Attempts to bolster the Randolph school system have been, in the eyes of some school officials, akin to trying to keep the Titanic afloat.
Much has been tossed overboard: Gone are two elementary schools, nearly all busing, 68 classroom teachers, and about half of the academic offerings at the high school, not to mention nearly all freshmen and junior varsity sports.
Meanwhile, those able to abandon ship are doing so, as parents pull their children out of the district in large numbers. All the while, tension among local leaders and residents has grown, eroding public trust and hope.
In an unusual move 12 days ago, the state Board of Education tossed Randolph a life preserver. It declared it an underperforming district. The action - which the board has taken only three times previously - may seem like a reprimand, but it could lead to a state takeover that, in turn, brings an infusion of state aid.
Just how Randolph ended up on the brink paints a cautionary tale for other schools districts which, state officials say, may be courting the same fate.
Some of Randolph's problems are shared by many districts, such as budget cuts and the failure of overrides to provide more funds. Others are specific to Randolph - such as a surge in students whose first language is not English, or who come from families with fewer resources at home. Add to that a failure of leadership.
The chairman of the state Board of Education calls it a breakdown of the social compact of the community. Randolph residents call it a tragedy.
"Will there be a Randolph public schools next year? I honestly don't know," said School Committee chairman Larry Azer. "I think the future of Randolph schools could be determined in the next three or six months. If we don't turn it around, the system will collapse upon itself."
In the overwhelmingly white suburbs of Greater Boston, Randolph has distinguished itself as a seemingly harmonious melting pot. In the school district, more than 70 percent of the 3,177 students are African-American, Asian, or Latino, and nearly 50 percent of students come from households where English is not the primary language. The town is popular among immigrants from Haiti, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe.
The integration in the schools reflects housing patterns in this town of 31,000, where families who have been here for generations live alongside newcomers.
"It's a town in transition that could potentially be a model for a multicultural community," said Patti DeRosa, a longtime community activist.
A town in transition means a shifting population of students. Enrollment has dropped 20 percent over the past five years, as parents have sent their children elsewhere. At the same time, the percent of low-income students has increased notably to about 40 percent.
Randolph is "reflecting a demographic shift that's outpacing other districts in the state," said Joseph Rappa, executive director of the state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. "Part of that demographic shift means there are more stressors; the number of students being enrolled and having different needs are higher."
"There is no single culprit, but there are victims," Rappa said of Randolph's problems. "Let's not get hung up on who alone is to blame."
Mostly, though, Rappa said, Randolph is an example of how the state's centuries-old tradition of local control is being pushed beyond its limits.
Money woes, not demographic patterns, are the root of Randolph's problems. Local officials trace that to 2002, when a slowdown in the economy prompted the state first to freeze aid to local districts, and then, in the following two years, to reduce aid. Many districts, even affluent ones, are still reeling from those cuts; state aid in most cases has not returned to previous levels, while costs for health insurance, energy, and salaries have risen.
Randolph school leaders say they need $12.5 million - the amount that has been cut over the past five years - to restore programs and staff to its six schools. (The school budget now stands at about $40 million.) Voters have rejected four property tax increases during that time, most recently $4.2 million in March for the schools and the town.
"This is not something that happened overnight," said David Harris, a nearly 50-year resident who served on the School Committee from 1985 to 1995, and is president of the Randolph Fair Practices Association, which promotes racial and ethnic equity. "It's been coming for five years and we could see it coming, but residents were not convinced it would affect them. . . . We failed to get residents to buy into the concept that education is a focal point of the town."
Only about 20 percent of Randolph households have school-age children, and only one in five of those households voted in the last election, lower than the townwide rate, according to a school district analysis of voting records. Those numbers help explain the consistent failure of tax overrides.
Public confidence in the School Committee took a hit in March 2004, when the board, in a 3-2 vote, severed the contract of a controversial school superintendent with a $580,000 buyout.
Those in favor of the deal said new leadership was necessary to move the district forward. The vote came two weeks after the superintendent sparked controversy for implying at a public meeting that parents were at fault for an achievement gap among students of different racial groups, but the board at the time said it had been negotiating his exit for several months.
Only one board member - Azer, who voted against the deal - remains on the committee today.
"Aside from whether a change in leadership was needed," said Azer, a 1988 Randolph High School graduate who has a child in the system, "I told them this will haunt us for years and it is."
When the state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability first reviewed the district's records between 2000 and 2003, it determined the district's performance to be acceptable in comparison to the rest of the state.
However, when a second review examined district records between 2003 and 2006, student performance on state tests eroded. That second report faulted the district on an array of issues: Classroom lessons often didn't reflect state standards; teachers didn't use state test scores to determine how student achievement could improve; and meanwhile, budget cuts were taking a toll. Most significantly, the district didn't have enough teachers or tutors to help students at risk of failing.
In 2006, the middle school fell short for the fifth year in a row on federal accountability measures on standardized test scores, causing the state Education Department to designate the school for restructuring, which could lead to a state takeover. Also, the New England Association of Schools & Colleges informed school officials last month that the group intends to put the high school's accreditation on probation in January because, in part, budget cuts have compromised academic programs.
The declines occurred even though the district was spending more than the state-mandated minimum on education, and as school leaders were trying to improve teaching and student achievement. The School Committee in 2005, in hiring former Brookline schools superintendent Richard Silverman as the district's new leader, involved the public in the search, one of many efforts to restore public confidence.
Silverman is credited by local residents and state education leaders for shoring up school administration. He hired the district's first full-time business manager in more than a decade, and an assistant superintendent responsible for curriculum development, while making the budget process more open to the public. He lost points among some residents for not broadening the diversity of the school staff, although the state report commended a stronger focus on diversity hiring.
He also devoted more staff to the middle school - at the expense of the elementary and high schools - to turn around faltering student performance there. And this year, the district ushered in the first new math and language arts curriculum for elementary schools in 10 years, added tuition-based full-day kindergarten, and has encouraged teachers to work together more to improve student performance.
"We made real changes in the conversations and activities taking place in the schools," Silverman said in an interview Wednesday. "Three years ago, the predominant conversations were about safety, order, routine, and schedules - all the organizational aspects of a school. There was little discussion about teaching and learning, and how to best meet the needs of a variety of students."
Even though Silverman said he is proud of the improvements, he's not upset about the district's status as "underperforming," although he worries that the label may have a negative impact on staff and student morale.
"We need all the help we can get," he said. "If the state Board of Education's designation can provide the assets we need, we are welcoming of it. . . . While we are working hard on things internally, we continue to deal with decreases in resources. The cuts we've made are not just words on paper, they are services to kids who need them."
Kathleen Haire, a 28-year resident whose son is a Randolph High senior, said she's sad but not surprised the state deemed Randolph an "underperforming district."
"The offerings at the high school have been cut so much that many students fill their schedules with study halls," said Haire, who worked on a pro-override campaign this year.
But, she said, there are signs of hope. "I feel this administration is really looking out for students . . . they have a sincere desire to do best for the students of Randolph, and you didn't get that sense in the distant past."
Selectmen are contemplating asking voters next spring for yet another property tax increase.
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com.