By Jason Starr
Because she was Colchester High School principal for 10 years, Amy Minor has a decided head start on her new role as school district superintendent. But she is doing her best to leave her assumptions at the central office door and approach the top leadership position as an outsider.
“I’m really trying to assess the system as a whole as if I were not in the district,” she said last Thursday, a week before teachers report and two weeks before students return for the first day of school. “I want to see things first-hand before making decisions.”
To that end, last spring Minor started observing operations at the four school buildings she has not worked in. This summer she met individually with school board members and held a three-day retreat with the district’s principals.
And though the goal is to get a fresh assessment of the district’s “strengths, needs and challenges,” Minor’s institutional knowledge and her course for the district’s future is already evident in her early initiatives.
Cohesion and communication
The school district is now using a registration platform called InfoSnap. When families log in, they have access to all registration forms and permission slips necessary for enrollment for the new school year.
Online registration is mandatory, Minor said, a departure from the paper enrollment packets traditionally mailed to parents in August. Parents without home internet access must register using school computers. Early last week, about 1,200 out of roughly 2,500 families completed online registration, Minor said.
With all student information stored online, the annual enrollment process will be expedited and seamless when students graduate from one building to the next, Minor said. Eventually, field trip permission slips and athletic forms will be distributed and completed through the website.
InfoSnap is an example of Minor’s goal to improve the cohesion among the district’s five schools. She also plans to unify the look and function of the five school websites with the district website.
Building-to-building cohesion will be a large component of the district’s next vision and strategic plan, Minor said. The current plan expires at the end of this school year.
Adopted in 2012 after a year of forums with students, parents, teachers and administrators, the current strategic plan lists collaboration with the town of Colchester, technology integration in the classroom and digital literacy as five-year goals.
Starting this year, the technology integration goal will be fulfilled, Minor said. For the first time, each middle and high school student will receive his or her own district-issued laptop for use at school and at home.
At Malletts Bay School, there is one laptop for every two students to use in the building.
The personal devices allow students to personalize lesson plans to their learning styles, Minor said.
The school board and selectboard are jointly considering locations for a community center and early education center. The early education center idea was initiated by Minor’s predecessor, Larry Waters, as a way to combine the district’s preschool, kindergarten and early grades into one new building.
Meanwhile, the town is considering locations for a potential community center. Both boards met in a joint meeting Tuesday to see if the projects can dovetail with a shared parking lot and wastewater system, Minor said.
Budgeting and negotiating
Minor inherits a fiscal year budget with a tax impact the school board negated through the use of $800,000 in unspent money from previous fiscal year surpluses and per pupil revenue from the district’s new pre-kindergarten program.
The increased revenue resulted in a tax rate decrease that voters overwhelmingly approved at Town Meeting Day last March.
Minor said a similar infusion of leftover money will not be available for the upcoming fiscal year. Also, the growth of the district’s pre-kindergarten program will necessitate increased staff spending.
“It’s not clean revenue. Some of it comes at a cost. You need to add positions for the program to work,” Minor said.
“I think it will be a more challenging budget than last year.”
Another recurring challenge is a new round of teacher contract negotiations. Earlier this month, the school board sent a letter to the Colchester teachers union signaling a willingness to open talks on a new contract. The current three-year deal expires in June.
Minor expects teachers to respond shortly after they regroup for the new school year this week. In 2013, contract negotiations took place in open public session for the first time. Minor said the school board and union will decide whether to open negotiations to the public this year.