Parents Criticize School Board Decision to Move Next Charter

Jennifer Lague hadn’t cried so much since winning election to the Derry School Board 2 1/2 years ago. And she lost sleep, she told her fellow board members and a packed West Running Brook Middle School cafeteria.

The Derry School Board heard the voices of the community, in its Aug. 12 meeting, regarding its decision to shuffle several district programs in order to give all its children more room to learn. While Lague and others said they agonized over the decisions, community members questioned whether there was indeed a better way. But after community discussions and their own, the board determined to stay the course it had established in a rescheduled Friday, July 18 meeting.

The issue: moving the DEEP – Derry Early Education Program – preschool back to its original quarters in a section of Gilbert H. Hood Middle School, moving the Next Charter School out of Hood and into new quarters at West Running Brook Middle School, and relocating an eighth-grade pod to another part of West Running Brook.

In that Friday-night meeting, the board heard presentations from Mary Hill, principal of Grinnell School, the current host for DEEP; Leslie Saucier, principal of West Running Brook; and Chris Kellan, director of special education for the Derry Cooperative School District.

Saucier said she could accommodate Next, with some shifting around. Board members pointed to the crowded conditions at Grinnell and the possibility of more students in DEEP, which has year-round enrollment.

Next was relocated to the downstairs pod formerly assigned to Team 8-6, a letter that went out to parents stated. Team 8-6’s Language Arts was relocated to the former Tech Ed lecture room, Science was relocated to the former art room, Social Studies moved to the former PACE Language Arts room and Math relocated to the former PACE math classroom. PACE teachers were relocated to a room in the 8-5 pod and Spanish was relocated to rooms 105 and 126.

In her letter, Saucier wrote that no programs were “cut or modified” due to the relocation of NEXT.

An informational meeting was held Friday, Aug. 8, with 20 parents attending.

But community members still had questions, and Chairman Neal Ochs heard them at the board’s Tuesday, Aug. 12 meeting, moving the public comment portion of the meeting from the end of the agenda to the beginning to accommodate the approximately 100 parents, teachers and other stakeholders in the cafeteria.

Ochs said discussion by each speaker would be limited to five minutes, with the opportunity to come back after everyone had had their turn. He reminded residents to be “civil and orderly.”

For the most part, they were.

Resident Glen Potvin spoke first, criticizing a “procedural issue” where the board was accountable to the electorate to keep citizens informed. He said the time was “relatively short,” with information on the move published in local papers July 31.

Potvin contended that West Running Brook is designed specifically for the middle school model of pods and teams, with six pods, two per grade, and that it wasn’t fair to the half of the eighth grade that had to move. “You say, ‘We’re going to make it work.’ I say, No – I pay taxes,’” he said.

Potvin also claimed a conflict of interest, with School Board members also serving on the Next board.

Potvin and other residents called for a moratorium on the move until the Space Needs study is released this October.

Resident Craig Cerino defended the board’s decision, pointing out that “West” was built for a capacity of 1,000 students and currently has 760. West Running Brook can accommodate the charter school, he said and added, “The other five schools don’t have ‘pods,’ and the kids are still getting a good education.

“I am curious as to what the problem is,” Cerino said.

Parent Karen Blandford-Anderson asked the Board to reconsider its vote. “It is a disservice to Next,” she said. “With the support of the School Board, they were allocated space that was not being used.” The layout of the Next quarters at Hood had everything a charter high school needed, including its own entrance, own parking and location within walking distance of Pinkerton Academy.

The move will disrupt the middle school, Blandford-Anderson contended, especially with three weeks to go before the start of school. By moving the eighth-graders out of their space, the board is “disenfranchising” them, she said.

Blandford-Anderson said she couldn’t understand why the board “considers this the optimum solution for any of the groups involved.”

Resident Mary Brodeur read a letter from her daughter, an eighth-grader going into West Running Brook and the disputed pod. “I don’t like the idea of high school students in my school,” the girl wrote. “Only my pod has to deal with this.” The girl ended with an appeal to “Stop this nonsense.”

Resident Stacy Hartman said eighth grade is an important transition year, and worried that half of the eighth grade would have a different learning experience from the other half.

“They’ll miss out on the team teaching, which is good for academics, conflict resolution and teamwork,” Hartman predicted. “You are denying them the opportunity to learn from the model that has proven most effective.”

And giving the eighth grade one single locker area “is asking for trouble,” Hartman said.

