Failed Referendum Leads To More School Changes

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Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 6.36.02 AMBy Terry Rogers

On Monday, May 18, Milford School District Board of Education discussed the referendum for a new high school and operations that failed on May 5, 2015. Two residents of the town addressed the board after it was called to order regarding the referendum.

“You have become a rubber stamp for the state and federal government,” said Spyro Stamat. “The state dictated a 1400 student school and you agreed with it, yet 36 percent of your students do not meet state standards in reading, 37 percent do not meet state standards in math. You need to take a stand and initiate reforms if you want the community to support your request to raise taxes.” Mr. Stamat said that many people in the city felt that the board was vain and out of touch.

Mr. Stamat also presented the board with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request demanding to know what funds were used to bus students from the High School to a polling place located at Banneker Elementary so that they could vote in the referendum. In addition, Mr. Stamat presented documentation showing the mailing address of the parent group, Buccaneer Tomorrow, which he called a “political action committee,” as 906 Lakeview Avenue, which is the address used by the district office.

“I find it suspicious that a group whose sole purpose was to raise taxes in Milford would have the district office as their mailing address,” Mr. Stamat said. “I understand that the Buccaneer Tomorrow group has since changed their address, but when they registered with the state, the address they used was Milford School District. We need to see leadership, we need to see transparency and we need to see results.”

In addition to Mr. Stamat, Ben Muldrow, who worked with Buccaneer Tomorrow to provide information to the public regarding the need for the referendum, spoke to the school board. Mr. Muldrow said that regardless of the outcome, he was pleased that the group was able to have 2,100 voices heard, which was twice the number of voters than turned out when a March 2014 referendum failed.

“What bothered me the most was that for every four yes votes there were for the referendum, there were five no votes,” Mr. Muldrow said. “I believe this vote clearly represents that the public has lost faith in the district. The dust has settled and now we need to look at our purpose. I learned quite a bit about education during my time working on this effort. I learned much about things I didn’t know. What I have come to understand is that your enemy is the phrase “the state makes us.” Mr. Muldrow pointed out that when asked why the district wanted to build a 1,400 student high school, why the school would cost $69 million or why they couldn’t use the old middle school building, why they must use Common Core in classrooms the response was always “because the state made us.”

Mr. Muldrow advised the board to question everything in order to earn back the faith of the community and to empower the future by pushing back when the state made decisions that were not in the best interest of the district. He said that by showing the community that the district was not simply doing as the state wanted, that they would let people in the town know that they were working together with them rather than against them.

Dr. Phyllis Kohel, Superintendent, said that because the referendum did not pass the district would be forced to make some difficult cuts in order to balance the budget.

“I don’t have an exact plan tonight because it involves a financial piece and personnel,” Dr. Kohel explained. “I will present two plans to the board. Both will require cuts across buildings, sports, extracurricular activity and personnel.”

One suggestion Dr. Kohel is considering is a shortened school week which would save considerably on transportation costs. Students would attend for 7½ hours per day, four days per week, while teachers would work 8½ hours per day, working four days one week and five the next. Dr. Kohel said that the shortened work week would have to be approved by the Department of Education and she would have to work to be sure that students and teachers met the requirements set by the state during the shortened week. Another option was double shifts of students with some students attending in the morning and others attending in the afternoon. However, the double shift option could mean some teachers would have to work longer hours.

“Asking little first graders to spend 7½ hours per day in a classroom is asking a lot,” Dr. Kohel said. “We are taking any suggestions for saving money from the public. These suggestions help us think outside the box so if anyone has any ideas, we are open to listening to them.”

Overcrowding is a serious problem in the district, especially at Lulu M. Ross Elementary School and Milford Central Academy. When modular were moved to the Academy from the old Middle School, Dr. Kohel explained that two were left behind because they were in poor condition. She explained that Dr. Glen Stevenson, Supervisor of Buildings & Grounds, arranged to have the two classrooms inspected and that they would be moved to the Academy over the summer.

