No-shows at Athol school hearing; High school faces accreditation loss.
ATHOL - There was little disagreement last night about the need to ensure Athol High School is accredited. There were differing views on how to achieve that goal, as well as unhappiness that only half the Athol-Royalston Regional School Committee showed up for the public hearing it scheduled.
The hearing on plans to reorganize the Athol-Royalston Regional School District went ahead as planned, but not as an official meeting of the School Committee. By 15 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to begin, only five of the 10 members of the committee were present. Committee rules are that if a majority of the committee is not at a meeting by 15 minutes after the time set for it to begin, the meeting cannot be held.
Rather than send people home disappointed, Superintendent of Schools Anthony T. Polito declared the meeting a "superintendent's meeting" and invited people to offer their views on the crisis facing the school district.
The district has until March 1 to file with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges reasons why Athol High School should continue to be accredited after June 30. The association has voted to revoke the district's accreditation as of July 1.
Mr. Polito has offered a plan he thinks has a good chance of convincing the association the school should remain accredited. The plan has become known as "the flip-flop plan." The district would make Athol-Royalston Middle School a high school and the Athol High School building the district's middle school.
Mr. Polito said that plan is the only plan he has, although he is working on two others. One would be to make substantial changes to the high school using private funding and donations. The other would be to fight the loss of accreditation in court.
Residents of Athol and Royalston attending the hearing offered another alternative - to organize groups of volunteers to attempt to address all of the problems cited by the New England Association as reasons to pull accreditation.
Renee LaPointe, a parent with four of her five children in the district, said the school officials knew as far back as 2002 that there were problems that could lead to loss of accreditation and nothing was done to prevent it.
"This is very frustrating to me," she said.
Ms. LaPointe also said there were many questions about the school swap plan that needed to be addressed: including whether there is any guarantee the accreditation would be restored, the safety of inexperienced high school students driving to the school past Pleasant Street Elementary School, whether all the facilities at the middle school would be large enough for the high school, and the cost of shuttling athletes to the high school for practices and games.
The middle school does not have room for high school level sports fields.
Ed Wheeler of Royalston, a member of that town's Finance Committee, supports trying to address loss of accreditation through volunteer efforts. He did not agree with switching the schools, but agrees there is little time to head off accreditation loss.
"I'm willing to work with anyone to form an ad hoc accreditation restoration committee," he said.
Mitchell Grosky, a teacher and administrator in the district and a parent of children in the district, warned those attending that loss of accreditation would likely add significantly to the large numbers of students leaving the district on school choice. He said the district could see 200 to 500 students leave if accreditation is lost and he said the people attending the hearing should accept that they are part of the problem.
Several speakers had criticized the School Department for not doing anything to prevent the loss of accreditation, but he said the two towns that make up the district rejected a plan in 1988 that would have built new high, middle and elementary schools for $56 million.
"If 175 votes changed hands we would have had that now," he said.