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Conval school district

Intense debate on closures

Article amended to give voters final say on any potential closings

  • ConVal Deliberative Session<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
  • ConVal Deliberative Session<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
  • ConVal Deliberative Session<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)

PETERBOROUGH — Hailey Rogers spoke on behalf of a patient group of fellow Great Brook School students who sat in the bleachers at South Meadow School during the four-hour ConVal School District’s Deliberative Session on Wednesday. They were there —holding signs reading “Great kids, great teachers, great place, Great Brook” and “Don’t Close Our School” — to oppose a warrant article calling for Great Brook to be shut down.

And the Great Brook students — joined by many voters in the audience — cheered long and loud after Hailey, a seventh-grader from Bennington, described what the school has meant to her.

“What I love most is at my school, I was accepted for what I was,” she said. “When you step into Great Brook, it’s like a safe box. There is an activity for anyone.”

She urged voters not to support the petition warrant article, which recommends having just one ConVal middle school, to be located in Peterborough, beginning with the 2014-2015 school year.

“You wouldn’t just be taking away our school, but also the memories that are built into it,” she said.

The petition warrant article sponsored by Mark Fernald of Sharon and former ConVal School Board member Gail Cromwell of Temple is one of two competing proposals regarding how the district should deal with declining enrollment that will appear on the ConVal School District warrant on March 12. The School Board has its own proposal, which also drew opposition from many at the meeting.

Fernald told fellow voters at the deliberative session that it was difficult for him to suggest closing Great Brook.

“Great Brook was the middle school of the year just a few years ago,” Fernald said.

But he said the district has many schools that are only two-thirds full, and closing a middle school is the only viable choice, because it would be difficult to change the district’s Articles of Agreement, which call for an elementary school in every town except Sharon.

“I think closing an elementary school is off the table,” Fernald said. “There’s only one option left.”

He said Great Brook is the smaller of the district’s two middle schools and South Meadow School in Peterborough, where middle schoolers would go if the article were to pass, is more centrally located. Fernald said the district could save as much as $1.7 million a year if Great Brook is closed.

During discussion of the proposal, Cromwell said having one middle school would provide equal and improved educational opportunities for all students.

Most of those who spoke at the meeting opposed the proposal.

Peter Burwen of Antrim said the savings would amount to about $40 a year on the average tax bill and cited the longer bus rides the change would require.

“The geography alone is reason enough not to close Great Brook,” Burwen said. “I would ask the public to consider the families first.”

Janet McEwen of Antrim said the closing would be a detriment to the town. She said a petition she circulated now has more than 200 signatures from residents who want to keep Great Brook School open.

School Board member Crista Salamy of Antim noted that the proposal would affect Hancock, Francestown and Bennington, the three other communities that send students to Great Brook, as well as Antrim.

And School Board Chair Butch Estey of Peterborough said the board had voted strongly against recommending the petition article.

“I personally would pay my share to keep Great Brook open,” Estey said, a comment that drew another round of applause.

An attempt was made to amend the motion by changing the wording to require the district to have two middle schools and allow flexibility to close elementary schools. Fernald said that change would essentially eliminate the subject matter of his petition. Moderator Tim Clark agreed that the amendment would be out of order. A second proposal, to change the wording so that the one elementary school would be located in Antrim, not Peterborough, was also ruled out of order.

The petition article will appear, unamended, on the March 12 ballot.

The School Board plan

A second warrant article, put forward by the School Board in response to a recommendation from the District Model Study Committee, calls for eliminating Article 5 of the district’s Articles of Agreement, and replacing it with wording that would allow the School Board to consider closing a school if the building became inadequate or the school was operating substantially below capacity. The article sets forth a 10-step closing study process that would include a number of reviews of issues such as transportation, cost savings, demographic trends and how to reassign children. The article would also require that any decision to close a school be approved by a 2/3 majority vote of the School Board.

“We are concerned that some schools will just become too small,” said School Board member George Kidd of Hancock, who chaired the District Model committee. “This is a responsible article that lays out a process. It does not close a single school.”

The idea that the School Board would take the final vote on a school closing drew the attention of Richard Cahoon of Antrim, who proposed an amendment to replace the sentence requiring a 2/3 vote of the School Board with one reading  “The recommendation of the Board to close a school building must be approved by a 2/3 majority vote of the District Meeting.”

“The point is to preserve the role of direct democracy,” Cahoon told those at the meeting. “By adopting this, you preserve your role in the process.”

Cahoon’s amendment drew complaints from some in the audience who said it significantly changed the meaning of the warrant article. Clark ruled that it didn’t do that and was a valid amendment. But after getting a request that his decision be overruled, Clark called for a voice vote. That was inconclusive, so he took a standing vote, and 166 voters wanted to overrule his decision while 168 were opposed. So by that two-vote margin, discussion continued on Cahoon’s amendment.

Despite the close vote on that technicality, when the amendment finally came to a vote, it passed by a substantial margin, 226 to 107.

So the modified warrant article, calling for final approval of any school closing to be by 2/3 vote at a district meeting, will appear on the March 12 ballot.

Both the Fernald/Cromwell proposal and the modified School Board proposal will require a 2/3 margin of approval to pass in March, since they are both modifications to the district’s Articles of Agreement.

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