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Editorial: ConVal’s elementary schools and a path worth exploring

The roadblock facing the ConVal School District is unmistakable. We have an enrollment problem that is reflected differently in each of the nine towns that make up the district.

To merely paint ConVal as a school district at a crosswords doesn’t truly define the magnitude of where we are and how we got here. To say something must change almost always comes with nods of approval. But to suggest a tangible alternative is about when the conversation stops and everyone heads home.

In many ways, the ConVal School District mirrors the pitfalls and frustrations of politics in Washington. Everyone wants something different. True solutions are never put on the table because no one wants to give up anything. And along the way, everyone starts to lose focus on what’s really important — in this case, the quality of education and the need to make the best use of taxpayer dollars.

To understand what’s at stake, there’s no avoiding the obvious. In the ConVal School District, enrollment has been dropping steadily since 2005. Worse is that the drop is expected to continue with no real leveling off in sight. A district that housed 3,141 students seven years ago, now has about 2,400 students. In 10 years, that number is forecast to dip below 2,000. And today’s K-through grade 4 enrollment is 334 students less than it was in 1997.

This of course has come with a steady rise in the ConVal budget, which is in many ways forced to serve a model that no longer works. Sure, there are ways to nibble away at the edges, and in some cases perhaps even take a sizable chunk out of spending. But if the district is going to continue to run and staff 11 schools ­— elementary schools in eight of its nine towns, two middle schools and a high school — there is only so much flexibility, and only so much wiggle room to be found.

The central question in all of this is how to align the competing interests of residents from all nine towns. And can you ever come up with something capable of securing approval from two-thirds of the voters? Some residents are pushing exclusively for lower taxes. Others want to preserve their schools. Most, hopefully, are interested in what an ultimate solution means for the quality of education in the district. It’s that final point, we believe, that is being lost in this conversation. Over the past month, we have spoken to several decision-makers on the ConVal School Board, both past and present. We spoke to members of the administration and to residents in many of the towns ConVal serves. We’ve also listened to the intense debate at the deliberative session and the chorus of letters to the editor from all perspectives that have poured into our newsroom. The common theme among the many conversations is frustration. It’s a sentiment we’re sure most voters share as well. Why can’t we find a solution, and do the articles on the table this year get us any closer to achieving our shared goals of a strong, sustainable school district?

That’s why March 12 is emerging as such a key date for the future of the ConVal School District. When voters arrive at the polls, they’ll see competing options — one that takes a short-term view of the current situation and tries to adopt a quick fix from the outside. The other sets us on a path to understanding the options and perhaps finding a solution that can work for all communities in the district.

The options and
our recommendations

At the district meeting in February, Mark Fernald of Sharon told those in the South Meadow School gym that a proposal he introduced with former Temple School Board representative Gail Cromwell to close Great Brook Middle School in Antrim was a decision made out of necessity. There’s no way, many contend, that residents will ever agree to shuttering one of the district’s eight elementary schools, even if that school is so under-enrolled that it’s limiting the educational and social opportunities available to those students. To do so could push a town, or several, to leave the district, Fernald said. To get around what they see as an inevitable defeat, Fernald and Cromwell have pushed a proposal that would send students currently at Great Brook Middle School in Antrim to South Meadow School in Peterborough.

There are many problems with this scenario, chief among them is the still vague understanding of the logistics this would require. A close-first, ask-questions-later approach undermines the role the School Board ought to play in the process. It also ignores the rights of residents from Antrim, Bennington, Francestown and Hancock to have an active voice in the process. That this proposal was introduced by residents in Temple and Sharon without broad input from the communities most impacted is reason enough to reject this as a solution.

There are sure to be some painful decisions to be made along the way. We cannot force change on communities without offering them a full and open stage to air their concerns and to address their questions. They need a seat at the table for any decision regarding school closure, and this article is seen broadly as an attack from the outside. It’s not the way a healthy school district should do business, regardless of the difficult economic climate. We recommend voters reject Article 8.

The other option, Article 6, is one that was proposed by the board and strengthened by voters at the deliberative session in February. This proposal calls for the board to receive recommendations for closure, to enter a multi-step review and ultimately give voters final say on any school closures. To close a school, two-thirds of district voters would have to give approval — a significant threshold that can only be achieved with a thoughtful and well-articulated plan.

The Great Brook proposal should teach us that we need a process that will answer the many logistical challenges closing schools would pose. Without the process Article 6 provides, we’ll always be subject to petitions by those who don’t have confidence that the board is working to solve critical issues.

