BERKSHIRE HILLS REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT

Great Barrington                     Stockbridge                  West Stockbridge

SCHOOL COMMITTEE MEETING

Teleconference Meeting via Zoom

February 11, 2021 – 6:00pm – approved 3/11/21

Present:

School Committee:                 S. Bannon, J. St. Peter, A. Hutchinson, C. Sprague, R. Dohoney, B. Fields, D. Singer, M. Thomas, S. Stephen

Administration:                       P. Dillon, S. Harrison

Staff/Public:                             T. Lee, K. Farina, B. Doren, S. Soule, (student member)

Absent:                                     B Bonn-Buffoni

RECORDER NOTE:  Meeting attended by recorder and minutes transcribed during the meeting and after the fact from live recording provided by CTSB.  Length of meeting:  1 hour, 31 minutes.

CALL TO ORDER

Chairman Steve Bannon called the meeting to order immediately at 6pm.

PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE

The listing of agenda items are those reasonably anticipated by the chair, which may be discussed at the meeting. Not all items listed may in fact be discussed, and other items not listed may be brought up for discussion to the extent permitted by law. This meeting is being recorded by CTSB, Committee Recorder, members of the public with prior Chair permission and will be broadcast at a later date. Minutes will be transcribed and made public, as well as added to our website, www.bhrsd.org once approved.

