Future of schools needs attention

The outcome of last Tuesday’s ConVal School Board meeting was disappointing. In 2013, the District Study Committee — with members from the School Board and area selectmen — was charged with looking at the structure of the district in light of declining enrollment and calls from some quarters for consolidation of schools. But it’s hard to discern what the committee has achieved in the last year. Last Tuesday, it was decided that the focus of consolidation would be tabled for three years and recommence in 2017 in conjunction with a review of the Articles of Agreement.

The rationale is that voters aren’t interested in consolidation, but that’s not entirely true. In fact at the polls in March 2013, 58 percent of voters voted yes to giving the School Board the authority to put a consolidation plan together for the district to review and vote on. It was not the two-thirds needed to pass the article, but it was certainly a majority.

But even if one were to conclude voters aren’t interested in consolidation, it is clear that a vision for the future is in order. The district has yet to address a path forward for its nine member towns, one that deals with declining enrollment and at the same time maps out a plan for continued excellence in education. Granted getting two-thirds of voters to agree on substantive changes to the Articles of the Agreement won’t be easy, but giving up before we’ve really tried isn’t the answer either.

There is much to be proud of when it comes to the ConVal School District. There is no doubt of the school community’s commitment to education; its teachers, staff, administrators and parents are constantly going above and beyond the call of duty. What’s more, School Board members tirelessly give of their time to conduct the business of the district. But how we can expect to continue funding ever-increasing costs and programs with fewer and fewer students enrolled is a question no one seems to be answering. And this year, voters pushed back.

In March, 55 percent of voters rejected the district’s proposed $45.8 million operating budget. Supt. Brendan Minnihan said at the time that he was disappointed, noting that the budget proposal was less than 1 percent higher than the previous year. But even 1 percent higher is hard to justify when you look at the drop in enrollment over the years, something that experts say will very likely continue. (See studies by the New England School Development Council and the Carsey Institute.)

In the last 17 years, enrollment in the ConVal School District has dropped by 704 pupils, according to the district’s own numbers, down from 3,036 in 1997 to 2,332 in 2013. It’s been said that some of our elementary schools are half empty.

The solution to this problem is one every town in the district has to be in on, if the school system is to thrive. And we don’t profess to know the exact formula that will work for everyone, which is why so much was riding on what the District Study Committee came up with. It’s hard to accept that consolidation will be off the table for another three years. What that says to us is that the district isn’t planning to address, at least for another three years, the long-term issues that have been plaguing and will continue to plague ConVal. That is not acceptable. It’s not even clear if the District Study Committee will continue.

So what’s next?

Be that as it may, the School Board’s decision to table consolidation talks doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. Matt Craig of Sharon, a former School Board member, has an online blog, saveconvalcosts.blogspot.com, where he’s posting information and inviting voters to share their thoughts about the district’s future. “Do we want to commit as a school district to keeping eight elementary schools forever,” he said is his question for district voters.

It’s important to remember that ConVal’s situation is not unique. Declining enrollment is an issue districts throughout the region are grappling with. It’s a demographics and economics problem — young people follow the jobs, and our area is a growing place for retirement communities, rather than school districts.

On June 10, the Monadnock Center for History and Culture and the Ledger-Transcript will host a Community Conversations focused on the future of education, both the challenges and opportunities. It won’t be just for the ConVal community, it’s for all of the people in our region.

ConVal School Board member Tom Ferenc of Peterborough, who was named Vermont’s High School Principal of the Year, and Brad Bates, headmaster of Dublin School, will speak briefly on the topic and then open the discussion to attendees.

We hope many will join us at the table for this discussion, and will share their viewpoints on the future of education in our region, both before (send by June 5 at noon) and following the event on June 10 (send by June 12 at noon). You can email your pieces to news@ledgertranscript.com, with “education” in the subject line. For more information about the event, see monadnockcenter.org.

Sometimes when there’s a problem, it helps to step back, take in the bigger picture and get some fresh perspectives. Our goal is facilitate an exchange of ideas and find some new approaches to education that we can take back to our respective school districts for fine tuning.

As for ConVal, it may be time for some new leaders to step forward as well. Perhaps a committee made up of community members, in addition to School Board and Select Board members, is what’s need to help move the discussion on the district’s future forward.

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