School Committee logoDiscussion of Covid, rats, pay for teachers.

It’s money that matters: That Randy Newman song title from 1988 was the theme of much of the Jan. 12 School Committee meeting. 

There was some talk about Covid-19 and a bit of discussion about rodent infestation and other subjects. But it was mostly about money – to increase the pay of classroom personnel, for foreign trips, for school technology and especially the initial planning process for the budget for next school year.

Spirited discussion came early on, ending with a sharply divided vote about whether to approve the traditional trip to Central America – planned for Costa Rica during spring break next year, though in past years it has sometimes been to Belize – for Ottoson Middle School students. See the agenda document >> 

'School adjacent' trip

Superintendent Elizabeth Homan took pains to emphasize that the trip, via private for-profit travel company EF, is neither school -sponsored nor school-run but “school-adjacent” -- and that Arlington Public Schools “messaging” would emphasize that distinction. She said that the existence of the trip has been publicized by the district including hosting informational meetings on campus, as in the past.

She acknowledged that the cost could be prohibitive for many and said that, going forward, the district would be cognizant of “financial-equity issues.” She said the district already has a scholarship fund for high-school-level trips, which also could be tapped on behalf of younger students.

Committee member Jane Morgan, who has historically opposed most school trips on the basis of elitism, noted that the intended OMS excursion was $3,300 per person. She said that despite district “messaging” and scholarships, public perception would remain that it is an official “class trip” benefiting primarily families who could pay for something comparable  on their own – “kids who already have a lot of opportunities.”

Calling the trip “a junket,” Morgan said that there is “no place for that in a district that sees itself as an equitable community.”

Slightly less sure was fellow committee member Kirsi Allison-Ampe, who agreed that continuing the historically popular project would be “offering opportunities to people who can [already otherwise] afford them.” She called it “a really big trip,” was concerned about “equitable access” and  that “I’m still thinking about how I’m going to vote.”

Paul Schlichtman was of two minds. “I really hate anything being exclusive,” he said, but noted that international travel is in general a good thing and could even “be life-changing.” He said he was planning to vote in favor.

Jeff Thielman favored the trip, saying that it had taken place for several years prepandemic, had been working well and was a established practice.

The vote was four in favor, two opposed and one abstention. Thielman, Schlichtman, Len Kardon and Liz Exton voted yes. Morgan and Bill Hayner voted no. Allison-Ampe abstained.

Committee priority: higher pay, staff retention

A clear consensus emerged when committee members were asked about the budget process for the coming school year, which is in its initial stages. The top need expressed was to boost pay and to hire and retain more classroom personnel. 

Opinion was divided about adding an administrative role – a “director of communications and family engagement” for the “welcome center” proposed to be created as a sort of one-stop shop to help parents of new students. Read the agenda documents >> 

Kardon said that the district must “address the hiring problems that we’re having this year,” noting that “19 positions unfilled almost halfway into the [school] year is problematic.” He agreed with the recently presented position paper from the Arlington Education Association (AEA), the teachers’ union, particularly about reclassifying paraprofessionals at the preschool into a higher title and pay category.

Morgan said that establishing the director post should be “up for negotiation” and that she was much more concerned about what could happen if district enrollment continues to grow. “We can’t have 50 kids in French class,” she said.

Thielman, in contrast, supported the directorship. He said that a “centralized system of welcome” is needed, especially for families who are new to the town and, in some cases, new to the commonwealth or even the nation.

Exton was concerned about staffing levels in grades six through 12. She agreed with Kardon about promoting the preschool paraprofessionals and agreed with the AEA about a need for more technology support.

Allison-Ampe, saying she was “thinking more holistically” rather than looking at the initial budget proposal line by line, wanted to improve salaries, find a way toward “sustainable hiring” and ensure that special education be funded and staffed appropriately. Later in the meeting, speaking as head of the budget subcommittee, she said that it had met Dec. 20 and Jan. 6 and would meet again next week. She said the subcommittee was leaning toward requesting additional funds to put teacher pay “at a much more comparable level” to that of nearby municipalities.

Like Exton, Schlichtman backed the AEA request for $30,000 to purchase 100 iPads for classroom use and also the desire for more English-language learner instructors. Homan said that the latter could begin to happen even earlier than next school year and that a couple of such jobs were already posted. Schlichtman also asked that future iterations of budget documents indicate “cross-referencing” to the AEA document where relevant, to make it clear “how the administration is responding.”

He added that he considers the district “under-resourced” in terms of social workers, including the general population (as distinct from special-education students), saying that the former were also “encountering issues and crises.”

Expanding on Allison-Ampe’s remarks, Schlichtman said that many APS instructors can’t afford to live where they teach and so instead often are “commuting through towns who pay significantly more than we do in order to get here.” He said that achieving pay parity will be “an essential thing if we’re going to maintain the quality of the staff we have.”

Covid-19 situation update

Homan reported that cooperation with her Dec. 30 “strong recommendation” for masking had lessened since it took effect Jan. 3, dropping below the estimated 75 percent that she had reported Jan. 3 and also earlier this week. Homan has not responded to YourArlington inquiries as to how estimates of masking rates were made.

The masking request was intended to reduce virus transmission -- and thereby staff illness and absences -- to manageable levels, and it appears to have succeeded. Absences now stand at 8 to 10 percent on average, Homan said, below the level at which resources usually must be moved around from one campus to another. That’s far better than in the weeks leading up to winter break, when it averaged in the teens and was far higher at some campuses.

She noted that most of Massachusetts was recently temporarily classified as high risk for Covid, prompting her to consult with the town’s health department, but the decision was that extending masking past the originally stated two-week mark would not be necessary. As in the past, individuals continue to be welcome to mask if they choose.

This reporter observed while watching the meeting via ACMi real-time broadcasting that masking at the meeting itself was below 50 percent – practiced by only Homan, Kardon, assistant superintendents Alison Elmer and Michael Mason, and Human Resources Director Robert Spiegel. 

In other business:
  • Efforts are ongoing to cope with evidence of rodents on district property. Homan said that APS was actively working with town authorities. The town’s Health and Human Services department has directed officials “to do intensive trapping,” she said, and the situation is “on the radar and being taken care of.” 
  • Homan reported that the before-school program, from 7 to 7:30 a.m., would cease at Thompson School at month’s end because of insufficient enrollment but would continue at Peirce School, though that also has low attendance, typically 10 children or fewer, and one staff person suffices to care for them.
  • Finding a successor to Deputy Superintendent Roderick MacNeal Jr., who will be leaving APS effective July 1 to lead a private school in Chestnut Hill, is going well, Homan said. The district's specially convened screening committee interviewed 11 candidates, and APS announced the three finalists Jan. 13.Those finalists will undergo additional scrutiny later this month; Homan hopes to have a recommended candidate by Feb. 9.
  • To help families of young children find the information more readily, Allison-Ampe asked to have the dates and other details of kindergarten enrollment put onto a “button” on the front page of the district website, which Homan said she would arrange for.
  • The committee unanimously approved meeting schedules for the next three school years.
  • It approved the consent agenda, 7-0.
  • It went into closed session at 9 p.m.
Watch the Jan. 12 meeting on ACMi:


This news summary by YourArlington education reporter Judith Pfeffer was published Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, and updated later that day to clarify when the Costa Rica trip to be made available to Ottoson Middle School students is expected to take place. 

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