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School board advised against land purchase

November 11, 2009
ALTON — Concerns about winning voter support for a big-ticket Warrant article in the midst of the recession led the school board's Buildings and Grounds Committee to recommend during its Nov. 4 meeting that the board not pursue any land purchases next year in support of planned renovations to the Alton Central School.

As reported on The Baysider's Web site (www.newhampshirelakesandmountains.com) last week, the committee's initial recommendation, released in September, was for the board to pursue an extensive renovation and expansion of Alton Central if district officials were successful in securing a waiver from the state Department of Education allowing the school to remain in operation at its current site (which does not meet state guidelines for minimum acreage).

The committee also stated at that time that if the district were granted a waiver, it might or might not recommend that the board pursue the 10-acre Twombly property on Depot Street as a future site for athletic fields, giving district officials room to add onto the school.

In light of the ongoing recession and recent comments from residents who voiced their opposition to any big-ticket expenditures, however, committee member Thad Guldbrandsen suggested last week that any discussion of a land purchase, whether or not the parcel in question is the Twombly property, be tabled for the time being.

Instead, Guldbrandsen recommended that the committee and the board adopt the timeline proposed by Chip Krause of CMK Architects, who suggested last week that it might be best to wait until March of 2011 to bring forward a Warrant article for renovations.

If voters were to pass that article, Krause explained, the district would have the next several months to draw up architectural plans, and could begin the renovation/expansion project (which he estimated would take a year and a half to two years to complete) in either August of September of 2011.

The committee voted unanimously in favor of both of Guldbrandsen's motions.

Updating the committee on the Finance subcommittee's recent activities, Superintendent Kathy Holt distributed an estimate submitted by Krause's firm, CMK Architects, for the creation of a preliminary renovation design and three-dimensional rendering.

Explaining that the district will need a concrete plan for the renovations before applying for a state waiver, Holt said she had added $7,000 to CMK's estimate to cover the fees for an independent cost estimator, who will help district officials develop accurate figures for the future construction costs.

With the cost estimator factored in, she said, the total estimate for preliminary design work came to $30,000.

Asked how the school board planned to fund the preliminary design phase, board Chairwoman Terri Noyes suggested the interest the district has earned on its bond for Prospect Mountain High School as a possible funding source.

Holt said she had asked Business Administrator Kathy O'Blenes to look into that possibility.

Noyes added that she would like to avoid raising taxes, if at all possible.

On a motion from Guldbrandsen, the committee voted unanimously to recommend that the board move forward with CMK's estimate.

Joint middle school study rejected

Announcing at the start of last week's meeting that some members of the high school JMA board had proposed a Warrant article asking voters to form a special committee to study the feasibility of a joint middle school, Noyes asked Buildings and Grounds Committee members for their thoughts on the idea.

School board member Maureen Smith said she had asked the Barnstead board members who brought the idea forward where the middle school might be located, and what grades it would house.

The answer she received to both questions, she said, was "It's a feasibility study."

"Well, that's all it is," board member Lynda Goossens said.

Although she would personally like to see the town return to a K-12 school, Goossens noted that Alton has outgrown that option.

Given the "top-heavy" administrative costs associated with Alton and Barnstead maintaining their own school districts in addition to the high school, she said, the time may have come for both communities to "think outside the box," and consider other options.

Noyes said she felt the Buildings and Grounds Committee needed to "take a philosophical stand" on behalf of the community.

Committee member Sheila Rapalje said she was under the impression that the people of Alton had "put this to rest" by indicating on exit polls at the 2008 town election that they wanted a K-8 school in the center of town.

"I don't know," Goossens replied, suggesting that the results of the exit poll might have been skewed by the nature of the questions voters were being asked.

Noting that studies have shown early adolescence to be a highly emotional time in children's lives, and that students tend to do better navigating their way through that period in smaller schools, Rapalje suggested that throwing Alton and Barnstead students together just as they are entering into their teenage years could be a recipe for disaster, leading to low self-esteem among girls and behavior problems among boys.

"I don't think this [proposal] has anything to offer our students," she said.

Goossens argued, however, that there are a number of joint or regional middle schools throughout the state.

"You can't tell me they're all terrible," she said.

Agreeing with Rapalje, committee member and teacher Pati True encouraged Goossens to try to find studies showing the benefits of a joint middle school.

The research she has seen, she said, shows that in almost every case, the idea didn't work.

Goossens suggested that the proposal be presented to voters.

"I don't think we can make that decision for the towns," she commented.

Smith pointed out that when Prospect Mountain first opened, there was a wide gulf between Alton and Barnstead students in terms of academics.

"We were up here, and they were down here," she said, raising one hand up in the air and placing the other just above the table, and suggesting that the same disparity might occur if the two towns went in together on a middle school.

Goossens suggested, however, that the disparity had more to do with the fact that Barnstead's students were being sent to "20 different schools" than with differences in curriculum.

Committee Chairwoman Marilyn Dame said her primary objection to the idea of a joint middle school was the timing.

"Why didn't Barnstead come to us three and a half years ago?" she asked.

Noyes said she was worried that the passage of the proposed article would set the committee's efforts back.

Board member Sandy Wyatt said she was against the idea because she wanted to keep class sizes small for the benefit of students, and because she felt Barnstead would push to build the middle school on land that its school district owns on Hannah Nutter Road.

"I don't want to see our kids do what New Durham does," she said, referring to the nearly 15-mile bus ride that middle-school students from New Durham take to the Kingswood complex in Wolfeboro.

Dame said she had measured the distance from the Alton Traffic Circle to the Hannah Nutter site in Barnstead on a map, and come up with 11 miles each way.

Several committee members felt that Barnstead would be too far out of the way for Alton students, particularly those in East Alton.

Krause questioned the reasoning behind the proposed Warrant article, commenting that a joint middle school wouldn't help either community save money, since something would still have to be done to address deficiencies at both of the existing elementary schools.

On a motion from Rapalje, the committee voted unanimously to recommend that the school board not support the proposed feasibility study.

Next meeting

With no Warrant articles to prepare for next year's school district ballot, the committee has scheduled its next meeting for Wednesday, Jan. 20, at 6 p.m. in the middle school library.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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