On Tuesday, March 20, voters will go to the polls from 10 am to 7 pm in both towns to vote by Australian ballot. In Whitingham, voters will be asked to approve $9,475,000 for renovations and new construction at the proposed Twin Valley Middle/High School facility in Whitingham. Wilmington voters will be asked to approve $3,978,000 in renovations and additions at the proposed Twin Valley Elementary School in Wilmington.
According to Twin Valley School Board member Phil Taylor, the state has deemed the project eligible for the full 50% state aid available for schools that consolidate. Under the amended joint school contract approved last year, the two towns would share in the cost of the total $13.5 million bond for both sites, less the state aid, leaving the two towns with a bond obligation of about $6.7 million. Based on the towns’ school population, Whitingham would be assessed about 42% of the total, or $2.8 million, and Wilmington would be assessed about 58%, or $3.9 million. The two towns would also be responsible for paying interest on the bond, as well as interest on the state’s share of the project.
According to figures provided by the school board, Whitingham would pay an average of $196,649 in annual bond costs, as well as $55,131 per year for their share of the interest on state aid. The tax impact for the second, and highest, year of the 20-year bond would be about 9.5 cents for Whitingham taxpayers.
Wilmington would pay about $278,349 in bond costs, and about $78,036 in interest on state aid. But Wilmington’s tax rate would rise by only 2.1 cents during the second year.
The reason for the disparity in the estimated tax rates isn’t because of a major disparity in the two towns’ grand lists. According to board members, Wilmington’s rate will be lower because their district is losing a school, and will realize more savings from the consolidation. Wilmington’s estimated annual savings from the consolidation would be $345,754, according to Taylor, while Whitingham’s savings would be about $87,495.
Additionally, board members noted, the actual costs may vary from year to year, because the annual assessment is based on a three-year average of the percentage of students attending from each town. As one town’s share of the student population rises or drops, so will their bond cost.
In Whitingham, the project would include a new administrative building, a new gymnasium, a new industrial arts space, and renovation of existing facilities. The current gymnasium would become an auditorium with music and band spaces, and an additional classroom. Other changes include improvements in traffic flow and parking.
In Wilmington, at the current Deerfield Valley Elementary School building, construction will include new classrooms, a new cafeteria, and new art and music rooms. Renovations to the existing building would include reconfiguration of the classrooms into individual rooms, eliminating the current open school concept.
Residents at Tuesday evening’s meeting expressed a broad range of opinions on the proposal. Helen Staib, of Wilmington, asked what would happen if “we go through all of this and five, six, seven years down the road we decide we don’t want to be (in Whitingham).”
Taylor said the towns would be “locked into it” for the life of the bond. “There is a point where we either have to commit and say we’re partners in educating our kids, or not have a high school in the valley,” he said. “We’re trying to do this in a way that’s respectful for the tax burden. People think this is a scheme. We’re just trying to survive under the laws we have.”
Wilmington resident Richard Sugarman predicted that student enrollment would continue to drop “especially now that Dover is funding kids going to the independent school (Burr and Burton Academy)” But Meg Streeter, a graduate of Wilmington High School, said she had faith both in the Deerfield Valley’s future, and in the future of the school. “I hope we go forward with this,” she said. “I feel sentimental about having a high school in Wilmington, too. I went here, my father went here, my grandfather went here, and my kids went here. But I think (the board) is making the right decision, and I hope people support it. I have faith in the future, and that we’ll have growth in Wilmington.”
Whitingham resident John Robohm asked whether tax rates would drop significantly after the second year of the bond payments. Supervisory union business manager Ronda Lackey said the rate would not drop precipitously after the second year, but would start to drop faster after 10 years. Taylor pointed out that the annual cost would decrease significantly after the state paid its share of the cost.
“The state started to pay us back in the third year of the woodchip boiler,” added Twin Valley School Board Chair Seth Boyd. “Typically they begin to pay within five years. But there’s no one else in line now, and we’ll be in constant contact with our legislators, the department of ed, and the state treasurer, encouraging them to pay us as fast as they can.”
Wilmington resident Cliff Duncan said that he disagreed with “the whole notion that the (high) school should be in Whitingham,” and he predicted that many people who agree with him will vote “no” on Tuesday’s bond.
Jake White, of Wilmington, asked what would happen if the bond was voted down. “What’s the next step?”
Boyd said the question was a difficult one for board members to contemplate. “My comment has been that you’d have to find a new board – we have no energy to do this again,” he said. “There are no more options. If you don’t like this plan, the plan we’re in now isn’t working. The other option is a slow death and lose the high school and maybe the middle school.”
But board member Doug Swanson said the board would continue to fight for a consolidation option. “If (the bond) failed in both towns, I would reverse the options,” he said. “But in the long run, I don’t see the negatives with this option.”
Merrill Mundell asked what would happen to the current high school. “I know we’ve got pie in the sky, and a college wants to be here, but what is your plan? In five years is it going to be done away with, or are we going to be paying for it forever?”
Taylor said that there was real interest in the building, but nobody was prepared to move forward with a feasibility study and proposal until the building’s future was more certain. “The FEMA Long Term Recovery group contacted me and said everyone wants a community center, what’s going on with your building? We had contact with the health center – they want to do an education program. We talked to BDCC and they’ve pledged their support. They’ve thrown out different possibilities, including office space and a business incubator. John Langran’s Youth Soccer program is taking off, and they need an indoor place to practice. But we can’t move on any of that. We need to take the next step forward.”
Taylor said there were several possibilities for ownership of the building, including selling it outright or leasing it to a management company. Under any disposition, he said the school would negotiate to retain public use of the gymnasium and other facilities, and retain ownership of the athletic fields. “We’re not making commitments to anything, but there are a lot of possibilities.”
Board members also noted that the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional school accreditation entity, has asked for a report on the outcome on the bond, due March 21. “My sense is that we’ll lose accreditation that day or shortly thereafter if this bond vote fails.”
The comment set off a debate as to the importance of accreditation. Some residents suggested that the accreditation process wasn’t valid, because only teachers are important to education. Others said that students would face no difficulties if they graduated from an unaccredited high school.
Board member Aimee Reed disagreed. “I would be hesitant to have my three kids go through a school that’s not accredited,” she said. “That could be very significant for a student going to college.”
Randy Knaggs, who said he works at Marlboro College, confirmed that students from nonaccredited high schools have a harder time getting through the admissions process. “It’s not an up or down thing, but if a transcript comes through from a student who comes from a nonaccredited high school, it drops that application down.”
Mike Squindo, a Twin Valley graduate who is currently in a master’s degree program, said that good teachers are the key to education, but the building also plays a role. “You have to look at the whole educational experience, and the building is part of that. When tiles fall out of the ceiling and water drips through the cracks, the time that it takes to deal with that distracts from teaching.”
Squindo asked voters to vote for the future of the children in the community. “It’s not just about the money,” he said. “It’s about the benefit to the lives of people that live here and will grow up here in the future. If we vote this down and lose the high school, we’ll lose the pride from students, lose the community, and lose the local culture.”