By Thomas P. Caldwell
HILL — As the annual School District meeting approaches, parents whose children currently attend Franklin schools are expressing anger and frustration over the School Board's efforts to conclude a tuition agreement with the Newfound Area School District, based in Bristol, without giving Franklin another chance to keep the students.
Many of them appeared before the School Board on Feb. 11, asking why the board is not considering Franklin's late offer to renegotiate the terms of the current Authorized Regional Enrollment Area (AREA) agreement to bring the cost of sending Hill students to Franklin below the amount Newfound would be charging in tuition.
The Hill board rejected Franklin's offer last month because it came just weeks before the board had to finalize its budget for the coming year, and opening up the AREA agreement would mean suspending the current negotiations with Newfound. Hill voters last year asked the School Board to look into withdrawing from Franklin and to report back this year.
School Board Chair Shelly Henry said there is no guarantee that the offer Franklin put on the table would be honored if they did agree to open up the AREA agreement, so the promised savings might not materialize. She said voters who want to remain with Franklin need only reject the article at the school meeting.
Under the current agreement, total tuition for students to attend Franklin would rise to $864,847 next year, while Newfound's formula would cost $839,917, based on the attendance numbers at the time of the discussion. Franklin on Jan. 6 offered to use Newfound's tuition calculator which would bring the cost down to $736,182.
Distrust between Hill and Franklin is playing a part in the process, with Franklin having used its weighted vote on the School Administrative Unit 18 Board to see that Hill had no real voice, even though Franklin's representation was large enough to have its way even without a weighted vote. Franklin chose not to send any representatives to serve on the withdrawal study committee and only got involved after the state had accepted the Hill report.
The city's long-standing financial problems as a property-poor community have created problems in properly funding education and Hill had previously looked at withdrawing from Franklin because of concerns about the quality of education. In the early 1990s, when Hill considered its options for realigning with another community, Newfound did not have the space to accommodate Hill students and the withdrawal effort was dropped.
The parents attending Wednesday's school board meeting challenged the assertion that Franklin's educational quality was inferior to Newfound's, citing test scores and statistics on college-bound students. They also said that, while the terms of the withdrawal allow parents to continue sending students currently attending Franklin to the city schools, the school district will not be providing transportation and that will be a hardship for some.
They also questioned whether the tuition would remain low or whether they would be paying much higher amounts in the future. Several expressed the view that a 10-year agreement was too long a commitment.
Henry noted that, in negotiating the terms with Newfound, they were able to lower the basic tuition figure even more, although the actual cost will be determined by what services the Hill students need. Special education costs, for instance, will be assessed separately from the basic tuition.
The School Board accepted the draft tuition agreement with Newfound without sharing the details with the audience. Formal acceptance of the agreement will be part of the warrant at School District meeting and also will appear on the ballot in the Newfound Area.
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