School Committee Votes Not To Participate In School Choice Due To Capacity Issues

WILMINGTON, MA — At its meeting on Wednesday night, the Wilmington School Committee voted 6-1 not to participate in the state’s School Choice Program for next school year because of a lack of available space to accommodate out-of-town students.

“Since 1994, when the State enacted the School Choice Program, the Wilmington School Committee has annually voted not to participate for a variety of reasons,” said Interim Superintendent Paul Ruggerio before the vote. “In previous years, the School Committee’s decision not to participate has been based on the lack of available space for students out of Wilmington. This situation remains the case for the FY19 school year as well.”

School Committee member Jennifer Bryson was the one “no” vote.

“I’d be more interested in learning more about this topic before we vote I’d like just a little bit more information,” Bryson told her colleagues. “My questions: Are we at capacity? Could we not welcome in anyone from another district? If we can, how many students can that be? Could it be 1 or 2 students? There’s so many things I don’t know about this, I don’t feel comfortable voting on something that I’m not knowledgeable about before we say, ‘sorry, we can’t do that here’.”

Bryson didn’t get all of her questions answered prior to the vote.

“I can do more research on this. I’ll have to look to see that if we [adopt school choice], will it open up to all classes and grade levels.  If that is the case, you could run into difficulty with capacity issues,” responded Interim Superintendent Ruggerio. “Also, we have class guidelines in our contracts and we could run up against that, potentially requiring the need to hire additional staff.”

After being called upon by School Committee Chair Steve Bjork, future Superintendent Dr. Glenn Brand – who was sitting in the audience — provided additional information on the matter.

“If you know you have seats available in a targeted grade, you can refine – rather than just open up [to all grades and schools],” clarified Brand. “If a particular grade level was declining in numbers, and your population forecast continues that trend, and you wanted to open up 10 or 15 seats, my understanding is… you can do that.”

“There’s certainly pros and cons to discuss and consider,” continued Brand. “One thing to keep in mind is that you’re making a long-term commitment to those students. If there’s uncertainty around the forecast of building construction [in town] that could impact the population, the School Committee would want to be aware of that.”

“There’s a lot of talk going on around town about potential large developments,” remarked Bjork.  “After we let people in, we could find ourselves over capacity.”

Several of Bjork’s colleagues also expressed concerns with school choice.

“I’m very guarded to do anything but vote ‘no’ at this juncture. Without that additional information [Bryson is requesting], I don’t want to risk the programming and what we currently have,” said MJ Byrnes. “This is certainly a discussion going forward…We can revisit it and gain more information for next year’s [vote].”

“It’s not just space, but it’s the resources these [out-of-town students would] use,” added Manny Mulas. “My opinion is we continue to do what we’ve been doing since 1994.”

“[Accepting students] appears to not be a good way to go financially,” opined Tom Talbot. “With busing… the amount of money given to the school doesn’t always match what it costs [to educate that student]. I’m concerned it would cause a financial strain.”

Later in the meeting, well after the vote, School Committee candidate David Ragsdale, who works for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, spoke during “Public Comments” to provide answers to some of Bryson’s questions.

“School districts CAN limit the number of school choice students they take. It’s not like once you participate, you’re flooded with students,” said Ragsdale, confirming Brand’s comments.

“Generally, the way the program works is the state aid tuition follows the student into the receiving district, kind of like how charter school tuition follows the student as well,” explained Ragsdale. “It’s mostly a financial benefit to the receiving community.  For systems that have the capacity, it can be a financial windfall — some thousands of dollars per student – will come in.”

(NOTE: Cover photo from Jamie Boudreau.)

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