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ConVal School Board seeks authority to close schools

ANTRIM — Facing concerns about declining enrollment, the ConVal School Board will ask voters to give the board the power to close schools in the district.

The board voted Tuesday to recommend amending the district’s Articles of Agreement by replacing the current article 5, which states that elementary schools must be maintained in all of the district’s nine towns except Sharon.

The proposed amendment would allow the board to close a school if the building is inadequate or if the school has been operating “substantially below capacity.” It would require that any decision to close a school and reassign students would need approval from two-thirds of the 13-member School Board.

“It’s our desire to give future school boards as much flexibility as possible,” said Board Vice Chair George Kidd of Hancock during discussion of the amendment at Tuesday’s board meeting at Antrim Elementary School.

Kidd, who chaired the District Model Study Committee that has spent a year reviewing options for restructuring the district’s facilities, said that committee had been unable to make a specific recommendation for school closings after developing five models and holding a series of public meetings in each town in the district. An option to send all fifth-graders to their hometown elementary schools and close Great Brook School in Antrim drew slightly more support than two other choices that called for closing elementary schools, but the committee chose not to go forward with any of the models.

“There was no overwhelming choice, but 78 percent were willing to accept some type of change,” Kidd said. “People have a bias toward small schools. We are concerned that some schools are becoming too small.”

He said administrators should be the ones to decide when a school becomes too small to be effective, and the board could then act on those recommendations under the amended article.

If a school is to be considered for closure, the article would require a closing study, including a review of demographic trends, a determination of how to reassign students and a review of transportation factors, such as time spent on buses. The board would also have to review the costs of maintaining the school and the savings to be realized by closing it.

Board members had a number of questions for Kidd when the proposed amendment was discussed.

“We need to make it as clear as possible what is being proposed,” said Mary Allen of Antrim. “It’s a little vague what ‘operating below capacity’ really means.”

The amendment states, “Operating substantially below capacity means that the number of students attending the school is below capacity when applying district class size guidelines in accordance with the recommendation of the administration.” That definition was sufficient, Kidd said, to give administrators and a future school board guidance for when to recommend a closure.

Board member Matt Craig of Sharon said he was concerned that the amendment would not pass muster with two-thirds of the voters, the number required for a change to the Articles of Agreement.

“We spent a lot of time getting input,” Craig said. “Voters may say, ‘We gave you the input, now you’re asking for authority to do what you want.’ ....I think voters expected one of the models to be put forward.”

Kidd replied that the proposal would provide a basis for a thorough review of any proposal to close a school.

“This moves it out of the realm of ‘Let’s save money,’” he said.

“It would take two-thirds of the board [to close a school],” said Myron Steere, the board member from Greenfield. “I think this is the best compromise.”

“I’m worried that we’re rushing,” said Allen. “We need to err on the side of being very clear.”

ConVal’s enrollment was 2,497 in October 2011, the most recent number available from the N.H. Department of Education. That’s down 21 percent from the October 2001 enrollment of 3,156. ConVal’s kindergarten enrollment numbers, which could serve as predictors of future class size, show a similar trend, dropping from 190 in 2001 to 144 in 2011, a 24 percent decline.

The board voted, 7 to 3, to put the amendment on the March ballot. Kidd, Craig, Steere, Mary Loftis of Dublin, Joel Green of Peterborough, Linda Quintanila of Bennington and Beverly Bacon of Peterborough were in favor. Allen, David Martz of Temple and Crista Salamy of Antrim were opposed.

A public hearing on the amendment will be held on Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. at the SAU office.

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

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