  • Minutes:
  • Superintendent’s Report: Dillon – the thing I am most excited to talk about is kids are back in school in a variety of different ways.  We had hoped to start a week ago but we had a pretty nasty snow storm so for two days in a row, we worked remotely and then Wednesday we are remote so we brought kids in on Thursday.  The whole elementary school is in-person now four days a week with the exception of a small number of peer partners in the PK program who come in two days a week.  It is going wonderfully and I am excited about it.  The middle and high school have most kids coming in two days a week.  There is a small number of Cohort A kids that are coming in four days a week and that is off to a nice start.  There are several things that I will talk about in the COVID part of the meeting, but we look at county-wide numbers, town numbers, we look at cases within the school and we also juggle staffing issues.  We are doing well but we are very much operating with skeleton staffing right now.  At any point if too many additional people are out that could jeopardize what we are doing.  So far it has been really good and I want to thank the principals and the teachers on that and all the staff for their work.  The other thing I would like to mention and some community people might be involved in this too, we have been hosting a clinic for COVID vaccines at the DuBois Middle School and that is going really well.  It is on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  They serve between 600-900 people on a day.  That is remarkable.  We are happy to host them.
  • Good News Item(s):
  • Requested Vote to Accept School Choice Students for FY22: Every year I ask you to vote to accept school choice students and some districts do it differently than us.  From a state perspective, you are not obligated to vote and taking no action would be that we would accept school choice students but I think it is a good practice to vote to do.  As I have explained before, this district doesn’t vote grade by grade on how many seats there are; you all give me some latitude there and we accept choice applications; we do a lottery; we put kids in order based on that lottery and then we fill seats deliberately where we see there being room.  Even as we recover from COVID and move forward I think we will be a little cautious about keeping class sizes smaller than historically we have so we will be very deliberate there but I would like to ask for your support to vote to accept school choice students for FY22.  MOTION TO ACCEPT SCHOOL CHOICE STUDENT FOR FY22           ST. PETER            SECONDED:  C. SPRAGUE           ACCEPTED:  UNANIMOUS
  • Presentation: FY22 Budget P. Dillon & S. Harrison (See attached slides)  Fields – about transportation, we didn’t go to school as much last year, there were no athletic transportation and I notice there is an increase.  It is not a huge increase but for people who are concerned about the cost of transportation which the state still doesn’t give us a 100%, can you explain why it hasn’t gone down more dramatically and actually it has gone up.  S. Harrison – because we are projecting that we will have a full school year next year and each year the contract increases by the CPI so I took this year’s cost per bus per run, increased it by the CPI and projected a full school year, next year; same thing with the athletic line that we are anticipating and very hopeful that we will have a full athletic schedule next year as well and we will need to cover all of the transportation costs for away games.  P. Dillon – this year, a normal year is 180 school days and we run buses for 180 days.  This year there were 170 school days because of the 10 the commissioner gave us at the beginning.  On the days that were fully remote days, those weeks at the beginning and at the end of December into January, we weren’t running buses so there are some savings there for not running buses but we have to remember the amount the state reimburses us is tied to the actual cost.  We are paying less for busing because we didn’t use it for some weeks but the state is then giving us even less reimbursement because we didn’t pay for it.  S. Bannon – on top of that the money that we saved falls to E&D or to the transportation revolving fund.  R. Dohoney – last year we projected for a regular year and that didn’t happen so some of that money is going to fall to the fund but next year we are assuming we will be normal.  P. Dillon – so it is the same plus the CPI.  H. Bellow – why is the district working with a skeleton crew right now?  Is that because people are under quarantine or is it just the various difficult logistics regarding the shutdown for the pandemic?  P. Dillon – it is a whole host of things.  Some folks are working remotely because they have medically documented reasons.  They have compromised immune systems and their doctor is saying they need to work remotely.  Everybody is doing a really good job of being conscientious about protecting everybody else’s health so in the past if you had the sniffles or sore throat, you’d suck it up and come to work and in this climate, we don’t want anybody to suck it up and come to work.  We want people who are potentially contagious to stay home and figure out what is going on.  I think that is compounded a little bit with where just a few paraprofessionals resigned or retired so we are a little short-staffed there.  All those things come together and it is the regular stuff too.  Somebody has a closing to refinance their mortgage, somebody’s kid is sick, all the other things that normally happen.  We have never had a ton of substitutes and we need more now.  I pasted in the Great Barrington Community Board today and also on my personal page so if anyone wants to substitute, reach out to me or Doreen, my secretary and we will set you up to do that.
  • Update(s):
