Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Large Crowd Disappointed at Board of Ed Meeting

It was standing room only at Tuesday night's regular Board of Education meeting. Much of the standing was done by the five media camera crews and a handful of print journalists who also attended the meeting. The mood in the room was rather tense, and the crowd was prone to several instances of loudly spoken comments in response to something said by one of the board members.

The Superintendent's inability to answer any of the specific questions posed to him regarding the use of "time out" rooms at Farm Hill Elementary School seriously disappointed and/or angered the parents in the audience. The agenda was re-arranged to allow the Superintendent to present his report on Farm Hill immediately following the adoption of the agenda (view the report here, look for the Talking Points, Farm Hill School link). Most of the Superintendent's report contained information that had been shared with parents at the Farm Hill PTA meeting on January 12th (coverage of that meeting can be found here). Upon the conclusion of the update, BOE Chairman Gene Nocera commented that due to on-going investigations, the board's discussion of what was happening at Farm Hill would be limited to the Superintendent's Report. Nocera did promise, however, that a full public discussion would follow the conclusion of all investigations. [Author's note: this statement was not well received by the audience.]

Two new pieces of information did come out of the Superintendent's report. First, Dr. Frechette specifically mentioned a June 8, 2006 report from the Connecticut State Department of Education, Bureau of Special Education, that covered a March 20 -24 monitoring site visit. As a result of that visit, Middletown was told that it "...needed to decrease the number of students in all disability categories who spend time in segregated settings as defined as students who are educated with their nondisabled peers." The report went on to say "This plan is to support the increase of students being appropriately educated in the district and within the general education environment that have otherwise been sent out of district or educated in separate classes due to behavioral needs or cognitive disabilities."

[Author's note: In other words, the reason the highly successful DEAL program was disbanded was because the state said it had to be, which in turn came out of changes to federal law around the same time. The "buzz" word is "least restrictive environment," and what that basically means is that special education students should be attending their home school if they can. Middletown has 2 elementary level special education programs, and those programs are located at the schools where the majority of students needing special ed services actually live. Last year a program was at Bielefield, but it moved to Farm Hill this year because more students live in the Farm Hill district.]

The other piece of new information was a more specific detailing of why police had been called to Farm Hill (listed in the Superintendent's Talking Points):
  • 4 Property checks by midnight shift
  • 1 Juvenile assault on school bus - no action taken
  • 2 Youth smoking on playground
  • 1 Child not having a ride home after kicked off bus
  • 1 Motor vehicle accident vs. pedestrian on Election Day
  • 1 Fire Dept. cancelled call for Police Dept. for truck with propane tank under it in front of school
  • 1 police emergency examination request for student
  • 1 Police assist behavioral request for student
  • 1 Uncooperative student considered a danger to himself
  • 3 of the 4 Police responses for students were the same student

BOE member Ed McKeon, while acknowledging the need for privacy during on-going investigations, did not agree with the premise that no questions can be answered about Farm Hill at all. He attempted to ask the Superintendent a list of specific questions, only to be interrupted by BOE member Bill Grady's Point of Order. Grady asked Chairman Nocera to repeat the warning that there were legal restrictions on any discussion about the incidents at Farm Hill. This also was not received well by the audience and several individuals commented loudly about what could and couldn't be said. Chairman Nocera attempted to regain control of the conversation by saying that there was no point in having a conversation when it was so restrained, and he again promised full disclosure once the investigations were complete. There was additional arguing back and forth between several board members (with additional audience comments) until Nocera was able to regain control of the meeting.

The bright spot of the evening was Macdonough 5th grade teacher Buster Nelson's presentation about the Grade 5 College Visit program. Nelson had the idea to take Saturday field trips to area colleges, and the program is voluntarily staffed by volunteers and parents. Nelson took the board through a summary of the colleges visited (Yale, UCONN, Middlesex, etc.), noting that he takes as many as 35 kids and parents on a trip at a time. Several BOE members praised Nelson for his excellence as a teacher and for his obvious passion for his students.

During the first public session, almost twenty different individuals spoke to the BOE, most regarding Farm Hill. PTA President Apryl Dudley focused her comments on the "inadequate" communication parents have received from Farm Hill Principal Patricia Girard. Dudley read aloud a brief letter dated January 18 that talked about the PTA meeting being a first step in resolving the school's concerns, and then told the board that parents have had no other communication from the school other than a letter on how to teach a child to ride the bus safely. Other parents voiced their frustration about questions not being answered or staff competence to administer the special education program. Izzy Greenberg, Director of the North End Action Team (NEAT) spoke to the board about re-districting and the Ad Hoc Feasibility Committee. Greenberg commented that "the committee was only the first step in the process...the real work is in the monitoring" of how redistricting is actually working. Worried that a lack of oversight will mean that Middletown is "failing again," Greenberg urged the BOE to consider facilities, enrollment and attendance boundaries to ensure a successful district.