To face closure, a school must be recommended by the administration, or the board must determine that the building is inadequate or that the school is operating substantially below capacity. Such a determination only starts the discussion. From there, we’d enter demographic studies that consider multi-year trends, projections and alternatives. The School Board would also look at many issues specific to the towns impacted, either by losing outgoing students or gaining incoming students. Transportation, which is a critical issue for a district with buses covering 3,100 miles each day, would be evaluated, alternative uses of a building would be studied and associated costs explored.

Then, and only then, if the board still believes that closure of a school is in the best interest of the district will a vote take place. Even that is no guarantee, since getting two-thirds of district voters to agree on anything has historically been a challenge.

We recommend voters approve Article 6. This vote is the next step beyond the findings of the Model Study Committee, and a necessary step in putting one real, tangible, fact-based solution in the hands of ConVal voters. In the end, it’s quite possible voters will reject any measure to close any of our schools. But if they do, it will at least have come at the end of a valuable process that will have allowed us all to better understand what a solution may look like.

If Article 8 fails and we don’t approve Article 6 we’ll be stuck with the status quo for at least another year, and we may never muster the political will to explore our options.

The case for consolidation

It’s clear from our many conversations that the mandate to keep an elementary school in all the towns except Sharon is a noble, yet unsustainable model. Worse, it will limit the district’s ability to align its resources in a way that would better position it to join the upper tier of New Hampshire school systems. All this while further increasing the burden on taxpayers.

Many agree that any solution would involve more than one school, and that consolidation would give our district — and our students — more opportunities while cutting costs. In most places that would be considered a win-win. But those close to this ongoing debate also believe that getting two-thirds of voters to agree to consolidation would be a political impossibility.

We are emotionally attached to our elementary schools. They act as hubs for our community, and they serve to bring families, teachers and civic leaders together under a shared goal of community.

The issue for voters and town leaders, though, shouldn’t be whether they want to keep an elementary school in their town. It’s whether they’re willing to limit the educational opportunities of their small-town students in order to keep that building open. The truth is that students at Peterborough Elementary School receive more opportunities and greater support than students at the smaller schools, who don’t have the benefit of a full-time art and music teacher, a full-time librarian, a full-time nurse and a full-time guidance counselor. As the size of these smaller schools continues to diminish, the ability of the school district to provide an equal experience to all its students will further suffer.

There are other factors at play as well. Some towns have faced scenarios in which a particular grade has had as few as three students. How does this impact those students on a social level? Is having two other peers through grade 4 really in the best interest of the student? Would we be preparing those students to thrive once they arrive in a bustling middle school? At the classroom level, these ultra-small grade sizes have forced the district to adopt multi-age classrooms that combine two age groups. How far are we willing to go? Some fear that multi-age classrooms may eventually need to expand to three age groups as resources diminish and enrollment thins out even more.

Then there’s the case of property values. We had more than one person tell us that they fear property values would tank if the town lost its elementary school. We feel that under-enrolled schools in which students enter into multi-age classrooms will be seen as a bigger detriment to prospective new residents. A higher performing district, meanwhile, would only add to the value of homes in all nine towns.

The path forward

We’re at this juncture for several reasons, but chief among them is a question of leadership. Whose role is it to determine the path we must take? Is it the School Board’s role to chart the path? Should the superintendent serve as a guiding voice of influence? Or should the voters dictate the choices we have and the decisions we make? Ask enough people, and you’ll likely get just as many visions of who should chart that course. For us, the answer is clear: The School Board and the new superintendent must work in tandem to help craft the most viable solution that considers impacts, both positive and negative. That solution should be brought to voters next March for a district-wide vote. Voters should have the final say, but the board must lead this process. Short of that, we’ll continue to see outside proposals seeking to fill the leadership void, like the one that aims to close Great Brook School.

A fundamental problem with the process as it exists now is that residents too often sit on the sidelines, oblivious to the open meetings that are determining the future of their schools and their communities. It’s only during Town Meeting season when proposals are put on the table that they scramble to understand the issues. The solution we’re looking for requires a year-round conversation. It requires unprecedented communication from the board and the administration to explain, town-by-town, what their proposal means for educational opportunities, what it means for transportation, what it means for those impacted. It also requires input from residents along the way. To start that conversation in January will only serve to further alienate voters.

The board has tried to take its message to the people around this issue. The problem was no one showed up. Maybe now that communities in our district understand how easily a school can be targeted for closure, residents will be more willing to engage in this debate in the months ahead.

Maybe then they’ll see that at least exploring consolidation may come with a host of benefits they never considered.

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