    • COVID-19 – P. Dillon – we are going into February break so I am not as fixated on the numbers as I normally am.  The numbers are really quite remarkable and some of the best we have seen since the pandemic started.  The county-wide infection rate is .66 which rivals what it was in the summer and it is still trending down.  The county-wide positive test rate is 1.6.  Our own Great Barrington is down quite a bit and it is a 2.59 for the positive test rate.  Stockbridge is .26 and West Stockbridge is .62.  We are really in good shape.  Much better than after the winter break and Thanksgiving.  The other hot spot was Halloween which there was quite a bit of spread connected to that.  I am really psyched about the numbers but I think it is really important for us not to rest on our laurels or get lazy about it.  Let’s keep the numbers low and not see them spike again.  Please mask or double mask, wash your hands, keep the social distancing.  I think all of the schools are demonstrating that they can be very safe because they follow very careful protocols and particularly, I sent out a reminder about this and I will do it again over the break, please be very deliberate about your choices over February break.  We are all in this together and if at the last minute somebody does buy you that ticket to Disney World, make sure on your return you get tested and quarantine, and do all the things the governor is encouraging you to do.  The one staff spot and after my note on this I got a lot of comments, Hawaii is the only low risk state so lots of people are using my leverage to encourage their spouses to take them to Hawaii for February break.  If you do that, please give me credit for it.  Dohoney – are you anticipating a shift if things continue on this path?  P. Dillon – you mean in terms of more kids being in school?  Yes, potentially.  Largely the whole elementary school is in right now.  We hope to continue that.  We had plans for the 5th and 6th grade to be in four days a week and we would love to do that.  The bump in the road is around staffing.  I am going to work really hard to see if we can resolve that.  That would be the next step.  As you know better than any of us, we’ve had some success with the boys and girls basketball and we had success with downhill skiing.  There are plans underway for the fall season to happen in the spring which is football and soccer.  Then plans after that for baseball, track and tennis.  I am excited about that.  We are talking about other activities so it is just more than athletics.  It is artistic things, music drama, the whole range.  Hopefully we keep expanding.  We are constrained at the high school by the six foot social distancing and the physical space so we continue to explore a range of possibilities.  J. St. Peter – I know some districts are switching from the six foot distancing down to the original recommendation of three feet.  If the community number goes to a point where they are almost negligible, is there any thought to shifting back to complete full time or is that off the table at this point.  P. Dillon – I don’t think anything is off the table.  I think there has to be discussions about it.  There was new guidance today; there is constant guidance and I haven’t had a chance to read it yet but it is from the commissioners office and department of public health around busing.  I think there is wide agreement when we can do in-person learning, it is preferable and hope we can continue to do more of it.  At some point, it will get warm again and that will afford us a wider range of options.  R. Dohoney – in the beginning we didn’t know what to look for and now there are so many studies.  We took the conservative approach and other regions of the country didn’t.  At the high school level the transmission rate is so low.  The state is pretty confident in reducing that number.  If you look into the lens of the research that is out there now, I think we can increase our numbers.  C. Sprague – I think the other piece is it would give us the level of confidence we haven’t had up until this point.  P. Dillon – I am meeting with colleague superintendents about this but we are approved, trained and ready to do the rapid test.  We are approved to participate in the pool testing by state.  We are working as a consortium of districts to hire some external people, maybe nurses or other background to supervise those tests.  For the older kids it is largely self-administered; for the youngest kids, the person will probably support that happening.  The aspiration and hope is to have it start after February break.  Realistically it could be a couple of more weeks than the Monday after February break because we haven’t even interviewed people to do it.  We are moving forward with it.  We set aside the resources to cover the cost of it.  We just have to connect with the test provider and tie up some loose ends around staffing.  I imagine the next time we talk, I can tell you that either we are doing it or we are about to do it pending the hire.  B. Fields – my favorite subject, MCAS.  Is there any word from the state that you know of in regards to this idiotic plan that was announced that they are going to have MCAS and they are still debating about whether or not students are going to brought in for this or they are going to do it remotely with all the problems ensures.  Did you hear anything from the state in regards to our wonderful letter that we unanimously agreed to send, talking about the testing situation and what it does to our district?  P. Dillon – funny you should ask Bill.  Today, I was on a call with the commissioner and several people brought this up.  Many districts have similar concerns that we have.  The plan as it stands now is for districts to go ahead and do it.  I think I shared that they have taken all of the accountability implications away from it but it is still not a great plan.  They are waiting for additional feedback or direction from the new secretary of education around what is going to happen and if there will be any increased flexibility.  I hope that comes and we have an 11th hour reprieve to change things.  I agree with the letter that you unanimously approved.  I will reach out and follow up on their response to our letter.  It may be one of hundreds of letters they received and have not had a chance to respond yet.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense and I would rather use our time and energy and resources on anything else; kids, families, food insecurity, learning opportunities, anything that matters.  B. Fields – well they are hip on this and they are wanting to do this test for some reason because they are using the rationale that we have to determine and measure this new concept called Learning Loss which in itself is really questionable. Hopefully if you talk to people in the DOE and DESE, it would possibility be to give the districts the local option of whether or not we want to opt out or not and allowing districts to want to continue this craziness, they can go ahead and test but other districts may want to have the flexibility where we are not put into a straight jacket and forced to do this.  P. Dillon – Bill, you will find this interesting, this morning I was on a different call with folks from DESE and they are piloting a new really innovative science MCAS; so there is the regular part and there is a new part that really hards on applied learning, reasoning, problem solving, all the wonderful things we would like to see in a thoughtful assessment and it will be interesting to see how that work grows over time.  As I get more information on that I will bring it back to the group and share that.
