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Fate of ConVal's Great Brook debated

PETERBOROUGH — Mark Fernald and Gail Cromwell made their case for closing Great Brook School at a public hearing prior to Tuesday’s ConVal School Board meeting. And an Antrim resident offered a heartfelt rebuttal to their arguments.

“I do not think it appropriate to underestimate the passion of the community in the northern end of the district,” said Janet McEwen, after Fernald and Cromwell discussed the petition warrant article they had sponsored, which calls for the district to operate just one middle school, located in Peterborough, starting with the 2014-2015 school year. McEwen said she had circulated her own petition and has gathered 191 signatures from residents, including many who don’t live in Antrim, who want to keep Great Brook School open.

McEwen said Great Brook is known for its community spirit and the ability of all students to have the opportunity to participate in sports and after-school programs. She said the campus location allows for sharing resources with Antrim Elementary School and interaction between students at both schools. Great Brook is within walking distance of the center of Antrim, which McEwen said allows access to the library, McCabe Forest, the Town Hall and the teen center.

A closing would be an undue hardship for parents and students, McEwen said, due to longer bus trips to get to South Meadow School in Peterborough. And she said having a much larger middle school would impact the education of all middle-school students.

“I don’t think the quality can be replicated by smashing 600 students into this school,” McEwen said, referring to South Meadow.

McEwen made her comments after Cromwell opened discussion of the warrant article by saying the proposal was not just a cost-saving measure.

“It’s a way to provide the best education we can for our students,” Cromwell said. “The decline in students is likely to continue. Both our middle schools are getting to the level where the education provided is less than optimal.”

Cromwell said middle-school students would benefit from South Meadow’s close proximity to ConVal High School, perhaps through opportunities to take high-school level courses.

Cromwell, a former School Board member from Temple, said she had served on several committees that studied the issue of declining enrollment. Those groups consistently found that residents were strongly opposed to closing any elementary schools.

“We all agreed that was not an option, at least at this time,” Cromwell said. But she said there was substantial support for having one middle school, citing both a vote in favor of that concept when it was presented as an advisory petition article last year and responses to a survey put out last summer by the District Model Study Committee.

Last year’s petition article called for moving fifth graders to their home-town elementary schools. Cromwell said that requirement was intentionally left out of this year’s proposal.

“The definition of a middle school will be left up to the School Board,” she said.

Cromwell passed out a chart indicating that South Meadow School could hold 625 students at 25 students per class or 550 at 22 per class. The chart also showed projections from the New England School Development Council (NESDEC) indicating that in the 2014-2015 school year, the district will have 639 students in grades 5-8 (626 if Dublin fifth-graders, who are currently educated at Dublin Consolidated School, are not counted), or 468 students in grades 6-8.

“If you want to have one middle school, this is your chance to do it,” Cromwell concluded.

Fernald, who lives in Sharon and practices law in Peterborough, said the district is projected to have 1,300 empty seats in the near future.

“My motivation is that I feel we need to do a consolidation,” he said.

Fernald said the closing of a middle school would save about $1.7 million a year, according to numbers developed by the District Model Study Committee when it was evaluating options. He noted that the Selectmen’s Advisory Committee is planning to recommend a cut of $1 million to the district’s operating budget but has not indicated where those cuts could be made. He suggested voters would benefit by rejecting the SAC proposal and waiting one year to get much larger savings if the warrant article to close Great Brook passes.

During the discussion, Joe MacGregor of Bennington, a former School Board chair, asked whether the elementary enrollment numbers were accurate enough to guarantee that South Meadow School would be big enough to accommodate all the district’s middle schoolers.

“To me, there seems to be a lot of carrot being dangled here,” MacGregor said.

Francestown School Board representative Stewart Brock read a letter from Laura Christman, a Francestown resident who asked for “a clear Yes or No” on whether closing Great Brook would put an end to the debate about closing elementary schools.

Cromwell offered a qualified answer to that question, saying she felt it would, provided the student population projections prove to be accurate.

“I think it puts the question to rest,” Fernald said. “Thus far in the district, we’ve made the decision that we want to keep our kids in our towns. I’m concerned that towns would leave the district if we were to close elementary schools.”

The petition article was scheduled for discussion at Wednesday night’s ConVal Deliberative Session, which took place after press deadline.

Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or danderson@ledgertranscript.com. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.

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