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Board deadlocks on proposed middle school study

December 22, 2009
ALTON — With its members deadlocked on the question of whether or not to examine the possibility of a joint middle school, Prospect Mountain High School's JMA board opted last week to remove the proposal from its list of Warrant articles for 2010.

As the board met on Dec. 15 to approve the wording of its draft Warrant articles, member Eunice Landry of Barnstead moved that the board approve the wording of an article asking voters to authorize the formation of an exploratory committee composed of four board members (two from each town), one budget committee member from each town, and one resident of each town, to study the feasibility of a joint middle school at no cost to either district.

Questioning the assumption that there would be no costs associated with the article, board member Jeff St. Cyr of Alton asked who would provide administrative support to the committee by posting meetings, taking notes, and creating meeting minutes.

Landry suggested that the committee would likely appoint one of its own members to take notes and generate minutes.

St. Cyr asked whether the high school's superintendent would be present during committee meetings.

Board member Kathy Preston of Barnstead replied that that was a possibility.

"So, there would be costs associated with this Warrant article," St. Cyr said.

Preston said the superintendent's presence at meetings would not necessarily entail additional costs, since the meetings could be held during the school day.

Landry explained that by calling the article a "zero-cost" proposal, the board members who drafted it meant that it was not asking voters to raise and appropriate money for a building design.

Stating his belief that the superintendent would be able to find time "within the context of his job" to meet with the committee, board Chairman Keith Couch of Barnstead (who, along with Landry, proposed the idea of a feasibility study) said his only interest in placing the article on next year's Warrant was to "get an opinion" from voters.

"If there's no support, it will be a moot issue," he said.

Board member Terri Noyes of Alton felt that the proposed article would confuse voters who recently saw Alton's School Board vote in favor of its Buildings and Grounds Committee's recommendation to keep local control over a K-8 elementary school.

Board member Lynda Goossens pointed out, however, that the Alton board had also chosen not to place any space needs articles on its district Warrant next year.

St. Cyr noted that the Alton board had agreed on a plan to withdraw capital reserve funding in order to pay for architectural plans next year.

Noyes proposed that the JMA board appoint several members to sit down together and discuss the possibility of partnering on a joint middle school.

"I think [the article] will be confusing," she said.

While he agreed that the board could form a committee of its own accord at any time, Couch said the reason he and Landry had decided to bring the proposal forward in the form of a Warrant article was because a number of community members asked them to look into a joint middle school, and they wanted to gauge the level of public interest in the idea.

Board member Maureen Smith of Alton said her doubts about the idea stemmed from the fact that if the two towns were to partner on a middle school, the Alton School District would still be responsible for renovating its existing elementary school.

"We'd have two buildings we're responsible for," she said. "I just don't know if that would fly."

Voicing her doubts about the idea of a joint middle school having come from Alton, board member Sandy Wyatt asked why the Barnstead board seemed so invested in the issue.

Couch explained that Barnstead Elementary School is currently overcrowded and facing space issues of its own.

After the extensive renovations brought forward last year failed to earn the support of voters, he said, community members started urging the Barnstead board to look into other options.

"I've heard people on both sides," he said, adding that he felt the rationale behind the proposed feasibility study could be explained to Alton voters in a way that would prevent any confusion at the polls.

Noyes said the Alton board's Buildings and Grounds Committee had discussed the idea of partnering with another town on a middle school, but had ultimately decided that it would be best for Alton to hold onto its own centrally located K-8 school.

While he and the other Alton board members acknowledged the "positive successes" that have resulted from the two communities partnering to create Prospect Mountain, St. Cyr said they were trying to do what they had been asked to do by the Alton community — preserve local control over a K-8 school.

With other Alton board members pointing out that the Buildings and Grounds Committee had examined studies showing the benefits of the K-8 system, Couch said he had no doubt that the committee had thoroughly studied the issue.

Barnstead, however, did not have the benefit of that research, he added.

