by Thomas P. Caldwell
HILL — Attorney John Teague pronounced the efforts of the Hill School District AREA Withdrawal Study Committee a "good attempt at addressing the somewhat vague points" the State Board of Education had requested following a hearing in Concord last month.
Others attending Monday's meeting were not as satisfied with the discussion, and Franklin School Board Vice-Chair Greg Husband abstained from the vote to approve the compilation of the information for a review and formal vote next Monday, April 14.
The study committee met April 7 to address the two points the State Board of Education outlined in a letter following the March 26 hearing in Concord. State Board Chair Tom Raffio wrote that the withdrawal plan needed additional information about the disposal of property and the assumption of liabilities upon the dissolution of the AREA agreement between the Franklin and Hill school districts; and it lacked a detailed analysis of the financial and educational consequences of the proposed withdrawal.
Until Monday, Franklin had not participated in the study initiated last November. After appointing representatives to the committee, the city tabled the matter and Hill's representatives met alone to draft the document that seeks to end the Hill School District's tuition agreement with Franklin. Although the law allows 180 days to draft such a report, the study committee completed it in 42 days, aided in its efforts by prior discussions about withdrawing from the Franklin school system.
Hill is looking to be freed of the agreement so it can negotiate tuition agreements with Winnisquam or Newfound as well as Franklin. Although it might send students elsewhere, the school district is not looking to separate from School Administrative Unit 18 which oversees the Franklin and Hill school districts.
Franklin School Board Chair Tammy Feener questioned why Hill would want to remain a part of SAU 18 if it was sending its students elsewhere. "Wouldn't you want a say in what their education was?" she asked.
Hill board members responded that they are only looking at the tuition agreements at present, although they might consider withdrawing from SAU 18 at a future point. Others pointed out that Hill currently has no say in the education of students attending Franklin schools, as SAU 18 uses a weighted vote system that effectively denies Hill a chance to participate: Franklin's vote always trumps Hill's under the current policy.
In addressing the first point in the state board's letter, SAU 18 Business Administrator Michael O'Neill reviewed the rental factor built into the current tuition agreement. He said it is based on the annual bond payment for the high school, divided by the average daily membership. That figure currently stands at $376.83, he said.
O'Neill also noted that state statute calls for any debt remaining to be paid until the end of the bond. In the case of the Franklin School District, that debt amounts to about $250,000 a year which would be allocated according to the projected enrollment.
He also noted that Hill would be responsible for its portion of state building aid. At the time of the bond, the state provided 30 percent of the cost of building, plus 10 percent for each district in an AREA agreement. Hill would be obligated to make up that 10 percent, or $25,000 per year, for the next five years, O'Neill said.
It was when the committee took up the state board's second point — the educational and financial consequences of Hill's leaving the district — that the discussion grew heated. The committee had asked Franklin High School Principal Richard Towne for an analysis of class sizes with and without Hill students. For most courses, the removal of Hill students would not have a great impact on average class sizes. Exceptions are in mathematics, where class sizes would be halved, and in honors courses where the impact might call into question Franklin's ability to continue offering the classes.
Towne said that, when there are fewer than 10 students in a class, the district has to take a hard look at whether it should continue offering that class. AP Calculus 2, which has only three students now, would have a single student if Hill pulled out. Physics I currently has nine students and that number would drop to six if the Hill students left.
Husband said the educational consequences could be even greater, as Hill contributes $650,000 to the Franklin School District budget. It would be likely that the city could not take such a financial hit without eliminating some teaching positions, thus affecting educational offerings in Franklin.
Hill representatives argued that, since they would not necessarily leave Franklin, and since students currently in the Franklin school system might choose to remain there until they graduate from high school, the loss of that much money would not necessarily follow, and if Hill did withdraw, Franklin would have time to make adjustments over the next five years while some Hill students remained in the high school.
On a different point, Towne pointed out that the report that had gone to the state board inaccurately reflected the number of classes offered in each of the three school districts under consideration. Winnisquam's course listings included classes that take place at the Huot Regional Technical Education Center in Laconia but those classes were not included under Franklin, although Franklin also sends students to the Laconia tech center. Likewise, Franklin students take part in some of the classes that Winnisquam offers at its agricultural center. He agreed to provide an updated course list so the offerings would be accurately listed in the charts.
The information discussed Monday night will be assembled as an addendum to the earlier report and the study committee will meet on the 14th to formally approve the changes.
"The state board really wanted to be sure that Franklin had an opportunity to take part in this," Teague concluded.