Column: Consider what’s really at stake if we close GBS

It is hard to talk about abruptly closing a vibrant, award-winning and highly functioning middle school such as Great Brook School in Antrim; but it’s even harder when the proposal makes little sense for the district as a whole, or the students who will bear the brunt of such a thoughtless action, or the taxpayers in the ConVal District who will save little money from such an impulsive decision.

The proposal to close Great Brook School, which currently houses 273 students, is coming from a very small number of individuals, primarily Mark Fernald and Gail Cromwell. Fernald and Cromwell have stated flat-out, “This is about money.” That may be their principle concern, but for ConVal families, it is about so much more than that. It’s about the future of our students and our community.

As with many things these days, we are now faced with a manufactured crisis. With little debate and little warning we will be forced to decide on March 12 whether to close Great Brook School in Antrim and move almost 300 students to South Meadow School in Peterborough, raising enrollment at that school to over 700 students in a building designed to accommodate 450.

We should all pause to consider what merging two middle schools could really mean, beyond the money. Do Peterborough and surrounding towns really want their middle-school students to be educated in a school with over 700 students? Are we ready to have our kids’ class sizes go from an average of 19 to 27? Is this what we really want?

This is what will happen if the proposed Article 8, submitted by petition, passes with a 2∕3 vote on March 12. This article would replace the sentence in the Articles of Agreement that calls for middle schools in both Antrim and Peterborough with wording calling for just one middle school, to be located in Peterborough, starting with the 2014-15 school year.

The honest truth is that the ConVal district would realize very little financial savings by closing Great Brook School, and in the long term might even lose those savings. Closing GBS has been referred to by a member of the Selectman’s Advisory Committee as a “band aid” to a larger problem of school funding and declining enrollment.

Closing GBS without first taking a look at the major budget drivers that the School Board and the Selectman’s Advisory Committee have already discussed (e.g. administrative costs, health care), but not acted on yet, would be premature to say the least. The proposed savings estimate of 3.5% on the overall ConVal budget by closing GBS is optimistic at best, especially when many additional expenses that the closure would incur are unknown. We must consider the possible capital expenses to renovate substandard space at SMS to make room for an increased enrollment, busing costs, and cost figures to maintain and insure the unused school building and grounds in Antrim, costs that some estimate will well exceed any cost savings presented by the petitioners of Article 8.

Voters should scrutinize the accuracy of the proposed savings. Regardless, even using the numbers developed by one of the petitioners when she was on the Model Study Committee, the savings per household is optimistically projected for the average property owner at $100 to $150 per year. Is $10 dollars a month worth the painful adjustments everyone in the ConVal District would be forced to make?

The quality of the ConVal school system is its major asset. It’s a well-documented fact, as well as plain common sense, that overcrowded classes erode the quality of education for all students. The average middle school class in New Hampshire (according to a 2011 state study) was 19.9 students per class. Few New Hampshire middle schools (less that 5 percent) have class sizes that average over 25 students. With 713 middle school students now (and a projected 639 middle school students for fall 2014) and 24 functional classrooms at SMS, that averages 27 students per class using the lesser estimate. Both SMS and GBS were originally constructed to house 450 students at most.

The petitioners are depending on middle school enrollment to fall to 639 students by September 2014, but what if it doesn’t? Combining our middle schools would create a terrible learning environment at a critical time in our middle schoolers’ lives; as they begin to tackle algebra, geometry, computer science, foreign language and other high-level learning. Superintendent Bergeron and SMS Principal Dick Dunning have both indicated they are uncomfortable with student populations at SMS exceeding 500 students, and we too should be uncomfortable. Ask any teacher you know whether they can teach a classroom of 27 students as well as they can 19?

While Fernald and Cromwell feel the process and discussion to close GBS has been complete, we would ask: Do you know enough (from this process so far) about how this will affect middle school education in the district? Has the effect on education, families, and kids had a full and fair hearing?

It’s wrong to focus solely on money, which is the driving force behind Article 8. Consider the fact that those behind Article 8 have little regard for ConVal students and have spent little time discussing how to advance educational achievement necessary for kids to compete in tomorrow’s economy. Their apparent concern is saving taxpayers a questionable amount of money. But at what cost and to what end?

Mr. Fernald and Ms. Cromwell are also assuming that all 5th graders be placed back in elementary schools. That is a decision only the ConVal School Board can make. And what would that decision mean for your student?

It would mean that they will not benefit from many enriching activities offered in our middle schools, such as a myriad of organized sports, improvisation groups, theater, Art Club, band, chorus, Robotics, Youth in Government, Recycling Club, and Environmental Leadership Club. It is inarguable that these activities advance student development and achievement by making school more than just reading, writing and arithmetic.

“Education is the investment our generation makes in the future.” As a community let’s continue the conversations that we have started (such as with the Elementary Study Committee in 2011) and do the research to make an informed choice.

Making a snap decision to close one of a community’s greatest assets, Great Brook Middle School, would negatively impact hundreds of students and families across the ConVal District and irreversibly damage the quality of education our students deserve.

Please do your own research, talk to your school board members, and look at the issues carefully. Make your vote on March 12 be a vote in favor of our students – they are our future. Please vote No on Article 8.

Bess Robblee lives in Antrim and Robin Mose lives in Hancock; both are parents of ConVal students.  Also contributing to this article were Jess Gerrior of Antrim, who has children in the ConVal district and one child currently at GBS, and Pierce Rigrod of Hancock, who has two children in the district.

Please vote "NO" on Article 8 on March 12th. This is not a band-aid approach; it is taking an ax to a problem that does not exist. Cramming more than 600 students and pushing classroom sizes to the state maximum makes no sense. Remember the students ... they are our future.

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