BRISTOL — The Newfound Area School Board has sweetened the pot for the Hill School District, backing out some of the costs that were built into a proposed tuition calculator in an effort to present a figure that is palatable enough to keep the negotiations going.
Hill is seeking to withdraw from its Authorized Regional Enrollment Area (AREA) agreement with Franklin and send its middle and high school students to another district. Newfound, Winnisquam, and Merrimack Valley are under consideration, with Franklin hoping to persuade Hill to stay there. Newfound had met with the most favorable response, until Hill learned that Newfound's tuition would be more than $1,000 per student more than the other contenders would charge.
Hill currently sends approximately 90 grades 6 through 12 students to Franklin. Students in the current sophomore and junior classes at Franklin High School would be given the option to complete their secondary education at that school.
Benjamin LaRoche of Bristol, a member of the Newfound board's Hill subcommittee, proposed on Dec. 8 that the board approve a revised tuition calculator developed by Business Administrator Michael Limanni that backed out school board and central office costs from the calculation. Doing so brings the base tuition close to $13,000 per student, in line with what Hill currently pays to Franklin.
Jeff Levesque of Groton objected, saying it would be unfair to taxpayers in the Newfound Area School District who bear those costs.
Don Franklin of Hebron, also a member of the Hill subcommittee, countered that Hill would not have a voice on the school board and that the cost of operating the central office would be the same whether or not Hill students were attending local schools.
School Administrative Unit 4 Superintendent Stacy Buckley pointed out that, under the plan, Hill would remain a member of SAU 18 and would be paying Franklin for central office support. She said issues with Hill students would be handled by the Hill School Board and Franklin's superintendent.
Limanni also pointed out that any costs incurred by Hill students would be billed to them. Hill students participating in the summer program or after-school events would pay for them separately.
The tuition agreement also would exclude transportation costs, as Hill would pay for its own busing; and Hill would be responsible for any special needs costs for its students.
Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater, serving as chair in the absence of Danbury's Ruby Hill, said he objected to the tuition agreement on a number of points, from the cost differential with what local residents pay to the "gray areas" in the agreement that could lead to problems down the road.
Migliore compared the administration of the complex tuition agreement to the handling of the grant for Project Promise, an after-school program. Poor oversight had resulted in a breach of the Project Promise grant terms and the school district is having to repay much of the grant funding as a result. Migliore said a 10-year tuition agreement, with the probability that there would be different board members and different administrators handling it before it comes up for renewal, could prove to be another expensive mistake for the school district.
Having supported an effort to establish full-day kindergarten next year and hearing objections that moving forward that quickly was not feasible, Migliore observed that no one was objecting to quickly cobbling together the Hill tuition agreement in time for a vote in March.
Buckley took issue with the comparisons, saying Project Promise was a grant program that came with stipulations that should have been followed but were not. The tuition agreement, once crafted, will determine the costs and a change in leadership will not affect that, she said.
As for the other point, Buckley noted that allowing students to attend Newfound does not change the programs or require any reconfiguration of classes. Full-day kindergarten, on the other hand, would require staffing changes and classroom realignment, a much more complicated undertaking.
Limanni reiterated that any final agreement would incorporate safeguards to ensure that Hill would be paying for any new or unanticipated costs associated with its students attending Newfound. "This tuition calculator, coming in not much over $13,000, would get our foot in the door with good faith and still let us justify it by asking if we're being fair to our taxpayers," he said.
Just before the vote, Levesque said he still objected to leaving off the cost of the superintendent's office, but he said the value of having an agreement that would bring in approximately $800,000 in revenue exceeds the $60,000 difference in the tuition calculation.
In the end, the school board voted, 5-1, to direct the Hill subcommittee to enter into negotiations with the Hill School Board, using the tuition calculator as presented by Limanni as the basis for a tuition agreement.