Thursday, November 21, 2013

Elementary Decision Delayed

This November 20, 2013 school board meeting (agenda) has been an important one on the calendar for a while now.  Despite the very long meeting, almost nothing was decided.

The tuition issue is ongoing, with the only real news being that what began as a common tuition framework is diverging, as Barrington and Newmarket negotiations continue separately.  Barrington is committed to its choice model, so would not send anywhere near the 250 students we may get from Newmarket.  It appears the two potential contracts will have different terms and tuition rates.

The bulk of the meeting was consumed with elementary school rebalancing.  The meeting began with a list of four options: Redraw (no grandfathering), K-2/3-4, Mast Way K and the latest purported silver bullet: Managed Enrollment.  What I currently think is the best option was not included: Redraw with Full Grandfathering and Mast Way Choice.

This latest silver bullet follows on the heels of two previously hailed silver bullets: K-2/3-4 and Mast Way K.  Each has been recently touted by groups of parents as the answer, only to fade as the ramifications are understood.  The community is now seriously fragmented, with each option garnering some support.  The board seems pretty divided as well.

Managed Enrollment

Managed Enrollment is being advocated by a group of parents apparently led by Rob McEwan.  Rob seems to be a just-the-facts kind of guy, which I appreciate, and he's done a remarkably quick and detailed job turning the newest LRPC numbers into a projection of their plan.  Though touted as new, the main idea was proposed in the March 6, 2013 agenda (link not currently online due to district website work) as Centralized Enrollment.   It would be the superintendent's responsibility to assign new enrollees to schools.  In the Managed Enrollment incarnation, the superintendent, using some criteria yet to be spelled out, will send equal numbers to both schools.  Eventually this will balance enrollment.

The plan has a lot of merit.  It doesn't disrupt currently enrolled families, whose younger children would be grandfathered.   The plan achieves specific enrollment targets: within capacity immediately, quickly shedding the modulars and reclaiming special education space now used as a classroom, and eventual parity in enrollment.

Managed Enrollment cleverly shifts the burden of rebalancing to families that have yet to move into the district, sparing current residents.   Well, most.  It's a bit unclear whether all children currently in the Moharimet zone but not yet enrolled will attend Moharimet like they probably expect.  I think the parents' and superintendent's versions of Managed Enrollment differ on this point.

Given that Managed Enrollment appears to have a fair amount of community support, if I had preschool age children that I was hoping would go to Moharimet, I would enroll one right now, before Managed Enrollment becomes a reality.  I might even sign one up for PEP if they're too young to enroll in Kindergarten.  (PEP, the preschool program, charges tuition for students without an IEP recommending PEP.)
Of course the crucial detail of how the superintendent decides has yet to be specified.  Let's call the kids in the current Moharimet zone that end up getting sent to Mast Way "the plucked." The realtors were worried that property values would decline if the plucking was confined to particular neighborhoods.  (I actually proposed that plan on April 25th, 2013.)  Others worried that if district-wide, the plucked would feel isolated, as their neighbors all go to Moharimet while they attend Mast Way.

In addition to the property value issue, I pointed out that sending all the new kids to Mast Way may create a stigma, in which Mast Way becomes the school for those "lesser" children that have not previously benefited from an Oyster River education.   Rob McEwan countered that Managed Enrollment achieves rebalancing by 2017-2018 (I think that's the date he said), perhaps stopping the plucking quickly enough to avoid a stigma developing.  Left unsaid was why the administration would want to touch this hot potato, potentially transforming Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Eastman from a very well-liked and well-respected educator in the district into a pariah as she's tasked with awful job of telling parents their kids can't go to the school they expected.

New Enrollment Projections

As mentioned, the LRPC has put out new projections.  The elementary school projections are in the superintendent's presentation from the Elementary Reconfiguration forum Monday.  Despite having 15 fewer Kindergartners show up than expected this year, the projections for Kindergarten are almost unchanged.  45 more first through fourth graders than expected showed up this year.   The new projections increase grades 1-4 by around 50 students for the next three years (through 2016-2017), and by around 15 students after that.

50 students is around a 7% increase, a substantial deviation from last year's forecast.  The superintendent claims elementary school enrollment has now "stabilized."  The projections show enrollment around the current 700 (K-4) for this year and two more, declining to 662 in 2016-2017.  This is essentially a two year reprieve from the previously expected precipitous decline, so perhaps "stabilized" is a bit of an exaggeration.

