New London re-examines middle school sailing program partnership

New London — Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School has ended a four-year relationship with the nonprofit New England Science and Sailing for the time being, opting to test the waters for the possibility of a new partner.

Stonington-based NESS has provided an array of programs in New London schools — after-school programs, placing AmeriCorps members in the classrooms and a summer sailing and kayaking program, among other activities.

While a relationship remains in some schools, the partnership with the middle school ended earlier this year when NESS was not invited back to the middle school’s Camp Rotary, a summer of free programs and field trips for students in sixth through eighth grades.

The news of the impending breakup was not well received by NESS, which had been involved in ongoing discussions prior to the start of camp and was informed of the school district’s desire to follow a stricter “request for proposals” process that had been lacking in prior years.

The RFP didn't arrive before Camp Rotary started, however, and the sailing program was left off the activity list.

Spike Lobdell, NESS’s founder and president, said in addition to being sidelined from the much-lauded sailing program, NESS continues to remain in limbo about whether it will be brought back into the middle school at the beginning of the new school year to provide in-school and after-school enrichment programs as it had in past years.

NESS received about $245,000 from the school district for its services in 2018; $180,000 of that funding comes through a five-year federal Full Service Community Grant specifically for activities at the middle school. NESS is written into that grant.

Angela Rasmussen, the middle school’s new project director for Full Service Community Grants, defended Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie’s decision to publish a request for proposals. While NESS has been a valued partner at the middle school through the years, Rasmussen said, no formal memorandum of understanding exists for NESS’s middle school services and there are few detailed documents outlining the scope of NESS’s services to justify the $180,000 yearly payments.

Given the budget constraints and in a move that follows the City Charter, Rasmussen said the district has called for a formal RFP process at the middle school. The process will open up the partnership opportunity for other organizations. NESS will be encouraged to submit a proposal.

Ritchie, who was hired as superintendent in 2018, said she discovered over the winter there was no district memorandum of understanding with NESS regarding the AmeriCore grant for the original application they submitted a few years ago nor any finalized agreement with NESS by any superintendent of the past.

"This is not good practice and moving forward I am insisting that all aspects of formalizing partnerships, including an RFP process, certifying MOUs, and dually-signing contracted agreements are in place," Ritchie said. "The district is going to continue to critically analyze all spending decisions to make sure they are aligned to the priority goals of the district (outlined in our District Improvement Plan), which are developed with the best interest of the students in mind."

NESS was sent a certified letter explaining the process in April, Ritchie said.

Rasmussen, who for eight years served as the operations manager at Winthrop STEM Magnet Elementary School, said NESS follows the RFP process for that school.

Rasmussen said that the district’s aim is to provide services that reach the most students possible for the money. Elements of NESS’s work did not appear to fulfill that goal, she said.

For instance, she said, NESS received $36,000 for a summer sailing program as part of the district's Camp Rotary. With more than 180 students attending Camp Rotary last year, Rasmussen said the sailing program serviced two dozen different students a week for seven weeks. The camp is serving more than 210 students this summer, she said.

Lobdell argues that the NESS’s involvement with Camp Rotary included not only sailing lessons at Greens Harbor, but kayaking at Ocean Beach Park. Since 2015, NESS hosted a weeklong marine science and adventure sports program. He said the intent of NESS’s involvement in Camp Rotary has always been to provide every student a chance to be on the water, a goal limited only by safety issues that include strict instructor-to-student ratios, which means only 24 students at any given time can participate. He said 48 students on any given week were either sailing or kayaking.

Lobdell said when he had not heard back from the district prior to the start of Camp Rotary, he went so far as to offer NESS services for free to provide continuity for the entire program. He said it was a breakdown in communication he’s still trying to remedy.

Ritchie said there have been ongoing communications with NESS since the beginning of the year.

Camp participants this year kayaked on school-owned boats at the University of Avery Point Campus in Groton. Rasmussen said the program was well-received and able to accommodate more students on a consistent basis.

Lobdell also argues that the $36,000 cost attributed to the sailing program is inaccurate. He said the $180,000 in grant funds from the school is being evenly distributed to NESS over a nine-month period at the request of the school administration four years ago. It amounts to payments of $20,000 per month, which he said is a far cry from the actual amount — $1.7 million — NESS is providing to the district, which comes from a mix of donations and grant funds separately obtained by NESS.

Lobdell said he thinks some of the issues could be resolved if there were better communication. He said “getting kids on the water” was the driving force behind the formation of NESS and the location of its satellite office at Ocean Beach emphasized the group’s commitment to New London.

Lobdell recently wrote a letter to the Board of Education, clarifying misinformation posted on social media and asking for time to speak to board members at their next meeting.

Aside from the sailing program, “the much more significant concern is getting aligned to provide support and programs during the academic year 2019-2020 and we have not been able to engage the district in any discussion,” he wrote.

“While we support the RFP process for providing services from outside vendors, the process does not work when RFPs are going to be issued two weeks before the start of school,” Lobdell said.

Rasmussen said an RFP would be issued in the fall. Meanwhile, Lobdell said NESS is moving forward and making the commitment to recruiting and hiring AmeriCorps members, who provide in-school support for teachers, mentoring and tutoring in multiple schools as part of its NESS STEM Education Ambassador program.

NESS recently was accredited by the New England Association of Schools & Colleges, the first school partner to receive such an accreditation

With less than six weeks to the start of school, Lobdell said, “time is ticking.”

Ritchie said Lobdell was advised not to enlist with AmeriCorps, since the district cannot guarantee it will have funding, "especially since we have a budget gap to close."

Board of Education President Manny Rivera, who while superintendent was involved in the expansion of the program, said the group offers several unique services “that went way beyond sailing classes.”

He said the school board had yet to start discussion on the issue but was expected to soon. He said Ritchie also is in a position of making tough financial decisions, considering constraints of the budget.

“... We’re in very tight fiscal times,” Rivera said. “We need to securitize the use of every single dollar to ensure were get the most of what we were paying. I wish we could expand a number of programs. That’s a huge factor here.”

Ritchie said she fully expects to have after-school programs in place for next school year.

"The district is blessed to be located in a community rich with so many fabulous partners who offer skills and services in a variety of areas," Ritchie said. "The purpose of an RFP process is to ensure there is alignment to the current need of students and also to be sure that there are fair and equal opportunities for multiple agencies to get involved co-supporting students within NLPS. We have a large list of community agencies who we consider our partners."

g.smith@theday.com

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