School Committee member Alice Turkel’s concerns were key in ensuring a new middle-school study was slowed to include more input from the public. (Photo: Liv Rachelle Gold)

A plan to bring a middle school to the city suffered another setback Tuesday, as the School Committee looked at the superintendent’s revised timeline on pitching the idea and asked for it to be revised again — with more input from committee members and the public.

It has already been shelved once.

Superintendent Jeffrey Young introduced the idea Feb. 2, proposing a hybrid model for the district that, starting September 2012, would leave K-8 schools intact for about 600 students but have about 450 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders attend a middle school. The idea emerged from a broader study of how best to teach middle-graders begun last year.

Committee members were not won over by the idea.

On Feb. 23 they asked Young to simultaneously prepare a proposal without a middle school, with both to be researched through March 23, presented April 6 and voted on May 18. But he cut that process short March 30, shelving the middle school proposal in favor of a short-term plan of quickly implementing districtwide solutions to such things as space allocation and the “controlled choice” system through which parents select schools for their children.

Skepticism and concerns

The new timeline would have reconvened a middle school study group after the summer to prepare a proposal for a December vote — late enough that it delay a potential middle school opening by at least another year. “Momentum around middle grades discussion must be kept up,” Young told the committee.

But momentum was not committee members’ chief concern.

“I still don’t know that this middle school thing has to happen at all,” Richard Harding said before turning to a range of concerns about the process: that “nothing happened” and the process had failed, that the new timeline was too aggressive and that the public was unclear on the status of the proposal.

Young noted that the new timeline could be more aggressive because much work had already been done. “I take some exception to the characterization nothing happened,” he replied. “The conversation was fruitful and led us to the short-term plan. We’re not back to square one at all.”

“If we can work in an intensive way, with the citywide school council, we can make good progress,” he said. He also assured the committee he would retain the flexibility that allowed him to shelve the proposal in the first place, extending the vote beyond December if, for instance, ironing out the foundational issues of controlled choice slowed progress.

But then Alice Turkel spoke, repeating several of Harding’s concerns and asking at length for more public hearings and committee involvement in the timeline. She finally saying there should be “a more realistic schedule.”

Only a glimmer

Fred Fantini offered a glimmer of hope in suggesting the committee could do some of the necessary work in its subcommittees, and David Maher — leader of the committee by virtue of being mayor — spoke forcefully of the need to make a decision. The City Council can’t take the necessary steps of budgeting and carving out physical space for middle-graders until one is made.

“The committee is going to have to buckle down and get this done in order for us to proceed,” Maher said.

But the day was carried by Turkel’s concerns about “unhappy campers” from “any implementation of any model,” as well as questions about who would be consulted from around the district, regrets about the past process (“It was a mistake as a committee with input from the city not to come to agreement about what the model would be”) and suggestion of slowing of the process to allow for a new round of public input. Young agreed without rancor to slow the timeline again.

Members wanted more detail in the timeline, reminiscent of complaints about Young’s budget. While he drew compliments for his budget’s clarity, residents and officials said they wanted to see more detailed breakdowns of costs contributing to specific line items.

Asked how long a proposal would take with a process addressing Turkel’s concerns, Young replied tactfully.

“I’m coming to trust the committee’s vision of how long things will take more than my own,” he said. “I’d be happy to take this back and pay attention to your concerns and ask you not to vote this one way or another this evening.”

The committee agreed. Its next chance to consider a timeline to allow Young to explore creating a middle school will be May 18; because motions need two readings, the first chance to approve that timeline will be June 1.