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Board hears opinions on Greenfield virtual school

— Six people praised the Massachusetts Virtual Academy as the best fit for their children and four Greenfield residents expressed concerns about the school department’s cyber school future during a Greenfield School Committee public hearing Tuesday.

The hearing took place two days before the committee will review and vote on a proposal to start a new state-authorized virtual school, which would succeed the department’s three-year virtual innovation school.

The committee needs to submit the proposal to the state by Monday, and some School Committee members wanted to give Greenfield residents one more chance to speak before the deadline.

The school uses the Internet to teach 470 students, including a dozen from Greenfield, from across the state. Families have said that their students — for a variety of reasons ranging from athletic and artistic endeavors to adverse neurological or biological conditions — cannot attend public brick-and-mortar schools. Four mothers, one father, one grandmother and one student traveled from a Bradford, Dover, Southborough, Shelburne Falls, Ware and Worcester to praise the virtual school. Deanne Brochu has a grandson from Greenfield who attends the school. Other virtual school families attended but didn’t speak.

Greenfield residents who spoke Tuesday expressed concern about the role that private, for-profit company K12 would play in the virtual school. For the past three years, the school department has contracted with the Virginia-based company for curriculum services. At least three K12 employees were at Tuesday’s public hearing.

Greenfield resident Jeff Comenitz, who has attended several School Committee and innovation subcommittee meetings in the past month, said that the school’s current tuition of $5,000 per student (paid for by host districts) is far too low to adequately operate a school. The virtual school’s methods of reporting data must also be improved to keep K12 academically accountable for the progress of the students, he said.

Mark Wisnewski — vice president of Greenfield Town Council and husband of committee member Francia Wisnewski — wrote in a letter to the School Committee that he was concerned about the amount of Greenfield Public Schools administrative time spent on the virtual school, and about the privatization of educational services.

“Private companies have one goal and one goal only: to make a profit,” wrote Wisnewski, in a letter read out loud by Chairman John Lunt. “Not to educate children nor rehabilitate prisoners nor provide better hospital services but to make an ever-increasing profit.” School officials contended earlier this month that administrative time is compensated because Greenfield retains 3 percent of virtual school student tuition each year and uses that money to pay for an administrative assistant.

The hearing ended with Pilar Holik, a virtual school parent from Ware, leading the crowd of 30 in a short round of applause for the work the School Committee has spent on its cyber school deliberation.

Member Francia Wisnewski, a proponent of the hearing, said that the event “reiterates that we need to strengthen our public education and we need to continue offering alternatives for education for children who learn differently.” Member Daryl Essensa said her takeaway from the night is that people want the committee to hear their concerns but to continue proceeding with caution.

“This has been a careful process, a thoughtful process and it will continue to be,” she said.

Lunt said that all of the hearing’s speakers who had direct experience with the school were “uniformly positive about it.” “I think there’s a gap between people who object to (the virtual school) on a more philosophical level and the people who are practically involved with the school,” he said.

Member Maryelen Calderwood said the event was a hearing for Greenfield residents and was troubled that so many comments regarding the school have come from parents outside of the town.

“I have more concerns tonight than I did before,” she said. “I (saw) a mom who has four children that is the learning coach for one kid ... (and) one child that said, ‘I can check on Mom when she’s sick.’ I worry about that.” Mayor William Martin, a voting member of the committee, said that the hearing reaffirmed his position to continue the school, while also providing things to keep in mind as the department plans the school’s scheduled opening of July 1.

“There’s definitely a lot to do (but) I’m glad we got this in,” he said.

Members Doris Doyle and Marcia Day were not present Tuesday night. Margaret Betts and Wesley Blixt, who are running unopposed for two School Committee seats, were present as public observers.

The innovation subcommittee met Wednesday at the Davis Street administrative offices to finalize the virtual school proposal after which the full school panel must review and approve the proposal at its regular meeting today at 6:30 p.m. at the high school.

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