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VIewpoint

What a difference a year makes — or does it?

A broad perspective of our region, and the how the ConVal School District fits in

Last year at this time, there was a contentious debate over the two proposed warrant articles regarding school consolidation in the ConVal School District. Shortly after the votes were counted, there was some conversation about why neither had passed, but most of it was nonproductive. It was at this point I wrote a piece entitled, “So where do we go from here?” Almost a year has passed since I raised this question. And despite a new district study committee having been formed, a new superintendent hired, and new School Board members elected, it appears that ideas as to how we reconfigure or restructure our district schools, in order to address the issue of declining enrollment and an ever increasing budget, are currently off the table while the model once termed, “Status Quo plus Enhancements” is back in place — but this time around, it comes without any new enhancements.

Which causes me to wonder, have the voices for any real and constructive change tired of the uphill battle to modify the Articles of Agreement? Or have those voices been virtually silenced due to the contentiousness surrounding last year’s proposals? Given the more recent statements made in the press regarding consolidation — or the lack thereof — by the majority of those whose task it is to guide our district, I believe it may be a combination of both. Especially considering the fact that no new ideas have been offered, nor have any suggestions to solicit opinions on consolidation from the general public been put forth.

Back in July 2013, the newly-formed school study committee consisting of members from both the School Board and Selectman’s Advisory Committee began the process of exploring fresh approaches to the recurring challenge of funding an escalating budget as our student population continues to decline. One suggestion presented at this time by Francestown Selectman Scott Carbee was to look at the numbers of administrators required by law. “There’s no criticism. We just need to get the information out to the people,” Carbee said. “The loss of our industrial tax base has had a significant impact on both local towns and the school district, leaving little money available to the discretionary spending necessary if we’re going to become a high-performing district.”

ConVal School Board Chair Butch Estey also weighed in as to what he believed the SAC’s role was to be in this newly formed committee. Estey stated that he “expected the committee would make the question of whether to consolidate schools, and how to do it, the main thrust of its work. We want to find out if the selectmen can come up with ideas they might sell. We’re asking them for their help because towns do not want to give up their schools. That’s a well-known fact. With that in mind, we want to get the dialogue going with the selectmen. We’ve kind of exhausted our ideas.”

I hope that Carbee continues to research the number of administrators required by law and shares that information with the School Board and the rest of us. I believe it is an area worth investigating as are all items which might be streamlined when we are looking at opportunities for efficiency. It’s important for all who represent us on the School Board and had a part in developing the school district budget, to understand that each of these “small increases” add up. And when a portion of that increase includes very large salaries for ConVal administrators as well as the potential for merit increases, I’m sure the board and administration can certainly understand that this part of the budget bears looking at, especially given the fact that the voters have virtually no voice in the process of determining administrative salaries. During the last go around when the ConVal Education Association was attempting to negotiate a new contract, even their organization questioned the superintendent’s salary, and then used it as a talking point while comparing teacher salary rankings statewide with that of the superintendent’s.

Last August, another member of the district study committee, Carl Newton, a selectman from Sharon, stated that, “If everybody keeps on saying no, how can you consolidate? People don’t want to revisit consolidation.” At the same meeting, Hancock’s School Board representative to the district study committee, Pierce Rigrod suggested a three-pronged approach. “I see us looking at opportunities to explore consolidation, looking at opportunities for efficiency, and looking at opportunities to grow the district.” One suggestion to come out of the group at this point was to create a survey to be sent to all voters to get their attitudes on consolidation. But although some members agreed the three-prong approach had merit, four thought consolidation did not because “the voters had clearly expressed a lack of interest in closing schools.”

In December 2013, the newest School Board member from Antrim, Rich Cahoon, and one of its most actively engaged residents in defeating the warrant article to close Great Brook Middle School, stated that its defeat is in part the reason he ran for a School Board seat — the other was district spending. Since taking office, Cahoon has become an active member of the district study committee and is working to help find a solution to the escalating costs in our district, but without having to close any schools. One way Cahoon hopes to resolve the issue of escalating costs is by being part of a listening tour, where the committee visits all types of local groups and listens to their concerns and ideas. He said the committee is still in its beginning stages but they hope to gather input on ways to save money.

The economy

While Cahoon said private schools have increased their enrollment in this area, he also notes that the region has made choices that are tied to declining enrollment in elementary and middle schools. He said there has been no new industrial development in the area in a long time and that new jobs tend to focus on the service industry. The result is we have more senior housing than affordable family housing. Although I have a lot of respect for Cahoon, I disagreed with his point of view on closing Great Brook Middle School, and I also disagree with his assessment as to what is driving the bus for more senior housing being developed in our region than affordable family housing. But, when it comes to ideas to engage more constituents in the conversation of how to resolve the issue of declining enrollment and escalating taxes without compromising an equitable and excellent education, I believe that Cahoon and I might have discovered common ground — as long as those who believe consolidation is still an area worth exploring are not left out of the conversation.