“We were able to tuck the other modular away so they didn’t take away from the aesthetics of the school,” Dr. Stevenson explained when Renate Wiley, Vice-President of the board asked if there was room for the two additional modulars. “We are not going to be able to do that with these as there simply is not a lot of space for us to place them out there. They are going to be very visible.” Dr. Stevenson explained that they had looked into placing a modular at Ross to reduce overcrowding there, but the electrical system at the school was not capable of adding the additional building.

Dr. Kohel explained that a new modular would cost $35,000 to purchase, and although leasing would be at less cost, the electrical work required could be costly. For this reason, she was considering moving three first grade classrooms back to Morris, explaining that before full-day Kindergarten, Morris housed first graders. Later in the meeting, Beth Conaway, Principal at Morris, asked whether there was a timeline for the decision regarding the first grade classrooms moving to Morris as she was concerned about staffing issues.

“The next board meeting will not be held until school is already out,” Ms. Conaway explained. “I need to work with my staff to be sure this goes smoothly. I think we can make this work and I think it may actually have some benefits, but I need a decision relatively soon.” The board said they would more than likely plan a workshop in June and hold a special board meeting prior to the end of school so plans could be made at the school level should the classes be moved to Morris.

Dr. Kohel also presented a new time schedule for all Milford schools that would allow teachers to continue Professional Learning Communities (PLC) time, which allows teachers to meet and develop better outcomes for students. PLC time would be held in the mornings before students arrived. The three elementary schools, Ross, Banneker and Mispillion, would begin at 7:35 AM with buses dropping students off between 7:15 and 7:25 AM. Dismissal for those schools would be 2:10 PM with teachers leaving at 2:45 PM. Morris and Milford Central Academy would begin at 8:40 AM with buses dropping students between 8:20 and 8:30 AM. Dismissal for those schools would be 3:10 PM with teachers leaving at 3:20 PM. Milford High School would begin at 7:45 AM with buses dropping students off between 7:25 and 7:35 AM. Dismissal would be 2:15 PM with teachers leaving at 2:30 PM.

“This schedule will eliminate the late starts which will save us $11,000 per year,” Dr. Kohel explained. “We must have 55 minutes built in between schools so that our buses can do double runs. I have spoken to Ron Love at DOE and he says that unless all our buses are doing double runs, he will not approve any additional buses for our district. By doing this, we can also shorten the length of bus ride for many of our students as almost all of our buses will be doing double runs.”

Ms. Conaway explained that although an earlier start and dismissal time for Kindergarten students was optimal, the new schedule mirrored what was being done in other districts. Julie McDuff, a Kindergarten teacher and parent of three Milford School District students, said that she felt the new time schedule could present problems for parents.

“That is a long day for a five-year old,” Ms. McDuff said, agreeing with Ms. Conaway’s assessment that children who must be at school at 8:40 are often awake with the rest of the family at 6 AM. “As a parent, if you have an elementary aged student and a child at Morris, you would have to take your elementary student to the bus stop, then return home for 45 minutes before returning to the stop with your Kindergarten student. In addition, since I must be at work by 7:40 AM due to PLC, I will be required to leave my two Academy students home alone. I can’t do that as a parent and trust that they will be safe at the bus stop.”

The time changes, which will take effect with the 2015-16 school year, were approved unanimously. Dr. Kohel explained that she will continue to work on the times, but that it was the best she could do in order to eliminate late starts.

“One of the reasons we are doing this is to save every penny we have,” Dr. Kohel said. “$11,000 is a lot of money.” In other district business, the board voted unanimously for personnel requests, including extending the contract of Jon LoBiondo, Assistant Principal at Morris for an additional year.

Field trips were also presented to the board for the upcoming school year. Dr. Kohel explained that she had denied many field trips as the cost was prohibitive for all students to participate. Since the district did not have funds to pay for field trips for students, she considered the families in the district and denied any that she felt were too costly for parents.