The saying “The heart wants what the heart wants” has become popular in recent years, used in music lyrics and film dialogue and other pop culture venues. The meaning varies by shade, but generally indicates there are times when emotion is going to rule, regardless of what logic might dictate.
There are reasons the residents of Charlestown might want to withdraw from the Fall Mountain Regional School District. But overall, the argument relies much more on emotion than logic. On March 10, we’ll see whether the heart or head carries the day.
The regional district was formed 56 years ago, made up of Charlestown and Walpole, and the smaller towns of Acworth, Alstead and Langdon. The reasoning behind it was simple: Especially at the high school level, by pooling resources, the district could afford a better high school and a better education overall for all the district’s students.
Within 20 years, the taxpayers of Charlestown had already concluded they were getting the short end of the stick. With more students and lower property values, the town’s residents felt they were paying more than their fair share, and began to look at withdrawing from the district. Charlestown was right about the tax inequity then, and the same is true now. The various tax apportionment formulas used over the years have been a good deal for the other four communities, but not for Charlestown. In 1998, after two failed attempts to change the formula, Charlestown commissioned a study that found the town was overpaying for its share of services, even given its higher enrollment.
But what’s considered “fair” in one town — say, by reducing the cost per student — may seem unfair to those in another — by making them pay more just because their property is more valuable. The same conundrum has occurred in other regional and cooperative districts throughout this region and the state.
So once again, Charlestown is seeking an exit — or to appropriate a popular term from across the Atlantic, perhaps a Chexit — from the Fall Mountain District. This time, the effort has reached the point where a study commission has been formed, has forwarded its report, recommending a Chexit vote, and the state Education Department has approved letting voters decide.
At Wednesday’s deliberative session, there was nothing to be done to change that vote, but the tone was clear: Charlestown voters are fed up; the rest of the district, not so much. But school board Chairman Michael Herrington gave an impassioned speech to his fellow Charlestownians to realize that being fed up is the only real reason for leaving; there will be no economic benefit nor added self-determination, at least at the high school level.
If Charlestown does leave, it still has to educate its high schoolers. And that likely means sending them to — you guessed it — Fall Mountain Regional High School. Except the town would have to pay tuition per student to Fall Mountain to do so. It would also assume all costs involved in running the three schools in town that run through 8th grade.
The withdrawal study panel issued two reports on the move. The majority report puts the estimated 2021 school budget for Charlestown taxpayers at just over $15.5 million — that’s more than a $1.4 million hike from 2020, which would be the town’s last year in Fall Mountain. And that’s, arguably, the best scenario.
Another assessment, put forth by the withdrawal panel’s minority, sets a much higher cost to the town and the district. It estimates the cost to Charlestown of assuming ownership of the three school buildings in town at more than $1.5 million. The town would also have to pay separately for administrative services through School Administrative Unit 60, requiring that office to add staff and raise costs. Charlestown would have to hire special education staff, a nurse and mental health staffer. It would have to contract for transportation, food service and other student services.
The minority also notes the district stands to lose; if fewer than 97 percent of Charlestown’s high-schoolers attend Fall Mountain Regional, the district would be faced with cutting staff, selling buses and vans and raising taxes on the remaining four towns.
Finally, if Charlestown does withdraw and somehow manages to cut costs in doing so, it would undoubtedly come at least in part through paring educational opportunities the larger district now offers.
In other words, Chexit comes with much the same dynamic as Brexit: Leaving would feel great, until the economic realities set in. And both those leaving and those who remain will likely face much tougher times because of it.
Charlestown’s taxpayers have been taken advantage of since the district was formed. But withdrawing would still do more harm than good. The best solution, if it can be achieved, would be for the other four towns in the district to take more seriously Charlestown’s appeals to fix the apportionment formula to the point where the town feels it’s receiving fair value for its money.