  • Sub Committee Reports:
    • Policy Sub Committee – N/A
    • Building and Grounds Sub Committee – J. St. Peter – we met last week. Steve Soul gave a district update.  He explained to us that he did a deep dive into the heating systems, especially at the high school because it has been having problems of the years and the same problems in the past existed; some areas were good, some were warm, some were cool.  None were particularly cold which was good.  He is making headway as best he can on the systems in an aging building and aging heating system.  He took some more time exploring outdoor classrooms.  That came up even before COVID as another way of learning.  That is going great and he is thinking between the F and B wings.  He is working with teachers on that.  With the COVID crisis and the six foot space problem, a lot of stuff had to get moved around.  A lot of stuff was moved into the gym because of lack of space but now thankfully, basketball has started and fall sports will start soon, then spring sports will be using that space so stuff will have to be shifted to other parts of the building.  Those of us that have watched the basketball games, there is still obviously stuff being stored in there so he is continuing to make an effort to clear that space out even more but he is quickly running out of room.  He said all three schools are looking good as far as the kids coming back after a couple month break.  The middle school heating system has a valve that needs to be rebuilt every three or four years.  That is just a normal life expectancy thing and it will be done soon.  At the middle school with the cold weather we had a few weeks ago, a sprinkler head froze and blew at the main entrance.  It was in the little alcove so wasn’t part of the building and that alcove is more at risk for freezing.  Fortunately it happened in the morning around 8 and everyone was there so no significant damage occurred.  This summer when he has more time, he will look for a more permanent fix and connect with the fire chief.  The COVID clinics have been going well at the middle school.  They have been happening every Wednesday and Saturday and they will continue to go on.  One of the big advantages of having Wednesday’s off is the community can use the gym for the clinics.  Going forward if the need arises there might be some sunny day usage.  At the elementary school, the chiller hopefully will be fixed over the April break.  As far as the maintenance goes this time of year, the snow removal and the plowing that our crew does has been exemplary.  At last week’s meeting there was no work yet on the MSBA fund but basically the COVID crisis has disrupted their meeting schedule and their timeline and there is no set in stone guideline at this point.  Whenever they decide to allocate the money is when we will hear but there is nothing definitive as far as we know.
    • Superintendent’s Evaluation Sub Committee – N/A
    • Technology Sub Committee – N/A
    • Finance Sub Committee – N/A
    • District Consolidation & Sharing Sub-Committee – S. Bannon – this committee is not formally meeting but as Peter mentioned in his budget the group that is meeting with Southern Berkshire has been meeting quite regularly and it is a very slow process. It is going to take some time.  There are quite a few school committee members, selectboard members, finance committee members from our three towns and we are slowly plugging away.  It is slow but I think there is progress being made.  Progress doesn’t mean positive or negative; it just means we are diving into the details.  Dohoney – so we don’t have anything in our budget for next year for that; not that we need to.  We appropriated some money out of this year’s budget.  P. Dillon – we appropriated some out of this year’s budget.  We did not put a discrete line in it going forward.  We are hopeful, we applied to the DESE for a $125,000 grant for this year.  If those grants are available next year, we will apply again and I imagine they might be and there are some private philanthropies that might support it.  There is a separate set of grant opportunities connected to regional efforts that is more like in the town government side of things.  Lucy, the chair of the group, has been going from town to town asking them to set aside $15,000 each knowing that if we receive state money, that number might be reduced.  There would be some support there.  Then there is another way to get money from the state, not through the DESE but through the Department of Revenue directly to support regional efficiency projects.  S. Stephen – being on this board, I would recommend that we at least put some money off to the side to acknowledge that this is something that needs to be paid for by the school districts.  That is one of the issues we have been running into is school districts now wanting to pony up to pay for these sorts of things so I think we need to put something in there.  P. Dillon – they are quite confident we are going to get state money.  To put money aside now would just inflate the budget when there has been no request.  I think if they do request money during the year, we can do like we did this year and transfer from line items that are underspent.  P. Dillon – I think we could do that and also if all the towns were to contribute at the $15,000 ask that would generate $120,000 which is a significant amount of money.  It is a point well made and maybe what I do is have Lucy put that as an agenda item for a future meeting before the school districts finish up their budgets for this year.  B. Fields – does this group plan on doing some sort of progress report to make it public?  Some people have asked me what is going on with it and what is going on with it and you have said, but I am not sure the general public is aware, especially one columnist who continually writes about why isn’t this being done immediately.  I am wondering if there is going to be at some point a progress report.  What are all of these meetings accomplishing?  S. Bannon – Lucy and Peter Taylor have met with every selectboard and that has been covered by the press.  We have just formed a community outreach committee so there will be even more contact with the community.  