The Silver Lake school committee gathered on Thursday, April 11, prior to their regular meeting for a hearing on school choice. Without an annual hearing and vote, Silver Lake would automatically become a school choice district.
Vice chair Eric Crone spoke in favor of school choice. Originally Crone had been interested in school choice as a means of helping one specific student who was in danger of not finishing their senior year at Silver Lake due to a change in address. Crone, however, also spoke about what he sees as potential financial benefits for the district. Schools are provided $5,000 for each student admitted under school choice with an incremental cost added to that tuition for special needs students. Crone’s suggestion was to keep that tuition out of the operating budget and use it toward specific projects. Crone reasoned that the lower enrollment in the high school grades would mean that additional students could be added through school choice without having to hire new teachers or buy new supplies. School choice students are expected to provide their own transportation.
Other members of the committee were more hesitant. Of concern was that school choice does not preclude students who were disciplinary problems in other districts from transferring to Silver Lake. Schools are allowed to choose the number of spaces available for school choice but are not allowed to select specific pupils. If there are more students than spots, a lottery is held. Chair Jason Fraser felt it may disincentivize people from moving into the communities if they know their children can attend Silver Lake regardless of the town in which they reside.
Fraser also expressed concern that since school choice students are not included in Chapter 70 funds, money would be taken away from Plympton, Halifax, and Kingston students in order to subsidize students from outside the district. Crone countered that since Silver Lake is not at maximum capacity, placing a student at a previously empty desk with a textbook already owned by the school comes at no additional cost. Another concern was the stipend allotted for special needs students. If that stipend doesn’t end up covering the full cost for the additional services, etc. that student may need, Silver Lake would be responsible for footing the bill.
After a great deal of discussion, a motion to not accept school choice was passed unanimously by the committee. Secretary Paula Hatch noted, “This was the most robust conversation we’ve had about this in years.”
After adjourning the hearing, the regional school committee meeting began with Superintendent Joy Blackwood introducing the Food Service Director Megan Ahrenholz. Ahrenholz, who has been with Silver Lake since the beginning of the school year, gave a presentation to the committee about changes to the department both in terms of menu and money saved. In general, the menu changes have focused on more homemade recipes and have aimed to reduce additives by using less processed foods. School leadership and members of the committee were treated to a sample breakfast consisting of banana, yogurt, and granola. The dish, which received rave reviews, counts as a complete breakfast. Since implementing a breakfast program at the middle school Ahrenholz said, “teachers have reported seeing improvements in students’ engagement in class and outlook on school in general.” The breakfast program has been averaging 25-30 students and has brought in more than $500 in revenue in three weeks with no increase in labor costs. The hope is to have a breakfast program at the high school by January of 2020.
Silver Lake Regional Principal Michaela Gill shared with the committee the accomplishments of some of her students. Student Sophia Ricci was honored as a local hero by the South Shore Community Action Council, Inc. (SSCAC) at its 25th Annual Local Heroes Awards Night and Auction. Ricci has been organizing food drives for the past two years in order to fight hunger throughout the South Shore. Junior Chris Tilton was awarded the prestigious Frank Kelley Athlete Adversity Award. Tilton overcame health challenges to finish 6th overall in the 600 meters at the MIAA Division 3 Championships. Gill also asked the committee to approve an out of state field trip to the Connecticut Science Center to view Real Bodies: The Exhibit. The committee approved the request unanimously.
Silver Lake Regional Middle School Principal James Dupille spoke with fervor about the success of the school’s trip to New York City in late March. Highlights of the trip included sightseeing at the Statue of Liberty and the Top of the Rock, a tour of Ellis Island, a backstage tour of Broadway, and a stop at the 9/11 Memorial.
Dupille commended the students for their behavior and thanked the committee and superintendent for their support of the trip. Dupille says that he hopes to continue the trip in the future but would like to change it to the fall in order to make the most of the bonds that are established on the trip. Dupille also told the committee about the penny wars that the middle school has engaged in in order to raise money that will be used to support vulnerable students in Kenya. Penny wars are a form of fundraising where students bring spare change to school for a set period of time, ending in an award for the class that raises the most.
Discussion about the part time school resource officer at the middle school was continued from previous meetings. While Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton were all in agreement regarding the need for the officer, the source of funding one was a point of contention especially for the Halifax Finance Committee who felt strongly that the cost should be included in the school’s operating budget rather than through a warrant article at town meeting. Blackwood reached out to Old Rochester Regional school district to see how they fund their officers as they are also a three-town school. Blackwood said the towns have an inter-municipal agreement where the cost of the officers is housed in their police budgets. Blackwood was in favor of this approach and would like to see Silver Lake handle the expense similarly in the future. For this year, however, it will come down to the way the people of Halifax and Kingston vote at town meeting. Blackwood urged, “I don’t know what the outcome will be but I will fight the good fight and would appreciate anyone that will stand up with me.” Fraser also stressed the importance of the officer speaking of the need for “someone at the school to prevent the preventable and mitigate the unpreventable.”
Another discussion continued from previous meetings was the committee’s unanimous decision to support a one-year moratorium on marijuana retail shops in Kingston as well as to not support the reduction in distance between schools and places where children congregate. Blackwood put together a letter to the planning board chair in Kingston and Fraser read the letter at the Kingston Selectmen’s Meeting.
Crone addressed the committee regarding the need to replace the scoreboard at the athletic fields. The current scoreboard is from 1992 and it has become nearly impossible to find and replace parts when broken. The hope would be to replace the scoreboard with an electronic one, the cost of which is about $140,000. A company such as Daktronics would lease the scoreboard to the school and would go out and secure five-year contracts with local business for digital advertising to cover the cost of the board. The hope would be that the advertising contracts would pull in more money than the lease payments for the board, potentially paying for projects such as making the concessions stand ADA compliant or transitioning the field from grass to turf. The board could even be used for events outside of athletics, allowing for a live feed of students getting ready for graduation that parents sitting in their seats could watch.
Attending the meeting was Silver Lake English teacher and drama and soccer coach Ashley Ferrara. Ferrara praised her theatre students for their work as well as the prestigious awards they’ve received this year and invited the committee to attend a performance of Almost, Maine, the theatre department’s show to be performed after vacation. Ferrara said there would be an actor and crew question and answer session following the show.
Two beloved members of the Silver Lake community will be retiring in the near future. High school librarian Linda Redding, who has been the librarian there since the school opened, will be retiring at the end of this year. Superintendent Joy Blackwood will also be retiring at the end of January 2020. Fraser said of Blackwood, “She will touch the lives of students she has never even met because of the legacy she leaves behind in our schools.”