Stating that she remembered hearing voters who were against the idea of Prospect Mountain use the same arguments Alton board members were now using against a joint middle school, Preston commented that six years after the passage of the Prospect Mountain bond, "we're sitting on a success."

"Give it a chance," she said. "How can five or six people possibly know that what you're suggesting is the only way?"

Goossens argued that Alton's Buildings and Grounds Committee never looked into the idea of an 8-12 school or "crunched the numbers" to see if it would work.

Questioning whether the Alton board would be able to explain the rationale behind the proposed feasibility study to voters given Alton's status as an SB2 town and the typically low attendance at the school district's annual deliberative session, Smith suggested that voters who chose not to attend the deliberative session might read the article as an attempt to build a joint middle school, and not as a study.

"People are not dumb," Preston replied. "I have respect for our electorate."

Pointing out that every time Alton's Buildings and Grounds Committee has polled voters on what they wanted to see done regarding space needs, the result was to keep a centrally located K-8 school, Smith asked what the deadline would be for the feasibility study committee's final report.

Landry explained that like any committee, it would have to either report to both school districts the following year, or request an extension.

"We've already voted on this at our school," Smith replied, stating her belief that if the Alton board were to go back on its commitment to a K-8 school by supporting the feasibility study, "it'll look like we have egg on our faces."

Describing the proposed article as a "rare instance" where the interests of a local board cross paths with a high school issue, Couch re-iterated that the intent of the article was simply to gather input from voters on the idea of a joint middle school.

Landry suggested that board members should put local interests aside, and vote on the article "as the Prospect Mountain High School board."

St. Cyr stated that if a vote were called on the proposed article, he would request that each board be granted a single vote, in view of the fact that the majority of the Alton board has already stated its opposition to a feasibility study.

Not wanting to spend any more time on the matter by following policy and allowing both boards to vote locally on the article if the vote would only deadlock, Couch polled each board member on whether or not they would support the feasibility study.

With all five Barnstead board members stating that they would vote in favor of the article, and Goossens the only Alton member voicing her support, Landry withdrew her original motion, tabling the article indefinitely.

The remaining draft articles approved by the board last week included:

-Article 2, asking each school district to contribute $10,000 toward the creation of a new reserve fund for the purpose of covering any overruns in the budget for Improvement of Instruction (the funds used to reimburse teachers for professional development classes).

-Article 3, an annual request asking both local districts to raise and appropriate their respective shares of one percent of the high school's general fund ($33,566.03 for Alton and $33,822.11 for Barnstead) to be placed in a contingency fund for the purpose of covering any unanticipated utility costs during the 2010-11 school year.

-Article 4, asking each local district to raise and appropriate $20,000 to be added to a high school's General Maintenance Fund for the purpose of covering any unanticipated maintenance costs during the 2010-11 school year.

-Article 5, asking each district to raise and appropriate $6,250 toward the purchase of two security cameras and a new anti-theft security system for the high school library.

-Article 6, asking voters to authorize the withdrawal of $3,500 from the high school's 2010 unreserved fund balance for a wind turbine feasibility study.

The board also met in non-public session at the conclusion of last week's meeting to discuss a Warrant article asking voters to support a new two-year teacher's contract, which the high school budget committee voted not to recommend.

Odds and ends

In other business, the board granted final approval to policies governing the Earning of Credit; Interdisciplinary Credit; Assignment of Students to Classes and Grade Levels; Student Absences and Excuses; Online/Virtual Education; Extended Learning Opportunities; Change of School Assignment; and Manifest Educational Hardship.

The board also got its first look at a new policy aimed at establishing a framework for the awarding of alternative credits, and voted unanimously to accept the high school budget committee's recommended FY11 operating budget of $6,738,814 (a figure $5,556 less than what the board initially proposed).

Next meeting

The board's next meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 5, at 6:30 p.m. in the high school media center.

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

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