I understand that there is absolutely no question that change is frightening, but the best way to alleviate some of this fear is to address those issues people are most concerned with by providing more specific data as to how consolidation will impact the students involved. We should not throw out the baby with the bath water and should instead build on what is known after years of study. To do otherwise is to waste all the data that prior committees have worked so diligently to gather. It is also essential that we find ways to communicate more effectively, and to a larger audience, all that has been learned to help dispel the myths and misconceptions of restructuring — hopefully these listening tours will help us achieve these goals.

Since the new district study committee has been formed, there has been much conversation about “growing the district.” And to be honest I think this is but one more idea that not only clouds the issue of decreasing enrollment and increasing budgets, but is also outside the realm of those whose task it is to responsibly manage our school district. I also believe it denies the reality of the demographics of our population, the economic and political climate of our state, as well as the geographic location and rural character of our region. We cannot afford to continue to delude ourselves that somehow or other increasing a budget which increases property taxes will grow our student population.

In reality, we have no control over our dwindling student population except in those situations where parents have withdrawn their students or chosen not to enroll their school-age children in our public schools at all. If we begin to ask the right questions, listen to the answers without becoming defensive or going into a state of denial by blowing off the information as anecdotal, we might get those kids back. If we choose not to explore this portion of our declining enrollment and do nothing to address those areas we can and should address, then unless their parents’ resources change dramatically we can say good bye to this segment of our population of students.

Do we honestly want our public schools to become the default school system because we haven’t found a way to engage as many people as possible, or worse, because we don’t want to hear or consider positive change? I absolutely agree with Supt. Brendan Minnihan’s belief that we all need to be informed citizens. I also agree that more of us need to become involved if by no other means than through the power of the ballot. But if by supporting our local institutions, it is meant that we vote to pass a budget for an institution that has yet to find a way to address the major issue we face in a fiscally responsible manner, or because consolidation is a difficult path to sell, or because we are out of fresh ideas, then I need to respectfully disagree.

I would like to hear more from Minnihan about how we are going to address the major issue we face and less about how the budget was developed. What I’d like to hear is how we will continue to provide an excellent and equitable education for a decreasing student population, without an ever-increasing rate in our property taxes. At the very least, I expect much more pertinent information to help me decide how I will cast my ballot in March. I think it is absolutely essential to address the issues which make it very unlikely that growing our district is a possibility anytime soon, if at all. So, in the spirit of dispelling fact from fiction, I’d like to present some of the roadblocks to doing so.

First and foremost, it is essential to understand that despite wanting a broader tax base to help limit what we pay in property taxes throughout the region, right, wrong, or indifferent, many of our towns continue to limit growth by their zoning regulations in order to retain the rural character and natural beauty of this region. One example I have become very familiar with in my hometown is the lengthy scenario with Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride and the Francestown Zoning Board. For the most part, our rural economy consists primarily of minimum-wage service jobs without benefits. With the exception of our school district, which provides a number of high-paying professional opportunities with phenomenal benefits packages, many other comparable and large-scale professional opportunities for employment in our region have downsized due to lack of funding and/or a declining economy. Therefore, I don’t believe it’s necessarily about choices we have made, but instead believe that the declining opportunities for lucrative employment and alternative sources of revenue are a result of policies, decisions and/or events outside our local control.

Transportation

Besides the lack of well-paying jobs and alternative sources of revenue, the infrastructure in our towns is deteriorating and thereby causing the tax burden on property owners to further escalate. This deteriorating infrastructure makes it even more difficult to travel to urban areas where the opportunity for better employment options is far greater. But even if more people are willing to utilize our region as an extended bedroom community, and travel longer distances over increasingly deteriorating roads and bridges to commute to more lucrative jobs, there are several other variables to consider which dissuade many young families from moving to our region and enrolling their children in our public school system.

For one, there is no public transportation system in our region and little opportunity for carpooling. Thus the rising cost of gas along with the wear and tear on one’s vehicle creates an additional expense to consider when choosing to live in our area while working elsewhere. Being a commuter also entails seasonal challenges and much time on the road over and above one’s workday. These additional roadblocks diminish the amount of quality time one is able to spend with family and participate in, or even attend, school and extracurricular activities — or to take advantage of the recreational opportunities our gorgeous natural landscapes provide, and which probably drew them to consider this region in the first place. And even though the cost of homes might be within the budget of many young families, our escalating property taxes added to an affordable mortgage payment may make these lower- and median-priced homes out of reach for far too many. Therefore, I can certainly understand why the option of living in this region is unrealistic for many working parents with young children.

