ConVal board mulls school shakeup

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, November 01, 2017 6:8PM

The ConVal school board tabled a consolidation plan and is moving forward with studying a reconfiguration plan, according to minutes from a September work session meeting.

The reconfiguration would cost the district $1.5 million and consolidation would save the district an estimated $3.35 million, according to estimates provided by subcommittees of the district’s administrative council, which presented plans for both at a September meeting. The administrative council is made up of district employees and school administrators.

Despite the tabling, school board members say the two plans are still being worked on and are subject to change. 

“Administrators have put forth two different suggestions as an exercise rather than a formal plan,” said Francestown’s representative for the school board Stephan Morrissey. 

School board vice chair Rich Cahoon, of Antrim, called the exercise a “thought experiment” that was meant to start a conversation about potential alternatives to the current model. 

Morrissey said the cost estimates for each model are also “way out of whack.” Cahoon said those estimates weren’t even run by the district’s business administrator.

School board Chair Myron Steere said a lot more work needs to be done before it puts forth a formal proposal for the public.

“Before we would present anything on consolidation the board needs to get the facts and research completed so the information is accurate for people to vote on,” Steere said.

The reconfiguration model presented suggests changing curriculum and instruction by restructuring the school week (including an early release by two hours on Fridays), shifting the school year (every 45 days would mark the end of a quarter) and increasing teacher contracts from 187 to 205 days to avoid conflicts with professional development. Universal preschool is also part of the recommendation.

The model, according to school board work session minutes from early September, says reconfiguration would shift the thinking by looking at each student and asking “How smart are you?” to instead asking “How are you smart?”

The reconfiguration plan could cost about $1.5 million, mostly due to the extension in teacher contract days.

Steere said reconfiguration wouldn’t need to go on a ballot because it doesn’t change anything in the articles of agreement.

“It’s a way of teaching,” Steere said about the possibility. 

The consolidation model would have reduced the district's 11 schools into four: two primary elementary schools, one upper elementary school and one middle-high school. The two primary elementary schools would include grades pre-K through three, which would be held at the Peterborough Elementary School and Great Brook School in Antrim. The model also includes one upper elementary school for grades four through six at South Meadow School in Peterborough, and another middle-high school for grades 7 through 12 at ConVal High School.

“The model is good for students as it remedies the current inequity of delivery of services to all students in the ConVal district,” according to the minutes.

The $3.35 million savings is largely due to a reduction in teachers and administrators (mostly at the primary elementary level), and a slash in building costs, according to the consolidation proposal. 

The consolidation model, according to the proposal, would also provide increased opportunities for universal preschool, before- and after-school care, and world language instruction beginning as early as fourth grade. It would also eliminate the need for multi-age level classrooms, which are implemented when there are not enough students in a grade.

Drawbacks to the model include longer bus rides for students, the loss of employment opportunities throughout the community (about 43 positions), and a shift from a town identity to a regional one, the proposal said.

The current district configuration “continues to place a financial strain on taxpayers and has created significant inequities in student services,” according to the proposal. Overall student enrollment has been declining within the district for about a decade, which has left empty seats at some schools within the district. According to figures collected at the beginning of this year, during the 2016/17 school year there were 2,194 students enrolled. Ten years prior, there were 3,104 students enrolled at ConVal.

“It really is something that really needs to be finally done one way or another. This has been going on for six to seven years,” said John Jordan, a Hancock select board member said during a recent Selectmen’s Advisory Committee.

Reconfiguration and configuration talks within the district have been tossed around for years, although little has materialized as a result of those discussions. In 2015, Cahoon said two consolidation items appeared on the ballot; one that would have closed Great Brook Middle School in Antrim and a second that would have allowed the district to close elementary schools without further public vote. Neither passed.

The ConVal school board said nothing about the matter will appear on the ballot in March. The strategic plan outlines goals to have consolidation proposals, if any, on 2019 Town Meeting ballots.

If it doesn’t pass in 2019, Steere said it likely won’t show up on the ballot again for another five years.