By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN
BELMONT – The Shaker Regional School District's proposed operating budget is up by less than 1 percent, or $199,666 for 2016-2017, but there were some other issues on the minds of the people, many of them district employees, who attended last Thursday's public hearing in Belmont.
Initially, a Canterbury resident asked if the culture survey was finished. The study was requested at the end of the 2015 district meeting because some people felt there was a lack of communication and understanding between the administration and the staff and parents.
"There is no conspiracy," said School Board Chairman Sean Embree, who said the board expected the survey to be submitted by the UNH team in time for last week's meeting. He said the reason it was late was because the survey team said it was still getting responses as the year headed into the holiday season. Embree said the School Board wanted as many voices as possible, so it was decided to give them a little more time.
Embree said the results would be made public but any comments that were specific to any employee would be kept confidential and considered a personnel matter.
Others wanted to know how much the Empower computer program Shaker educators are transitioning to cost and whether or not it is effective. Many seemed confused as to how the school was going to teach the teachers, the students and the parents how to use the software while others were not happy that the parent portal is not yet working.
According to its website, Empower "is a tool for designing, creating, and assigning standards-based curriculum for students and teachers. It is meant to be a supplemental instructional tool for teachers and professional development facilitators."
Empower, said Superintendent Maria Dreyer, is a training and learning computer program specially designed for competency-based learning. This is the first year that freshman high school students are using competency-based grading, a grading system Dreyer and the School Board say is aligned with the Common Core and most closely measures not just how much students learn but how well they can apply it and show mastery of the subject matter.
Throughout the budget are appropriation lines for staff training, and Dreyer explained that the original Empower design teams teachers and administrators get stipends and the teacher teams will also get stipends from federal grants to learn the program.
She said the district has planned for a three-year rollout for Empower, but one woman noted that while all 1,400 students have signed licensing fees, most of them are not using it yet. Others, who were district employees, said they felt the Empower program was "fast-tracked" and are unsure of future expectations.
Dreyer said she has contact the company and they are willing to offer some credit toward the licensing fee costs for 2016-2017. She said once all of the teachers are ready to use the program then all of the students and parents will be able to as well.
So far, Dreyer said, the design team for Empower is trained and represents about 15 percent of the 114 teachers in the district. She said she expected that number to be much higher by the end of this school year as the design teams works with the rest of the division leaders and teachers to teach them how to use the program.
Moderator Roy Roberts, who led the call for the culture survey at the 2015 meeting, wanted to know how many other districts use Empower. He was told Inter Lakes Regional School District uses it.
Roberts reiterated what he said at last year's meeting by saying there doesn't seem to be any leadership from the administration.
Attendees also spoke about the upcoming decision to hire a curriculum coordinator or to subcontract the job to a company in Wisconsin with New England staff. Dreyer said the company is one that specializes in competency-based curriculum for schools that use Empower.
Many who spoke said they were for a human being as the curriculum coordinator and didn't support hiring the outside company.
Selectman Jon Pike, who spearheaded the petition to implement the Official Ballot Law, or SB2, in the Shaker district, said he thinks there's a need for greater transparency within the budget so the taxpayers can use it to monitor the direction of the school district.
Taxpayers also wanted to know what happened to the $84,000 in the 2015 budget for support staff raises and the $93,000 officials told them they would save in transportation costs if they implemented all-day kindergarten.
Administrators explained that this year Shaker Regional had well exceeded its budget for special education needs and the School Board had shifted the savings, and some saving from other lines, into that line item.
Officials also explained the $84,000 was for the 2015-2016 budget year but when the support staff organized into a union, their wages were frozen until a contract could be negotiated. With the contract in hand, voters will be asked to support $117,679 in raises for them for next school year.
When someone said the district wasn't being transparent, members of the School Board pushed back and said all of their meetings are open to the public, all of their line item transfers are voted on by the board, and that anyone can read the minutes.
When pressed about the details of the Special Education Budget, SPED Director Tonya Mitchell said they were asking about very personal and private information surrounding a few children in a very small school district and she was not comfortable answering any specific questions.