The Monadnock Regional school board took a meaningful step last week when it emphatically determined to press ahead with a plan to consolidate, upgrade and replace some of its elementary schools. It’s a serious plan that deserves serious consideration by the district’s voters. The key word is consolidate, however, and the district’s history and the pressure the state’s school funding system places on public schools means it’s also likely to receive serious disagreement among, and even within, the district’s towns.
The board’s action follows a presentation at its Nov. 19 meeting of a detailed facilities and space needs study conducted over a period of months by Concord-based architectural consultant Kyle Barker. According to district Superintendent Lisa Witte, the study was motivated by concerns over the aging of school buildings and increasing overhead costs, and to obtain information to make fiscally responsible decisions in the best interests of the district’s communities and its students. Barker’s report, while noting the elementary schools are generally well-maintained and not unsafe, identified a number of deficiencies and inefficiencies, factored in population data and trends, and analyzed short-, medium- and long-term costs, including facilities, human resources, transportation and other overhead. He laid out a range of options from doing nothing to having a single, 1,000-student elementary school for the district. By a resounding weighted vote of 10.955 in favor to 1.075 against, the board ultimately settled on a plan that would close three of the district’s five elementary schools, add on to one of the others and build a new school.
Specifically, the plan would result in two elementary-school hubs for the district. The south hub would be served by a new school built to serve Troy and Fitzwilliam, on a site to be determined, replacing the Emerson and Troy Elementary Schools in those towns. The northern hub would be located at Mount Caesar Elementary School in Swanzey Center, which would be added onto to enable the consolidation of Cutler Elementary School in West Swanzey with Mount Caesar. The Gilsum STEAM Academy would remain as is. The preliminary estimated cost, Barker advised the board in November, would be nearly $30 million.
There clearly is appeal to the board’s preferred option. In light of shifting and declining population trends and the age of its elementary schools, upgraded and consolidated facilities doubtless make considerable long-term sense. And there’s also the significant financial carrot of state school building aid, which has been suspended for several years but may be available through a competitive process if the district acts quickly enough to get into the pipeline. At the November meeting, Barker advised the board that the process favors projects that involve consolidation and prioritizes districts like Monadnock that have higher financial needs. This could result in state reimbursement of up to 54 percent of the cost. The next step is to seek voter approval of a warrant article to fund the detailed architectural design and engineering services necessary for the plan and to proceed with the application for state aid.
It bodes well for the plan that last week’s board vote was so strongly in favor. The district has a fractious history, and to achieve such a degree of board consensus on a plan that will impact individual communities in such different ways speaks well for the board’s process in getting to this point.
But the heavy lifting is still to come. As has been seen in this region in recent years when elementary school consolidations were proposed in the Keene and ConVal school districts, there’s a difficult tension between the desire for smaller, more proximate neighborhood or community schools, and the benefits to taxpayers that result from consolidation. This tends to be exacerbated in regional school districts such as Monadnock, where the state’s school funding reliance on local property taxes pits towns against each other on spending issues from funding formulas to budgeting to capital spending.
According to Witte, public information sessions on the feasibility study and the warrant article are planned, with dates to be announced. “There’s a huge value in community schools, and communities love their schools for good reason,” Witte told The Sentinel.
The board seems strong in its view of the best path forward. Whether that community love will lead the district’s voters to endorse or reject that path remains to be seen.