Ad hoc group to review closures
Committee: Voters are against consolidation
PETERBOROUGH — Members of the new District Study Committee, an ad hoc group made up of both ConVal School Board members and representatives of the Selectmen’s Advisory Committee, agreed last week to look into ways that the district could consolidate schools. But at their first meeting Thursday, several members expressed concerns that a focus strictly on school consolidation could be a waste of time. So they settled on an approach that calls for them to also investigate opportunities for greater efficiency within the district and to discuss ways in which the district could grow by attracting more students and a broader tax base.
Francestown Select Board member Scott Carbee, co-chair of the District Study Committee, opened the meeting by saying that many voters don’t fully understand the complexity of the ConVal district, especially the intricacies of the transportation system and how the SAU administration functions. Carbee said a March vote against allowing the School Board to make recommendations to close a school with declining enrollment should have sent a clear message.
“The conversation I’m getting back is that people don’t want to close any small schools,” Carbee said.
Committee member Carl Newton, a selectman from Sharon, agreed.
“If everybody keeps saying no, how can you consolidate?” Newton asked. “People don’t want to revisit consolidation.”
In March, a warrant article would have set up a 10-step procedure for the board to study closing a school if it was operating well below capacity. The article got 58 percent approval district-wide, but it fell below the two-thirds needed for approval.
Now, the District Study Committee is being urged by a key group of School Board members to focus on consolidation. In an email to Carbee and study committee co-chair Erik Thibault, members of the School Board’s Steering Committee wrote, “It is the understanding of the Steering Committee that the role of the new ConVal ad hoc committee is to examine the potential for consolidation options. We look forward to hearing from a group comprised of new School Board and SAC committee members that will bring a fresh perspective on this topic.”
On Monday, School Board Chair Butch Estey of Peterborough said the Steering Committee consists of the board chair, the vice chair, the Education Committee chair and the Budget and Property Committee chair.
“It’s a group that was in place several years back and kind of went by the wayside. It has been reinstituted,” Estey said.
The committee has held two meetings this summer, one in July and the most recent on Aug. 13. Board members who attended at least one of the two meetings are Estey, Vice-chair Stewart Brock of Francestown, Budget and Property Chair Matt Craig of Sharon and Education Committee Chair Crista Salamy of Antrim.
Estey said the group decided at the Aug. 13 meeting to send the email to the District Study Committee.
“We don’t make any decisions and it’s not binding on anyone,” Estey said. “I’m glad they had a meeting. I’m glad they’re getting started.”
Responding to the Steering Committee email, District Study Committee members eventually agreed Thursday to review consolidation options. Committee member Rich Cahoon, who is a School Board member from Antrim, suggested that the group come up with a tightly defined scope of what they plan to discuss and review that with the full School Board.
Committee members decided that budget issues and transportation issues are already being reviewed by the School Board, so including those in the scope of the district study would be a duplication of effort.
“Let’s deal with things we can do right away,” suggested Myron Steere, a School Board member from Greenfield who attended Thursday’s meeting, although he is not on the District Study Committee.
Steere also suggested the group could look into ways that local towns might be able to initiate a consolidation process. For example, he said, if Francestown and Greenfield residents wanted to propose merging their elementary schools, there might be a process to change the district’s Articles of Agreement to allow that to happen.
Pierce Rigrod, Hancock’s School Board representative who serves on the study committee, said recent data indicates that enrollment numbers seem to be leveling off and, therefore, the committee might want to discuss how to maintain equality of services provided by the district’s schools. He also suggested that the district might be able to attract outside students on a tuition basis.
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,” he said.
Committee members agreed with that plan, although as the meeting was winding down, Carbee, Cahoon, Newton and School Board member Fiona Tibbetts of Dublin all said the voters had clearly expressed a lack of interest in closing schools.
Rigrod suggested that the committee might start by creating a survey that could be sent to voters to get their attitudes on consolidation.
“Let’s keep it on the table to find out what the people want,” Tibbetts said.
Committee members decided to work on a survey at their next meeting. They didn’t set a date for that meeting.
Select Board representatives on the District Study Committee are Carbee, Newton, Deb Davidson of Greenfield and Mike Darnell of Temple. School Board members on the committee are Thibault, Tibbetts, Cahoon and Rigrod.
Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.