BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The first public discussion of Superintendent Stephen Russell’s proposal to end the extended-year program at Saltonstall Elementary School has been scheduled for the April 8 school board meeting.
The School Committee set that date this week after member Brendan Walsh recommended resolving the controversial issue before the board hammers out a budget for the 2013-14 school year.
Walsh met with some resistance from Mayor Kim Driscoll, a Saltonstall parent. She said it might be better to wait for Russell to announce the citywide enrichment programs that he is proposing for the summer of 2014 as an alternative to the longer school year at Saltonstall.
Driscoll said it would be hard to discuss changing Saltonstall’s schedule “without knowing what’s going to replace it.”
Russell said he does not expect to have those details ready in two weeks.
Saltonstall, a much-heralded “break the mold” school with a longer day and year, opened more than 15 years ago and suddenly finds itself in the spotlight.
Currently, it is in session 190 days, 10 more than other city schools, with classes through July. Teachers are paid 16 percent more for the extra hours. Russell has proposed eliminating those extra 10 days and adding summer enrichment programs for several hundred children from schools across the city, including Saltonstall.
In the past, school board members who wanted to cut back the Saltonstall schedule have argued that it is an important “equity” issue. At a time when the school district is under pressure from the state to raise MCAS scores and make other improvements to a system with a large number of children from poor families and homes with limited English, funds should be spent more evenly, they have argued.
School officials aren’t sure how much would be saved by ending the extended year at Saltonstall. Combined, the longer day and year are budgeted for an extra $300,000, but how much would be saved by cutting those 10 days depends, in part, on negotiations with the Salem Teachers Union, according to officials.
Russell insists that saving money is not the driving force behind his proposal. However, any funds that would be saved presumably would help fund the summer programs.
No matter what happens, Saltonstall will be open through July this summer. A new schedule would not go into effect until next school year.
The superintendent also notes that there are no plans to end the extended-day program. Russell says he is a strong supporter of Saltonstall and is recommending retaining the extra hour — a goal he hopes to attain at other schools.
The superintendent has repeatedly stressed that this proposed action is not punitive, but rather a way to offer more summer options to a greater number of students, including those at Saltonstall. While he has not spelled out potential programs, in conversations he has mentioned robotics, environmental science and other “high interest” subjects.
While Russell’s proposal is aimed at the summer of 2014, school officials are working on pilot programs they hope to offer this summer.
Several Saltonstall parents spoke at the end of the Monday meeting, urging the board to keep the extended year. Two noted the apparent inconsistency of reducing hours at Saltonstall while contemplating adding hours to schools across the city to improve learning and allow teachers more planning time.
“We’re talking about where the school district is planning to go, and we’re talking about removing that (at Saltonstall)?” parent Marcie Clawson said. “It’s a shame.”
Clawson was interrupted once by Walsh, who asked if the board should allow the Saltonstall schedule to be discussed during the “questions and comments” segment of the meeting since the subject was not on the agenda.
He was overruled by Driscoll, who noted that Walsh brought up the subject himself under School Committee “concerns and resolutions” when he proposed the April 8 meeting.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.