This site aims to inform and mobilize Beverly parents to take an active role in all issues related to the funding and operation of the city's schools. It was launched in the spring of 2008, when the city saw its first-ever override attempt fail, followed by the closure of a nearly-new elementary school. Subsequent years have seen further cuts that have led to larger class sizes across the district. While the opening of an impressive new high school and plans to replace the city's aging middle school give us reason to be optimistic, the school community must be ever vigilant in demanding appropriate school funding by city and state governments, and better community communications from the district and School Committee.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Council, Committee OK Middle School Statement

The City Council tonight, following a similar vote last week by the School Committee, unanimously approved a resolution allowing the city to submit a Statement of Interest for a new middle school to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).  While the statement will mention the city's hopes to make the school a 5-8 model, and locate it at the site of the Memorial Building, the vote does not bind the city to any particular structure or timetable. The statement will be worded primarily to discuss the issues with Briscoe that make it unsuitable for sustained use as the city's middle school, and state that the city wishes to work with the MSBA on a plan for its eventual replacement.

Most members of the Council were mainly interested in assuring that this was just the first step in the process, and that it did not lock the city into any particular plan.

Mayor Scanlon, in discussing the process that would occur if the MSBA accepted this initial step, gave a timeline that seemed even more distant than previously stated, saying that if all goes as planned, construction could "begin in 2017, and the school could open in 2019."

The MSBA application period is narrow ending on January 11, and if the city misses this opportunity, it could be years before there is another, further delaying any potential building project.

Both last Wednesday's School Committee meeting, and tonight's City Council meeting where the statement was discussed and voted on were streamed live on BevCam's website, and are available for viewing in their online archive.  BevCam plans to do this for all future City Council and School Committee meetings that are held at City Hall, making it much easier for citizens to view these meetings at their convenience.

12/20 UPDATE: Today's Salem News has more on the vote.

Friday, December 9, 2011

State Weighs in on Middle School Plan

Today's Salem News reports that the state is warning Beverly not to get too far ahead of them in developing a plan for a new middle school:
A state official is warning Beverly not to develop a "wish-list mentality" in its quest to build an expanded new middle school that would include fifth-graders.

Massachusetts School Building Authority Chief of Staff Matthew Donovan said officials should not be pitching a plan to build a more expensive school before they even know if the city qualifies for state aid.

"They come to us and tell us what the problem is, not the solution," Donovan said. "Don't come to us with a whole reconfiguration plan."

Donovan's criticism comes as Beverly is preparing to submit a "statement of interest" to the Massachusetts School Building Authority by a Jan. 11 deadline for communities seeking state aid for school building projects.
Donovan told the News that communities should not be developing their own plans independently, a practice that contributed to massive cost overruns in the past and shut down the state's previous school building assistance program.
"The former program ran up $11 billion in debt," Donovan said. "Cities and towns were doing their own thing and leaving the bill to the state. Now we build the most cost-appropriate schools."
Mayor Scanlon, says he plans to include the concept of a 5-8 school in the city's application to the MSBA but said it is nonbinding.
"To submit a lengthy statement of interest and not express your best current thinking is inappropriate," Scanlon said. "It seems to me they ought to understand as much as they can about our thinking. We're trying to be as informative with the MSBA as possible."
While the Committee has stated that the Statement of Interest can be amended later, its been vague on how specific the description of the school's structure will be in the statement.  The News states that Wednesday's vote will be to "endorse the statement of interest," but quotes Committee President Annemarie Cesa as saying "a vote on whether to officially adopt the fifth-grade middle school plan is still a ways off."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Middle School Model Debated at Forum

Last night in the cafeteria of the 90-year-old Briscoe Middle School, the School Committee held a public forum to present the reasoning behind its proposal to make the eventual replacement to Briscoe a 5-8 school, rather than the current 6-8.

The audience of about 50 included most members of the City Council, who will have to vote later this month on a Statement of Interest to the State for funding a new building.  While the statement will not bind the city to any particular model, it will suggest that 5-8 is the city's preferred direction.

The meeting opened with a presentation by Committee Vice-President Maria Decker, who led the subcommittee that researched and recomended the 5-8 plan.  The presentation provided a thorough summary of the process and research that led them to this model, and the benefits of the plan, as well as discussing all the possible alternative approaches, and why they were rejected.

