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Consolidation: A summer of silence

It was six long months ago that then ConVal Superintendent Dick Bergeron defined the issue facing district voters as a watershed moment. We were at a crossroads, he said, because the district was looking to pass its budget amid growing calls for cuts.

One month later the budget did pass, but the real nail-biting came on the question of school consolidation, an issue that has long vexed the administration, town officials and district voters alike. The concern has only grown in recent years, as enrollment at many of the district’s smaller elementary schools has fallen to the point where some are only half filled. The consolidation issue came to a head in March when voters overwhelmingly turned down a proposal that came from two members of the community who believed that closing Great Brook School in Antrim — one of the district’s two middle schools — would be the best way to tackle the obvious challenges of a district in which the budget and enrollment are going in opposite directions. A second question on the ballot gave the School Board authority to put before voters a plan to consolidate schools, including the smaller elementary schools that are at the heart of the district’s enrollment issue. That measure got 58 percent approval, but fell short of the two-thirds needed to pass.

The resounding declaration in many circles following that vote was that something needed to be done. But no one knew exactly what the solution looked like. And they didn’t know precisely who should be leading the charge.

It took about two months for the district to make its first move, and at first glance it was a rather bold statement. The School Board would team with members of the Selectmen’s Advisory Committee to take a look at this issue from both a district and a town perspective. “Let’s start from scratch” was the sentiment voiced by Hancock Select Board John Jordan at a May meeting. The charge was clear — the towns needed to be involved and all potential solutions needed to be on the table.

But officials left that meeting without any timetable for recommendations. And they left without any clear indication of who would be on the committee, or even when it would meet.

Now, more than two months later, we’re no closer to getting any solutions on the table. The makeup of the joint committee is still unsettled and its mission is murkier than ever.

In a story published in Tuesday’s Ledger-Transcript, Francestown Select Board member Scott Carbee indicated that since voters don’t appear to be interested in consolidation, the committee, when it does start, will probably focus on other issues instead. However, School Board chair Butch Estey said Monday that consolidation remains the committee’s main charge.

August has arrived, and we’re just seven months away from the next round of district voting. Those who follow the process realize the enormity of the challenge and the time constraints involved. It’s time to either get to work or to accept that come March there won’t be a crossroads facing voters. Instead, they’ll face the well-worn path of the status quo.

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