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NCLB Outrages

A divided Randolph grapples with ultimatum to fix schools

Here is documentation of the tragedy of NCLB: Declared "underperforming" because of its standardized test scores, this district has no elementary school librarians, no junior varsity athletics, reduced foreign language instruction.

"It would be nice to have some electives, like woodshop or something," said Samantha Gomes, a sophomore at Randolph High School. "If we want something, we have to fund-raise for it."

The executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Educational Quality and Accountability says this district's woes are the result of "a lack of good thinking." Indeed. On the theory that you are what you link to, take a look at their links.

This looks to be a case of poverty and White Flight. Take a look at student data.

By Tania deLuzuriaga

RANDOLPH - A community once celebrated as having some of the best schools in the state now has schools rated among the worst. Amid an escalating financial crisis in recent years, 68 teachers have been laid off, two elementary schools have closed, and about half the classes at the high school have been cut. There are no more elementary school librarians. Most of the school buses are gone, as are freshmen and junior varsity sports.

After declaring Randolph an underperforming district in the fall, state education officials told the district last week that it has 90 days to come up with a plan to turn the schools around or risk a state takeover. But the search for a blueprint for turning around the schools has all but fallen apart, as town and school officials bicker about how to proceed.

Across the state, school districts are grappling with rising costs, changing demographics, increased academic requirements, and falling state aid. But education officials in other districts say that the morass in this suburb south of Boston stands out as a cautionary tale, an example of how troubles can spiral out of control.

"There but for the grace of God - it could be us," said Fitchburg's superintendent of schools, Andre Ravenelle, who has battled budget shortfalls in his district. "That's exactly how I feel when I see Randolph."

Municipalities all across the Commonwealth have faced steep financial problems for years, the impact often felt in the public schools.

But in the Randolph school system in particular, if something could go wrong, it has. Demographics have changed dramatically, contributing to an increase in student needs. School officials have not won grants or private help that are common in other communities. The voters, frustrated by feuding politicians and School Committee decisions, have rejected Proposition 2 1/2 override attempts three times.

The district's issues are "not just because of money," said Joe Rappa, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, which audits the state's 350-plus school districts. "It's lack of good leadership, lack of good thinking."

The current troubles began in 2002, when an economic downturn resulted in the state freezing aid to local districts. The next year, school officials appealed to voters for permission to raise property taxes more than the state limit of 2 1/2 percent. The measure failed, as did two others in subsequent years.

To cover teacher salaries, healthcare, and other growing expenses, the schools cut into academic programs and services. Foreign language classes, clubs, and vocational and athletic programs were eliminated or reduced.

"It would be nice to have some electives, like woodshop or something," said Samantha Gomes, a sophomore at Randolph High School. "If we want something, we have to fund-raise for it."

As programs were cut, parents opted to send their children to charter or private schools. Today, 3,080 students attend schools in Randolph, 25 percent fewer than in 2001.

Academic performance also lagged. Over the past four years, as statewide performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams improved, Randolph's results stayed flat. Last year, just over half of Randolph's 10th-graders scored proficient or better on the language arts and math tests, a much lower proportion than the state average. Slightly more than one-third of fourth-graders scored proficient or better in reading, while less than a quarter did so in math, also far lower than the state average.

As problems deepened, the acrimony and finger-pointing began. Randolph school officials said the district's problems could be solved if voters approved a property tax increase. The fact that voters have refused to go along, school officials say, is evidence that the community doesn't support its schools.

Some town officials say the measures have failed because some residents don't believe that the School Committee would spend the money wisely, a sentiment fueled by the expensive buyout of a superintendent's contract four years ago, by recent costly building renovations, and by retention of the principal of a closed school.

"There is still reluctance on the part of some to give them money, because they don't feel the School Committee will spend it responsibly," said Paul J. Connors, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

School officials have repeatedly said they need a $12 million boost to this year's $34 million budget in order to restore programs and services and bring the district back to health. But last week a District Leadership Evaluation Report commissioned by the state to assess Randolph's ability to solve its school problems called the amount "an irrelevant figure that has generated confusion and skepticism." The report said the figure should be discarded in favor of detailed budget estimates of the district's most important needs.

The town's fourth property tax override question in five years will appear on the ballot April 1. The plan would add $444 to the average homeowner's bill.

"They're asking for too much; people can't afford it," said Joe Burke, a Town Meeting member.

Other districts grappling with similar budget difficulties have found some creative solutions. In Fitchburg, Ravenelle supplements the $14 million he gets from the city with $7.6 million in federal, state, and private grants. Though the district had to cut $3 million from its budget last year and spends $500 less per student than Randolph does, Ravenelle said he has refrained from pushing for a property tax override because he said families there can't afford it.

"How do you get blood out of a stone?" he said.

Instead, the district has partnered with Fitchburg State College to provide professional development for teachers and facilities for a kindergarten class. Last year, the district received a donation of 30 computers that had been refurbished by prison inmates.

"You have to think outside the box, because the box is broken," Ravenelle said.

In Gloucester, where the School Committee voted last month to close a school and where dozens of positions have been cut, Superintendent Christopher Farmer said partnerships with nonprofit fund-raising groups have enabled athletic and enrichment programs to survive. The district has also launched a power-savings program that has helped combat rising electricity costs.

"There's been great financial instability," Farmer said. "It's been cut after cut . . . but despite our financial difficulties, our kids do very, very well."

The state evaluation issued last month says additional funding would help Randolph, but it cites criticisms from parents and town officials that the school system "has not clearly identified and communicated a clear set of immediate priorities for improving schools in Randolph."

When Randolph sent its budget to the town's Finance Committee for approval this year, it had 26 pages listing $5.5 million in new costs, but it had no clear priorities, putting on equal footing a request for $371,000 to hire seven academic coaches with a request for $1,821 to hire a lunch monitor.

The state has said that such unprioritized requests have caused town officials to be skeptical of the requests.

Superintendent Richard Silverman said the district has so many needs it is impossible to pick just a few. "It was ignored in Randolph for a long, long time," he said. "It's going to take many years to recover."

Tania deLuzuriaga can be reached at deluzuriaga@globe.com.

— Tania deLuzuriaga
Boston Globe


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