BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — School Committee member Janet Crane did something extraordinary last night. She was the most important person at a meeting she did not attend.
Crane, who had a long-scheduled absence, is expected to break a 3-3 school board deadlock on the extended-year program at Saltonstall School when she returns for the next meeting on July 15.
As a result, Saltonstall’s longer 190-day calendar, which has been in place for nearly two decades, is expected to come to an end next month. Crane has long argued for equity among all city schools and returning Saltonstall to the standard 180 days.
With Crane missing, the school board deadlocked on two votes on Saltonstall, one to return it to 180 days and another to keep it at 190.
Voting to end the extended year were school board members Jim Fleming, Brendan Walsh and Nate Bryant. With Crane back, they will have the deciding fourth vote.
Mayor Kim Driscoll and members Lisa Lavoie and Deborah Amaral voted Monday night to keep the Saltonstall schedule as it is.
At this point, Saltonstall parents seem resigned to losing one of the key elements in a “break-the-mold” school that opened almost two decades ago to much fanfare.
They are resigned, but also frustrated, to be losing the extra days and longer school calendar at a time when some school leaders are talking about the importance of spending more time in the classroom to help raise scores on the state MCAS exam.
“We’re talking about adding more learning time to schools,” Saltonstall PTO President Marcie Clawson said after the meeting at City Hall. “Don’t take it away.”
Whatever happens, Saltonstall students will continue to spend one more hour in the classroom every day as part of its extended-day program.
This debate began nearly two years ago when the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education designated Salem a Level 4 district based on consistently low scores on the MCAS test. Test results showed that some of the lowest-performing schools had the highest numbers of low-income students.
Saltonstall had relatively few low-income students and test scores that were about the same as Witchcraft Heights Elementary School, which has similar demographics and only a 180-day schedule.
For Fleming, Walsh and others, the debate has turned on an “equity” issue. With limited resources, they say they can’t justify spending $150,000 more every year at Saltonstall for its longer school year.
“We’re spending money (at Saltonstall) with no results,” Walsh said last night.
The money would be better spent, they argued, adding summer enrichment programs that would benefit all students, including Saltonstall.
Superintendent Stephen Russell said last night that Salem will begin a pilot enrichment program this summer for 160 students that will cost $200,000, prompting Driscoll to point out that the extra 10 days at Saltonstall cost less and benefit more students. Saltonstall has an enrollment of 360.
Driscoll, who has two children at Saltonstall, argued for keeping the longer year at Saltonstall and adding summer enrichment programs for all schools at the same time. The school system can afford both, she said.
“We don’t have to choose ...” Driscoll said. “I’m feeling like why aren’t we all saying ‘Hip, hip hooray!.’”
Fleming and Walsh fired back that there is no proof, based on test scores, that children are benefiting from the longer year at Saltonstall and said they felt strongly that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
Bryant, who is seen as a swing vote, said he remains concerned about providing an equal education at every school and providing more resources at schools facing greater challenges, and he doesn’t think the shorter school year will hurt Saltonstall.
“I’m just not convinced if you took away the 10 days (from Saltonstall), there would be a precipitous drop in MCAS scores or overall academic achievement,” he said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.