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Greenfield virtual school hearing set for next week

— Local residents will have an opportunity next week to pose comments and concerns about the school department’s plans to open a new state-authorized cyber school this July.

The Greenfield School Committee will host a public hearing during a special meeting Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the high school — two days before it will vote on a proposal for a new virtual school.

On March 21, the School Committee voted 5-2 to draft a proposal, which essentially outlines a place for an independent state-supervised cyber school to succeed the school department’s 3-year-old virtual innovation school. The proposal is due to the state by April 22.

Later that evening, the committee voted 6-1 to host a public hearing about virtual schools sometime before that April 22 deadline. The committee’s innovation subcommittee was charged with scheduling the meeting. Members Maryelen Calderwood and Francia Wisnewski, who both voted against drafting a proposal, said that the hearing will increase transparency and give the public a chance to make comments before the virtual school proposal is sent to the state.

But Calderwood and Wisnewski said that multiple emails sent during the past three weeks to subcommittee members, asking when the hearing would be held, were not returned.

Mayor William Martin and Committee Chairman John Lunt said Wednesday they had scheduled the hearing for next Tuesday. Lunt said that a public hearing, by definition, does not involve back-and-forth conversation but only public comment.

Doris Doyle, who chairs the innovation subcommittee, voted against the public hearing on March 21 and remains opposed to it. She said the innovation subcommittee has had six public meetings in the past two months, all of which were opportunities for residents to speak and ask questions.

“Those members of the public that want to speak about the virtual school had many, many opportunities to do that and not many showed up,” she said. “We are under the gun to get this (proposal) ready within the next week. We don’t have time to get more information, more input.”

But Calderwood disagreed.

“I find it curious that the subcommittee would, A, give only three days notice to the community and B, schedule it during a time, school vacation, when attendance would likely be low, particularly since they profess sympathy with the public’s right to have input,” she said.

One concern raised by town councilors and local residents was that Greenfield has been, in some form, subsidizing the virtual school. Lunt, Martin and school business administrator Elizabeth Gilman have said repeatedly that it has cost the town nothing and will not in the future in its new independent, charter school-like incarnation.

They said that all expenses for the school were paid for out of a revolving fund. Forprofit curriculum company K12, which Greenfield has contracted with since 2010, took a loss of $640,000 during the first two years of the arrangement, they contend.

And they said that administrative time spent managing the school has been compensated — because the school department has retained an administrative fee (about $69,000 this year), which they said pays the salary of an administrative assistant in Superintendent Susan Hollins’ office.

But Calderwood disagrees, saying that any time spent by Hollins on the virtual school is time funded by local taxpayers.

“Additionally, there is quite a cost associated with selling public education out to private interests, particularly when, by all measurements — none of them mine — (the virtual school) is failing,” she said.

The innovation subcommittee has been working on the proposal for the past month and will present it to the School Committee next Thursday for approval.

Some committee members have expressed a desire to pursue a five-year certificate. Others want a more temporary solution so that the school’s 470 students will have a place to learn next fall.

“There are a lot of moving parts and time is tight but, as Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson stated, (the state) is not looking for perfection at proposal stage,” said member Marcia Day. “The resulting contract is what will need to be examined closely before committing. I’d like to see clear language allowing Greenfield to phase out in one to three years as previously discussed.” Member Daryl Essensa could not be reached for comment.

The state will review the proposal and make a final decision sometime before July 1, when the new virtual school is slated to open.

The Massachusetts Virtual Academy currently enrolls 470 students, including a dozen from Greenfield, but that number could grow to as many as 750 next year under the proposal for a kindergarten-through-Grade-12 school.

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