Let’s look at unused space

Some are crowing that the ConVal budget was voted down in March. I am not one of them.

The voters of the ConVal district have a long history of supporting the budget and the School Board, in good times and in bad. Over nearly 50 years, voters have rejected the budget only two other times.

The School Board is finalizing the cuts to the budget — elimination of teachers and other staff, elimination of new technology for students, and cancelation of the Quest program are some of the cuts that have been tentatively approved by the board.

Those who advocated for a “no” vote on the budget suggested it would be easy to make cuts. “Just put the school lunch program out to bid, and buy fuel oil in bulk.” Both of these are red herrings. The school lunch program was put out to bid several years ago. A bid at a lower cost was received, but it would have meant taking away the retirement benefits of the school lunch workers, and cutting their health benefits in half. Any organization can cut its budget if it is willing to cut the compensation of its staff. The School Board was not willing to go this route.

As for fuel oil, the school district paid $3.25 per gallon during the past heating season, which compares favorably to the prices that were available to homeowners and small businesses.

I don’t envy the School Board for the challenges they face. They have to craft a budget for next year, and negotiate a new teacher’s contract, all to be voted on next March, after the voters have indicated they are willing to pay no more.

Perhaps we have to accept larger class sizes, less technology in the schools, and less enrichment for our students. That would be a change for this district, and a step back from the School Board’s goal that ConVal be a high-performing district.

I don’t blame the voters in all this. In the past dozen years, the total property tax bill in New Hampshire has doubled. Ever-increasing property taxes have been a fact of life in the ConVal district as well. Very few voters have seen their incomes double in the past dozen years.

As we contemplate a debate over higher property taxes vs. less money for schools, we should look for alternatives to these two unhappy courses.

Since 1972, the square footage of the schools in the district has increased over 50 percent. Every school in the district is substantially larger that it was 40 years ago, yet the student population is essentially the same.

Unused space is expensive to heat, to clean, and to insure. Any business can tell you that. We should discuss how we might reduce the district’s physical plant to a size more appropriate to the size of the student body.

I have no illusions that it will be easy to consolidate schools. The small towns in the district have made clear that they do not want their village schools closed. The northern towns have made clear they do not want Great Brook School closed.

Even so, it is disappointing that the School Board is unwilling to even broach the subject of consolidation. Some selectmen have spoken on the issue, but their input has been neither sustained, nor comprehensive.

If we consolidated the elementary schools, how many of the existing schools would we need? How much money would we save? How long would the school bus rides be? We don’t know.

If we consolidate the middle schools, we have a bit more information. The fifth grade could be moved to the elementary schools, filling empty classrooms. Grades 6-8 for the entire district would fit comfortably at South Meadow School. The estimated annual savings, according to the Model Study Committee, would be about $1.7 million, more than twice the cut in next year’s budget. But that number is three years out of date.

The current strategy of the School Board is to stay the course. Perhaps the board can convince voters next March to approve a new contract for our teachers, and to approve a budget that maintains all our existing schools and programs.

Otherwise, we may find that the money we spend to keep all our schools open is the money that ends up being cut from staffing, extracurriculars, technology, and what is paid to our teachers.

Mark D. Fernald, Esq., lives in Peterborough.

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