Opinion: A way forward for the ConVal District

Published: 2/7/2019 4:06:39 PM

By now, every resident of the ConVal School District knows that we have a major financial problem. We are spending more and more money to educate fewer and fewer students, while maintaining a very large number of unused classrooms. This results in a high tax burden on the towns in the district, which tends to dissuade young families from moving here, while also making it hard for residents on fixed incomes to remain in their homes. The existence of eight elementary schools of varying sizes within the district has also led to inequities of student services among the schools. For many years, concerned people both in and outside of the school administration have searched for a way to reduce district expenses while continuing to provide the best possible education for our children.

This year, the School Board voted to put forward a plan to close all six of our small elementary schools – in Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, and Temple – maintaining elementary schools in only Antrim and Peterborough. The ConVal administration felt that this plan would provide the best and most equitable educational opportunities for all of the children. However, it soon became clear that there would be little support for this plan in any of the small towns, and this article was withdrawn by the board.

More recently, a warrant article has been put forward by petition asking the board and the district administration to prepare, by Dec. 1, a detailed proposal to restructure the school district with eight K-6 elementary schools and a high school to serve grades 7-12. This plan would close the two middle schools with the aim of realizing significant financial savings. The board voted not to recommend this article, but it will appear on the ballot in March.

Any plan that involves closing any of our elementary schools encounters an immediate roadblock: The Articles of Agreement, signed when the ConVal district was established in 1967, specify that every town except Sharon shall have its own elementary school. To amend the Articles of Agreement in any way, a two-thirds vote of the residents of the district is required. At the School District’s deliberative session on Feb. 6, 2018, and at the School Board meeting on Feb. 20 of that year, residents of the small towns in the ConVal district had an opportunity to confront the possibility that their elementary schools would be closed. Again and again, speakers made clear the depth of passion and commitment attached to the preservation of those small schools. They expressed the belief that the loss of their schools would threaten the vitality, and even the existence, of their towns. They stated repeatedly that they did not care about inequities of opportunity between their schools and the larger ones. Probably the phrase used most often by advocates of the small schools was “It’s like a family.” Recalling the formation of the ConVal district, one long-time resident asserted, “We were not promised many things [when we agreed to join the ConVal district], but the one thing we were promised was that we would have our own schools.” It seems likely that, faced with a proposal to close any of the small elementary schools, the residents of all the small towns would turn out to oppose it. The likelihood of getting a two-thirds vote in favor seems very remote.

The Articles of Agreement do not mandate the existence of the middle schools, merely stating that students in grades 5-8 may be educated at middle schools in Antrim and Peterborough. In 2015, an article on the School District warrant proposed saving money by closing the Great Brook School, consolidating both of the middle schools at the South Meadow School because of its size and its proximity to the high school. This plan provoked a great deal of anger in the northern half of the district, as Antrim residents expressed the belief that their middle school was being unfairly singled out.

The idea of closing both middle schools is one which I first heard suggested several years ago by Barbara Miller, a member of the Select Board in Peterborough. It offers two singular advantages: first, this does not involve any alteration of the Articles of Agreement, so a two-thirds vote of the district would not be required to permit this change. Second, it would not pit one segment of the School District against another. It would not set the small towns against the large towns, or the northern part of the district against the south. Antrim and Peterborough could each decide whether to keep their elementary schools in their current locations or to move them into their middle school facilities. Of course, such a major change would not be easy to accomplish. It would present many new challenges for teachers and administrators. It would probably need to be implemented over a period of two years, so that no student would actually be moved backward, from middle school to elementary school. It is not a perfect solution. It does not resolve the inequity of services among the elementary schools. But it is possible, and it would result in significant financial savings.

I anticipate that this article will be part of a public discussion in which others will put forward their suggestions. I hope that all participants will observe two ground rules. First, that we all refrain from personal insults, assuming that everyone involved is sincerely trying to help solve a very difficult problem. And second, that we all try to move in a positive direction – if you don’t like a proposed solution, recommend a better one!

Abby Meyer lives in Peterborough.


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