The challenges local school boards face in trying to plan for long-term needs while navigating a rather unwelcoming state funding system were front and center at Tuesday night’s Monadnock Regional School Board meeting. The board has had an ongoing project to assess and address the district’s long-term facilities needs, particularly due to aging school buildings and declining enrollment trends that have led to increasing overhead and upkeep costs. At the meeting, the board decided by a strong majority to return to voters with another plan.
The most significant dilemma — as it is for many area school districts — is at the elementary school level, where the very understandable desire for smaller, nearby community or neighborhood schools butts heads with the economic inefficiencies (read, tax burden) of operating and maintaining them. In the Monadnock district, the board’s previous plan called for a consolidation of four of the district’s five elementary schools. Fitzwilliam and Troy would have sent their students to a single new facility, replacing their towns’ separate elementary schools, while Mount Caesar and Cutler elementary schools in Swanzey would have been combined at an expanded Mount Caesar facility. That plan — which carried an estimated $30 million price tag — was soundly defeated by district voters last March, with almost two-thirds opposing a warrant article to fund an architectural study to proceed with the project.
If the voters’ message was that towns want to keep their own community schools, the board heard it in fashioning its latest, scaled-down proposal. It, too, calls for an addition to Mount Caesar’s pre-K- through 2nd-grade facility to incorporate Cutler’s 3rd- through 6th-graders into a single school in Swanzey. But the district’s other elementary schools — Fitzwilliam’s Emerson, Troy Elementary and the Gilsum STEAM Academy — would remain and be renovated. The project, which would have a four-year timeline, is estimated to cost $23.8 million overall. The funding plan, however, all comes down to the state of New Hampshire, as the district plans to apply for about $11.4 million in state funding in addition to floating a $14.6 million bond issue.
At its discussion this week, the Monadnock board heard that the cost of the district’s facilities projects backlog is estimated to be about $40 million. From a long-term financial perspective, there’s logic behind this latest plan, because the renovations and Mount Caesar addition it calls for — which would tap into state school construction funding to help address many of the near- and long-term backlog projects — are projected to cost taxpayers less over time than addressing the current backlog on its own without the benefit of state aid.
Nevertheless, the board is in a difficult position because of the frustrating uncertainty of state school construction aid. To apply, the district must first obtain an architectural study, which will cost $300,000. As a result, the specific proposal voters will see on the warrant next March will be to approve the costs of that study. And, even with the study in hand, there’s no assurance the state will approve the aid. At Tuesday’s meeting, board Chairman Scott Peters of Troy said the district’s architectural consultants have received encouraging signals from the state — “a smile and a nod,” he described them. He acknowledged, though, that there’s no guarantee of approval.
The Monadnock Regional board now must convince voters to fund the architectural study in the face of that uncertainty, and the general economic uncertainty and hardship hanging over voters due to COVID-19 will only make the additional spending a tougher sell. In response to the vote last March, the board has crafted a scaled-down and less costly plan to address many of the district’s long-term facilities needs while retaining much of the community-school character of its elementary schools. For the plan to pass, the board will have to make the case to voters that it’s like the situation on the old TV oil filter commercial of paying now so that they won’t have to pay more later.
Whether that will be convincing enough in these uncertain times won’t become clear until voters weigh in next March.