by Thomas P. Caldwell
HILL — The Winnisquam Regional School District has declined this town's request for proposal (RFP) to provide educational services for Hill students in grades 7-12, citing time constraints. The Hill School Board had asked in early July for proposals to be submitted by Aug. 13, in time for Hill's next school board meeting. While Winnisquam found that to be too short a deadline for a formal response, the Merrimack Valley and Newfound school districts did respond, as did Franklin, the school district Hill currently utilizes under an Authorized Regional Enrollment Area (AREA) agreement.
School Administrative Unit 18 Business Administrator Michael O'Neill said the request did not seek specific tuition figures; only a model of how the districts would calculate the cost per pupil. Franklin's response was that it would continue using the current model which multiplies total per pupil charges by the number of days the Hill pupil is registered in the Franklin schools, then dividing by 180, with the total payment made in two installments, in October and April.
Franklin's per pupil cost is based on the appropriated operating costs of the Franklin Middle School and Franklin High School for the previous academic year, minus an agreed-upon expense for special education tuition and transportation, adjusted to exclude field trips. That total then is divided by the latest average daily membership (ADM) attendance number reported to the N.H. Department of Education.
Superintendent Robert McKenney told the Hill board at the Aug. 13 meeting that individual members of the Franklin School Board, and others in Franklin, had asked him to "bring a message of peace" and indicate that Franklin wants Hill to continue its relationship with Franklin schools.
Hill School Board Chair Shelly Henry responded that she is "struggling with the words from Franklin" coming through the lips of a superintendent who represents both Hill and Franklin. "You spoke of 'we want Hill to stay,' but you are with our district, too," she said.
McKenney said he thinks it is in Hill's best interest to stay with Franklin.
School Board Vice-Chair Nancy Coffin reminded the superintendent that "We're coming at it from the perspective of what's best for our students, and with the cuts that have taken place in Franklin, we're looking at what the school is not able to offer."
Henry agreed: "It comes down to funding and what they're able to do under their (property) tax cap."
The Hill School District voted last year to investigate its options, with its current 10-year AREA agreement with Franklin coming to an end.
School Administrative Unit 46 (Merrimack Valley) in its written response to Hill stated its interest "in discussing a mutually agreed upon arrangement with the Hill School District" and went on to highlight "a few of the unique opportunities Hill students will be afforded should MVSD be your choice."
The district emphasized its decades-long experience in "hosting and acclimating students from neighboring districts" and said, "A hallmark of our district is seen in the support we regularly receive from our local communities. This is exemplified by the fact that the district's budgets have passed every year since the incorporation of the District (1965)."
Merrimack Valley also noted that it is 20 miles from Hill and that both the middle and high school underwent significant facility upgrades in 2007. "Our physical plants and athletic complex are the envy of many visitors."
The letter concluded by saying, "We look forward to the chance to discuss and specify the scope of services and enter into a mutually beneficial agreement with the Hill School District."
Newfound, in addition to sending three documents in response to Hill's request, also sent its school board chair, Ruby Hill of Danbury, to observe and answer questions. The district's paperwork included a letter of interest, a formal response that outlined in general form the scope of services and how it would calculate the tuition rate, and an overview of the Newfound Area School District and its offerings.
Hill resident Gerard Desrochers observed that Merrimack Valley is another 15 minutes beyond Franklin and he said the district already picks up elementary students as early as 5:45 a.m. Adding another 15 minutes would be even harder on the children, he said.
As to Newfound, Desrochers said he was concerned with the troubling situation at Newfound, where the district is operating under a two percent (property) tax cap. "We don't know what their long-term situation will be," he said. "Franklin's been operating under a tax cap for a lot longer, and they're having trouble maintaining programs. With their tax cap, Newfound may be facing the same thing in not too many years."
Henry said the next step for the Hill School Board would be to meet with its attorney to review the responses and establish how to proceed in negotiating potential agreements with the interested parties.