Today's Salem News has more on the meeting:
The project would cost about $40 million, according to School Committee member Maria Decker, but the price tag would go up 10 or 15 percent if the building were to include fifth-graders.

Decker, who chaired the subcommittee that has recommended the grade five-through-eight model, cited several advantages to moving fifth-graders out of the elementary schools and into the middle school. Fifth-graders would benefit from the technology that would be included in a new building and would have access to more courses and extracurricular activities, she said.

The move would also free up space at the elementary schools, which are so crowded that science rooms are being used for non-science instruction. The change would also create more room for preschool and full-day kindergarten classes and allow some special education students to stay in Beverly rather than being sent to more costly out-of-district programs.

The new middle school would be divided into a lower school for grades five and six and an upper school for grades seven and eight.
After the presentation, members of the audience questioned the committee on various aspects of the plan. The format was less formal, and seemingly more effective, than the usual budget forums where audience members speak at a podium, and the committee listens, but does not respond from the stage.

The committee members sat with the audience and listened to near universal support for a new middle school, but a mix of support and concern for adding 5th graders to the model, and responded to their questions.

Most of the concern centered around mixing 10-year-olds with 14-year-olds.  Even though the plan calls for physical separation of the 5th and 6th graders from the 7th and 8th graders, some still were worried about times when the grades would mix, such as on the bus, and in the cafeteria.

Briscoe Middle School Principal Matthew Poska, who also served on the subcommittee, acknowledged many of the audiences concerns, but suggested that the long window before the school would come online, gives the district plenty of time to work out these types of details.

One audience member spoke strongly against spending additional money for a larger middle school building to alleviate overcrowding at the elementary schools, when a nearly new elementary school (McKeown) a block away sits idle due to budget constraints. The school is currently being leased to the Northshore Education Consortium as an alternative secondary school, and the district now counts on its rental income, as well as seeing it as a way to keep Beverly students that need such services closer to home.

The full committee plans to vote on the proposal at its meeting next Wednesday, and seem likely they will support it. The City Council plans to vote on December 19th.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Wednesday Community Meeting on Middle School

Reminder to all parents that there will be a community meeting tomorrow night in the Briscoe cafeteria to discuss the proposed new middle school, specifically the plan to make the new school a grades 5-8 model, rather than the current 6-8. The meeting starts at 7:00 pm.

Those of you who follow this website regularly know most of the details of the plan, (see previous six posts) but it is still news to much of the community. To bring everyone else up to speed, the proposal originally grew out of last year's facilities subcommittee, part of the administration's Strategic Planning Committee.
The report, which was completed last spring recommends the following middle school structure:

The proposed long-term solution is based on where we as a district want to go, with a solid foundation in educational principles. The school committee and administration support the following:
  • One grade 5-8 middle school at expanded, updated Memorial, subdivided into a Lower Middle School of 2-person teams for grades 5 and 6, and an Upper Middle School of 4-person teams for grades 7 and 8.
It was put on the front burner in the past month, as the district began working toward a January deadline to submit a Statement of Interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for funding assistance on the new school. In order to complete the proposal, the district needs to know the approximate size and structure of the school.

When it appeared that the School Committee planned to vote on the plan last month, before it was ever reported in the press or widely known in the community, we were able to persuade them to put off the vote for a few weeks in order to hold this community meeting.

There are two documents that give more details of the plan.  The most recent is the officially released  summary of the plan that the district put out two weeks ago. This summary outlines the proposed school structure, and details the rationale and benefits of the plan.

A second more detailed document is the original facilities report. While we were given this report by the School Committee, it has not been officially released by the district, in part because it contains other recommendations, such as the conversion of Hannah School to a Pre-K and Kindergarten school.  The committee and administration have stated that this part of the recommendation is not being considered "at this time."

But this document also details six other structures that were considered before deciding on this one, as well as presenting many more details of the research behind the proposal. We feel it is important information for the public to have in analyzing the proposal.

When the concept of a 5th grade at the middle school was included in last year's survey, less than 40% of the public supported the idea. While we believe that result was largely because the concept was new, and presented with little context, the result underscores how important it is for the public to fully understand, and ask questions about the plan.

While none of these changes are expected to happen for at least five years, parents of current upper elementary and middle school students are in a unique position to offer their persective on how they believe their children, who are that age now, would adapt to such a plan. And parents whose children are just starting their elementary years could be the first group to attend the new school.

If you are in either of these groups, please try to attend Wednesday's meeting.