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Talk vs. action: Who is in charge of our schools?

From time to time over the past year, there have been news articles about the renovation needs at Elm Street Middle School, and the possibility of deciding to build an entirely new school rather than renovate. This conversation actually began at a meeting two years ago when the early estimates of the cost to renovate Elm St. were first discussed. I believed then, and continue to believe, that a new school is the better course of action. Renovation of a building as old as Elm St. inevitably has unexpected additional costs, and when completed, you still have an old building with very limited parking and no athletic fields.

While the numerous structural and safety issues at Elm St. make it the number one priority for renovation, there are other renovation needs that exist in the district. Mt. Pleasant Elementary has a variety of issues to be addressed, as do Birch Hill and Main Dunstable.

In accordance with state law and administrative rules, as well as local policy, the Board of Education (BOE) is responsible to provide, “. . . accommodation for all pupils in approved schools” and “provide that all school buildings … be maintained in a manner consistent with standards of health and safety”.

I have three grandchildren in the district and, like everyone else, acknowledging the possible need for lockdowns due to an active shooter threat to the students makes me very uncomfortable, but it is a fact of today’s world and should not be ignored.

Effective security systems have multiple layers to provide continued safety in the event of the failure of a single layer. In schools, one of those layers is the ability to lock down the building. Birch Hill and Main Dunstable, were built as “open-concept” schools. As such, there are few walls or doors, which means they are unable to “lockdown” the school in the event of a threat to the safety of the students.

Traditionally, the renovation process has begun with the BOE. Through public meetings with various folks in the administration, the BOE defined the renovation or construction projects necessary to provide safe, effective buildings for the education of the students. That need was then communicated to the mayor and aldermen to discuss the justification, timing, and financing of the project.

The project then went to the Joint Special School Building Committee (JSSBC). This is a committee made up of an equal number of aldermen and BOE members who oversee school construction projects from start to finish. Based on a review of meeting minutes and an administration PowerPoint presentation, it seems that a different procedure was followed on the Elm St. project.

On May 7, 2018, the BOE held a work session to discuss and set priorities for renovations at Elm Street Middle School, and Mount Pleasant, Birch Hill and Main Dunstable Elementary Schools. In addition to the BOE members, and various district employees, there were two aldermen, with many years of experience on the JSSBC, who participated.

A number of times during the meeting, the point was made that “it’s up to the BOE to decide which projects they deem to have the highest priority”. The director of plant operations indicated; “The biggest concern we have with Birch Hill and Main Dunstable is security and the open-concept.” An alderman asked; “… are the estimates for Main Dunstable and Birch Hill close to being ready to go? If they are, then I would start with them and do them in tandem as we did other schools that are identical.” The director of plant operations stated; “the idea of putting Birch Hill and Main Dunstable together as next projects while working on Elm Street certainly makes sense”. Ms. Van Twuyver stated; “If we’re doing this. I’d do both Birch Hill and Main Dunstable at the same time and let the other ones wait”. Ms. Raymond said; “figuring out if we’re going to build a new EMS or renovate would be number 1 … and then tackle the open concept schools next”.

Twice during the two-hour meeting someone mentioned the possibility of adding a wing to Pennichuck and Fairgrounds middle schools. The purpose at Pennichuck was to get rid of the portable classrooms there. At Fairgrounds the purpose was adding student capacity. There was also discussion about the needs at Mt. Pleasant Elementary. In the end, the consensus of the BOE members was that ELM St. should be the first priority but it would take awhile to get estimates to help compare the renovation versus new construction options.

At a JSSBC meeting on May 24, 2018, an alderman repeated the question from the earlier meeting regarding the availability of defined plans for Birch Hill and Main Dunstable being ready to go out to bid and he was told they were ready.

During his comments at the BOE meeting on May 29, 2018, the superintendent seemed very clear when he stated ” . . . we are not in an era where things will be okay. We’re in the era where we will be proactive in the lives of our kids. And the safety of our kids is paramount. And as superintendent I will uphold that.”

The plans were ready to go to bid and the superintendent had made it clear that, under his leadership, nothing is more important than student safety. At this point it looked pretty good for Birch Hill and Main Dunstable renovations to go forward, moving both schools toward security equity with the other elementary schools.