Childcare

Working parents also face the additional challenge of local, affordable and convenient childcare to cover those hours before school begins and after the school day has ended to accommodate their own work schedule. Add in the time it takes to commute to a more lucrative employment opportunity, and a parent’s workday is extended far beyond the parameters of the school day. For working parents who do live here, some have had no choice but to opt for private schools closer to their place of business where supervised before and after school childcare is available due to the lack of options locally. If we also take into consideration that our population is aging, one can absolutely understand why we have more senior housing being built in our region than affordable family housing. Add in the difficulties working parents face should they choose to live in the nine-member communities within the ConVal School District, and it becomes much more evident why our region and state are attracting fewer families with young children and more retirees.

How do we resolve this? To be honest, and in regard to our declining enrollment, I don’t think we can unless there are some major innovative and structural changes made in the ConVal School District.

For far too long, those who object to or question the escalating budget by words or actions, have been accused of not understanding how the budget works, being divisive or obdurate, not caring enough about our students, under-appreciating our teachers, administrators, or School Board members, or of not valuing education. And as I think we all know, nothing could be further from the truth.

As an educational community, the ConVal district prides itself on being open to new ideas and a variety of opinions, and has encouraged the entire community to become involved in the process to explore educationally sound options to resolve the issue of decreasing student enrollment and an increasing school budget. But at times there appears to be a major disconnect between what is said and how we behave. And if we are all honest, we have watched this happen time and again — both subtlety and much more overtly when frustration escalates into anger about “where we go from here” and “how do we make it happen?” This is something each of us needs to work on if we are ever to reach a point where a realistic compromise for a fiscally responsible, equitable and excellent education for each of our students is to be achieved.

So, where do we go from here?

First and foremost, I believe our priority should be to learn ways to unite as a district as opposed to behaving like nine separate towns under the same umbrella whose individual agendas supersede the goals of our district as a whole. At this point, it appears that consolidation frightens many because they don’t know how it will work and thus the knee-jerk reaction seems to be, “Consolidation ­­­— not in my town!” We can all understand why this happens, especially if the specifics are not in place prior to putting on a roadshow — and despite the fact that the vote for the consolidation process on the warrant article proposed by the ConVal School Board last March garnered a 58 percent approval rating district-wide.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but ask why it is that our School Board, school administration, Selectmen’s Advisory Committee, and District Study Committee have not made a concerted effort to build on last year’s success at the polls by correcting the mistakes made in order to continue the momentum? I also wonder why it is that if the School Board and Minnihan truly believe that consolidation is an approach to be considered to resolve this issue why it is that we haven’t heard either party address its status in the past few months? And if the parties involved no longer believe in or are invested in restructuring the ConVal School System as one might infer from what was being presented at the deliberative session, then I think the public has a right to know prior to the March ballot as it will help each of us decide how to vote.

For too many years we have walked around this white elephant hoping that if we ignore it, it will go away. But if we truly want to move forward to becoming a high-performing district, we need to spend less money replicating services in under-enrolled schools and more on those programs which help ensure no student falls through the cracks because we don’t have the funds to invest in and/or institute the innovative programs needed to prevent this from happening. Each of our students is entitled to an education which allows them to flourish, whether it’s teaching life skills or enhancing a student’s special gifts and talents. All students deserve more time participating in the unified arts and exercising their bodies as well as their minds in and outside the classroom. Diversified learning in a mainstream classroom does not replace a gifted and talented program in our elementary schools anymore than inclusion replaces special education services. We shouldn’t have to choose between programs we know are excellent and enhance our students’ education in lieu of regular maintenance of buildings and property or for updating our buildings to make them ADA compliant. The truth is, that should we continue on this same path, there will come a time when more taxpayers are forced to move because of the escalating property taxes — especially the increasing number of retirees moving into our region who are on fixed incomes.

Although I realize it might appear to be counterintuitive, the only realistic approach to “growing the district” is through consolidation of our smaller schools. We would not only reduce taxes and streamline the district budget, but also quite possibly attract more young families to the region due to lower property taxes. There is also the possibility that we might regain those students lost to private schools by being able to offer programs and services which are now not economically feasible.

I’d like to believe that we will eventually come to terms with what is and find ways of achieving our goal of becoming a high-performing district without wasting tax dollars replicating services and financing the operation of our under enrolled schools solely because we are so entrenched in the quagmire of the status quo. But in all honesty, I don’t believe there is much hope of this becoming a reality if we continue digging in our heels and saying, “No to school consolidation.” I find it a very sad state of affairs that we continue with the status quo despite the costs to taxpayers and the educational needs of our students, which at times have to be sacrificed so we might finance salary increases or to resurface a parking lot. I had hoped that with a brand new superintendent, fresh faces on the School Board, and a new district study committee we would have moved two steps forward, instead of back to square one, in terms of consolidation. But if this year’s budget and warrant articles are any indication that is exactly what has happened.

Deb McGrath lives in Francestown.

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