Completion of school projects fulfills a promise
Jul 31, 2014 | 3825 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Major construction at Twin Valley Middle/High School will be wrapping up over the next month. When it’s finished students from Whitingham and Wilmington, as well as tuition students from around the valley, will be able to attend two virtually new school facilities. Despite their absurd designation as “gold towns” by the architects of Act 60, the valley towns that have struggled to provide their students access to educational opportunity will have two of the newest schools in the state - and at a bargain-basement price, relatively speaking, of $14 million.

Twin Valley was voted into existence by residents of the two towns based on the promise that the two towns could provide better education for all of their students than one town could, and contain costs that were, in the early 2000s, skyrocketing.

Although discussions, negotiations, and even votes to consolidate valley schools have occurred regularly since at least the 1940s, the beginning of the process that led to the creation of the Twin Valley Joint School District goes back about 13 years to 2001. That was the year the Wilmington voters overwhelmingly, in a 484 to 188 vote, rejected a proposed $9.3 million bond for new construction and renovations at what was then Wilmington Middle/High School. The work was desperately needed, but voters balked at the price – not the $9.3 million price, but the $18 million price that the project would have cost Wilmington taxpayers under Act 60. (Under Act 60, Wilmington paid about a dollar to the state for every dollar they spent above the state’s per-pupil block grant, a substantial penalty.) Wilmington voters called on their school board to pursue another round of school merger talks. Board members were pessimistic about the success of yet another study, proposal, and vote to consolidate.

At the same time, Whitingham was having problems of its own – not with their facility, but with the dwindling number of elective courses they could offer their high school students. Some opportunities had been eliminated thanks to budget cuts or the falling student population, but Act 60 and its tax implications dealt a heavy blow to Whitingham’s education program – they were paying more for less.

Even before the defeat of Wilmington’s school bond, in June 2001 the two towns started talking about “collaborating.” Whitingham board members were, at the time, adamant that there would be nothing resembling a merger – their voters wouldn’t stand for it. Yet, anyway. Veteran Whitingham School Board Chair Doug Bartlett thought it could happen in the future, after the two towns built a trusting relationship. “Maybe if we start smaller, in eight or 10 years we’ll be able to merge,” he said at that first meeting 13 years ago. “But we all realize we’re not providing our kids the best that we can.”

But the boards’ frank and open discussions drew the two schools together faster than even the most optimistic proponent of “collaboration” could have hoped. By February 2002, the basic framework of the joint school district that would become Twin Valley had been proposed. Over the next year and a half, the process of negotiating governance, finance, and the minutiae of operating a school had its ups and downs. But when voters finally had a chance to weigh in on the proposal in November 2003, it was overwhelmingly approved in both towns. Students began attending the joint high school and middle school in 2004.

But the joint school district faced the same facility issues at the former Wilmington High School building. In 2005, voters in the two towns demonstrated their new unity by rejecting a proposed $16 million bond for a new middle/high school facility which would have been located near the border between the two towns. The location wasn’t an issue, but the price and practicality of the proposal were.

After considering countless proposals, board members came up with a new strategy, based on the success of Twin Valley. They proposed a further consolidation, this time of the two towns’ elementary schools. The move would allow them to eliminate one of the three school buildings in the two towns and, with renovation and construction, create a joint elementary school at the former Deerfield Valley Elementary School in Wilmington and a joint middle/high school at the Whitingham facility. And they said they could pay for most, if not all, of the $14 million bond for the project with the money saved by eliminating the old high school building in Wilmington.

Since the towns first merged their middle and high schools, budgets have come under control. Gone and forgotten are the days of school budgets increasing by double-digit percentages. In some years, the joint school budget has even decreased over the previous year. All of this while many other schools in the state saw their budgets stay on a steady upward trend. At the same time, opportunities for electives, enrichment, and extracurricular activities have been maintained or increased, despite a decrease in student population.

Although the work of providing better education will never stop, with the completion of work on the two school facilities, the communities of Whitingham and Wilmington and their respective school boards can take pride in fulfilling their promise, made more than a decade ago, to provide a better education for their children, and at a price taxpayers can afford.
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