In other business, it was announced that a new "Common Core Curriculum" is being handed down from the national level, and this will mean that CMT/CAP test will go away and be replaced with a new assessment tool. This change is predicted to take place in the 2014/2015 school year. Curriculum chair Bill Grady said that the committee (and the BOE by extension) has to learn about this change now so that it can explain it to the community as soon as possible. There is a major change in math and language arts instruction coming, and Grady commented on the "retraining" necessary to get the board up to speed since "we didn't learn it this way."

Facilities Director Ken Jackson told the board that he recommended the establishment of a specific committee to consider a long-range facilities plan. Noting the work that needs to be done at Woodrow Wilson, Keigwin, and other schools, Jackson stated that this committee needed to be focused on the specifics of facilities use and repair. A discussion ensued about whether or not the Feasibility committee still existed, and if that committee could handle these facility issues as well as post-redistricting issues. An unlikely alliance between BOE members Ted Raczka, Ryan Kennedy, and Bill Grady transpired, with all pushing for separate committees and separate agendas. Raczka commented, "Committee members will run out of time and energy....We can't have a committee with a go anywhere agenda...we have to divide the task."

Finally, Budget chair Ted Raczka noted that some areas of the budget were running high, but that he had hope the year would balance out at the end. Raczka was specifically referring to unanticipated expenditures in the areas of magnet school tuition and Special Education outplacement costs. Projections for this year's budget, including the additional Farm Hill support costs, will be included in the February financial report.

In Action items, the BOE did vote to approve the distribution of the board's monthly briefing packet to the public. This would allow meeting attendees to see the material referred to during the meeting.

The meeting concluded with the board going into Executive Session to conduct the Superintendent's Mid-Year Review. The next BOE meeting is Valentine's Day, February 14th.


Anonymous said...

Please understand that the students who were previously placed at Lawrence's DEAL program were not moved to their home schools. The ICM students come from throughout the city as did the students who were moved to Bielefield. This is not the real reason DEAL was disbanded. Read the Cambridge Report on Lawrence's web page. The state said nothing negative about the program except that the students were pulling the CMT scores down. I wish they would be honest about the reasons rather than blame the state.

Anonymous said...

It's great there is all of this open dialogue! At least we know more about what people are thinking and it's just not about party lines.

Ridge Road Resident said...

I think the college visits for 5th graders are a great idea; it's important that students have goals and even gain familiarity with college and career possibilities, especially with the alarming high school drop-out rates Middletown is experiencing. Programs such as this should be implemented across the entire school system.

It's nice to hear about the positive amid all of the recent controversy.

Anonymous said...

I noticed Ted razka states out of district special Ed placements are bringing up expenses- the DEAL program was sold to me as a way to have an out of district therapeutic program while in our own community. Those staff are still on the payroll- bring it back! It will make parents happy, taxpayers happy- and the staff will have safe and appropriate infrastructure to be effective. Why pay outside business our tax dollars when we have amazing staff and resources here?

Stephanie said...

I couldn't agree more. The staff were all trained and were prepared for the daily life skills of these children. They also had the ability to D escalate problems as they were about to arise. The staff in deal knew more about these children than any other school could ever handle. They would work with them like no other staff could .
The program was a huge success ,these children are not all created equal. They need to be isolated at times yet integrated when emotionally ready. Lawrence school was the perfect school setting for the program.
As a taxpayer in the city of Middletown I think we all deserve a right to save money and keep the children in district where they belong.

Anonymous said...

If the state is mandating the home school issue (and sometimes interpretation is the question), then I think we as parents have the right to say what we feels works the best for our kids. We should have bene involved so we can go to the state and let them know that it is working. When I was in public school in the 80's the kids in Spec. Ed were isolated and became targets because the typical children didn't understand. Most kids with IEP's can handle the classroom and they help educate the typical student about diversity and difference, but there are kids where that isn't the best option for anyone. Why can't the parents have a voice in what works for our kids and how we want to spend our tax dollars: by keeping our children in the town or sending them to another town where they are more isolated form the community and can't as easily access community activities that integrate them.

EK said...

I find it interesting that Mr. Raczka, who had both of his children of which being to Cape the budget chair and the one to comment on the costs of out placements. Mr. Raczka should know as well as anyone that outplacement is the best option for some kids!