It’s unusual to see 50 people turn out for a school board meeting, but when the issue is possible closure of your town’s elementary school, emotions run high.
That was obvious when the school board for the nine-town Contoocook Valley School District (more widely known as ConVal) met on Dec. 18 to approve a warrant article for the district meeting that would downsize the Peterborough-based collaborative from 11 schools to five.
Small towns that cherish their local elementary school as a focal point of community life would see their children bused to a regional school. Despite overwhelming opposition to that idea from parents, the board voted 7-5 to let the broader electorate decide in March.
If voters approve, residents of Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple would see their eight elementary schools collapsed into two, serving grades K-4.
ConVal is certainly not alone in trying to come to grips with the reality of declining school populations in an era of rising costs and reduced state aid.
A debate that has occupied policymakers, educators and parents of schoolchildren for more than two decades may reach a tipping point in the next two years. More school districts are facing the possibility of school closings and pubic pressure is building on lawmakers to find a more permanent solution that doesn’t require frequent lawsuits pitting cities and towns against state government over the issue of educational funding.
Democratic committee member Mel Myler, the incoming chair of the House Education Committee, offered a minority report that suggests where the majority party might be headed on this issue.
“The committee’s majority recommendation continues the history of playing at the margins of the school funding issue by providing additional funding here and there to schools without addressing the core disparities,” according to Myler.
He wants a broader look at the problem with an eye toward a more equitable system.
“We continue to have rich school and poor schools based on the property wealth of their community,” he says. “The result is that some students have a greater educational advantage because of the wealth of the community in which they reside.”
No clear position
The Democratic leadership has not staked out a clear position on the issue, as there are at least six bills that relate to funding an adequate education and lawmakers at this appoint appear inclined to let the process play out.
“I would say the adequacy grant we are paying now, $3,636, is woefully inadequate and it hurts our local property taxpayers,” said Democratic House Speaker Steve Shurtleff.
The average amount spent per pupil statewide is $15,000, with wealthier communities spending between $20,000 to $25,000 per pupil. Some towns spend as little as $10,000. Manchester’s most recent cost per pupil was calculated at just over $11,000.