WHITINGHAM- Whitingham, Wilmington, and Twin Valley school boards held a joint meeting Tuesday evening, the first meeting using a new “carousel” format designed to increase communication and reduce the number of meetings during the month.
The main topic on the agenda was the future of facilities in the districts, and about 10 local residents attended the meeting to add their two cents. Up for discussion was whether the boards would continue to pursue a proposed renovation of the current high school facility in Wilmington, or begin working on a proposal to consolidate the two towns’ elementary schools and eliminate one building.
Board member Phil Taylor offered some history on the topic, noting that the Twin Valley School Board, and previously the Wilmington School Board, has searched for an educationally, economically, and politically viable solution to replace or repair the aging high school facility in Wilmington. The boards have offered a number of options, from Wilmington’s $9 million renovation option in 2000, to a $17.1 million new school option in 2005. Since 2006, the board’s facilities committee has narrowed their focus to a low-cost renovation alternative. The committee’s target figure was $6 million, which, taking Whitingham’s $2 million facility credit (negotiated during the Twin Valley merger in 2004) into account, would mean Whitingham taxpayers would pay little or nothing for the project. Earlier this year, the board submitted a renovation proposal to the state that they estimated at about $6.5 million, slightly over the target. But, according to Taylor, the state expressed concern that some aspects of school construction hadn’t been taken into account, including the cost of furnishing the facility and the installation of a sprinkler system.
“There was concern that it would cost more than $6.5 million,” Taylor said. “That gave us some pause. I would be leery of bonding a project where I think we’re bonding too low a number.”
Consolidation is another option that has been discussed by the boards. A conceptual proposal was offered to voters in a straw poll that would have consolidated the two towns’ elementary schools at Deerfield Valley Elementary School in Wilmington and the middle and high schools at Whitingham School. The current high school in Wilmington would be closed. The proposal prompted an outcry in Whitingham, and a petition to dissolve the joint school district. But Whitingham voters overwhelmingly rejected the dissolution and, in the subsequent straw poll, they supported the consolidation concept. Instead, it was Wilmington voters who rejected the consolidation proposal in the straw poll, preferring to renovate the current high school facility. “We went forward with the (renovation) option because Wilmington was paying a larger share of the bill under the (Twin Valley) agreement,” said Taylor.
Now, Taylor said, board members are concerned whether the two towns can continue to support three schools. “Under the Act 60/68 system there’s no money to finance them. On top of that, we’re getting pressure from the state. Last year we were asked to level-fund the budgets. For the 2012 budget they’ve asked us to make a two-percent reduction. At this point we don’t have anything to cut from these buildings.
The facility issue has become a K through 12 issue, Taylor said. “It has moved beyond ‘how do you take care of the high school facility’ to ‘how do we develop a K-12 system that is financially sustainable.”
Throughout the process, Taylor said, the boards and the facilities committee have been frustrated by inconsistency from the state. “Every year something changes,” he said. “One year we have 30% state aid for school construction, then they’re only funding schools that consolidate or lose a building, or there’s Challenges for Change and they’re asking us to level-fund. Every year something dramatically affects the funding picture for us. That’s the kind of environment we’ve had to operate in.”
Wilmington resident Susan Haughwout asked if the board had a “direction.”
“That’s why we’re here tonight,” replied Twin Valley School Board Chair Seth Boyd, “to decide which direction we go in next.”
Whitingham School Board Chair Dwight Williams noted that the majority of voters in the straw poll picked the renovation option. “As elected officials, I think we need to see that through,” he said. “I suggest you fine-tune the cost, issue board opinions, and put it to a vote. If it passes, build it. If it doesn’t pass, let’s get this consolidation underway as soon as possible.”
Wilmington board member Tom Manton read from a “position paper,” noting that he’s not opposed to consolidation “on some level,” and could support consolidation “that’s not school-centric.” But Manton said he was opposed to eliminating the current high school facility. “Abandoning the Wilmington (high school) site is fraught with too many pitfalls for me.”
Tyson Dix asked if the boards had considered any alternative consolidation configuration. “Wilmington seems attached to their high school facility, which is understandable, but they have another school. Has anyone ever thought of having their elementary school come down here and close (Deerfield Valley Elementary School)?”
Taylor said other options were considered “generally,” but that Whitingham School and DVES were determined to be the best facilities in the inventory for a number of reasons. “The big thing was the (sports) field space and DVES is in pretty good shape, it only needs a few upgrades. It’s probably in the best shape of all three schools.”
Board member Jack Kincella said the boards hadn’t settled on any particular option. “One of the reasons we’re here tonight is that we realize the consolidation option as it stands is generalized. We haven’t done a lot of work on it because we’ve focused on the renovation. If the focus was to give the communities a consolidation option, it would be something specific. Ultimately, we’re trying to create something that’s financially sustainable. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t understand that we need to shed a building. We know the state is going to start looking at forcing consolidation.
Haughwout said another option was to consolidate and renovate the high school as part of the same process. She suggested eliminating DVES. “I think DVES is the best one to lose. Because it’s in good condition, it’s the most marketable. It’s an asset. It’s repurposable quicker than any other building.”
Manton suggested renovating the high school first, then exploring consolidation rather than putting together a “hastily planned” consolidation. But DVES Principal Rebecca Fillion said a quick solution didn’t have to be a poor decision. She said there was no time to lose. “I don’t think we can sustain anymore, not even this year. We don’t have anything left. It’s not just a two percent cut for Challenges for Change, it’s also high spending penalties and minimum class sizes. They’re going to force us to make changes whether we want to or not. I believe the expertise is here to put together a well thought out consolidation plan. I’ve certainly been thinking about it for a year.”
“We’ve brought in budgets that have kept us out of the penalty year after year,” replied Manton. “But if taxpayers can see a proper plan in the future, they’ll put up with being in the penalty for a couple of years.”
Dix said there were many advantages to consolidation regardless of the form. He urged board members to “look at the big picture and the concerns in each town.”
Board members indicated they would make a decision regarding the next move in the facilities saga at their next board meeting.