Focus of school consolidation changes

AMHERST – When the school boards first began looking at joining the three school districts in SAU 39, the push was financial, based on declining enrollments and rising costs.

A “streamline committee,” charged with looking on school efficiency, reported last year that student population declines were accelerating, while costs are going up and state aid is going down.

The current SAU operation is not optimal, it said, from standpoints of costs and education quality.

During a recent forum at Souhegan Cooperative High School, Superintendent Peter Warburton emphasized the quality aspect.

The positive benefits of joining the Amherst Mont Vernon districts go far beyond costs, he said, and would mean students would have more consistent access to school resources, including foreign language instruction, athletics and co-curricular activities if there is one school district.

During a similar forum in Mont Vernon Oct. 25, residents expressed concern about loss of control in a larger school board and, in particular, losing control of the fate of the Village School.

“Mont Vernon has a great little school, and I personally believe it should stay open,” said the superintendent, who gave examples of how having three different districts means less flexibility and more inconvenience.

Buses from one district can’t drop off kids at an out-of-district school, even if they are going right by it, Warburton said. “It’s a whole different world. Like three different countries.”

The superintendent said he favors consolidation, but reassured people it is “not a done deal,”and said it would give him the flexibility to move staff around, which would save money and have “stellar staff working in different buildings.”

If the Clark-Wilkins elementary schools become crowded, and there happens to be space at the Mont Vernon school, children could be moved around.

One mother at the Amherst meeting said she moved to Amherst because of the schools.

“As a parent, that gives me pause,” she said.

Under a process mandated by state law, each of the three school boards would have to vote in the affirmative to put it on the district warrant, then voters in individual districts must vote on it. If one school board votes no, the issue is dead.

Frank Brown, who chaired the distinct’s streamline committee, said the focus should remain on what’s best for the children.

If Mont Vernon, which has more part-time staff than Amherst, winds up with 25 percent part-timers, it “can’t help the educational experience, and “a bigger district might not have to make that trade off.”

There will be another forum early in December, on a date to be announced, when more details of the consolidation process will be discussed.

The streamline committee reported last year that the Mont Vernon Village School had 178 students, down from 231 six years ago, with projections of about 160 in the near future.

Consolidation would save the entire district between $200,000 and $300,000 a year, mostly in administrative costs, it was reported at the Mont Vernon forum, where people in favor of it focused on having a richer education experience for their children.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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