The potential reconfiguration of Watertown Unified School District schools, in order to combat budgetary struggles, is going to continue to be a hotly debated topic, that much was clear after the school board meeting Thursday night.
During the 1 1/2 hour meeting, WUSD superintendent Cassandra Schug gave a presentation on the potential reconfiguration (in the Watertown High School auditorium) to a crowd of approximately 30 members from the WUSD community including staff, families and students. Board member Ron Buchanan was not in attendance and board member Frances Milburn arrived late to the meeting, but was present for public input.
“The board feels a responsibility to be fiscally responsible and to look at all its options to close the funding gap,” Schug said.
The presentation by Schug outlined one potential reconfiguration which would have the elementary schools be reordered with kindergarten through third graders being served at all the elementary school buildings except one which would likely be used as a school for fourth and fifth grade students. Schug said in this option, Douglas or Webster would be used for the 4-5 grades. Although this was the only option presented, it is not the only possibility, according to Schug.
“We would look at many different options; not just one,” Schug said.
Other options shown in the presentation included other grade level groupings possibly including secondary reconfigurations and an early learning center.
The biggest reason behind the potential reconfiguration would be the budget savings a realignment could give the district. According to the presentation, realignment allows for potential budget savings due to the scale at the schools and the ability to keep classes smaller at the lower grade levels and slightly larger at the higher grades.
Preliminary numbers show the district would be able to reduce approximately three to five full-time equivalent positions in the potential model. This would set numbers for K-3 at an average of 21 students per class and 4-5 at an average class size of 25, according to WUSD current enrollment projections. In this model and with WUSD’s preliminary projections, K-3 would have 39 sections divided among four elementary schools and 4-5 would serve 17 sections at another elementary school.
Schug said enrollment projections would play a critical role in the district’s class sizes and staff reductions among other things.
Included in the presentation were both positives and negatives of a potential reconfiguration for the schools. Some of the positives included the district being able to expand the amount of classes in its STEM and dual language programs at Lincoln and Schurz, respectively, potential for serving 4-year-old kindergarten classes at all the elementary schools (for those that would serve K-3 in the potential reconfiguration, not the 4-5 grade school) and budget savings. Negatives included adding another transition for students, difficulties for parents and families including transportation and having children at numerous schools and having STEM, dual language and general education all in one school (as it would be in the potential 4-5 grade school) which could cause problems in implementation, among others.
Schug reiterated reconfiguration does not have to be the only option for the district to achieve its goals of budgeting solutions, integrating the 4K classes and expanding the STEM and dual language programs.
Following the presentation, board members J. Mark Holland and Steve Kauffeld explained they had initially negative viewpoints, but after the presentation, expressed their desires for it to be investigated more thoroughly. Both also expressed how they felt the meeting itself would have drawn more negative public feedback than what was shown.
This comment drew the ire of some members of the public who made it known during the public input session following the presentation that they felt the district did a poor job in communicating with the WUSD community about the meeting due to a lack of publication outside of the newspaper and district newsletter as well as hosting it in WHS during numerous events for the district.
Most of the feedback the board received from the public following the presentation was against the potential reconfiguration. Many parents and families expressed their worries about the reconfiguration from their children losing their school’s culture and friends and fear that the district would not attract more families, but would actually lose many.
WUSD parents Amy and Darren Shaumann of Ixonia voiced their concerns to the board on the potential reconfiguration. With a son currently open enrolling in third grade at Douglas, they wondered what the district’s motives were for change.
“I question why a district would consider disassembling a large school that is doing so well on state report cards,” Amy Shaumann told the board.
Transportation for families was also a major concern for people present.
Rihannon Stivarius of Watertown explained her family does not have the ability to easily transport her children as they have to walk to school over two miles. Reconfiguration would have them walk even further and transportation would cost, according to Stivarius, $280 a month for her children to use the shuttle service.
Susan Putra, a grandmother of students in the WUSD who helps the family with transportation to the schools, also voiced her displeasure with the proposal.
“If I have to go to three schools as a grandparent, that’s too much,” Putra said. “I’m getting too old for this.”
District schools were also well represented during the meeting. Staff from Douglas, Lincoln STEM, Shurz and Webster all made statements on the school’s behalf.
“Why would we choose to move forward on this plan when research shows this is harmful,” said Lincoln STEM third grade teacher Elizabeth Atkins during her speech to the board with a group of her fellow Lincoln teachers.
“(Reconfiguration” does not seem to be a good way to build community,” said Webster fourth grade teacher Cinnamon Theder.
Although there was some backlash from the community, the board came away with positives from the situation, mostly stemming from the passion shown by WUSD staff and families. Board member Milburn explained during the meeting she could feel the pride of teachers and parents in the schools which helped show the district is on the right path.
Board President Tony Arnett said after the meeting he could see the board’s goal of growth is helping the community move in the right direction.
“We’d heard from schools during the last meeting on similar feelings about Lebanon and the reconfiguration,” Arnett said. “I appreciate them speaking on the growth strategy because the board’s main goal (is growth). When people talk about growth it’s positive. It is what we want as a board and that is very reassuring.”
The potential reconfiguration will be further discussed during the school board’s regular monthly board meeting Monday night. During the meeting, the board will also discuss the Lebanon Elementary School’s next steps resolution that was moved to November during the board’s meeting last month.
The proposal, if approved, would have the WUSD administration create a plan for Lebanon to build on its strengths in order to make Lebanon “a contributor to the growth of the WUSD,” according to the resolution. The plan would need to include leveraging the physical setting and overall geographic location of Lebanon school, instructional program(s) unique to Lebanon (e.g. environmental education focus, etc.), attract students from outside the district through open enrollment, target a sustainable student population for the next five years and make necessary investment in building and grounds.
Last month’s meeting on the issue attracted many members to the board meeting and had many speak on both the positives and negatives of keeping the school open.
“I definitely anticipate it will be well attended,” Schug said. “I think there are two high interest points (Lebanon Elementary and elementary realignment) for our Watertown Unified School District families, students and community members. I believe it is an opportunity for people to listen, learn and direct questions and concerns to the board.”
The school board will host its regular monthly board meeting Monday night at 6 p.m. in the WHS auditorium following a 5:30 p.m. closed session about a possible property sale and an onsite clinic contract discussion.