About 100 people turned out for Monday night’s meeting in Wilmington, and another 65 attended a Wednesday night meeting in Whitingham.
Board members said this week’s meetings were focused on facilities options only. Future meetings will focus on other aspects of K-12 consolidation, such as governance, financing, and tax impact. The board presented three facility options, and a revised estimate of savings they say would be achieved through consolidation.
The two towns would save a combined $568,425 per year in administrative and operational costs. Wilmington would save about $348,815 per year, and Whitingham would save around $219,610. Using a “rule of thumb formula” that $100,000 can pay for $2 million in construction (including interest paid on state aid until the state comes up with the funding), board members said Wilmington could afford about $7 million in construction costs without increasing taxes, and Whitingham could afford $4.4 million.
Option A would eliminate Twin Valley High School, the district’s oldest and most decayed building, and consolidate the two towns’ elementary students at Deerfield Valley Elementary School. The Whitingham facility would become a Twin Valley Middle/High School. The project, including additions and other construction at DVES and Whitingham would cost about $11,200,088. The option would be eligible for 50% state school construction aid, and board members calculate that, with a conservative estimate of 40% state aid, Option A would cost Wilmington taxpayers about $3,937, 951, and Whitingham taxpayers would pay $2,782,102. (Option A does not include Whitingham’s $2 million facility credit.)
Option B is the “flip-flop” option with a combined elementary school at the Whitingham facility and a middle/high school at the current Twin Valley High School facility. DVES would be eliminated. The cost for construction and renovation, mainly at the Wilmington site, would be about $14,603,552. With the estimate of 40% state aid, Wilmington’s cost would be about $7,134,609, and Whitingham’s cost would be $1,627,522. Under Option B, Whitingham is eligible to apply their $2 million facility credit negotiated under the Twin Valley contract.
Option C would keep all three buildings, creating a middle/high school at the current TVHS facility. The total cost, including construction and renovation at all three facilities, would be about $10,086,390. But the project wouldn’t be eligible for state aid, and Wilmington’s cost would be about $7,537,205. Whitingham would apply their $2 million credit to costs at the TVHS facility, leaving them with a total liability of $2,549,185 for the option.
Under the first two options, however, board members say the savings attained through consolidation would be greater than the cost of financing construction and renovation. The result would be, they say, no net increase in property taxes. Under Option C, which includes no building consolidation, the total cost of construction and renovation would be in addition to current costs, and would result in an increase in property tax rates.
Twin Valley School Board Chair Seth Boyd said the board’s goal was to improve the educational program. “That’s what’s driving this,” he said. “There have been public (board) meetings where we’ve talked about many other options. Tonight, we’re bringing you the options we think you should seriously consider.”
On Monday evening, Wilmington resident Barker Willard III asked if the school district would be liable for maintenance for either of the buildings that would be eliminated. Whitingham board member Dwight Williams said the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation has expressed interest in developing either building as a business incubator. “The details remain to be worked out,” he said. “What we envision is handing them the keys, with specific deed restrictions that include use of the gym, locker rooms, and athletic fields.”
Board member Phil Taylor said the cost of maintaining either building at its current level was included in their cost formula. The $568,000 in projected savings doesn’t include any assumption that building operation costs would be reduced. “We’re assuming that we’re still carrying those costs in our calculations,” he said.
Wilmington resident Dave Manning asked if there was any estimate regarding the length of time the state would take to pay state aid. Board members said school districts typically wait about five years for state aid to come through. The state currently owes $28 million on completed school projects, and set aside half that amount, $14 million, to pay their obligations in the coming year. “We hope that will include the woodchip boiler,” board members noted.
But Susan Haughwout suggested the state may never pay the promised aid. “It’s your duty to explore the 50% funding, but we have no guarantee of getting it,” she said.
“It’s guaranteed that we’ll get it, but there’s no guarantee when we’ll get it,” said Boyd. “We’d have to pay the interest on the loan for that money. But in the case of the woodchip boiler, it’s still financially positive for us even though the state hasn’t paid us yet.”
Haughwout reiterated her doubt that the state will come through on their obligation, particularly in light of recent budgetary constraints. “It’s a state law,” said one member of the audience. “The state has to pay. If they don’t pay, we can sue them. Isn’t that the case?”
