Some say article would give board too much authority
ConVal School Superintendent Dick Bergeron, left, confers with School Board Chair Butch Estey and Vice Chair George Kidd prior to Tuesday's hearing on the district's budget proposal. (Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
PETERBOROUGH — A School Board-sponsored warrant article to change the ConVal Articles of Agreement to allow the board to close a school if it’s found to be operating substantially below capacity drew little support at a public hearing on Tuesday.
“You are asking for a blank check,” said Christy Greene of Dublin. “It needs to be our vast ConVal community making these decisions.”
Greene was responding to a presentation of the proposal by School Board Vice Chair George Kidd of Hancock, who headed the District Model Study Committee that spent more than a year studying possible options for school consolidation in the face of declining enrollment.
“We took five different models to meetings in eight towns,” Kidd said. “We conducted a survey of voters. Our feeling was the there was no clear choice by the public.”
He said the meetings and survey results did show that the public valued education highly and that people were interested in some type of change. That input ultimately caused the School Board to recommend the proposed article.
“To make a change, it should be an orderly, disciplined, rationally sound process,” Kidd said. “We think this is the best way to do this.”
The proposal would completely replace Article 5, which includes wording specifying that elementary schools must be maintained in all of the district’s nine towns except Sharon. It would allow the School Board, by a 2/3 majority vote, to close any school in the district after following a 10-step process, including reviews of demographic studies and projections, the age and physical condition of the building, the adequacy of the site and transportation factors. The board would also have to review cost savings.
“There is a number at which a school is too small to operate,” Kidd said. “We’re asking you to give the professional educators and your board the option to close schools.”
Laura Christman of Francestown told that audience that the proposal would threaten the small elementary schools.
“Look around, nobody’s safe. Every little school is at risk,” Christman said. “They’re saying there was no clear consensus, so let us decide. Don’t you want to make the decision? I’d encourage you to vote no.”
Dennis Calcutt of Francestown said the board should have made a specific proposal to the voters.
“To change the articles to shift power to this group isn’t the right step at this point,” Calcutt said.
And Peter Martel of Bennington said the proposal could become highly divisive.
“If you take away schools, I’m sure some towns will leave the district,” Martel said.
Mark Fernald of Sharon said the School Board’s warrant article was “an odd way to go about dealing with a very important question.” He said it was drafted after the Model Study Committee and the board couldn’t come to agreement on a specific proposal.
“This is a bad approach. I don’t think it’s going to pass,” Fernald said.
Gail Cromwell of Temple said the intent of the warrant article is to push through a plan to close a number of elementary schools.
“If you vote this in, the next thing that will happen is consolidation,” Cromwell said, adding that Kidd had spoken in the past in favor of a plan to close several elementary schools.
Kidd disagreed with Cromwell and others who said the proposal would target particular schools.
“The amendment doesn’t close a single school,” he said. “It lays out a process.”
He also said the amendment would give the board authority that most school boards already have.
Francestown School Board representative Stewart Brock said there will be new members on the board next year and a new school superintendent will have been hired, so the proposal could enable the board to make a fresh start on the issue.
During the discussion, members of the School Board pondered how a two-thirds margin would be determined — whether it would be 2/3 of the 13 member board; 2/3 of the 12 members who normally vote, since the board chair generally only votes in case of a tie; or 2/3 of those present at the meeting when a vote is taken. They didn’t reach a consensus, but agreed the wording might need clarification.
Fernald and Cromwell are sponsoring an alternative petition warrant article that would amend Article 5 in a different way. Their proposal would strike the sentence, “Grades five through eight (5-8) may be educated at the middle schools in Antrim and Peterborough” and replace it with a sentence reading “Beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, the district will operate one middle school which shall be centrally located in Peterborough.”
While that proposal doesn’t necessarily call for moving fifth-graders into elementary schools, the idea that such a shift could happen didn’t sit well with one resident.
“I’m opposed to opportunities lost when you cannot provide the programs,” said Tabitha Momenee of Francestown. “We have an obligation to these kids. Fifth grade is important.”
The warrant article will be up for discussion at the district’s Deliberative Session on Feb. 6 at South Meadow School.