ORR Stresses Significance of School Choice

            Old Rochester Regional Superintendent Michael Nelson recommended on February 17 that the Old Rochester Regional School Committee consider maintaining the number of school-choice slots currently offered at the junior high and high school.

            Nelson wasn’t seeking a vote that night, asking only for the committee to consider offering 103 out-of-district students a desk at ORR schools while keeping in mind the significant impact school choice has on the district’s operating budget.

            “There would be ramifications if the School Committee chose not to continue with school choice,” Nelson said. “Our budget is offset by projected revenue costs,” to the tune of $535,000. “If we chose to go in a different direction, the budget subcommittee would have to come back together for (lower) revenue projections …”

            Nelson asked the committee to approve 27 open school-choice slots for the 2021-22 school year during the school-choice public hearing scheduled for March 24. Twenty-four school-choice seniors will exit ORR in 2021 so Nelson asked to replenish those slots and maintain the other three school-choice slots that went unfilled.

            ORR High School Principal Mike Devoll has for years considered ORRHS “healthy north of 700 students,” and he reinforced that view during the February 17 meeting. However, he added, “We have the potential to dip below that in the coming years.”

            The class of 2021 is one of the largest graduating classes at 190 seniors, and the class of 2022 now stands at 199. But after that, the student population of those subsequent senior graduating classes is only in the 150s and 160s, Devoll said.

            “So, we are open for business,” said Devoll, advocating for current school-choice levels.

            ORR Junior High School Principal Silas Coellner said the junior high had witnessed a decline in school-choice students from 26 two school years ago to just 14 this year. “But our enrollment numbers are also on the decline,” he said. The student population of 480 just a couple of years ago has leveled off at 415 this year.

            Some committee members asked on behalf of their constituents, if enrollment at ORR is declining, why not eliminate school choice and reduce the scale of programming? Nelson said the administration understands the concerns about falling enrollment and acknowledges that it could eventually lead to inevitable “serious conversations in the future.” Indeed, he said, factors like the coronavirus pandemic have affected enrollment in unforeseen ways. Still, “We don’t have a crystal ball at this point,” Nelson said. And although there has been some degree of discussion internally about the topic, Nelson said, “Next year those conversations are going to have to intensify, and that (scaling down programming and school choice) may be part of the conversation.”

            Nonetheless, despite one’s personal opinion of school choice, Nelson said, school choice allows the ORR School District to keep academic offerings robust, even as committee members have historically bemoaned how the $5,000 per school-choice student set by the state has not increased over the years. Nelson said the revenue from school choice does support a more diverse program at ORR and maintains it as tri-town enrollment goes down. Furthermore, as School Committee member Heather Burke explained, it also adds diversity in other essential ways.

            “What we really desire these students for is their contributions to the schools in any shape or form,” said Burke. “We feel like they bring in diversity and a different perspective that students who have been raised in just the tri-town really benefit from, and we feel like they’ve enriched our schools in many ways. So, that extra revenue is just a benefit, except the fact that our budget really depends on it, which is very unfortunate because that is not why we want to welcome these children into our schools, historically.”

            Devoll pointed out that while ORRHS gains students through school choice, it also loses prospective students to vocational and private high schools. “And there’s a cost to that, as well,” Devoll said. Part of why ORR wants to keep its academic offerings robust is to attract students who might attend another school for something not otherwise offered at ORR.

            Before switching topics to the FY22 budget, Burke reminded the committee that several large-scale housing developments are coming to Rochester and Marion “that could just change our numbers dramatically.”

            Ahead of the March 2 FY22 budget hearing, Nelson wanted to present an overview of the nearly $300,000 decrease in its initial budget proposal from January 11. Now at $20,261,158, this draft FY22 budget excludes several of what the district had previously assessed as needs and stakeholder priorities, said Nelson, deeming this updated draft a “responsible” budget based on student needs, able to provide level but cost-effective programming and staffing.

            The details of the FY22 budget will be spelled out during the March 2 hearing. Factors such as a reduction in state aid, lower than anticipated transportation reimbursement, utility cost increases due to COVID-19, third-year-teacher contract increases, and the overall fiscal climate amidst the pandemic culminated in producing what Nelson called “obviously not the easiest” budget process.

            As for town assessments, Marion is looking at a 0.8 percent increase, Mattapoisett a 0.39 percent increase and Rochester a 1.19 percent decrease, with each town comprising 30.24 percent, 36.91 percent and 32.85 percent of the total ORR budget, respectively.

            “I think that our towns should be very thankful that we are coming forward with such a reasonable budget request,” said Burke. “I don’t think that this budget necessarily meets all of the needs of our district, but I think that it moves our district forward in the key places and maintains our district’s excellence to go forward.”

            Burke expressed frustration over the state’s response to the current financial needs of education in Massachusetts, which she said has led to funding gaps that individual towns must cover.

            “This idea of schools versus towns is really manufactured by the state’s gap in funding,” said Burke.

            The next meeting of the Old Rochester Regional School Committee, and the FY22 budget hearing, is scheduled for Tuesday, March 2, at 6:30 pm.

Old Rochester Regional School Committee

By Jean Perry

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