School suit

The Monadnock Regional School District is suing to stop the Keene School District from changing the Cheshire Career Center’s schedule next academic year, saying the planned shift would limit Monadnock students’ ability to take classes there.

The career and technical education center, housed at Keene High School, also serves high-schoolers from Monadnock and the Fall Mountain Regional School District. The center’s schedule change is part of a move toward later start times at Keene’s high school and middle school, set to take effect in 2020-21.

The Keene Board of Education approved the new times after a committee, formed in 2017, recommended a later start to reduce sleep deprivation among students.

But Monadnock officials say they were not told how the start-time change would affect the career center until a little over a month ago, according to the district’s lawsuit, filed last week in Cheshire County Superior Court.

“As they’ve gone through the process, we’ve just periodically asked, ‘What about CCC? How is this going to impact our students?’ ” Monadnock Superintendent Lisa A. Witte said in an interview Monday. “And — ‘Nope, there won’t be any impact; it’s all gonna work out.’ That’s the message that we had received.”

The Keene career center allows high school juniors and seniors to take classes in a range of fields, from construction and accounting to horticulture and the culinary arts. It’s one of two dozen or so such centers in New Hampshire, where state law provides that quality career and technical education “shall be equally available to students and across the state.”

The Cheshire Career Center has an agreement with Monadnock and Fall Mountain under which their students take classes there.

Witte said the current career center schedule aligns well enough with that of Monadnock Regional High School that students from the Swanzey high school can travel to Keene for classes without too much disruption.

Keene’s new schedule moves the start time from 7:25 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. (Classes start at 7:30 at Monadnock and 7:20 at Fall Mountain.)

The resulting changes would make it impossible for Monadnock students to attend the first and last sessions of the four-block day at the career center, according to Witte. While they could make it to the middle two blocks, they would have to miss 20 to 30 minutes of each approximately 80-minute block.

“We are concerned that the change in the CCC start times will have a significant negative impact on our students’ ability to access programs,” she said.

She said 44 Monadnock students are enrolled in career center programs.

Monadnock’s lawsuit asks a judge to prevent the change from taking effect.

But Robert Malay, the superintendent who oversees the Keene School District, said the schedule change won’t prevent students from taking career center classes.

“I believe that we’ll still be able to offer the courses that the students in Monadnock and Fall Mountain would like to take,” he said. “… We’re working really hard with both of the schools to see where their student interests are and figuring out how we will be able to make those accommodations.”

Malay said that means ensuring that the subjects Monadnock and Fall Mountain students want to take are offered during those schools’ hours of operation. He noted that even under the existing schedule, students sometimes have to leave classes early to travel back to their home districts before school lets out.

The Keene district is not reconsidering next year’s career center schedule, he said. “The vote was moved and passed by our school board, and those are the hours that we have to operate with.”

Malay also rejected the claim that Keene misrepresented the effects of the new start time. District officials, he said, conveyed the message that “we believe that we’ll still be able to accommodate all of the student requests for the courses they would like to participate in at the career center.”

“I don’t know that there was ever a discussion that said, you know, ‘We are going to keep the career center hours the same,’ ” he added. “If there was, that was not out of my mouth.”

Monadnock’s lawsuit accuses Keene of breaking the agreement between the school districts with its “unilateral” scheduling decision, citing a provision of the document that says the districts “agree to develop mutually acceptable school calendars and class schedules” that allow students to access career and technical programs “for the entire instructional time.”

Malay said that provision is up for interpretation. He also pointed to another part of the agreement, which says the N.H. Department of Education “shall be the arbitrator of any dispute which may arise between Receiving Districts and the Sending Districts.”

“Unfortunately, they’ve taken this course of action rather than following through with how disputes are settled as agreed upon by all of the districts,” Malay said.

Asked about that provision via email, Witte said the district “followed the advice of our attorney with regards to the best approach in this case.”

Fall Mountain Superintendent Lori Landry declined to comment Monday because the issue was expected to come up at that night’s school board meeting.

A hearing on Monadnock’s suit is scheduled for Dec. 18 in Cheshire County Superior Court in Keene.

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @PCunoBoothKS.