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Will virtual school survive?


School board may vote again

Greenfield Recorder 03/14/2013, Page A01

By CHRIS SHORES Recorder Staff

GREENFIELD — There may be a virtual school in Greenfield this fall after all.

The district’s innovation subcommittee spent nearly two hours Wednesday discussing managerial, legal and financial questions about how to shape a theoretical proposal for a new state-run cyber school — which uses the Internet to teach students across the state.

The subcommittee plans to meet again tonight at 6 p.m. at the Davis Street school administrative offices, to have a conference call with Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the department of elementary and secondary education. And the subcommittee will make a recommendation of some kind to the full committee at next week’s meeting. On Wednesday, members seemed poised to suggest that Greenfield move forward and submit an application to the state to start a new state-run virtual school on July 1.

It was a dramatic reversal from one week prior,when committee members explained to parents of the Massachusetts Virtual Academy why the district would be unable to host a cyber school next fall.

Forced by law to transition its locally run three-yearold Massachusetts Virtual Academy into a state-run school, the School Committee decided on Feb. 28 to not pursue this option — a vote that has placed 470 students, including a dozen from Greenfield, with no clear option of where to attend an online public school this fall.

Since the vote, John Lunt, the committee chairman, has repeatedly argued that as publicly elected officials, it was not in the local school board’s authority to set up a new staterun virtual school. It was not a decision the committee took lightly, he said, but one that was forced by the law.

But now Lunt is having second thoughts. He argued that the School Committee could appoint separate people to the virtual school’s board of trustees, work with them to get the ball rolling and then step back on July 1 so there would be “no cross-pollination” between the local school board and the state entity.

“I still find that to be something that I don’t think we should be doing,” he told the subcommittee. “But given the circumstances and given the fact that every one of us wanted a solution so that people don’t get kicked out and have nothing, that’s something I think I could support.”

The other two innovation subcommittee members agreed.

Mayor William Martin said that after July 1, the School Committee “must not be involved” in running the school. It will be important to strategically appoint board members so that they will be prepared to take on the challenges of running Massachusetts’ first state-run virtual school, he said.

Martin said the school could choose to continue contracting with K12, the forprofit curriculum company that has partnered with Greenfield for the past three years. The mayor said that K12 officials had expressed interest to him in setting up a headquarters in Greenfield and hiring local labor.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Doris Doyle told parents in the audience that the committee had heard their concerns and were working to come up with a solution. Doyle was one of two School Committee members who had originally supported sending an application to the state.

Entire committee must vote

The other member who had voted to submit a proposal was Daryl Essensa. She has indicated she’d still be interested in doing that to allow more time to weigh the pros and cons of operating a state-run virtual school.

The School Committee’s three other members — Maryelen Calderwood, Marcia Day and Francia Wisnewski — all voted against submitting an application, for a variety of different reasons.

If a vote is brought forth next week, it is unclear if the School Committee would first have to rescind its decision last month.

That’s because language in the February vote hinged on a March 25 deadline to submit its proposal. But now, according to subcommittee members, the state has indicated it may extend that deadline, creating a new circumstance from the one the committee previously voted on.

Superintendent Susan Hollins said Wednesday she has been working on a proposal for a new school, just in case something happened and the district changed its mind.

Lunt advised Hollins to ask the state for more time on the application. And he made clear that the committee would have several decisions to make in crafting its proposal — including details of the transition and how long the district’s administration should be involved in running the new virtual school before passing it off completely to new administrators.

Parents pleased

Three Massachusetts Virtual Academy parents and one student — from Deerfield, Somerset and Springfield — attended the subcommittee meeting, and were pleased that members were considering a new solution.

Krysten Callina, of Somerset, posted updates on Twitter throughout the meeting using the hashtag “#savemava.” Her son, Seth, filmed the meeting on an iPad, and it will be uploaded to the Internet so that others can see it.

Family members of the school’s students, who argue that the virtual school is their best and only option for their children to learn, have spent the past two weeks advocating to keep the Massachusetts Virtual Academy open.

Callina has participated in a letter-writing campaign to legislators and officials on the state and local levels. She uploaded a video showing personal accounts from students of what they believe would happen without a virtual school next fall.

Parents left Wednesday’s meeting encouraged, but are still anxious to see how the discussion and school planning progresses in the coming weeks and months.

“It sounded like they’ve had a change of heart,” said Callina. “I know that as committee members, they do care about our kids, but it really shows that they’ve done a lot of thinking about it and have really taken a lot of what all of us … have said to heart.”

“It’s complicated. We understand that this is complicated,” said Dana Lavigne, of Deerfield.

“The fact that they’re trying to make something work shows that one, they’re stepping up to the plate,” she said, “and two, kudos to the education board for tasking them to kind of figure out what needs to get done. I’m sure there’s a lot of pressure coming from a lot of different directions.”

Local legislators got involved late last week.

School Committee members said that Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, brought up the virtual school issue during a previously scheduled meeting with Martin last Friday.

Then the legislators showed up at the Davis Street offices, where they talked briefly with Hollins and Lunt. They explained they couldn’t change the law, but would work with Greenfield to come up with a new solution so that 470 students would not be displaced.

You can reach Chris Shores at:cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264