Insider's Guide to the Schools

July 26, 2006

School Committee Members: Six members are elected from Acton and three members from Boxborough for the Regional School Committee. The six Acton members also serve as the Board for the local School Committee.

The Acton members' votes are weighted to reflect the percentage of students and budget in the regional school. So, on a close vote, each Acton vote counts as two points and each Boxborough vote counts as one point. That gives Acton 12 points and Boxborough three.

In Acton, elections are held yearly, with two seats elected for three-year terms.

Serving on the School Committee is time-consuming. Meetings are held at least once per month per board (so that's two meetings per month), and they run from 7 pm until 10 or 11 pm. Meetings are televised on cable channel 8, and are typically repeated during the same time slot the following week. However, watching on TV doesn't give viewers a great seat because the audio quality is often poor, with many SC members not bothering to speak into the microphones. And cable TV often suffers from other technical difficulties like missed broadcasts or not showing slides that are visible at the meetings. So if you want to really hear and see what is going on, you have to attend the meetings in person.

At the start of each meeting, citizens may get up and speak on any issue they wish. They can also address the Committee during the meeting when a particular topic is being discussed. Many of the SC members are aware that members of the public watch on TV, so addressing the Committee during a meeting is an effective way of bringing up an issue.

School Administration The school is administered by Superintendent Bill Ryan, who has been in the system for over 30 years. He started the Community Ed program and is considered a financial wizard. Acton's schools' stellar performance is due in large part to Ryan's leadership.

Committee Relies on Ryan Too Much With a few notable exceptions, most SC members are content to listen to the administration's recommendations and to pass them. Members seem to feel that Acton's high test scores leave little room for improvement and "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." During last year's (2005) fiscal crisis, all members of the committee supported an override of $3.8 million, with almost no time spent on trying to reduce spending to make the override more affordable for taxpayers.

Our local politicians seem to measure what they think voters will approve and ask for it, rather than deciding what is truly needed and making spending cuts to keep the request as low as possible.

No one can fault Ryan for supporting this philosophy. That is his job. But the SC is supposed to set spending priorities, not Ryan.

The SC often relies on the capable school administration to make decisions that it should be making. The SC needs to perform its role as an oversight body instead of a rubber-stamping body. Still, with Ryan at the helm, there have been few negative consequences.

But there are some. For example, Acton schools suffer from a hidden problem: large class sizes and poor student-teacher ratios. According to information on the Dept. of Education website, Acton recently ranked about 325 out of 330 Massachusetts school districts with the lowest (worst) student-teacher ratios. Still, our test scores are high, so that's all that some leaders seem to care about.

Another issue that is known to the SC is the fact that Acton is not meeting the minimum required number of classroom hours in the high school. The state requires 990 hours of teaching, and Acton falls far short of this. So far, we have not suffered any repercussions, but if the state wanted to, it could withhold school aid until this minimum requirement was met.

According to a recent Boston Globe article (July 23, Globe Northwest, page 7) a parent in Winchester has filed a complaint with the state Department of Education for Winchester High School's failure to provide at least 990 hours of instruction per year, as required by state law.

Winchester used to meet the requirement, but this year, because of a new program they instituted, they fell short by 5 hours (according to the school) or by 117 hours, as calculated by the parent. In response to the complaint, the Winchester School Board suspended the new program.

In the article, Heidi Perlman, spokeswoman for the Education Department, said, "the problem of schools meeting the standard is not widespread."

"There are a handful of districts that have had problems, but we only know about them when people complain. We assume that districts are following the law."

She continued, "The goal is to avoid empty time." According to the Globe, "Perlman said that there are no exceptions to the 990 requirement and that districts must follow the law or risk loss of state funding."

Another symptom of poor student-teacher ratio is teacher attrition. Recently, a few teachers have left for districts with fewer students per class and fewer courses to teach, which can cut a teacher's workload by about half. Losing quality teachers because of high student-teacher ratios is a problem that might result over time in lower test scores, especially for students who aren't performing at the highest levels.

The SC needs to reprioritize its spending and tackle the tough issue of making cuts in non-academic areas to increase the number of teachers. With high taxes, we can't continue to ask the voters to approve overrides (they will eventually say no) so the only other option is to reduce spending in other areas.

