by Thomas P. Caldwell
HILL — The State Board of Education has encouraged the Franklin and Hill school boards to get together and try to resolve some of the questions surrounding Hill's request to withdraw from its Authorized Regional Enrollment Area (AREA) agreement with the Franklin School District, according to Assistant Commissioner of Education Paul Leather.
Specifically, Leather said, the state board questioned whether the a study committee formed in Hill late last year met the expectations outlined in state statute, and questioned whether the potential costs of withdrawing from the AREA agreement were adequately addressed.
Hill is looking into severing its ties with Franklin but would like to remain with School Administrative Unit 18, which governs the Hill and Franklin school districts. Voters at a special town meeting on Nov. 19 approved an article calling for the formation of a study committee to consider the feasibility and suitability of withdrawing from its current agreement which would allow Hill to send its students to either Winnisquam or Newfound for middle and high school classes.
The study committee, comprising two members of the Hill School Board, two Hill selectmen, former Superintendent Maureen Ward, who retired in December, and Interim Superintendent William Compton, met in December with no representation from Franklin. Leather said that the attorney representing Franklin at the March 26 hearing in Concord said the district's non-participation was due to the short notice which did not give the city time enough to designate any representatives.
Hill took Franklin's non-participation as a refusal to take part in the study and, as a result, asked the state board for an expedited review of its report, completed in January.
The study committee was able to complete its report in such a short time frame because this is not the first time Hill has considered withdrawing from its AREA agreement. The issue has arisen several times for more than a decade, with parents expressing concerns about the quality of education in Franklin schools. Franklin's dropout rates once were the highest in the state, students have had to share textbooks, and teachers have had to purchase many of their own materials because of financial pressures on the city's school system. Recent years have seen improvements in dropout rates but Franklin still lags behind Winnisquam and Newfound in both graduation rates and the percentage of students going on to higher education.
The study focused on the backgrounds of the potential host communities, including population trends, tax rates, and school enrollment, as well as data on student-teacher ratios, dropout rates, cost per pupil, and test results. There also was a comparison of the courses of instruction at each of the schools.
The committee found that Newfound has a significantly higher cost per pupil than either Franklin or Winnisquam, but stated that Hill would attempt to negotiate a tuition agreement that would take into account the district's increased costs for student transportation and special education. "Various charts found in other parts of this study show the benefits offered to students in both Winnisquam and Newfound School Districts that are not offered in Franklin," the report states.
Discussing standardized test scores, the report found, "In Reading, Newfound School District exceeded the state average five times in 6 years. Winnisquam exceeded the state average eight times in 6 years and Franklin exceeded the state average only once.
"In Math, Winnisquam exceeded the state average five times in 6 years. It should be noted that both Winnisquam and Newfound School Districts exceeded Franklin's scores."
In comparing courses offered at the high school level, the report stated that Winnisquam offers 119 courses, including honors and advanced placement, while Newfound offers 49 courses and Franklin 46.
Winnisquam offers 14 athletic opportunities and 21 clubs while Franklin offers 12 sports and 11 clubs and Newfound offers 11 sports and 10 clubs.
For middle school students, the report found that Winnisquam offers more honors courses; Newfound and Winnisquam offer World Languages; and all three offer technical education.
Franklin has the lowest number of teachers with advanced degrees of the three districts, and the greatest number of teachers that do not fall into the highly qualified category.
"In analyzing the educational benefits of the withdrawal of Hill students from Franklin," the report states, "the committee found a consistent and recurring theme. Hill parents and School Board want to improve the quality of education and the quantity of available courses to maintain a consistent excellence in education for all students. Both Winnisquam and Newfound School District offered more Honors courses, Running Start Programs, and Advanced Placement opportunities. ... Student achievement in both Winnisquam and Newfound School Districts is consistently higher than that of Franklin."
If approved, the plan calls for Hill withdrawing from Franklin on July 1, 2015, but allowing current students in the Franklin schools to remain there if they wish until graduation from high school. Hill would continue to pay their tuition, but transportation would be at the family's expense. "Given that Hill students would not all leave Franklin at the same time," the report states, "the loss of revenue would not occur in one year but would be phased out over a three to five year period. This time frame gives ample opportunity for Franklin School District to plan for the change."
In reviewing the report on March 26, the state board found it lacking in detail on the disposition of property and the handling of liability should the districts end their agreement, said Shelly Henry, the chair of the Hill School Board. She said the state board also wanted the committee to spell out in detail the financial and educational consequences of such a move.
"I felt it went well," Henry said, "but had hoped it would be better." She noted that, although the only speakers were attorneys representing the two districts, there were several representatives of both Franklin and Hill schools attending the session in Concord.
The study committee plans to meet on April 7 to take up the outstanding issues with Franklin so it can go back to the State Board of Education for a decision on the request. Henry said they can still meet their target date of July 2015, but "time is ticking and we still need to reach out to the other districts. Everybody will be working like busy little bees."