HWRSD adopts anti-racism resolution, discusses return to school and budget

July 1, 2020 | Sarah Heinonen

HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – At the beginning of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District meeting on June 30, School Committee Chair Patrick Kiernan announced that member Heather Zanetti had resigned effective immediately. No further details were provided.

The committee considered adoption of an anti-racism resolution from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC). Vice-Chair Sherrill Caruana told the other committee members that she had been “very moved” after attending a Black Lives Matter rally in Wilbraham on June 17, followed by a commemoration of Juneteenth in front of the Hampden Town Hall two days later.

“It was the first time I realized that we have a problem in Hampden-Wilbraham and we’re not alone,” said Caruana. She noted that as a district they have a responsibility to address racism.

The resolution makes several commitments, including creating an environment for all students, examining policies for institutionalized racism and incorporating the history of oppression and works by Black authors and diverse perspectives into curriculum.

Committee Member Bill Bontempi asked about funding for inclusivity training, the source of which, Caruana agreed, had not been made clear in the documentation attached to the resolution.

“Unfunded mandates are the bane of our existence, but the cost of not doing anything,” Committee Member Sean Kennedy said, “is too high.”

Superintendent Albert Ganem said that the district would be conducting diversity training in July with the A World of Difference Institute, an organization that provides anti-bias education.               

Committee Member Maura Ryan suggested holding a community forum on anti-racism in the upcoming school year.

Caruana noted a portion of the resolution commits to hiring a diverse faculty. She said that in 2019, of the 422 teachers in the district only three were Black.

Bontempi also inquired about the curriculum portion of the resolution and suggested asking MASC to update their definition to include “the history of oppression worldwide,” rather than racial oppression in the United States.

“If we can’t pass this, I don’t know what we can pass,” Caruana said, but Bontempi was hesitant to vote that night.

“We’re not under the gun to the point that we have to pass this tonight,” Bontempi said. While he said he was not opposed to the “spirit” of anything in the resolution, he wanted to hear from teachers and the community before passing it. The school committee would be “usurping the authority of the electorate” by voting on it before talking to the public.

Caruana countered that a resolution on COVID-19 funding that passed at the committee’s most recent meeting wasn’t put to the public beforehand.

Kiernan weighed in saying that what the resolution asked for was “the bare minimum.” The committee approved the resolution with Bontempi and Ryan abstaining.

Caruana said the curriculum subcommittee will meet with the directors of curriculum Julie Keefe and

In the superintendent’s report, Ganem gave a summary of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) guidelines for reopening schools, which include placing desks at least three feet apart and the mandatory use of masks for students in grades 2 and up.

Ganem said that administrators were meeting every two weeks and he was meeting with representatives from the teachers union, the Hampden-Wilbraham Education Association to put plans in place.

Many components of schooling are still undecided with no guidance from the state yet. These include regulations for transportation, sports and extracurricular activities, and the development of centralized remote-learning platform.

“There’s a lot still unanswered,” Ganem said. “The biggest thing is making sure [students] are safe.”

Bontempi said Ganem can’t wait for the commissioner’s guidance.

“I don’t want to put all our eggs in that basket and say, ‘Hey, we kind of got hosed on this,’” Bontempi said. “The commissioner has been behind the ball.”

Ganem assured him that the district has been moving forward and is already in talks with health officials and the lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative, which supplies buses.

Director of Finance, Operations and Human Resources Howard Barber addressed a controversy regarding funding that has been transferred to the district’s transportation revolving account. The transfer of up to $1.2 million was approved at a school committee meeting two weeks prior. The money was needed to fill in the expected gap in state funding.

“[The towns] recognized the intent of what we were trying to do,” when the assessments were approved at their respective annual town meetings, said Barber.

Since then, Barber said “factions within the towns” had contacted the associate education commissioner twice with the position that the money not spent in the 2020 fiscal year should be returned to the towns.

“The assessment to the towns is not changing. We’re not giving the money back to the towns,” Barber said and added that the associate commissioner had confirmed that.

Bontempi noted that the state certifies money left over at the end of the year to make sure it is being spent correctly and that leftover money has never been returned to the towns.

Pivoting to the topic of faculty and staff positions, Barber said that in addition to the 15 layoffs that were accounted for in the budget, 13 teaching positions, six paraprofessionals and two custodial positions have not yet been recalled for the 2020-21 school year.

Barber said this translated to 650,000-$700,000 which could potentially be used by the district to make up additional shortfalls in the state funding. Most of the teachers who have not yet been called back are specialist positions. Three administrative positions have also been eliminated.

If the cuts to state funding are not as high as the expected 20 percent, those employees will be brought back.

“We want them back, we need them back, but we also need to be able to afford them,” Ganem said. Barber noted many districts in the state have over a hundred reductions but Kiernan said his only concern was HWRSD.

Ganem recently took part in a conference call with state Sen. Eric Lesser regarding the MCAS.

“One of the things we’re pushing is to hold off on administering and MCAS,” for the next couple of years, Ganem said, considering the impact of the school interruption. He said Lesser was receptive to the idea, which would require legislative action.

Ganem received his official superintendent’s evaluation and scored proficiently throughout. Opportunities for improvement that were identified included being comfortable sharing his opinion and saying no to things as well as taking initiative without waiting for guidance from the DESE.

Ganem thanked the committee for their feedback and said he truly wants to become a better superintendent. He spoke about his love for HWRSD as a district.

The results of the survey sent out to parents received 1,200 responses. A total of 59.8 percent of respondents said they wanted their child to return to school with new regulations, possibility of returning to remote learning, if needed. Despite that preference, 71.4 percent of parents answered that they would stay in the district even if the schooling is done by remote learning.

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