Athol panel caps number of virtual school students

  • The Athol Royalston Regional School Committee voted Wednesday night to limit the number of district students who may attend virtual schools. Committee member Charles Pretti, left, and Vice-Chair Joao Baptista voted against the measure. ATHOL DAILY NEWS/GREG VINE

For Athol Daily News
Published: 2/13/2020 9:59:25 PM
Modified: 2/13/2020 9:59:14 PM

ATHOL – The Athol Royalston Regional School Committee voted Wednesday to limit the amount of money it will spend on students who are attending so-called virtual schools via the internet. The district in which a virtual school student lives is required to pay that student’s tuition.

“Virtual schools in Massachusetts are public schools,” Athol High School Principal David King explained. “Any student in the state has the ability to register and enroll in this virtual schools. There are two of them in the state. There are some statutes that these virtual schools have to abide by, and one of them is applicable to us here in the Athol Royalston Regional School District.”

King said that any time more than one percent of the student body population is enrolled in a virtual school, the district is allowed to vote to limit further enrollment. In this case, such a vote was necessary by March 1. The Athol Royalston district has passed the one percent threshold.

“We’re looking to see if the School Committee would entertain sending a letter to the DESE (state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) which says that, based on the negative impact of school choice, we would — for the next school year — limit the ability for students, over one percent of our student body population, to attend these virtual schools.”

“I think it’s important to stress how much this costs the district,” said district Business Manager Lynn Bassett. “There are currently 21 virtual school kids on our school choice fund. Each one of those costs $82-hundred dollars – 85, maybe – but it costs a lot more than school choice dose, which is usually about $5,000. If we capped it, would could have capped it at 15.”

Bassett said she contacted DESE to find out what would happen if the committee voted to cap the number of virtual school students. She said she was told the state would calculate the cost of a cap on 15, and that would be the most the district would pay for any virtual school student.

“So, if there’s 21 on our roster,” she continued, “we can’t kick them out, tell them they can’t go. They will start charging us less than that 85-hundred per student if we go over that maximum of 15.”

“I don’t think I would feel responsible to the citizens as a School Committee member,” said Charles Pretti, “if we were to say we’re only going to let X amount of people do this.”

Pretti offered a motion to seek input from the parents of virtual school students regarding why they opted to educate their children online.

“We could attempt to do that,” said Superintendent Darcy Fernandes, “but whether the families choose to give us the information or not is the dilemma. You can ask the question, but whether parents will give us feedback or not is another story. We have to make this decision before March 1, so we could get that information but we will not be able to cap it for next year if we don’t make the decision tonight.

“I want to emphasize that there are 21 who are there now will not be removed; we’re not taking anyone away. It’s just moving forward.”

Pretti’s motion was withdrawn and another made by committee member William Chiasson to proceed with a one percent cap on virtual school students. The vote to approve the cap was 8-2, with Pretti and committee Vice Chair Joao Baptista dissenting.

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