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After four years, Greenfield’s virtual school to close June 30

— Nearly four years after the Greenfield School Committee voted to open the state’s first public virtual school, that same committee decided Thursday to shut it down. In a 7-0 unanimous vote, the committee voted to not submit an application to become the state’s first “commonwealth virtual school” — a public school, controlled by the state and structured like a charter school, that would teach students across Massachusetts via the Internet.

It means that the Massachusetts Virtual Academy — a three-year-old Greenfield public school that teaches 470 students, including a dozen Greenfield residents — will close June 30. The school enrolled students from around western Massachusetts, including Hampshire County.

A new law passed this January gives the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education authority over any future Massachusetts virtual schools. The state had agreed to grandfather Greenfield into the system, since the district has operated an “innovation” virtual school since 2010.

The law bans innovation virtual schools, which means that in order for Greenfield to keep open its Massachusetts Virtual Academy, it needed to submit an application to the state by March 25.

A motion to submit such an application failed 5-2, with members Doris Doyle and Daryl Essensa casting the dissenting votes. Superintendent Susan Hollins, Doyle and Essensa argued that submitting an application to the state would allow the committee more time to make its decision while not losing its opportunity to operate a virtual school this fall. Hollins also suggested that the committee wait until its March meeting to make a decision to allow more time for deliberation.

But the other members said that more time would not change the fact that the school that they had operated for three years would be fundamentally different come July 1.

Mayor William Martin, a voting member, said that the department of elementary and secondary education is not in support of Greenfield’s school, and that he believes the state should take up the responsibility itself of running a virtual school program. Chairman John Lunt, long a supporter of the virtual school, said that the new school would essentially be a charter school, run by a separate board. It isn’t the School Committee’s responsibility to run a charter school, he said.

Sitting in the audience at the committee’s meeting was the virtual school’s principal Carl Tillona, head program administrator Ryan Clepper and K12 senior director of school development Lorna Bryant.

Greenfield contracted with K12, a for-profit online education company that provides teachers, curriculum, online learning tools and physical course materials for the district’s virtual school.

The three left silently after the vote took place.

Proponents of the school said it served a student population that, for a variety of reasons — ranging from athletic and artistic endeavors to adverse neurological or biological conditions — cannot attend a “brick-and-mortar” school.

Tillona, hired to the post last month, said he was disappointed the school was not continuing.

“I think that for the small population of students we need a school like this in Massachusetts,” he said. “For these kids, a virtual school was it.” “I have a deep concern for the families, students and teachers that I work with every day,” said Clepper, a K12 employee. “My only interest is doing what’s best for these families moving forward.”

Hollins had argued that the committee should continue the school because it was too late for these families to find another place to send their children next fall. After the meeting, she reiterated that she wished the committee had taken more time before its final vote, but that she respected the decision.

Several members praised Hollins for her work over the past four years of starting and running a virtual school — a task never before done in Massachusetts and an action that they said consistently faced resistance from state officials.

“I understand and appreciate how disappointing this is for the superintendent and the people that have worked so hard and put so much of themselves into this,” said Lunt, after the meeting.

“I wish it had remained an innovation school, in which case I would have voted for it,” he said. “But the law is the law and we have to deal with what is, not what we wish it would be.” Although previous discussion had centered around K12 — the for-profit curriculum company that has faced scrutiny by some in Tennessee and Florida — the topic almost never came up in Thursday’s discussion.

Comments made during the public session asked the committee to produce a cost benefit analysis so that taxpayers could see if the virtual school provided any financial benefit to the district.

The virtual school was originally billed as a safe, alternative place for students to learn outside of the classroom. Greenfield had hopes that the school would also bring money into the district, be a pioneer in virtual education and provide free classes to Greenfield brick-and-mortar students. But the state capped the student population at 500 and capped the per-pupil cost at $5,000 for sending districts. Greenfield students, at the brick-and-mortar public schools, had just begun tapping into the opportunities to take online courses. There were about 30 students from the Math and Science Academy and about 50 from the high school taking courses, said Hollins.

Hollins argued that the School Committee could submit whatever it wanted in its application. It could ask for more money per student, it could express its desire to go beyond 500 students or be allowed for the first time to recruit high school students. And it could elect its own members to the new virtual school’s board and still maintain some control over the school. But the committee was not swayed.

Martin thanked state legislators who had pushed for Greenfield’s interests, including Sen. Stan Rosenberg and current sheriff and former Rep. Christopher Donelan.

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