The next meeting on this subject took place on June 5, 2018. It was attended by Mayor Donchess, the two aldermen from the earlier meeting, Superintendent Mosley, and a few staff people. Interestingly, there were no members of the BOE in attendance. I can’t locate any minutes from the meeting but there is a PowerPoint presentation prepared for the June 11 BOE meeting that provides some information. According to a PowerPoint slide, the discussion focused on the city’s bond/ rates, priority of school building projects, and construction budget aspirations/limitations.

On June 8, the superintendent sent a letter announcing: “The time is now. The Nashua School District is embarking on a comprehensive, multi-million dollar middle school project. The project will encompass bricks-and-mortar as well as further development of middle school curriculum and delivery. This project will focus on our sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students and how best we can serve them, their families and the City of Nashua.” It appears a decision, that didn’t include any elementary schools, had been reached, even though the BOE hadn’t seen the presentation, or voted on their priorities for renovation.

On June 11, 2018, the superintendent, along with the two aldermen, presented their plan to the BOE. The superintendent began by saying; “This is a very exciting endeavor. When you first start these discussions around new building construction projects in the district you think you have a plan. But as you have meetings with other individuals (the Mayor and a couple aldermen ?) and have deeper conversations, you quickly realize there’s another plan that exists out there. Once we’re done with my presentation, the Aldermen can jump in. … We’ve discussed Elm Street, Mount Pleasant, Birch Hill and Main Dunstable.” That was the last time the elementary schools were mentioned during the presentation.

The concept of a total makeover of the three middle schools, with no mention of the elementary needs, was quite a departure from the previous discussion with the BOE. A decision had been made that it was important to have 3 equal size schools. The superintendent had decided there is a “need” to return 448 students, who currently are home schooled, attend the Academy of Science & Design or other placements. The superintendent didn’t volunteer, and no BOE member asked, about the annual impact to the school budget of adding 448 students to the enrollments. Twenty additional teachers for the 448 students would add $1 million annually to the budget, based on the $50,000 per teacher number used in the budget.

This meeting was little more than a sales pitch, plain and simple. This was not a continuation of the conversation with the BOE. The decision had been made, without the BOE, and this was simply a formality. In fact, that question was asked by BOE member Mrs. Raymond; “If the motion (to approve the superintendent’s plan) does not pass, the project is dead, right?” and the question was answered by an alderman; “Yes.”

At that moment it would have been appropriate for anyone from the BOE to say; “We are concerned about the equity of safety and security for all of our students. We would like to know how we can address that issue at Birch Hill and Main Dunstable, and fix or replace Elm St., before making over all three middle schools”. It did not happen.

So, what about being able to lock down the students in the open concept schools, and their safety? According to the aldermen, upgrades at Birch Hill and Main Dunstable will make them “somewhat more secure” and “we’ll fit them into the bond schedule when we can”. That seems like small comfort for the parents of the more than 700 children at those schools, as well as the faculty and staff, who will continue without that layer of security for probably 5, or more, years.

This leaves me with lots of questions. What happened at that meeting with the mayor, superintendent, and two aldermen? Is there anything magical about having 3 schools of equal size? Has anyone asked if there is an optimal size for a middle school? We have two, equal size high schools and there are busses carrying students between the two schools every day because there isn’t total equity in courses offered. Is there any data that shows an improvement in student performance following the construction of the two, equal size high schools? We have 12 elementary schools that range in size from 237 to 576 students. If equal size is essential for equity, how will elementary enrollments be addressed?

Safety, equity, and transparency are three words the BOE, and administration, frequently like to use to support their actions, or make a moving speech. The safety of our children has to be the first consideration in any decision related to our schools. Equity was used as part of the justification for the middle school plan but ignored when it came to student security. Transparency would tell us just what took place at the meeting with the mayor and two aldermen.

In the past, I have referred to the BOE as dysfunctional. In my opinion, in this instance they were ineffective and, in the end, irrelevant. It leaves me wondering who is actually overseeing the operation of the district and deciding its direction.

George Farrington is a former longtime member and president of the Nashua School District Board of Education.