Saturday, April 11, 2015

How Not to Solve a Problem: the PTO Mom is NOT Happy

What are you doing next Wednesday?  Are you heading to the High School to attend the 'public hearing' about redistricting?

Sadly, I will be on a plane heading to a work conference, which is good for anyone else who does attend the hearing because, if I were able to attend, my head would surely explode.  It might anyway.

At the Fitzgerald PTO meeting this week, I had to excuse myself when our wonderful principal had to update us on the redistricting plans.  I apologized to her on behalf of the parents, taxpayers, and voters, that she needs to deal with this and then I left before I said things that I would surely regret.  So, instead of saying them in the relatively safe environs of a PTO meeting on a Tuesday night, I'll blog about them here for all to read.

First, let me say that there is not an 'overcrowding' problem in the Waltham elementary schools.  There is an inequity problem with the use of resources and there is a decision-making problem and there are politics at play, however, the district has enough room for all of our elementary students.

There IS an overcrowding problem at the Fitzgerald School.  How did that happen?  Allow me to give a brief history:
Once upon a time in a magical land, there were six enchanted schools where the good townspeople sent their young children to learn. Then things started to go wrong: the principal at one of the schools, the Fitz, 'retired' amid allegations that she had not done anything about an alleged bullying incident.  The superintendent of the school district, it was said, had run afoul of the mayor, and he, too, resigned.  A friend of the mayor's came in as acting superintendent until another superintendent was hired.  At the Fitz, an interim principal came in, ostensibly to guide the well-liked assistant principal, who likely saw a track to become the school's principal.  That did not happen, and the assistant principal left, along with the interim principal, and a new assistant principal and principal were hired.  During his first year at the Fitz, the new principal was told by the new superintendent that an additional program would be coming to the Fitz.  The new principal protested: there was already a special program meeting in the library because there was not enough classroom space.  The Fitz had the highest enrollment in the district.  Surely there was another place where the students in this program could be better served.  Alas, it was not to be, in part, I believe, because a School Committee member had a student in that program and lived close to the Fitz and lobbied strongly for the program to be relocated to the Fitz.  Also, I believe, it was easier for a new superintendent to tell a new principal that he had to do something than it would have been to tell a tenured and well-respected principal that she had to do something.  In other words, I wouldn't be surprised if principals at other schools in the district told the superintendent "No effing way, bee-yotch."
And so it came to pass that the program was moved to the Fitz.  And the new principal resigned.  And the Fitz had another interim who had to deal with where to put 500+ kids. And so the Fitz gave up its Science room (because who needs science anyway?  It's not like it's important or anything.) and its Drama room and its teacher workroom (because it's ok to teach kids in a former closet with a window). And the parents of the students at the Fitz were told to stop whining and stop being so entitled. And then they ripped up the bridge on Beaver Street just to show those parents west of the school (I am making that up, but it is a strange coincidence.) And now our new, forever principal has to sit at a PTO meeting and tell us about redistricting.  And so I apologized to her and to the teachers and to the staff.

Why is any of that important?  If that program had not been moved to the Fitz, the enrollment there would be on par with the enrollment at the other elementary schools.  That is, that bad decision, made for reasons that are murky, was indeed the straw that broke the district's back.

So, cue the CONSULTANTS and the HAND WRINGING and a TWELVE YEAR plan for redistricting!  Bring on the modular buildings and redrawn lines and the dismantling of computer labs and the purchase of laptop carts! Call the Public Hearings!  Can you say "obfuscation"?

Here's the deal: NO PARENT anywhere ever is going to be in favor of redistricting that makes his or her kid move to a different school.  That's because it's all about the network every parent begins building when her kid goes off to kindergarten: I know who I can call when I'm running late or who I can text when my forgetful 5th grader forgets his homework again or who I can carpool with to the birthday party.  It takes a LONG time to build these bonds; no one willingly wants them to be broken.  So stop asking the parents if they want it to happen: we don't.

And, to make it more painless, come up with ONE plan that makes the most sense.  This isn't about being democratic: it's about making a decision.  The democracy part comes in November when we vote.  Work out the differences between the plans and then implement.  Because here's the thing: populations are dynamic, not static.  So the longer a decision is delayed, the less impact it's going to have.  The use of the FITCH school was STILL being debated until last fall!  For reals?