Wilmington resident Patty Murphy said she has worked in all three of the schools and was in support of Option A. “I hear people concerned about losing the heart of the town,” she said. “But this town has been missing part of its heart. There’s no rec center or community center. We need a meal site, a day care center, a tech center, a place for adult education.”
Wilmington resident Richard Sugarman said closing DVES under Option B was “putting the cart before the horse,” noting that it would require a change in the joint contract. “I think voters will want to decide that before they decide about the facilities.”
Boyd said the boards planned to ask voters to approve a new contract agreement before asking them to approve a bond for the facility changes.
Cliff Duncan warned that moving the high school to Whitingham would remove a “vital hub from this community.” He said the board’s savings calculations didn’t account for the time and cost for Wilmington parents to drive the seven extra miles to the Whitingham facility for school and community functions at a proposed middle/high school.
Haughwout agreed with Duncan’s assertion that moving the school would be detrimental to the Wilmington economy. She said Wilmington was “on the downside” of a poor economy, with six closed inns and four closed restaurants. “And we have a failed ski area. If you take the vitality out of this village, you might as well call us Failmington. I think we should keep the high school here in Wilmington.” She asked if the board looked at an option to have a K-12 school in Wilmington.
Taylor said the board’s goal was to make the best use of the existing facilities. “Why don’t we have one big school? Theoretically you’ll save more, but the cost of construction becomes so overwhelming it wipes out the savings.”
Wilmington resident Merrill Mundell expressed concern about what he called “the elephant in the room,” a clause in the joint contract that requires the approval of a majority of voters in each town to pass any capital expenditure of $50,000 or more. Mundell suggested that it was unconstitutional; in violation of the “one man, one vote” principle.
“It favors a minority of voters,” he said. “I can’t vote for something where, if someone moves into town, they’re faced with a situation where the smaller town is going to run the school. It’s time to bite the bullet and get a union district.”
There was a different tone at Wednesday evening’s informational meeting in Whitingham.
Whitingham resident Melanie Winters said the cost benefit of consolidation “is obvious,” and asked if the board had identified any academic benefit. “We think there are many educational benefits,” said Whitingham Elementary/Twin Valley Middle School Principal Keith Lyman. “It will increase collaboration and sharing between elementary school teachers, and between middle school and high school teachers. There will be more flexibility to divide classrooms up in positive ways. There will be more alignment in elementary curriculum and in the middle and high school programs. There will be an increase in diversity, which I think is important. And better facilities could enhance education.”
Whitingham resident Karl Twitchell lauded board members for looking ahead 20 to 30 years in their planning. “I’d like to see a consolidation,” he said. “The numbers make sense. As far as the travel (to DVES), the kids are way better than we are at adjusting. I was against the first consolidation, and now I’m very much for it. I think we’re headed in a positive direction, with a few things we need to look at.”
John Robohm questioned whether further consolidation would be best accomplished under a union district. “Collaboration and a union district, aren’t they radically different animals?” he asked. “I mean, radically. Particularly in how you vote. For a small town like we are, it’s a radically different change. The control Whitingham has over the spending of money changes dramatically.”
“Sure, the law is different,” said Boyd, “and we’d go to the voters to ask, if we think (a union district) is appropriate. It’s up to the voters to decide.”
Wilmington resident Barker Willard III asked about the possibility that one town might vote to dissolve the contract, leaving the other town holding the bag. Board members said an agreement would include a clause addressing that possibility, but they noted that a vote in favor of consolidation and a bond would be a good indication that the two towns were committed to the partnership.
Whitingham board member Aimee Reed noted that Whitingham, during discussions around the proposed dissolution of the joint contract in 2009, appears to have decided that Twin Valley is their best option. “I think there is a lot more to it than deciding just to tuition kids out,” she said. “It’s not as simple as that. Whitingham overwhelmingly said we want to keep the school in the community. My opinion is that Whitingham has come to the conclusion that it really is the best thing for this area to have a school. Eight years ago, we decided to give up our high school. That was a painful decision, but it was in the best interest of the kids, and it has been a good decision. I think it’s working.”
Reed’s remarks were met by applause.