The progress that we made, although not really significant, isn’t worth a press release right now.  We are starting to get momentum.  P. Dillon – just to add a little more detail, I don’t want to foreshadow too much of what is going on but there have been discussions around the work being done with selectboards and finance committees but it is obvious that there needs to be opportunities for dialogue with citizens and residents of all the towns.  I think there will be some sort of presentations, listening sessions, surveys, focus group things happening in the next six months.  In this context that may end up happening by Zoom or something like that.  I think there is some interest in some student leaders playing a role in helping convene and run some of those.  We will share an update.  Each of the districts is hosting a temporary website but the communications group has aspirations of pretty quickly developing its own interactive website.  There are more reports than you can possibly read have been commissioned and done.  Some are pretty insightful.  You can find those on our website or Southern Berkshire’s website but eventually it will be on a discrete website and we can start pointing people to that.  As good as reports are, not everybody has the stomach for reading them.  A dozen hour-long informational sessions to give people a high-level overview of what is going on would be really relevant and will happen soon.  S. Bannon – you know the expression, it’s not rocket science?  This may be.  It is more complicated than people would think.  Merging regional districts is.
  • Personnel Report:
    • Non-Certified Appointment(s)
    • Retirement(s) – P. Dillon – last week I shared with you all about Tim Lee’s official news that he is retiring and how much I have appreciated Tim’s time in the district. That position is posted with a closing date a month from today of March 11th.  We are starting to get applications for that.  Another very thoughtful administrator in Muddy Brook is Nan Thompson and she has been with us for a number of years after a great career in Weston and starting in Maine.  Nan has also indicated that she will retire this August.  What that means is two significant leadership changes in one year and that is something we can work through.  What we are going to do is I will send an email to parents; I have already reached out to staff about this and obviously school committee members can join as well, but we are starting a search committee for the principal position and we will do that sometime after March 11th.  Slightly before, maybe March 1st, I will also post the assistant principal position and we will get applications coming in as we finish up the principal search.  One of the first duties of the new principal will be to be involved in the assistant principal search.  We will try to condense the overlap of those two so whomever our new principal is can play a role in that.  In both cases, I really appreciate Tim and Nan and all the things she has done for the district in a whole host of different ways.  It is challenging to lose two people in one year but that has happened in other schools and people have managed the transition well.  We have great teachers and staff.  Dohoney – have applicants been given our new diversity policy?  P. Dillon – yes, it is the first document they will get. Obviously we are doing things to try to draw a diverse candidate pool.  J. St. Peter – I just had a question with the staffing issues and substitutes and paras.  Because of union concerns salary with paras hands are tied but with substitutes we increased our pay to be more competitive.  I think with extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.  If we need to increase those fees again to get people in the building, I think it is critical.  Anything needed going forward to get as many people in the buildings as qualified substitutes, I am all for.  With COVID, there are a lot of substitutes who are older or retired teachers and are at higher risk but moving forward that won’t be a problem.  Whatever we need to do, I am all for.  P. Dillon – it is my understanding, that I actually have the latitude to adjust that rate.  The substitutes are not in a bargaining group.  Obviously I would consult with the board.  I am looking at a range of different models to do it.  I think a temporary increase in the context of COVID makes sense and hopefully there are people out there in the listening audience that are hearing this.  We will come up with a new rate structure so reach out to us.  We could really use your help.  The other thing is we may be getting to the point where some of the more senior people who used to substitute are now getting their second vaccine and they feel more comfortable being back in school.  We welcome those people if they feel safe and protected to come back.  R. Dohoney – if you feel the need to make a rate change, make it unilaterally so it doesn’t affect us after.  P. Dillon – I very rarely do that but this is the kind of situation that warrants it.  I started looking at different models.  I think one of the things we could do is we have a different rate for day-to-day subs versus long-term subs and pay people the higher long-term rate might be good.  There also might be a way to incentivize people who work more days.  If you put in four days you get X, if you put in eight days, you get X plus Y; if you put in 12 days you get X plus Y plus Z.  We have that flexibility.  If you have college students at home, they could substitute; recent graduates we put to work.  It is not so awkward like teaching next to your favorite high school teacher.  It is a good thing.  We welcome you doing that.  I would really like to thank all the staff for doing remarkable work in trying times and the students who are continually wonderful and the parents who are endless patient, I am hoping for no more snow days or storms during school time.  We are doing everything in our ability to keep the kids we have in school and try to figure out other ways to get kids back in school.
    • Extra-Curricular Appointment(s)
  • Business Operation
  • Education News
  • Old Business
  • New Business
    • Public Comment
    • Written Communication

MOTION TO ADJOURN – R. DOHONEY               SECONDED:  M. THOMAS                        ACCEPTED:  UNANIMOUS

Meeting Adjourned at 7:31pm

Submitted by:  Christine M. Kelly, Recorder

______________________________

Christine M. Kelly, Recorder

 

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School Committee Secretary