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Easthampton officials consider reorganizing grade schools

School families will have a chance to weigh in on a proposal to reconfigure the city’s three elementary schools at a forum scheduled for Feb. 27 at 6:30 p.m. at Pepin School.

Reviving an idea that was first explored four years ago, administrators have proposed having all elementary students in the same grade attend the same school. Under the current system, students in grades K-4 are enrolled at both Maple and Center/Pepin. The latter school has two buildings but operates as one school.

Under the proposed reorganization, preschool, kindergarten and first-graders would attend Maple School, while students in grades 2 to 4 would attend Center/Pepin. If approved by the School Committee, the changes would go into effect next fall.

There would be no alteration in school start times or bus schedules, administrators say, though some accommodations would be needed for families with students enrolled at both Maple and Center/Pepin. There would also be no staff reductions as a result of the plan.

School administrators say the change eliminates the need for frequent transfers of students between Maple and Center/Pepin due to budget and class size restraints. It would also mean students from the same neighborhood would be more likely to attend the same school.

“We now have students who live right next door to each other in the same grade who go to different schools,” Maple School Principal Tim Luce told the School Committee last week. “It’s frustrating for families.”

Robert Orlando, principal of Center/Pepin, said the new plan would also allow for a more coordinated elementary school curriculum. “Even though our schools are not separated by that many miles, they might as well be in different towns, given how hard it is to get teachers together,” he said.

Other advantages include giving all students access to the same facilities, such as the auditorium and gym at Pepin, administrators said.

The plan would also involve the creation of a new early childhood center at Maple — “something we’re all excited about,” said Superintendent Nancy Follansbee.

School leaders acknowledged that families and teachers will have concerns about the change. “We need to take this under advisement until we’ve heard from the public,” said School board Chairwoman Nancy Sykes.

For details about the plan or the forum, call 529-1540 (Center/Pepin) or 529-1550 (Maple).

Closing budget gap

In their latest budget work session Feb. 12, city school leaders discussed strategies for closing a $639,412 budget gap estimated for the coming year — including cutting 4.5 teaching positions districtwide.

Those figures are based on a “level services” budget of $17.41 million for the School Department that includes $15.64 million from the city.

“Level services means we maintain everything we currently have,” said Superintendent Nancy Follansbee. But it also means a gap between the amount the school department needs to operate in 2014 and what city, state and other funding sources are expected to provide, she said.

For example, school choice funds will drop by an estimated 25 percent over last year to $669,388, according to figures from the School Department. So-called Circuit Breaker funds for high-cost special education students are expected to drop by 44 percent to $130,000.

On a positive note, savings on energy will reduce spending on school building operations and maintenance in FY 14 by $44,543 — or 3 percent over last year, according to estimates.

In response to Follansbee’s request for a 3 percent cut in individual school budgets, administrators have proposed strategies that will reduce the districtwide budget gap by about half. Follansbee stressed that the ideas are based on preliminary estimates. For that reason, she declined to identify which teaching positions may be cut.

The initial cut list includes: $12,000 in maintenance support for districtwide technology; 1.5 teaching positions at Easthampton High School for a savings of $74,000; a full-time teacher, along with tutoring and administrative support at White Brook Middle School, for a savings of $83,333; a teaching slot at Maple School for a savings of $31,000 (the salary had previously been reduced to 80 percent); a teacher at Center/Pepin for a savings of $50,000; and $8,000 for professional development for the Curriculum Department.

Open forum

Center/Pepin School Principal Robert Orlando will hold an open forum March 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the home of a school parent. Orlando began hosting home meetings last year to provide families with more opportunities to discuss school issues and engage in school activities. The open agenda will allow people “to talk about what they appreciate about our school and their concerns,” Orlando said. Parents interested in attending the meeting can call the school’s main office, 529-1540.

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