Parent Groups Each school has an active parent group that serves mostly a fundraising function to hire teacher aides and to provide some "extras" that aren't covered in the budget. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised each year throughout the system, and the schools rely on many parent volunteers to run activities, donate goods and services, and become active in their children's education.

The schools. Elementary school choice allows parents to select any school, with each school promoting a different teaching philosophy. Over 90% of the parents with kids in kindergarten get their first school choice. Siblings are given preference once an older child is in the school. This strategy makes busing students much more onerous: all buses have to travel the whole town many times a day. To handle this extra transportation, the elementary schools have an "early" and "late" schedule. One year, Douglas & Gates start at 8:15 am; and McCarthy-Towne, Conant, and Merriam start at 9:00 am. They switch the following year. Junior High and High Schoolers take the buses even earlier, around 7 am.

Having local school choice does create a measure of competition between schools, and also fosters school spirit which might help with local fundraising. The negative is that you and your neighbors' children will probably go to different schools until 7th grade. This also greatly increases the cost of transportation. Could we save significant money by restructuring school choice, maybe by combining some of the positive aspects of choice with a more efficient transportation system?

The Junior High School is broken up into "teams," which enables a feeling of a "school within a school." Each team takes four core subjects together with the same four primary teachers, and then the teachers meet periodically with the team and each other. This provides a nice supportive atmosphere during these critical transition years. The JHS also suffers from very poor student-teacher ratios and the "teams" are too large. Another team needs to be added.

Many of our school buildings are new, including the High School. It was built just before the state froze school building projects, so about 65% of the cost of these buildings was paid by the state. The high school has about 1900 students and is highly competitive. Many advanced classes are quite large (over 40 students, with some as many as 50) which helps keep class sizes smaller for those students needing more attention.

Revised 9/13/06:

State Aid The state has recently granted Acton a large increase in aid, especially for the regional high school. About 10 teachers are scheduled to be added to the high school staff. If this aid level continues to be supported by the legislature in the coming years, it may greatly help to reduce our reliance on local property taxes and overrides.

Many credit Acton's school leaders with helping to secure this new state aid. We think they deserve some of the credit, even though it is really just our collective money that is coming back to us. Partly through Acton's leadership, however, a climate for change was seen on Beacon Hill and the politicians are very good at knowing which way the wind is blowing. We salute the members of the SC, BOS, and school administration who worked hard to bring more local state aid to Acton.

Revised 3/28/07:

2008 Education aid for Acton is increasing dramatically, again. The new school-aid formula instituted last year appears to be continuing to be supported by the legislature, and it has resulted in a $1.6m increase in local and regional school aid.

On a regional level, the school committee plans to hire a few extra teachers, and add language arts to the "teams" in the junior high school, among other expenditures. Much of the increased aid will flow to the region's Excess and Deficiency (E&D) fund, which is the region's version of Free Cash.

On a local level, most of the funding will be spent purchasing two new modular additions for Douglas School at a cost of about $380,000. The plan is to eventually tear down two other modulars which have experienced some mold and heating problems over the past couple of years. The remaining funds would flow to Free Cash.

The Selectmen, through the ALG process, negotiated a promise to receive 31.25% of this extra state aid going forward, which will, in effect, boost the town side of the budget above this level during next year's ALG negotiations (and give them a chunk of money they can take from Free Cash without "sharing.")

At the high school, the SC has finally been forced to address the 990 issue. While there is much sentiment for either ignoring the mandate or petitioning the state to give Acton a waiver, the schools are working to meet the requirement through additional staff and by counting student activities that could meet the definition of meeting the requirement. The school administration feels it will meet the deadline by the 2008 academic year.

Links:
Local School website: ab.mec.edu

Regional School website: ab.mec.edu/abrhs/

Each elementary school and the Junior High School has its own page on the website. There is a database for tutors, lunch menus, sports listings, and job listings for students. You can also sign up for an email announcement of school closings due to emergencies and weather.

A-B PTSO Website: abrptso.ab.mec.edu/

School Committee minutes: ab.mec.edu/about/minutes.shtml

School Committee agendas: ab.mec.edu/about/meetings.shtml

Community Education website: comed.ab.mec.edu/fall99/start.htm