MERRIMAC — Local officials are accusing the region’s vocational high school of favoring out-of-district “school choice” students over the students who live in the communities it is supposed to serve — accusations that include tampering with the entrance scores of well-connected applicants and actively recruiting students who perform well on tests.
Leaders of seven of the 11 communities served by Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School are so concerned by the practice, they plan to take action against the school district. Whittier has denied accusations that it is doing anything wrong.
At a meeting held at the Merrimac Public Library last week, selectmen, mayors, finance directors and school committee members from Amesbury, Groveland, Ipswich, Merrimac, Rowley, Salisbury and West Newbury unanimously agreed to create a committee to address both the short-term goal of making the vo-tech comply with state laws when it comes to its admissions and transportation policies for out-of-district students, as well as a long-term goal of revisiting the agreement that binds the communities into a regional school district. There were no representatives from the four other district towns — Georgetown, Newbury, Newburyport and Haverhill.
Also present for the discussion were Whittier School Board representatives: Dick Early, Haverhill; Paul Tucker, Merrimac; and Doug Gelina, Groveland; Pentucket Regional School District Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen; Pentucket business manager Greg Labrecque, and state Rep. Lenny Mirra.
Noticeably absent from the discussion was Whittier Superintendent Bill DeRosa, who is retiring at the end of the school year. According to Gelina, he personally extended an invitation to DeRosa but was told, “If they want to talk to me, they need to come to Whittier.”
The lack of participation by the Whittier administration was clearly a source of frustration to those present.
“I’m getting the feeling that they’re really not listening because they’re not even here,” said Amesbury Mayor Ken Gray.
Leadership from the three towns that make up the Pentucket District — Groveland, Merrimac and West Newbury — organized the meeting after The Daily News reported earlier this year that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools had told DeRosa that the district’s practice of pre-qualifying students to fill school choice slots was against the law. A complaint lodged by Mulqueen on behalf of the Pentucket board triggered the DESE review.
Unlike other public schools that are legally obligated to educate all students in their districts, Whittier is a selective school, which means it may apply admission criteria to in-district applications. However, all school choice slots must be filled randomly with no evaluative criteria applied. At the time, DeRosa said he would seek a formal legal opinion from DESE before he’d agree to change the policy.
But the member towns complain that this policy favors high achieving out-of-district students over average achieving in-district students, resulting in local taxpayers contributing nearly $2 million a year to educate students from outside the district. With Whittier’s assessments to the towns continuing to rise, something needs to change, they said.
Whittier receives $5,000 from the state for each school choice student it accepts, but its per pupil cost is $18,000 annually — meaning local taxpayers are subsidizing a portion of the $13,000 for each out-of-district student’s education. This year the school has 144 school choice students, out of a total of 1,300 students.
West Newbury Selectman Glenn Kemper contended that under DeRosa’s direction, when a spot in the school opens up mid-year, the admissions department actively recruits those out-of-district students who achieved high scores on their applications but wound up not attending the school in the fall. Phone calls are placed to these high achievers, who are encouraged to reconsider attending.
Lower scoring, in-district students who hadn’t been accepted in the fall could also reapply at that time; and if their scores had improved enough, they would be accepted. But, unlike the high-achieving, out-of-district kids, no one from the admissions office contacted these students, Kemper said.
“We in no way recruit,” insisted Tucker.
But Kemper was told this “by people who have done it — who say they were instructed by the superintendent to do it.” He was also told DeRosa was known to change a low application score for a student if pressured by a well-known member in the community to do so. Tucker said he had no knowledge of this practice and doubted it was true.
He said that parents — in and out of district — are motivated to get their children into Whittier because of its excellent reputation as both an academic and vo-tech institution.
“It’s kind of easy when you’re picking the kids that get to go there,” Kemper answered.
“How do we convince Whittier to accept all in-district kids before they accept school choice,” asked Pentucket’s Chris Wile.
Under state law, admission-selective schools like Whittier can choose not to use admission criteria and instead opt to admit all students on a first-come, first-served basis or through use of a lottery system. It’s an option that some at last week’s meeting favored. Kemper argued that Whittier’s strict admission policy is impacting some average eighth-grade applicants in ways that are potentially negative and long-lasting.
Instead, he proposes enrolling all in-district students who wish to attend, then imposing yearly educational standards that must be met in order for a student to advance to the next grade level. “If they don’t make it — they don’t make it,” but at least they will have been given a shot, he said.
But Tucker doesn’t believe lowering or eliminating admission standards is the answer because these standards are what has made Whittier one of the best vo-tech schools in the state while also being the sixth least expensive. Whittier offers diversity and has a large population of special needs students, he said, but acknowledged, “some kids apply and don’t get in — I’m sorry.”
Questions were also raised about the high ratio of administrative positions at Whittier, the town of Boxford’s withdrawal from the district without following legally required procedures, and the fact that Whittier provides transportation to school choice students from Andover, Lawrence, Methuen and North Andover. Under state law, these students are not entitled to transportation.
Tucker argued that by providing its own fleet of school buses, Whittier is actually presenting a savings to taxpayers. The buses already run from Ipswich to Haverhill, so a few more miles “is a wash,” he said.
But Brian Page of the Pentucket board said buses cost upward of $80,000 plus drivers, fuel and maintenance. “Area communities are investing money into that school and they’re spending like there’s no tomorrow — it’s got to stop.”
With the growing controversy over its admissions policy and an increase in qualified in-district applications, Whittier decided not to take any new school choice student next year, although those currently enrolled may still attend.
DeRosa announced his retirement effective at the end of this school year; after conducting an internal search, the Whittier board chose curriculum coordinator Maureen Lynch to replace him. Once the new regional agreement committee is formed this summer, the member towns plan to reach out to Lynch and invite her to a meeting.