School Officials Clarify Homework Pass Misconception

BERLIN — After admitting murky language in a Buckingham Elementary School (BES) event flyer may have confused parents, Principal Roger Pacella wrote an apology letter this week and sought to set to rest any worries that schools are pressuring or coercing parents to support this year’s Worcester County Board of Education budget.

“Please know that we believe that it should be a parent’s choice as to whether or not they would like to directly communicate with County Commissioners on any issue, including our proposed operating budget,” Pacella wrote.

During the “Cap Wiz Night” parent teacher event, which took place March 1, visiting parents were encouraged to email the County Commissioners regarding the Board of Education budget while they waited for personal conferences. Computers were made available at the school, along with a list of the commissioners’ email addresses and several pre-written talking points.

The controversy from the night comes from an Our Schools Matter! memo given to parents that asks them to send a quick email to the commission and pick up a homework pass for their child at the same time.

Last week, County Commission President Bud Church spoke out against the practice of encouraging parents to support the Board of Education budget by providing homework passes for students as a reward. The school board’s budget calls for the first teacher and staff pay raise in three years.

But, according to Pacella, distributing homework passes during parent-teacher nights is a common practice as an incentive for attending school programs. He promised that all parents were able to collect the passes that night whether they emailed the commission or not and apologized for a confusing flyer associated with Cap Wiz Night that may have made it seem otherwise.

“The literature inaccurately stated the conditions for earning a homework pass and should never have been sent home,” wrote Pacella.

The line in question, which reads, “while you wait for your conference please stop by the front lobby to send a quick e-mail and get a homework pass,” was just a matter of poor wording, explained Pacella.

“Again, all parents who attended the Cap Wiz Night were eligible for a homework pass, regardless of their participation in writing an email to the County Commissioners,” he reiterated.

In his letter, Pacella also promised that BES has not and will not ever use a student reward like homework passes as leverage to pressure parents into doing anything.

“Furthermore, a homework pass should never and will never be dependent on a parent’s willingness to support what is, in essence, a political issue,” he wrote.

Church called the letter “a step in the right direction” and praised Pacella for clearing the air on the issue.

“I applaud him for sending the letter out,” Church said.

However, he maintained concerns that some parents have felt pressured this year to voice their support for the Board of Education budget, which faces a tough run this spring, since the board is asking for level funding from last year and a modest staff pay raise, which would put Fiscal Year 2013’s budget $1.9 million above FY2012. The situation is furthered stressed due to Worcester receiving roughly $10 million less in revenue this year, mostly because of falling property assessments, and therefore, taxes.

Still, the Worcester County Teachers Association is waging a grassroots effort with the Our Schools Matter Let’s Keep Them Great! campaign to demonstrate to the commission how important the budget is to the community. Already hundreds of educators and parents have appealed to the commissioners, though not all of them may have been enthusiastic about it, according to Church.

“Several parents called me and said they felt unduly pressured to send emails,” he said.

Church admitted that he’d only received about half a dozen of those calls, but still felt it was something worth paying attention to.

For their part, school officials unanimously defended the Our Schools Matter! effort and attributed any pressure some parents might have felt to confusion.

“It is very likely that these [Cap Wiz Night] flyers are the root cause of why some parents felt pressured,” said Board of Education Coordinator of Public Relations and Special Programs Barbara Witherow.

Witherow noted that “the choice to participate [in emailing the commission] was voluntary – a parent’s individual choice,” and that no school intended to ostracize or otherwise force parents to support the Board of Education budget.

“It is also reasonable to assume that some teachers may have read the inaccurate flyers,” said Witherow, “and not realized that school administration was following its common practice of giving homework passes to all parents who entered the school for the PTA night. Some teachers may have communicated the content of the flyers with some attending parents.”

Worcester County Teachers Association President Helen Schoffstall was also quick to promise that schools are giving parents plenty of breathing room over the issue.

“Nobody is twisting their arm,” she said.

According to Schoffstall, many of the parents she’d spoken to “are shy about political action” and while they may privately support the Board of Education, not all of them know how to effectively articulate that.

Consequently, Schoffstall explained that schools created a website parents can use to easily contact the commission and voice their concerns. She confirmed that several sample talking points about the budget are provided to help parents get started.

Though Church said that many of the emails he received from parents were “word-for-word identical,” Schoffstall promised that parents are able to and encouraged to leave their own, personal comments along with the talking points. Additionally, she said that the talking points aren’t a mandatory part of any email and don’t have to be used at all, but only serve as guidelines.

According to Church, after Pacella’s letter, he is ready to move past the confusion and focus on the budget process in the weeks to come.

“I want to quit stirring the pot,” he said. “We have more constructive stuff to do besides this.”