Hartman agreed that DEEP is “critical” for the community, but in her opinion, the numbers didn’t show the necessity for a move.

Grinnell teacher and resident Donna Michaud disagreed. She’s concerned about the DEEP students, some as young as 3, who have the possibility of interaction with fifth-graders. “They should be moved back,” she said.

Resident Steve Muench said he understood the need for space but the board’s action “seemed like a snap decision.” It’s pitted residents against one another, he said.

“You didn’t create that space, you took it from someone else,” Muench said. “Where is the long-term plan?”

Board members said the long-term plan would be developed after the space needs study is finalized in October. Residents asked if there were a way to expedite the study, but Superintendent Laura Nelson said no.

“The work is in progress,” she said. “It takes several weeks and months.” Nelson added that part of the study involves looking at school while it’s in session, which was done in June but could not be done again until September.

Resident Karen Simard pointed out that children are survivors, and can adapt to anything. “Do I like change? No,” she admitted. She added, “I probably could have had a class in a closet – I don’t remember. You need to give your kids more credit.”

Simard added, “And to any of you who’ve been attacked on Facebook – I think it’s gross.”

Resident Mark Connors admitted that he “threw a grenade” when he came back from an out-of-town trip and heard about the move. He went on Facebook to ask what had happened, and he said his simple question inspired a 400-hit firestorm.

“It’s not about Next coming here,” Connors said. “Next deserves a home, but not at the expense of our other students.”

A unique voice

Though the residents disagreed on the gravity of the board’s action, they were of one mind when the only student speaker came forward, a young woman who studies at Next and suffers from depression.

“I have heard and seen many inflammatory comments,” the girl said, pausing often to get her bearings. “A lot of kids in Next are there because we have emotional problems. I have clinical depression. We don’t tote guns to solve our problems. We hide in the bathroom and cry.” Then, she said, someone from the Next faculty comes and gets them and hears their concerns.

“At Next we’re cared about,” the girl said.

She received a standing ovation.

“That’s what we intend to do – to educate all our students,” Ochs said.

Lawyered up

Potvin took the microphone again along with Patrick O’Day, an attorney from Portsmouth. O’Day reminded the board of its Policy AB, “to keep the citizens of the district regularly and thoroughly informed of plans.” He urged the board to “go back to your founding principles.”

O’Day referred again to the potential conflict of interest with members on two boards, and based on the response that night, “It makes sense to slow down and get community input.”

O’Day also referred to a “lack of notice” for the July 18 meeting. The agenda said “Space needs at DEEP,” and that was cryptic and didn’t really give parents a flavor of what was to be discussed, he said.

But resident Rachel Logan was annoyed. “I am very disappointed an attorney from Portsmouth was brought in to tell you what everyone in this room has said,” she observed.

Board and Administration response

In their response, the board and administration answered many of the allegations and comments.

Nelson addressed the issue of team teaching, saying that the “other” eighth-grade pod has a double classroom and it would be available to teachers in 8-6 for interdisciplinary projects. She also said the July 18 meeting, postponed from the 16th because of a tornado warning, was posted.

The philosophy of the school will not change, Nelson assured the parents.

Ochs also took on the agenda issue. The agenda item was originally designed to “solve the space problem with DEEP,” he told the audience. “There was no intent to misinform.”

Member Brenda Willis, who was chair when Next was approved and chartered, said statute requires a School Board representative on the Next board. “We have one voting member,” she said.

“Do I like moving students? Absolutely not,” Willis said. “But I listened to Leslie and she said the education would not be impacted.”

It’s not fair, Willis said, that Grinnell students must learn in smaller spaces than the other elementary students. A Grinnell classroom is 600 square feet, whereas a Hood classroom is 900 square feet, she said.

Wendy Smith said, “I do not want to move kids two or three times. Hood would be a permanent space for DEEP.”

“I have lost sleep over this,” Lague said. “I wish Oprah would walk through the door and give us a million dollars for a building.

“It’s about doing what is right for the entire district,” Lague said, adding, “We would never do anything to harm your children.”

Lague held out for keeping the plan, noting, “We can discuss it after the report in October. But I want the children settled when they begin school.”

Ochs said it was up to the board if it wanted to reconsider. Member Dan McKenna moved to rescind the decision but received no second.

“The decision stands,” Ochs said.

Justin Krieger and Joseph Crawford, co-directors of Next, declined to comment.