Board won’t back Great Brook closure

School board also won’t recommend $80,000 request for SRO

ConVal School Board representative Crista Salamy of Antrim, shares her opinion on a petition warrant article that would close Great Brook School, as board members Matt Craig of Sharon, left, and Erik Thibault listen.

(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)

ConVal School Board representative Crista Salamy of Antrim, shares her opinion on a petition warrant article that would close Great Brook School, as board members Matt Craig of Sharon, left, and Erik Thibault listen. (Staff photo by Dave Anderson)

PETERBOROUGH — The ConVal School Board weighed in on two petition warrant articles Tuesday, opposing one that calls for the district to have just one middle school, which would be located in Peterborough, and voting not to recommend approval of a request for $80,000 to fund a school resource officer position at the high school.

The petition article on the middle school, sponsored by Peterborough attorney Mark Fernald and former School Board member Gail Cromwell of Temple, would amend Article 5 of the district’s Articles of Agreement, replacing the sentence, “Grades five through eight (5-8) may be educated at the middle schools in Antrim and Peterborough” 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.” The rest of Article 5, including the sentence that calls for the district to maintain elementary schools in each of the district’s nine towns except for Sharon, would be unchanged.

Last year, a similar warrant article promoted by Cromwell called for all fifth-graders to be educated in their hometown elementary schools and closing one of the district’s two middle schools. That article did not specify which middle school would close and the district’s legal counsel ruled that it would be advisory in nature. The article received a 58 percent margin of approval from voters.

The School Board has proposed its own amendment to Article 5, which will appear on the warrant at the Deliberative Session on Feb. 6. Based on a recommendation of the District Model Study Committee, that amendment calls for replacing Article 5 in its entirety. The new wording would give the School Board authority to close district schools if build­ings are deemed inadequate or found to be operating substantially below capacity. Such closings would first require a closing study and then a two-thirds vote of the School Board. The board voted, at its Dec. 18 meeting, to place that article on the warrant.

The two articles, either of which would require a 2/3 margin for approval, take different approaches to dealing with declining school enrollment. Board member Matt Craig of Sharon opened discussion of the Fernald/Cromwell proposal by saying it doesn’t necessarily conflict with the District Model Committee’s recommendation.

“I don’t see these two articles as mutually exclusive,” Craig said. “I believe the board should have the authority to open and close schools. And the other article gives a path that has been supported by many voters.”

Board member George Kidd of Hancock, who chaired the District Model Study Committee, disagreed with Craig.

“There is a significant difference,” Kidd said. “ One allows for a careful, planned transition. One allows for a drop-dead date. Our plan allows educators to make the recommendations.”

To board member Crista Salamy of Antrim, last year’s vote on closing a middle school had a different focus that this year’s proposal from Fernald and Cromwell.

“A lot of people thought they would need to close a middle school in order to save their elementary schools,” Salamy said.

This year’s petition article doesn’t discuss moving any grade 5 students back into elementary schools.

“As I read it, it would have to be a 5-8 middle school in Peterborough,” said Antrim board member Mary Allen. “We made a gradual transition when we opened the middle schools. We need a methodology. That’s being taken away by [this petition].”

Board member David Martz of Temple disagreed, saying the petition article would leave options assigning fifth graders up to the administration.

Board member Linda Quintanilha of Bennington asked Superintendent Dick Bergeron whether South Meadow School in Peterborough is large enough to accommodate all of the district’s middle schoolers.

“It fits,” Bergeron said, as he distributed an analysis of the impact on school population if the warrant article were to pass. In 2014, according to Bergeron’s chart, the middle school would need to house 639 students and in 2015 that number would drop to 616. Average class sizes would range from 21.3 to 28 students, which Bergeron noted are larger than in the past.

He said it would not be necessary to move the SAU offices out of the South Meadow building in order to accommodate more students. He also said he only analyzed the physical space of the building.

“When you combine two buildings, everything you ask about models is speculative. It fits. That doesn’t mean everything is resolved to our satisfaction,” Bergeron said. There are a number of unknowns that he noted on his analysis, including questions about transportation routes and time, special education space and programs, the number of physical education opportunities for students and whether additional specialists would be needed.

South Meadow School Principal Dick Dunning, who is retiring at the end of the school year and would not be involved if the middle schools are combined, said the building would be big enough.

“An ideal sized middle school is 500 students,” Dunning said. “This building was outstanding when we had 550 kids. The emotional piece is always there but the kids become part of the community. The first year is always the toughest.”

After the discussion, Kidd moved to not recommend the Fernald/Cromwell petition article. The motion passed by a vote of 9-3. Craig, Martz and Myron Steere of Greenfield opposed the motion.

The resource officer article prompted little discussion. Board Chair Butch Estey noted that none of the sponsors of the petition have offered much detail of what they intend. He said he estimated that it would be about a 3/5-time job, with the remainder of the officer’s salary and benefits paid by the town of Peterborough. Board members also noted that the amount called for had gone up to $80,000, an increase from the amounts of $50,000 requested in 2011 and $67,500 in 2012 on earlier petition articles. Both those articles failed by wide margins.

The board unanimously voted not to recommend the article.

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