BRISTOL — Concerns about decreasing student populations and the state of some school buildings prompted the Newfound Area School Board to consider reconfiguring the educational structure of the district. Following a report from the superintendent on Monday evening, members concluded that the current class grouping is appropriate, unless the downward census continues over the next few years.
Board Chair Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater said the board's request that Superintendent Stacy Buckley look into reconfiguring the school district came about because the trend of falling student populations is showing no sign of leveling off and because his town had asked the board to look into what cost savings might be realized by consolidating some of the schools.
As the first of the superintendent's goals for the 2013-2014 academic year, Buckley, in her first year on the job, made a comprehensive investigation into the history of the seven-town district and the capacity of its schools. She looked at current enrollment and utilization of space at the schools, and how shifting the configurations would affect the various buildings and the delivery of education.
Specifically, she looked at having all of the elementary schools provide kindergarten through Grade 8 or kindergarten through Grade 6, or returning to a K-4, 5-8, and 9-12 structure; or even doing a total reconfiguration that would group all pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students together at the Danbury school, grades 1-3 at Bristol Elementary, and grades 4-5 at the Bridgewater-Hebron Village School, keeping the higher grades where they are.
Included in her analysis was the possible closing of another outlying school, as the district finally succeeded in doing with the Alexandria Village School after many attempts and plenty of push-back from residents in that town. When the Newfound Area School District had formed, part the agreement was that none of the small, outlying schools would close without the residents of that town supporting it. The only school to close prior to Alexandria's was the Bridgewater Hill school in the early years of the Newfound District.
One by one, Buckley described the pros and cons of each option, with the cons outweighing the pros. She concluded that it was not feasible to adopt a K-6 or K-8 option because it would create the need for additional staff members while adversely affecting the district's ability to provide for unified arts and athletics and, in the case of K-6, the loss of foreign languages and algebra. There also would be additional costs to align the curriculum between schools and update the libraries at the schools, as well as creating scheduling problems with more lunch periods to fit in to accommodate all the students.
The superintendent acknowledged that the 4-4-4 arrangement the district originally had when it built the new high school "can work" but she said many parents object to having fifth graders interacting with eighth graders. Making that move would potentially allow the district to close the Danbury and New Hampton elementary schools, but with additional costs in transportation.
Transportation was the only reason for objection to her "radical" option of grouping the students by grade at different schools, Pre-K and K, 1-3, and 4-5. Jeff Levesque of Groton said that would be the perfect option, once the district can teleport students from their homes to the distant schools they would be attending.
Buckley said that, if the board wanted to pursue one of the options, she would recommend setting up a committee to study it in greater detail.
"If cost is a factor, would it be more cost-effective to close Bristol Elementary School, the New Hampton Community School, Newfound Memorial Middle School, and Danbury Elementary School, and build a new school?" she posited.
Her final suggestion, to create a facilities committee to look into issues of space, utilization, and the need for maintenance on the district's buildings, was the one the board took to heart after accepting her report. Ruby Hill of Danbury made the motion to establish a standing facilities committee to do long-range planning, and the motion passed unanimously. Migliore asked the superintendent to make a recommendation on the structure of the committee. Buckley had said it would be helpful to have members of the community as well as staff and board members taking part.
In ending her presentation, Buckley raised the question of whether it would be better for her spend her time looking at curriculum, instruction, and assessment, rather than restructuring the district. Aligning curriculum, she said, was the most pressing issue among the staff who are concerned about students arriving in seventh grade from the various schools with different levels of skills and different "vocabularies".
Throughout her talk, Buckley stressed that she looks at the system as being one district, rather than seven towns. While each town has its own character, and should preserve that character, she said that, educationally, it is important for all students to receive the same education.
"Everyone, both staff and students, should have a good space to work and learn," she said.
Although he ultimately voted for the facilities committee, Lloyd Belbin of Bristol said he felt the school district should look at acquiring land for new buildings before going ahead with a facilities committee. "We can go on for years with what we've got," he said.
Migliore repeated a recommendation he has been making at the last few meetings, that the community view the DVD "Community and Consequences" which is on the district website. It describes the problem of young people leaving the state for employment elsewhere, partly because of a lack of affordable housing here. That has created many problems for communities and school districts, accounting — along with the trend toward home schooling — for the decreases in student populations in the public schools.
He noted that, while the trend looks to continue for some time, it could change with some school districts looking to split up and align with other districts. The Hill School District has been making overtures for some time about withdrawing from School Administrative Unit 18 and tuitioning its students to Bristol. On the other hand, Migliore noted that there had been a move by Danbury at town meeting to withdraw from Newfound and join another district, which would reduce revenues for the district.