Student Organizations to be Reinstated

March 17, 2017

 

 

by Barbara O’Brien

Following more than a week of complaints from parents and students, members of the Windham School Board voted unanimously to reinstate a number of student organizations (clubs) that had been eliminated late last year.  The 5 to 0 vote came during the March 7 board meeting and called for the reinstatement of all volunteer student organizations throughout the school district.  It was a decision that came only after a great deal of discussion and input among students, parents and the superintendent.

During the previous week’s meeting, on Feb. 28, Superintendent Richard Langlois raised the issue of certain clubs having been previously eliminated, prior to his hiring on July 1 of last year.  Langlois emphasized that the SAU had nothing to do with eliminating the clubs.  “I don’t know where the rumors began,” he said.  “They’re simply not true.”  Langlois said he would like to know where the misinformation began.  “We’re not the obstacle,” he said of the decision to eliminate certain clubs, particularly at Windham High School.  During late February and early March, significant comments concerning this issue were posted on various individual Facebook accounts.

According to Langlois, prior to his arrival, individual school principals elected to disband clubs that were said to lack significant student participation and to continue with those that did.  “There was no communication with the SAU (95) office,” Langlois said.  “Individual arrangements were offered at the building level.”  At this point, administrators realized that all clubs and activities needed to be pulled together under the school district’s collective bargaining agreement, in order to assure that stipends were being paid appropriately to advisers and coaches.  Langlois said that a total of $235,000 was designated for this year’s clubs/sports at the high school level alone, but that there was no money allocated for the clubs the principal was recommending be continued.

Between this past August and October, administrative staff met with members of the teachers’ union to discuss which clubs, not already listed under the bargaining agreement, should be included.  According to Langlois, the opportunity was given to each principal in the school district to present the names of these clubs, but only three such “student-founded” activities were recommended at the high school level; and none elsewhere.  As no money had been set aside for teacher stipends for these three principal recommended clubs, funds ($18,000) were taken from elsewhere in the budget.  The three clubs now allocated stipends are JAG, SALT and freshmen volleyball.  “We found money in the budget for this year,” Langlois said.  “We’ll have to face the same challenge for next year,” he added.

It wasn’t until after the initial handling of the three clubs, the ones that weren’t originally included under the bargaining agreement, that Langlois became aware of how many other clubs exist, especially at the high school level.  “Why wasn’t this information expressed in October?”  Langlois wanted to know.  “You can’t come after the fact, when everything is in motion,” he said.

“We need to know what’s out there for kids,” he said.  “The conversation needs to continue moving forward.”

“I’m willing to listen and talk; to create a list to consider,” Langlois said on Feb. 28.  “Proposals need to be approved by the SAU and the school board; not just added without authority.”  While it’s not mandatory, Langlois also said he would like all clubs to be aligned with the school district curriculum.  Langlois’ comments did not sit well with many who attended the meeting.

Resident Michael Schloss came to the microphone during the Feb. 28 meeting and listed some of the clubs that had been eliminated late last year, including rock climbing, the Granite State Challenge, bowling, baking, skiing, paintball, Feed my Starving Children, the Gay/Straight Alliance and the Bollywood Dance Club, all of which were founded by students with no funding from the school district.  The advisers for these groups served as volunteers, receiving no stipend.  Schloss said these groups were told they could no longer meet on school district property.  Langlois said some of these clubs were eliminated at “the building level” by principals, but that he was unaware of most of them even existing.  “Is there a rule prohibiting teachers from volunteering?”  Schloss asked.

“In this district, no one’s defined how this is to be done,” Langlois said.

Windham High student Katie Vesta, who serves as editor of the “Jag” newspaper, said she was a member of some of the clubs that were cut.  “I heard there were serious miscommunications; ones that resulted in the loss of these clubs,” Vesta said.

School board Vice-Chairman Rob Breton said he was never told anything was being disbanded.  “We lean on the expertise of building principals and advisors,” Breton said.  “We’re trying to give everyone (these clubs) a level playing field,” he said.

Chairman Daniel Popovici-Muller said all five board members attended a meeting last fall concerning this issue and were aware of certain adjustments being made, but there was no board influence on whether or not any club should stay or go.

Former school board member Michelle Farrell commented that she didn’t see why these clubs couldn’t be reinstated, if they weren’t costing the district any money.  “When students are involved in the school, they do better academically,” Farrell said.  Farrell said she has watched pride in the high school grow during the past several years.  “Let the students grow the school,” she said.  “It’s very important that they all have equal opportunities!”

Popovici-Muller said that none of the confusion over this issue was the fault of students.  “They followed the process, as they should.  It just never went to the top level (for approval),” he explained.  “If a club is not funded by the school district, it should be the purvue of the SAU, not the school board,” said board member Ken Eyring.

Resident Stephanie Daniels addressed her question to high school principal Bob Dawson.  “Why weren’t all the clubs put on the list last October?” she asked.  Dawson said he “looked at clubs that were viable at the time.”  Referring to the elimination of the baking club, which was started with a volunteer adviser last year, Dawson commented, “It was in its infancy, at that point.”  Farrell noted that the baking club had gone through the proper process last year and was approved as a club.  Commenting on the removal of the Gay/Straight Alliance, Dawson said, “I thought the GSA was on the list (to continue); my mistake.”

Resident Nancy Leduc said parents should have been informed earlier.  “I feel a real injustice has been done to some of these kids.  It’s the kids on the fringe who most need this kind of support,” she said, adding that she feels the process for establishing a club should be included in the student handbook.

Resident Charlie McMahon asked if non-funded clubs could continue pending the establishment of new policies.  Langlois said he would need to see the details; that he needed a list of involved clubs.  “I’m not saying ‘no’ at this point,” Langlois said.

“We can’t approve something we don’t know about,” Popovici-Muller said “We will review those we can find.  We’ll move as fast as we can,” he added.

During the follow-up meeting on March 7, Langlois said he had met the previous day with Michelle Farrell and, together, they had come up with a proposed organization management process; which was subsequently submitted to the policy sub-committee for review.  “It will take another month to complete a policy,” Langlois said.  “The conversation is to continue on how to get the clubs back.”

“Everyone wants a solution as quickly as possible,” Farrell said, adding that there had already been a process in place for the formation of these clubs, but no policy.  Speaking to the school board, Farrell asked, “Can they run in the meantime, while the policy is finalized?”  School board member Dennis Senibaldi said he would like all the clubs reinstated that evening.  “I don’t want kids hurt by any delay,” he said.  “It’s kids first; policy second.”

School board member Tom Murray said he still had concerns over the memorandum of agreement with the Windham Education Association regarding the payment of stipends.  Senibaldi said he didn’t see any need for a legal review of the proposed process and policy.  Popovici-Muller said any changes in the memorandum of agreement would need to be included in new contract negotiations.  The existing contract with the WEA expires in 2018.

On a vote of 5 to 0, school board members approved reinstating all existing non-funded, volunteer-advised clubs, at all district schools, across the board.  Voting in favor were Daniel Popovici-Muller, Rob Breton, Dennis Senibaldi, Tom Murray and Ken Eyring.  Eyring attended the March 7 meeting by phone.  Listed among the clubs to continue at the high school are: Future Business Leaders of America, the Gay/Straight Alliance, Baking, Feed my Starving Children, Gaming, Ultimate Frisbee, Coding and, at Windham Middle School, the Arts and Crafts Club.