The Silver Lake Regional School Committee met Thursday, March 11, and unanimously voted an operating budget of $27,246,375 as the amount deemed necessary for the operation of the Silver Lake Regional School District for the 2021-2022 fiscal year. The debt budget covering the construction of the Silver Lake Regional High School, $1,469,030.90 for the 2021-2022 school year, which is part of the towns’ assessments – also passed unanimously. Superintendent Dr. Jill Proulx pointed out that the budget reflects more than $160,000 in budget cuts that were requested by the committee.
Halifax’s Town Administrator, Charlie Seelig, spoke to the board at the beginning of their meeting, asking them to consider carefully. “Things are tight, tighter than they have been in a number of years.” Seelig said that Halifax right now does not have the revenue needed to cover the increases proposed by Halifax’s departments ….”
At this point, he said, the finance committee is putting in numbers that are level funded from last year. From there, they will add in the contractual obligations that have to be paid like health insurance and retirement, and salaries. If there is money available, the next thing they will put in is step increases, no matter what department they are in, per the various contracts or through the Halifax Wage and Personnel by-law. Only after that, will the Finance Committee start considering increasing wage accounts.
Seelig brought up the article submitted by the school committee to the Town Meeting warrant to fund restoring tennis courts at the High School for $130,000. He said this is in addition to the towns’ local assessments. It should be considered, but taxpayers should make a decision as to what is more important, tennis courts or other parts of the budget. “Money is money,” Seelig said, “and it’s going to be the same dollar from the same sources that are going from Halifax to Silver Lake.” In terms of the total assessment. Seelig said that everything is in flux because there is no state budget yet so state reimbursements aren’t available yet.
Chairman Paula Hatch opened the meeting to the public and heard from Madelyn Dooner who sent the results of a petition she started asking that students not go back to school for the remainder of this school year. She told the board that many parents and students do not feel comfortable going back for this fragment of a school year, citing scheduling conflicts and that while remote learning will still be there for those who have chosen it, it will now be done through a third party, “so it doesn’t seem like it is going to be the same experience for everybody. It’s not going to be like a fair experience.”
Hatch responded by saying that the state has now stepped in and they are making the rules and the Silver Lake School District is mandated to follow them. Hatch assured her that the committee is taking all of the concerns of parents and students very seriously and the remote option is not being taken away.
Michelle Taylor, a parent of a soon to graduate senior, asked the board to support letting the senior class remain as they are. Taylor told the board that she works for the state as a school licenser, so she’s well aware of COVID regulations and have been helping schools since last March a year ago with re-opening and health and safety plans … “so I know the intricate details that you all have to manage … that having been said, putting my parent hat on, I do feel that these students that have been brave enough, and I applaud them, through petitions and speaking tonight, and in the past, I’ve heard from my own child and other students in particular the senior class, ‘Why change it in the fourth quarter?’ There are only six weeks left until the end of school, and although a hybrid schedule is certainly not ideal, by anyone’s stretch of imagination, it is consistent at least.“
Chairman Hatch thanked her and said she is sensitive to the seniors in particular and “we do understand what’s happening, what they’ve been deprived of, and are trying to make it as easy a time for the next couple of months and to have it be enjoyable for the time they have left.”
Michaela Gill, principal of Silver Lake High School, gave the board the latest iteration of her plan to have students return to full time classes in the high school, a plan that has had to change several times based on changes in the requirements from the state. Currently, however, there is no date from the state when high school students must return to full in-person learning. “We are ready and eager to welcome all students back to school,” Gill told the board.
Middle School Principal Jim Dupille told the board that as of March 9, DESE has mandated that all middle school students must return by April 28. He has constructed a plan for full in-person return to school, in fact several plans, as they have needed to be reconfigured to meet the ever-changing guidance from the State Department of Education.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jill Proulx responded to committee member Summer Schmaling’s question of asking the Department of Education for a waiver to return to full in-person schooling, pointing out that the Silver Lake High School does not meet any of the criteria listed in the guidance from the Dept. of Education. “I want to reiterate, especially for families and students who may be listening, that the reality is that the Department of Education has mandated that we are required to return to full in-person schooling by May 4. That’s what we’ve done. This is remarkable work in a very short period of time on behalf of students. There are bound to be issues, so I ask the community to be patient. This is a very tall order to be done in a very short period of time. … Students will experience this differently, but as a community we will be supporting our students as well as we can.”
Dupille said it is his plan to return students to full in-person schooling when they come back from April vacation, April 26. He said that in summary, students will get new schedules, teacher schedules will change, some electives will not run in the remote learning environment, remote electives will shift to in-person, and some electives may not be able to be run. Term III will end April 16; term IV begins April 26.
Dupille said he may need to rent three tents to take advantage of outdoor spaces for band, chorus, and wellness. The tents can be put into use in many ways, at a cost of $2200 for each tent for six weeks.
Crone said that separating the two schools, middle and high, seems like a much easier way to address the problem. “It seems like the middle school is much easier to return to school. The high school, I still don’t think it is.” Recognizing that we don’t have a choice. If the commissioner comes back in April and doesn’t have a return date for high schools, if he comes back and puts it back to the local systems to choose, I would choose to leave it as is for the four to six weeks that we have left.
Committeeman Gordon Andrews asked the committee to authorize Eric to write a letter of unappreciation for all of the shifts of changes. We think we’re near the deadline and they shift again. The number of meetings, the hours of work trying to implement their changes, “I think we need to speak up and let them know that it’s not okay.”
Leslie Ann McGee applauded everyone, staff and administrators, for the work that has been done. “I want to make sure that the public understands that as we make these plans, not only does the Dept. of Education change the goal posts, they change what they look like. Plans that worked no longer are acceptable and there is no guarantee that the plans in place now won’t become obsolete at the DESE’s whim.”
Mike Antoine said that he agreed with Eric Crone; if Commissioner Riley sends the high school decisions back to the local level, “Let’s stay the course… if that’s an option.”
Crone made a motion to ask the committee to authorize him to write a letter stating that SLRHS would like to make their own decisions regarding high school return to all in-person learning. “We can write the letter, but we don’t have to do it.” Eric Crone will draft a letter for Hatch’s approval, and the vote was unanimously in favor.
Until they hear from DESE, Principal Gill has her plan to bring students back fully May 3.