BRIDGEWATER — Three of the seven towns in the Newfound Area School District are looking to form a special-purpose school district that would serve as its own school administrative unit.
Sen. Rick Ladd (R-Haverhill) is the lead sponsor of HB 349, which would allow the towns of Bridgewater, Groton and Hebron to withdraw from SAU 4 in a continuation of their move toward independence. Two of the towns — Bridgewater and Hebron — had formed a special political subdivision known as the Bridgewater-Hebron Village District which subsequently built the Bridgewater-Hebron Village School, which they continue to maintain, leasing it to the Newfound Area School District for $1 per year. SAU 4 staffs the classes.
Last year, residents of the towns of Alexandria and Groton successfully led an effort to review the cooperative school district’s funding formula, which has been in place since the district formed in 1962. The formula splits district costs based on a combination of average daily enrollment and transportation costs. Alexandria, with one of the highest student enrollments, bears a large percentage of the total assessment to the towns, while Groton, an outlying town with limited attendance, pays a high rate because of transportation costs.
The formula study committee was unable to come up with a change that would satisfy all member towns and ultimately made no recommendation, but the process “brought focus to our overall participation in the SAU,” according to a statement from the Bridgewater selectboard.
“We have tried for almost a decade to help address the issues at the SAU4 Middle School with no result,” wrote Terry Murphy, Skip Jenness, and Wes Morrill. “We need to actively research and engage to solve this issue. This legislation gives us that ability.”
They also said the study “made it painfully clear that seven towns in a cooperative district is simply too many. With the differing town sizes and growth patterns there are just too many viewpoints to ever get consensus and stagnation will breed more problems.”
It was the inability to reach consensus that prompted the two towns to establish their own village district in 1977 and to build their own school. Residents of member towns were reluctant to address facilities needs in other towns if they did not see building improvements in their own towns at the same time. As a result, the district was proposing piecemeal building projects in the various towns that carried a high price tag and often were defeated at the district meeting.
“Smaller more agile districts can respond better to the needs of modern education,” Bridgewater’s selectboard wrote about HB 349.
The Hebron selectboard also complained that the proposals for changing the funding formula for the district could have led to “unintended consequences relative to the Bridgewater-Hebron Village School, with possible closure of the facility.”
Richard James, Paul Hazelton and Patrick Moriarty wrote, “The vision of Hebron, Groton and Bridgewater is to improve education outcomes for our children with an innovative alternative to a traditional Middle School. This important legislation will help our three towns achieve our vision by establishing our own three-town school district and reconfiguring the Village District School to a K-8 model.”
The Bridgewater-Hebron Village School currently serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The Newfound district’s open-enrollment policy allows parents to send their children to any of the district’s schools, so many parents from other towns choose BHVS.
The legislation would give voters in the three towns a chance to vote on forming their own school district. If the measures pass at the town meetings, there would be a special meeting of voters in the withdrawing district to elect one school board member from each town. The new board then would organize and develop plans and policies for the newly formed cooperative school district, and propose an initial operating budget.
The legislative bill would allow the new school district to rent or lease the existing Bridgewater-Hebron Village School and to expand the grades served to 12, or to send students in grades nine and above to another school district through tuition agreements.
The Newfound Area School District already has such a tuition agreement with the Hill School District.
All of the new district’s costs would be apportioned on the basis of the average daily membership from each town or “Such other formula as is recommended and proposed by the school, adopted by majority vote of the district meeting and approved by the state board of education.”
A provision of the bill also states the “Bridgewater-Hebron-Groton Special Purpose School District shall seek to offer employment opportunities to the existing public school staff and faculty in the same manner as the pre-existing district.” It also “shall work closely with the Newfound Area School District to ... continue its relationship as put forth in the existing contract between the Bridgewater-Hebron Village District and former district to offer parents school choice and to accommodate students already enrolled in the new district’s school.”
The withdrawal would become effective on the first of July following a vote, “unless the meeting specifies a later fiscal year to be the effective operational date.”
SAU4 would allocate the unassigned fund balance as of the last day prior to the change to the new school district, and the newly formed district “may enter into agreements with the Newfound Area School District regarding the disposition of school administrative unit assets and liabilities.”
The selectboard warns that expanding BHVS to accommodate K-8 classes comes with costs and would require hiring more teachers and support staff. The district would have to enter into tuition agreements for sports, extracurricular activities and high school classes.
“Fortuitously, the school was originally constructed with sufficient plumbing and HVAC to accommodate future expansion but there will be new start-up expenses,” they wrote.
Although separating from the Newfound School District, “We would seek to stay closely aligned,” they wrote. “We would support space-based reciprocal enrollment for grades K through 8 and consider service contracts for administrative services and a tuition agreement for high schoolers. By inviting students from other towns to attend, we would be offering parents a choice between a traditional middle school and a K-8 program.”
They estimate that a reduction in middle school expenses for the district, coupled with gains in tuition and administrative revenue, would result in “little to no fiscal impact for SAU4.”
Additionally, “We have four years to research and determine if this is the best choice for our towns and our children before the authority in the bill expires. In the end, our voters will decide.”
Addressing concerns about having no experience in running a school district, the selectboard wrote, “From a facilities perspective we have operated and maintained the school for 22 years. Many of our citizens have been involved at multiple levels in school districts including a former NH State Commissioner of Education. We have a deep pool to draw from. We would seek to outsource functions that would require special expertise or need economies of scale.”
They point to the “proven pay-off in the primary grades” as a reason to expand the BHVS. The elementary school is ranked among the top K-5 schools in the state and has consistently scored in the top 20th percentile in math and English.
“Establishing a K-8 school will allow more effective local control and extend that academic pay-off for an additional three years,” they wrote.
With parents more engaged in their children’s education and a trend toward alternative education options, “establishing our own school district with a K-8 school may be a viable option,” they argue.
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