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Temple explores ConVal withdrawal

TEMPLE — Temple town officials, who have been among the most vocal critics of the ConVal School Board and the administration, have begun to explore a possible withdrawal from the district.

The number of Temple students attending ConVal High School has been dropping, but the costs of educating students hasn’t been going anywhere but up, and the Temple Select Board said Tuesday that the time has come to explore other options.

There are three main factors motivating the discussion, Select Board Chair John Kieley said in an interview Wednesday: protecting Temple’s local elementary school, concern over test scores, and the rising cost of school taxes.

“We, along with others in the district are struggling mightily with double-digit increases,” said Kieley of the rise in the tax rate. “Some of that comes from ConVal and some from the state. We have two forces working against us at once. It wouldn’t be prudent, given these concerns, not to see what our alternatives are. With Town Meeting behind us, [the Select Board is] looking at open space on our calenders, and this is clearly a priority for the coming year.”

In recent years, Temple has often stood alone in voting against the ConVal budget. And in 2010, led by then School Board Rep. Gail Cromwell, Temple residents widely rejected a proposed bond for renovation at ConVal High School. The measure needed 60 percent, and it drew wide support across much of the district. In Temple, however, the bond received about 33 percent approval, and the bond failed with 59.7 percent support. Ultimately, it led to Cromwell being censured by the Board for her role in actively campaigning against the bond.

Since then, Cromwell has left the School Board and she was recently elected to the Temple Select Board. But she’s remained active in ConVal District matters. In March, she co-sponsored a measure that would have closed Great Brook School in Antrim. That proposal, though, was soundly defeated, although it was supported by Temple voters.

Now Temple officials are taking a new look at whether the town should even stay in the district.

The first thing to determine, said Cromwell,s whether or not the residents of Temple would be interested or support such a move. If not, there may be other alternatives to an actual withdrawal, she said.

Select Board member Mike Darnell pointed out that those decisions would have to be made with support from the town, and the decisions on what route fits the town best — whether it be staying with the district, withdrawing or some other option — should be reviewed by a broad-based community committee dedicated to the subject.

“We want this to be a community effort, not a Select Board effort,” said Cromwell in an interview Wednesday. “We want this to be a community decision.”

Cromwell said the discussion of what to do is in its early stages. There have not been any decisions made about the size or make-up of such a committee at this point, she said.

Kieley said Wednesday that while no members have been appointed to a committee, the Select Board is taking applications from residents interested in joining. “We want a broad cross-section of residents represented, particularly parents,” he said.

The discussion at a Select Board meeting Tuesdaywas prompted by a big jump in the school portion of the tax bill for Temple in December. When the town received tax bills, Temple saw a 13 percent increase in their local school tax portion. In 2012, Temple’s local school tax rate was set at $13.36 per $1,000 of assessed value in town. In 2012, that number jumped to $15.09 per $1,000.

“That’s huge,” Cromwell said Wednesday. “And that’s in the books for 2013, but for the 2013-2014 year, we can expect another three percent increase. It’s the perpetual problem of enrollment dropping across the district, but the cost of education rising.”

The cost per student for Temple is approaching $20,000 annually, Cromwell said, and people are starting to ask whether ConVal is the right choice for Temple. Many of Temple’s residents are retired and on a fixed income, Cromwell said, and others are struggling financially as the country comes out of an economic recession, and the rising school costs are a concern.

“I’ve had more people ask this year, especially during voting time, ‘Why are we in ConVal? Can we do better somewhere else?’ And it’s a good question.”

“I think the main thing is to get people informed. Are people of Temple interested in this idea?” she said at a Select Board meeting Tuesday.

Kieley said that the rising school costs are definitely a concern to residents in town. “I’ve never had so many people approach me about a financial issue,” he told the rest of the board. “But education is the priority, not the cost.”

The board discussed the possibility of not only opening discussions with other towns in the district to weigh options for withdrawal, but also neighboring districts, to gauge possibilities for realigning Temple with a different district, Kieley said.

“We know that there are other towns considering the same thing for the same reasons,” he said. “We’ll be looking at what the other alternatives are in joining other neighboring districts.”

Kieley said the board would also contact a Department of Education expert on district withdrawal and realignment, and arrange a public forum on the subject so the board and residents can become informed of the possible consequences of such a decision.

Darnell said he feared that Temple’s small elementary school might be a target for consolidation, if the district was looking for ways to save money.

“Every year, you hear about wanting to close this or that school,” he said. “If they closed Temple’s elementary school, it would be a real hit for Temple.”

Kieley agreed, saying he would be against busing young students to Peterborough, and that it would affect the town’s property values to lose an in-town elementary school.

When asked for comment, ConVal Superintendent Dick Bergeron said that he was unaware Temple was discussing alternate options for schooling, and did not feel he could comment until he had received official correspondence from the Temple Select Board.

Any Temple resident who is interested in joining a committee to discuss Temple’s options within the school district may contact the selectman’s office at 878-2536.

The Select Board meets on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month in the Town Hall annex. At their meeting Tuesday, the board agreed to change the usual Select Board meeting time from 7 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., although they will accommodate residents who request later meeting times, Kieley said Wednesday.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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