its citizens. The facts show that consolidation would greatly benefit the students, save money for the district, provide more services for the same amount of money, be an educationally sound decision and would have Blandford, Russell and Worthington join Middlefield and Montgomery as towns without elementary schools. As difficult as this decision is, our current student numbers and projected enrollments no longer support the idea of elementary schools in each town in the district—the three schools being considered for closing have fewer than 180 students total. Our unusually small schools also mean that Gateway is spending much more per student at the elementary level than we are at the high school level, a distinct anomaly throughout Massachusetts and the rest of the country.
The school committee and I are also aware of the probability of losing additional students to other school districts via school choice. In terms of choice, the elementary parent survey indicated that the district would lose more students under a five-school model with more multi-grade classes than under a two-school model with increased student opportunities. With this in mind, the decision really isn’t between whether we will lose students to school choice or not, rather it’s whether we’ll provide the best education to those students whose parents remain loyal to a school district that has proven itself successful over nearly fifty years.
As superintendent, I have avoided making a recommendation on this decision until all of the information was collected and reviewed. As a parent who had one child attend Blandford Elementary School and then a second child attend Russell Elementary School when Blandford’s elementary school closed, I understand the angst and uncertainty around moving a child’s school and losing a school in a small town. However, given the overwhelming facts supporting consolidation—the most important one being the opportunity to improve education for all children in the district—and in support of both administrative and teaching staff who have publicly supported the increased opportunities in consolidating to two schools, I am recommending that the school committee close the elementary schools in Blandford, Russell and Worthington and consolidate our PreK-4th grade students into Chester and Littleville Elementary Schools. I understand that some will laud, and some will condemn, this recommendation—I simply ask that you consider all of the information and the positive impact this will have on student opportunities from kindergarten to high school, as you weigh the responsibility we have to our children in all seven Gateway communities against the desire to have local elementary schools.