Central Bucks teachers and administrators are forging ahead to address details of changing the middle school schedule for the fall, while some parents continue to ask that the changes be halted.
Representatives of the teachers union, district administrators and the school board met Tuesday for about two hours to discuss the changes, how they were implemented, and what happens next.
While bad feelings linger, union president Keith Sinn told Doylestown Patch on Wednesday that he has advised teachers to start getting ready for the new schedule.
"We can drag our feet all we want, but it’s April, it’s a done deal, so let’s get moving on to address these questions, because we need to be prepared," said Sinn, a chemistry teacher at CB East and president of the Central Bucks Education Association.
The state Department of Education last week approved Central Bucks’ plan to switch from seven 46-minute class periods to six 56-minute class periods in its five middle schools. The plan also would eliminate two electives, Web Design and High School and College Computing.
The March 29 letter from Stephen Fisher to Central Bucks superintendent Dr. N. Robert Laws says those changes comply with state educational mandates as long as the material still is covered in school.
"It is our understanding that you will continue to meet such requirements, in part, by ensuring that all content that is not taught in stand-alone classes will be integrated into the curriculum through an interdisciplinary approach," wrote Fisher, director of the school services unit of the Office of Elementary/Secondary Education.
Exactly how that will be done is the issue now, Sinn said Wednesday. Over the next few months, teachers will find out what topics will need to be integrated into the core subject areas, he said.
"Because of that, and since there’s less time overall for electives, the curriculum may have to be revamped," Sinn said. "For example, in health and phys ed, what are the essential things that need to be in the curriculum and what can be removed? Those are some decisions we need to make now."
Continuing the Fight
While the education professionals focus on implementing the changes, some parents still are focused on whether the district should make the changes at all.
The answer from the members of the grassroots group now called Central Bucks Engage is a resounding "no."
Reducing electives in the middle schools may be the first step in reducing students' exposure to art, music, gym and more across the board, worry parents like Doug Keith.
These changes affect only middle school students, he said, but next year, maybe cuts will be proposed at the elementary schools or the high schools.
"If we get to a point where the only thing kids are learning in school is algebraic equations, we’re going to destroy public education," Keith said.
"They still haven’t stood up and said they want to do this for financial reasons," he continued. "There’s not a compelling financial reason at this minute to do this, so why not spend the next year going through the process of examining this idea publicly before we forge ahead."
"But in every conversation I’ve seen, they say, 'We’ve done a terrible job of communicating but we’re still going to do this.' Nobody’s wiling to say, let’s just stop."
How it All Began
The school board voted on Feb. 14 to eliminate a class period from the middle school day and lengthen the six remaining classes by 10 minutes. Administrators said the change would allow students to spend more time on the core subjects of math, science, English, reading and social studies.
The new schedule eliminated one period of "special" classes each day, leaving students with just one session of art, music, physical education, technology education or family and consumer science. Students also would have been allowed to opt out of classes they didn't like.
Hundreds of parents protested that the schedule didn't meet state mandates and effectively prevented students, particularly music students, from taking other special subjects.
The district then reinstated an alternating day schedule and once again required that students take all the special subjects.
The new plan also eliminated the middle school computer applications program, a change that the state approved last week. The district has estimated it will save about $400,000 in salaries by eliminating the eight positions in that program.
But Sinn said Wednesday it's too early to tell whether the teachers in those jobs now will be furloughed. Some may be certified in other subjects and may move into other positions once the district knows which teachers are retiring this year, he said.
At the meeting Tuesday between the district and the teachers, Sinn said the administrators and the school board members acknowledged two things that the parents who oppose the middle school changes have long suspected and worked to prove: the teachers not only don't wholeheartedly support the new plan, they weren't even consulted before the schedule was changed.
"It was acknowledged that the teachers were not consulted about the change in the middle school schedule," reads a message from Sinn to the district's 1,200-some teachers in the wake of the meeting.
"The decision to leave us out of the process was done because it was felt that the teachers' views were known and that there was a desire to have this move done for the next school year. It was also acknowledged that any claims that most or all teachers are behind this plan are untrue. Members of CBEA made the point and the board recognized that many teachers were (and are) upset at the way in which this was handled."
Nearly 250 middle school teachers condemned the plan and voted on a statement that Sinn read to the board and administrators at the meeting.
Those admissions came as little surprise to the parents who had been hearing the same things privately from individual teachers. But they still stung.
"I just feel disappointed that they characterized the situation in such a way that they misrepresented our professional staff," said Karen Smith, a former district employee who has three children in CB schools, including a fifth grader at Linden. "Those people are in front of my children every day, and they should clearly have a large amount of input on a decision like this."
School board members have said over the past few weeks that they support and stand by the changes to the middle school program.
Meanwhile, administrators, teachers and parents alike acknowledge that this may be just the first of what is sure to be contentious debates in upcoming years over the future, and funding, of Central Bucks schools.
With Gov. Tom Corbett cutting education funding, property tax revenues plummeting and limits on how they can raise money, school districts statewide face dire financial circumstances.
"I think we’re seeing the beginning of what education will end up looking like," said Sinn. "We start every year in the hole by millions of dollars. How do we begin to make that up? I don’t know where we’re going with this, but I do know that people need to look beyond the local school board and look at what’s happening in Harrisburg."
For their part, parents like Keith and Smith say they genuinely want to help their schools navigate these waters.
"I’m level-headed about this. I understand the constraits they’re under," Keith said of district officials. "They can’t raise any more money, property values are declining. I just wish they had come to the community and said, 'We’re in a fix. Lets all think about what we can do differently.' "
The next school board meeting, which parents say they plan to attend, is Tuesday April 10 at 16 Welden Dr. It starts at 7:30 p.m.