The two boards met Tuesday evening to discuss how they’ll move forward with facility issues in light of a vote that affirmed the Twin Valley School District last month. But before the discussion got underway, Student Network director Bob Edwards said he was ready to take the bull by the horns and start addressing maintenance issues that would improve the school in the short term. He said the school had already lost “a lot” of Dover’s tuition students because of the condition of the school, and the school faced additional losses in the near future. Edwards said he was initiating a five-point plan. “I think there’s a lot we can do to make improvements so we don’t scare away any more tuition students,” he said.
Edwards said he wanted to utilize volunteer labor, donations from local businesses, as well as some funding from the school budget to accomplish the project. He said he’d start with an evaluation of the building, including an energy audit and a general inspection of the plant. “I’d like to bring in someone that has never been in the building before and ask them what they think,” he said. “I think there are a lot of improvements we can make right away, fix the glaring problems, and make the place more attractive.”
Edwards said something as simple as fresh paint in a uniform color scheme would go a long way toward improving perceptions regarding the facility. “I’d like to pull in a volunteer with some interior design experience,” he said.
Edwards noted that, according to student focus groups, the school’s bathrooms were a major source of embarrassment. “That’s another thing we need to take care of,” he said. Some things, he said, simply needed to be replaced, such as the old, yellowed tiles in the hallways, and should be included in future budgets. “If you need to justify it to taxpayers, I think you’re losing something like $150,000 a year just from Dover,” he said. “If you get just two Dover students back, that’s $28,000. Maybe next year you could put $50,000 into some cleanup stuff.”
Board member Jack Kincella asked Edwards if he thought depending on volunteer labor was realistic. “We’ve talked many times and heard comments about trying to get folks to volunteer, but if they’re not willing to give up a weekend…”
“Volunteers are good for about two days. I’ll ask contractors if they’re willing to give up two days of their life for the school,” Edwards said. “I have a good track record of getting things done with volunteers.”
The board gave Edwards permission to move ahead with the project, and put $15,000 of this year’s projected budget surplus of $63,000 at his disposal.
“That would go a long way,” Edwards said. “I’m pretty good at stretching things. That would be a great start.”
The board discussed whether to continue to develop the facility committee’s “option one,” to renovate the current high school facility, to pursue a K-12 option as Town Meeting voters in both towns agreed, or to pursue both.
Wilmington board member Tom Manton said he believed the boards should begin “value engineering” option one to bring the cost down to a point where Whitingham would pay nothing, or very little, thanks to their negotiated $2 million credit. “If we could get the cost of option one down considerably, to the $5 million or $6 million range, it automatically opts Whitingham out of having to pay for renovations at this building,” he said. “It has been hard to get both towns on the track where they will vote for a bond with all the complexities of the $2 million credit, and it seems to be a process in futility to get people to understand how the credit affects the tax rate in Whitingham. If we can get an option that opts Whitingham out of a bond, then we can move forward.”
Whitingham board member Dwight Williams said the feedback he heard through the petition process in Whitingham was that Twin Valley needed to expand course offerings and improve its math program. “And that’s already underway,” he said. “But I heard even odds on whether or not to move the elementary students. I think there’s a solution out there. I’d like to see an option where we eliminate this building and do a consolidation, but involve Halifax and their building.”
But Manton said he had already been involved in 11 years of research, and it was time to “pull the trigger” and present a complete facility plan to the public. “I heard a lot of resistance in Wilmington to combining elementary schools,” he said.
Whitingham board member Seth Boyd said the board should continue to study the consolidation option since both towns held a nonbinding vote at Town Meeting, urging the board to study the option. He said voters should have a choice between consolidation and renovating the high school. “I think it makes sense to eliminate a building,” Boyd said. “But if a $5 million renovation to this building is a 20-year fix, maybe we should think about it. If it’s a two-year fix, I think we should consider consolidation. We need to make this the school of choice for all students around the valley.”
But Wilmington board member Jason Crawford said he was concerned about the public’s perception of the board after they appeared to abandon option one after voters indicated it was their preference in a straw poll in November. He said he didn’t believe voters in either town would support the consolidation of the elementary schools. “After hearing from many Wilmington residents, and some Whitingham residents, I don’t think this idea is realistic,” he said. “The high school is the center of this community, and geographically, it makes sense to keep it in Wilmington if you want to attract tuition students from the surrounding area.”
Board member Phil Taylor said the renovation option wasn’t dropped on a whim after November’s straw vote, he said new economic realities prompted a new look at the situation. “The financial sky was falling and we had to see if there was a way to pay for the school system moving forward,” Taylor said. “We’re facing declining enrollment and the financial state of the state and federal government gives me concern about whether they’re going to cut back on funding.”
Taylor said the K-12 consolidation could reduce the number of school boards and school budgets from three to one, and would allow the board to focus on academic programs and other education matters.
Manton said the timing of any public vote on the matter should take into account Wilmington’s reaction to a recent reevaluation. He said property owners hit with higher home values may need at least a year to “cool off” before they’ll be open to a bond.
Twin Valley School Board Chair Ed Metcalfe pointed out that, even without a bond, education costs are on the rise thanks to a freeze in the education block grant in the state general fund budget passed earlier this month. He pointed out that preliminary numbers regarding the consolidation suggest that the towns could save more than $500,000 per year, which could offset bond costs and the shift in state funding. “If (the consolidation option) is going to save $500,000 or more, we need to look at that savings as a way to move forward,” he said. “On the other hand, this building is the center of Wilmington’s community and if it can be fixed for $5 million to $6 million, that’s a very viable option.
Board members couldn’t reach agreement on which option was more likely to meet with voter approval, but they voted to begin work to “value engineer” the renovation option and present a plan to voters. The K-12 consolidation will remain as an option, but it will occupy the back burner until work is completed on the renovation option.