Some Third Graders to Remain at High School Next Year

May 9, 2014
by Barbara O’Brien

“What do we do next year?”  That is the question SAU 95 Superintendent Winfried Feneberg posed to the Windham School Board during another extremely lengthy and, once again, contentious meeting.  The issue to which Feneberg was referring was how the school district was going to cope with the loss of the portable classrooms located at Golden Brook Elementary School.  School board members had voted 3 to 2, last month, to permanently abandon the partially dismantled modular building and not to spend any more time, money or resources on rehabilitating the 14-year structure.

The portable building was evacuated this past January after evidence of further mold contamination was discovered.  The problem first surfaced about 11 months ago, but school board members had thought remediation had rectified the situation.  Unfortunately, that was not the case and more mold was found to be growing in some of the spaces above certain classrooms.  At the time, first graders were located in the portables.  They were, subsequently, moved to the main building at Golden Brook and four third grade classes were relocated to a section of Windham High School.

When the move was made this past February, it was the school administration’s intent to have it only be until the end of the current school year.  At the time, it was thought that the portables would be refurbished and ready for use for the 2014-2015 school year.  Due to the decision last month, however, there will be no portable classrooms at Golden Brook to house any students.

Faced with yet another space dilemma, administrators considered several options for what they hope will be only short term.  Options presented during the May 6 board meeting included the following:

Keeping the status quo, which is housing four third grades classes and the pre-kindergarten program at the high school;

Relocating all eight third grade classes to the high school (four of these classes are now at Center School);

Relocating all fifth graders to the high school (these students are now at Center School);

Relocating all eighth graders to the high school (these students are now at Windham Middle School); or

Relocating all kindergarten students to the high school (these students are now at Golden Brook).

After considering all the pros and cons of each of these alternatives, Feneberg recommended that the status quo be maintained and four third grade classes be housed at Windham High School for the upcoming school year.  “There is no good solution,” Feneberg said, but, out of the possible options, felt this choice was the least of the worst.  Feneberg said his recommendation was based primarily on the likely impact on students, both the high schoolers and on whichever younger group would be relocated to the nearly five-year-old facility.  “This is not to be considered a permanent solution,” Feneberg said.  “It is only a temporary compromise.”

Feneberg also said that the feedback he has received from teachers, as well as the parents of third graders housed at the high school currently, has been very positive.

High School Assistant Principal Bob Dawson discussed the impact that moving an entire additional grade to the high school would likely have on high school students.  “There is very little open space available at the high school,” Dawson said.  “And the more we get squeezed, the less flexibility we have in offering courses.”  “The more we move students around, the more classes become compromised.”

Guidance Director Julie Lichtman explained that a four-year plan is formulated when a freshman enters Windham High School; a plan that could be seriously affected by adding an entire younger grade to the school’s population.  The classes which would be most affected would be the Honors and Advance Placement courses, she added.  Bringing the eighth grade to the high school and integrating it into the high school program would also have an adverse affect on the ongoing accreditation process, which is well underway.  “That would be a real game changer,” Lichtman said, adding that the accreditation process would most likely have to begin all over again.

When asked why accreditation is so important, Chairman Jerome Rekart said, “It’s a stamp of approval.”

According to school board member Michael Joanis, “The accreditation process is almost like an outside audit,” noting that the process is one way of assuring that everything at the high school is being done as it should be.  Lichtman said that many colleges note whether applicants are graduating from an accredited high school.  The accreditation process is done by representatives of NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges).

After several hours of discussion and input from a significant number of residents who attended the meeting, the school board voted 3 to 2 to support the superintendent’s recommendation that four third grade classes be housed at the high school for the 2014-2015 school year.  Voting in favor of Feneberg’s recommendation were Jerome Rekart, Rob Breton and Michael Joanis.  Voting against supporting the recommendation at this time were Dennis Senibaldi and Ken Eyring.

The decision to take a vote came only after it became obvious that board members held varying opinions.  It had been noted earlier in the meeting that based on New Hampshire Department of Education regulations, decisions on the placement of students falls within the responsibilities of the superintendent.  “It’s all outlined in the state regulations,” Feneberg said.  “It is very specific.”

“We need to rely on the experts,” Breton said.

Although it was Joanis who, eventually, made the motion to support the recommendation, previously he had said, “This is the superintendent’s decision.  This is an educational decision, not the school board’s.  I don’t feel we should be voting on this.”

Board member Ken Eyring said he didn’t think he had enough information on the options to make a choice at this point in time.  Eyring also disputed whether or not the decision was the superintendent’s alone.  Eyring said he wanted to be part of the decision and wanted more time to perform due diligence.  “I’m not comfortable with this process,” Eyring said.

Resident Diane Carpenter urged board members to follow Feneberg’s recommendation.  “The educators are telling us that this is what we need to do,” Carpenter said.

Vice-chairman Dennis Senibaldi, who was in Washington, D.C., chaperoning eighth graders from Windham Middle School on a field trip, participated in the meeting via telephone.  Senibaldi commented several times during the phone call that he disagreed with moving forward with Feneberg’s recommendation.  Senibaldi said he felt it would be “irresponsible” to do so.  “Status quo is unacceptable,” Senibaldi said, adding that parents had been assured, several months ago, that having third graders at the high school would not continue beyond the current school year.

Breton acknowledged that parents had been told this last January, but also pointed out that the situation had changed since that meeting.  “A lot has changed since then,” Breton said.  “Reality has changed.”  Senibaldi responded to Breton’s comments by saying that the changes are “self-imposed,” apparently referring to the decision to abandon the portables at Golden Brook.  Eyring and Senibaldi were the two board members who had voted against derailing plans to refurbish the portable classrooms.

Residents who came to the microphone during the discussion seemed as disturbed by the infighting that was taking place among some board members as they were concerned about where to house students.  Most of the public comments involved pleading with board members to work as a team and to abandon personal attacks.  “The problems are compounding,” resident Rich Amari said.  “What’s the next crisis?  Are we going to have to move all our kids to Rockingham Park?”  Amari said he blames the actions of prior school boards for the problems the district is faced with today.

Joanis said he is working very hard to stay away from any personal attacks on individual board members, although he also admitted that it has been a challenge.  Breton said that he didn’t take any comments from others personally; that his only concern is doing the best thing for all the students.  Rekart emphasized, throughout the meeting that certain protocols and procedures need to be followed and that personal comments from board members or members of the public would not be tolerated.

“We do see things differently from one another,” Eyring said, “but I believe we all are trying to do what is best for the school district.”

As for maintaining the status quo for another school year, Joanis stated, “This is the lesser of all the evils, at this point.”  “However,” he continued, “It is not acceptable for anything longer than absolutely necessary.  This situation must be rectified as soon as possible,” he said.  And, with that idea in mind, members of the Facilities Committee continue to meet on a weekly basis to come up with long-term options for solving the continuing space crunch in the Windham School District.  The final decision, however, will be in the hands of voters next March.