In my humble opinion, the School Committee needs to deliver ONE plan and then implement it.  The Superintendent is, with all due respect, a lame duck, so she can afford to put on the big girl pants and make a decision.  The mayor, however, is running for reelection, so there may be some caution with stepping up and being decisive because the longer the decision is delayed, the better for reelection hopes.

I am so very weary of hearing about the conundrum.  I know more about the number of students at each elementary school than I ever wanted to, and more about modular buildings and blueprints and laptop carts than I ever needed to.

I'm still waiting for someone to step up and make a decision.


  1. Once again, thank you, for the background information that is solacking for those of us coming late to this game. Your frustration seems fully justified and the point you made about the community disruption in redistricting is one I made, amongst others, to all school committee members (as a Fitz parent) too. Whatever has happened in the past is history, casting a sad light on today. Moving forward, your idea is just decide already! I'm grateful however, that school committee members have reached out to parents and heard our concerns (whether or not it will be possible for the to act upon it).

    Moving forward, It seems obvious to me that the plan affecting the least number of students (Tarallo-Graceffa Plan B ) is the way to go. Disclosure: it's the one that leaves my child alone so I am somewhat biased but it's unarguable that minimal disruptioN is desirable.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Let's see if my comment sticks THIS TIME. I would argue that more than the mayor, the people who have more on the line in November are the school committee members up for election: Mr. Graceffa, Mr. Tarallo and Ms. Donnelly. The position of mayor on the SC is ex-officio and only votes when a tied vote needs to be broken.

    That being said, I have been saying for awhile that the redistricting problem isn't going to be solved by looking at just the numbers. The problem needs to be solved by looking at the programs. Whether it is PreK, ELL, PDD, LBRR or some combination of those, a thoughtful redistribution that allows for equity in all of the schools of these programs will go further than just a straight up redistricting plan. What would be MOST awesome is a stand alone PreK building. But that is never going to happen for the fall.

    But I will disagree that there is no crowding problem in Waltham at the elementary level. The architects showed where the problems are when they did their analysis last summer. It was up there for all to see in their slides. There are ways to deal with the numbers in the various schools without moving any kids in some cases. There are ways to redistribute the special programs. All of the schools have been tight with maybe one or two exceptions, and even then it was Oh hey, that school has one free room. But it didn't last. Our numbers keep growing, and the demand for special services keeps growing. Neither of those things is going to change dramatically any time soon.

  4. Thanks for the feedback , CL and MK. MK: you're right that Graceffa, Tarallo, and Donnelly are the SC members up for reelection, however, I have to believe that when the Mayor floated her 12-year plan, she was thinking of avoiding too much upset during her reelection campaign. And the way the transition between Azar and Nicholson was handled was all Mayor McCarthy, so she definitely has some responsibility in the current situation, including allowing it to be ignored: SC membership has changed; the mayor's office has been a relative constant.

    I understood from the consultants that each school building was designed to hold the same number of students. And they don't. A separate building for Pre-K would be a great start and that COULD have happened for the fall if anything had been done LAST FALL when SMMK (whatever the consultants are called) made their recommendations.
    My point is that no one is making decisions and that is costing the students who are currently in elementary schools, like yours and mine. Our second graders won't see much benefit from a 12 year plan.


  5. Your facts are inaccurate this "overcrowding" issue happened long before the issues at Fitzgerald occurred and was brought to the school committee numerous times and they did do a slight redistricting which essential made zero difference. Overcrowding was brought to the school committee over and over again, and here we are 7 years later, which by the way was long before the existing Superintendant was here. The Superintendant DOES NOT control redistricting that is owned by the school committee who are still unable to make a decision that will have any mutual benefit to anyone 7 years later. Many of the schools are out of space just not Fitzgerald either because they have a large enrollment (look at the numbers several are close to Fitzgerald). But overcrowding is due to many more things like what programs does your school have? For example would Fitzgerald be willing to take the behavior program to exchange it for the Language based, a decision which the Superintendant can make. Be careful what you wish for. But place blame where blame is due which is with the School Committee. You don't like what they are doing run or vote them out. But to complain without offering meaningful solutions is just complaining.