Redraw with Full Grandfathering and Mast Way Choice

The traditional reaction the district has taken to elementary school imbalance is to redraw the dividing line between the schools and grandfather all the families currently attending an elementary school -- once a Moharimet family, always a Moharimet family, sorta.  The last time this happened was 13 years ago. The grandfathering makes the shift of a neighborhood happen over around four or five years, as only newly entering students not grandfathered would be plucked.  It is typically accomplished without controversy, as the grandfathering mitigates the complaints from current families.

It's a shame the district has let the imbalance get so acute that a more severe reaction seems necessary.  Grandfathering is great for a moderate imbalance, which it gradually corrects with minimal impact on current families.  

My estimate is it would take two years before Redraw with Full Grandfathering got Moharimet down to capacity, claimed by Rob M. to be 389 with the modulars.  To hasten this I suggest we offer Mast Way Choice.  Any Moharimet parent that wants to send their child to Mast Way can.  The bus will pick them up and bring them home.  In other words, give each Moharimet family the choice of whether to attend the potentially overcrowded Moharimet, or switch to the more roomy Mast Way.  This way, if they choose to stay in the overcrowded school, well, that's their choice.

It's my belief that almost all parents would choose to stay at Moharimet even if it is relatively overcrowded.  After all, that's what they opted for in August, when the superintendent proposed sending all the Kindergartners to Mast Way to fix the imbalance.  If that is the preference of the Moharimet parents, why are we in such an absolute rush to correct this?

If we were to do a redraw with grandfathering, we should accompany it with a new policy that ensures the bus line is considered for redrawing every five years or whenever the imbalance gets moderately large.  Full grandfathering would be the normal remedy.  The idea is to avoid getting into the current situation again, where we wait so long that the normal remedy cannot quickly address an acute imbalance.  I don't know what happened before three years ago, but the turmoil in the district resulting in Superintendent Coulter being let go, followed by a one-year interim superintendent and then an all new administration, allowed the issue to be ignored for far too long.

Letter to the Board

Here's the letter I sent the board:

Dear School Board:

I have a proposal for the elementary school rebalancing. Normally I just post my ideas on my blog where they may be safely ignored by all. But I thought this one was worth writing about to you directly.

I call it Redraw with Full Grandfathering and Mast Way Choice. Its main merit is it is the most conservative choice, in the sense it is the most like what we have done in the past. We have to assume that previous ORCSD school boards faced much the same tensions as the current board and devised a scheme they believed would least disturb the community. Indeed, our history relates that past redistrictings were accomplished without the rancor we're currently experiencing.

In the past when an imbalance developed, we'd pick a few neighborhoods along the dividing line to shift from the crowded school to the less crowded school. We would generously grandfather the families of current enrollees -- once a Moharimet family, always a Moharimet family. This way current families got to keep their school and felt little cause to complain. But in five years the neighborhoods will have almost entirely shifted schools.

I think we should do the same thing again. We've already identified the three neighborhoods: North of Lee Circle, Mill Road and Longmarsh/FFrost. Grandfather all the current families. Newly enrolling families from these neighborhoods have to go to Mast Way. It's a slow process -- you'd only get around 10 students shifting the first year, probably slightly more in each subsequent year and it takes five years for the shift to complete (almost -- there may be residual grandfathering).

The main drawback of the Full Grandfathering is how gradual it is. The district has let the overcrowding become an acute problem that cries out for immediate relief. So I propose deviating from history by offering all Moharimet families the choice to send their children to Mast Way. We'd pick them up and drop them off just like now. If a parent is bothered by the overcrowding at Moharimet, they have the option to send some or all of their children to Mast Way. Whatever the reason, if they'd like to transfer to Mast Way, they may. I call this Mast Way Choice.

I think just offering Mast Way Choice solves an important problem. If enough parents opt to transfer, the acute overcrowding will be quickly alleviated. If, as I suspect, almost all choose to remain at Moharimet, well, that's their choice. They have voted with their very children that they prefer an overcrowded Moharimet to a transfer to Mast Way. Why should we make them transfer when they feel this way? The grandfathering will gradually work to fix the overcrowding. But in the meantime the district is respecting the choice each family makes.

One advantage of going with the method of the past is it is what people might naturally expect. Another advantage is that there is much less risk of the unknown: the consequences of any of the other plans are much more difficult to predict, as we've never done anything like them before.

Were we to implement Redraw with Full Grandfathering and Mast Way Choice, I would strongly urge that a policy be passed to explicitly state how the district will handle rebalancing in the future. For example, the policy might be to consider redrawing the line every five years, or sooner if an imbalance presents itself. Full grandfathering will be the explicit expectation for the transition. I would probably leave out any mention of Choice from the policy.

Thank you for your attention and your service. Good luck with your decision.

Very truly yours,

Dean Rubine
Lee, NH

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