Mattapoisett Expands School Choice

With a fiscal year 2019 school budget increasing by a mere 1.1 percent, the Mattapoisett School Committee chose to more broadly share the benefits of the quality education they provide by expanding the School Choice program. After hearing from a few supportive residents, and one Finance Committee chair opposed to the notion, the committee voted unanimously to expand the program at the public hearing on April 23.

The Massachusetts Department of Education asks that every town hold a public hearing on School Choice each spring. School Superintendent Doug White outlined how the School Choice process works, indicating that if a school district decides to provide School Choice, it then must determine how many slots to provide and in what grades.

Mattapoisett currently has three slots available, with two of them filled. The student in the third slot left the school system last year. The Mattapoisett School Choice program is a lottery-based system and applies to Kindergarten through Grade 6.

School Committee Chairman Rachel Westgate opened the public hearing by reading a letter sent by town residents Jerry and Cindy Johnson that spoke strongly in favor of School Choice. The Johnsons’ letter stated that School Choice enriches the experience of the school community and provides opportunity to increase the diversity in the classroom by bringing in students outside of Mattapoisett.

Pat Donoghue, the Mattapoisett Finance Committee chair, rose to speak against School Choice, saying that the tuition provided by the state of $5,000 per student doesn’t come close to covering the actual cost of $15,000 to educate a student. Donoghue also cautioned the committee that while the student population continues to decline, with the attendant reduction in class sections “… [We are] on the cusp to keep students at twenty or less, so adding School Choice can throw that off.”

Later in the meeting, committee member James Muse clarified that each additional student does not cost the town the full $15,000 as costs are built into what’s already budgeted, and the $5,000 tuition reimbursement from the state is a big help.

David Anderson of Pine Island Road spoke vociferously in favor of providing School Choice to “[Those who] have close ties to the town but live elsewhere.” Anderson, who pointed out that his family has been paying taxes in town since 1838, takes great pride in Mattapoisett schools, saying, “Each student has something unique to add to the class.… [The committee] should welcome it, not fight it … and take a broader view…” of School Choice.

“I have some skin in the game,” said Anderson, whose father Hayden Anderson was principal at Center School 90 years ago, when he said it was the diversity of population in the schools that made the schools excellent, adding, “If it means increasing my taxes again, go for it!”

Resident Kimberly Ward refuted Donoghue’s contention that the finances of School Choice don’t work, indicating that at ORR Junior High School, where there are 30 School Choice slots, there was a balanced budget.

After closing the public hearing, the committee discussed further the merits of School Choice. With the student population declining from a high of 487 in FY12 down to 438 this past October, and the subsequent reduction of a kindergarten and 4th grade section, the committee had to weigh the benefit of increasing School Choice slots with the fine balance of keeping the class size down below 20 students per section.

White observed that research shows that it is beneficial to start a School Choice student as early as possible so that there is a continuity of curriculum as they move through the district. Based on Mattapoisett’s School Choice policy, siblings of current School Choice students would be given priority for open slots.

School Principal Rosemary Bowman said the greatest concern of parents who inquired about School Choice was that their child would need to enter the lottery transitioning from 6th grade to junior high school. The committee agreed that providing slots in the earliest grade possible was best for the student, and Bowman recommended kindergarten and second grade for the slots.

Patrick Spencer, the school business administrator, reminded the committee that the School Choice program is a lottery-based program, saying, “I’m not trying to persuade or dissuade. The student [filling the slot] could need services … and it takes time to get the funding for that student above and beyond the tuition.”

Muse suggested that the committee continue the School Choice program and increase the available slots from three to four. Committee member Patrick LeClair proposed a slot in kindergarten and a slot in second grade, where there is the smallest cohort of students. White clarified that there could be two kindergarten school choice slots filled, or one second grade slot and one kindergarten slot filled, but in any case, not more than one second grade slot would be filled.

The vote to continue School Choice and to expand the program was unanimous.

In other important business, the committee held a FY 2019 budget public hearing. White and other staff went through the budget, $6,994,224, which is an increase of 1.1 percent. Highlights of the budget were the reduction of two teaching positions due to reduced student enrollment, the out-sourcing of the custodial services, and the shifting of the school nursing staff to provide a full-time nurse at each school. The committee voted unanimously to approve the budget as presented.

Westgate reported that she met with members of the School Department to discuss school safety and said, “I feel confident the [school district] is doing what’s needed to keep our kids safe.” New security vestibules and new technology have been installed at both Center and Old Hammondtown schools for added school security.

The next meeting of the Mattapoisett School Committee is scheduled for May 21 at 6:30 pm at Center School.

Mattapoisett School Committee

By Sarah French Storer


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