To save money, Conant High School will return to block schedule

  • Conant High School STAFF FILE PHOTO BY BEN CONANT

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/23/2022 2:37:29 PM
Modified: 3/23/2022 2:36:37 PM

Looking for cuts after failure of the district’s $27.5 million budget at the ballot box, forcing it to a default budget, Jaffrey-Rindge’s new School Board approved a plan to change the daily schedule at the district’s middle/high school Monday, notably shifting Conant High School’s day to a block schedule.

“We’ve had this before, and teachers have recommended the value of it,” said Middle/High School Principal David Dustin. “The budget is the impetus for this change, but there is some value to it as well.”

With this change, Dustin said the school will be able to reduce costs and staff without drastic impacts on programming, which has been a point of concern since voters defeated the proposed operating budget. Although the gap between the proposed and default budgets was originally estimated to be $541,739, Superintendent Reuben Duncan said early in the meeting that it would be closer to $800,000 or $900,000, due to sharp increases in the cost of necessities such as electricity, propane and gasoline. 

Dustin said that by shifting to a block schedule and instituting corresponding reductions in staff, the district would likely save about $300,000. 

“I would not propose a schedule change this year for the sake of doing it,” he said. “The purpose of doing it now is getting ahead of some possible reductions.”

The cuts would come in the form of four full-time-equivalent positions, although Dustin said it would involve the termination of only one staff member, due to the way he and the other administration officials had shuffled the positions.

The current plan includes the loss of a math teacher position, a physical education teacher position split between the middle and the high school, the elimination of a STEM teacher position and the reduction of half an English teacher position and half of a social studies position.

Of these, only the physical education cut would result in the loss of a staff member. The individual affected by the reduction in math would be shifted to fill a gap for a STEM retirement, and the math position would not be refilled. The social studies/English cuts would involve a high school social studies teacher moving to the middle school to fill a role left by another retirement while a high school English teacher is going to be split between English and social studies.

Lastly, a STEM position that had been budgeted will not be filled. Dustin said that these plans are not yet set in stone, as the administration was awaiting approval of the schedule change by the School Board before moving forward with implementing staffing changes.

Dustin also pointed out that personnel had been squeezed at the school in years past due to budget concerns, including reducing from two librarians to one, from three art teachers to two and other shifts.

“We’ve kind of been squeezing the middle/high school over the last few years, intentionally,” he said. “But we’re kind of getting close to what I’d consider the bottom line, where we lose access to learners.”

Not all of the decisions have been made on how the block schedule would look, Dustin added, but it would involve many courses being offered in 88-minute blocks and some being offered in 45-minute “skinnies.” Block classes typically would not last the entire school year, but rather one semester, while “skinnies” would carry over between semesters.

Dustin also said the administration had been considering returning to a block schedule format in coming years, and while this would be a faster shift than anticipated, it aligned with current plans for the district. He also said that feedback from students and staff have been largely positive. 

Duncan and some School Board members expressed their appreciation for the administration’s work on the plan.

“I just want to commend you for looking at this as an opportunity, as opposed to a problem,” said Duncan.

“If there’s a team that will do it well, I think it’s this team,” said John McCarthy, who was named as the chair of the new School Board early in the meeting. 

Some board members expressed concern over the plan, citing the fact that the district had previously used the block schedule and had moved away from it. The district used a block schedule at the high school from 2006 and 2015, when the School Board voted to institute a seven-period model. Also, in 2020, the district used a block schedule for both the middle and high school to help with COVID-19 mitigation strategies before returning to a seven-period model that is currently in place.

“In my personal experience, I don’t think a block schedule will have a positive impact on our children,” said board member Paul O’Malley, who cited his own experience attending the high school when a block schedule was in place. Students who have trouble focusing, he said, would have difficulty with the longer classes.

Board member Kim Aucoin said that while she believed the district teachers could overcome the challenges of a block schedule, she was worried about the longevity of the plan, since the schedule has been changed frequently in recent years.

“I have full faith in them; it’s the sustainability,” she said. “That’s the part that makes me feel like, ‘What do we do?’”

Dustin defended the plan, saying that the process of trying to adapt to the default budget has already been difficult for staff.

“We have an amazing staff that is feeling a little bit taken aback by the budget situation. They didn’t ask for a default budget. They didn’t ask to be put in a position to figure out what they’re going to do to make this work,” he said. “I think we’re asking you to trust in the work that we’ve done.”

Other board members said that with more budget reductions coming in future weeks as the district tries to adjust to a default budget, they should take this opportunity. 

“This is the last resort,” said board member Lisa Wiley. “You were able to find a solution for a third of the money. I’m honest-to-God in awe.”

The process of ironing out the block schedule will begin over the next few weeks, Dustin said, as will professional development to help teachers get ready for the change. 

Further discussions of budget cuts will also continue in the coming weeks, according to McCarthy, as the School Board and the Finance Committee try to further squeeze into the default budget. 


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