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Whitingham, Wilmington work toward elementary school consolidation

WILMINGTON—“There’s that town line again,“ joked Whitingham School Board Chair Seth Boyd. “We need to get rid of that town line.”

Last week, representatives from the Twin Valley and Deerfield Valley Elementary school boards hashed out questions regarding a joint agreement and the proposed closing of one of the three school buildings in Wilmington and Whitingham.

To save money, the towns are looking to consolidate either their elementary or high school populations.

In preparation for a series of public hearings and informational meetings beginning next week, board members spoke with Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Business Manager Rhonda Lackey about the financial implications for both towns.

Given the budget numbers available, said Lackey, the towns could expect to see a total savings of $495,538. Wilmington would realize a $354,747 portion of the savings, and Whitingham would see $140,791.

The board is considering three options. The first option entails busing the elementary school children to Wilmington, and the middle and high school students to Whitingham. The other option entails using Whitingham as the elementary school site, and having the middle and high school site in Wilmington.

Doing nothing, said Wilmington School Board member Philip Taylor, equaled option three.

Regardless of which consolidation option the towns act on, school board members said that the Whitingham School and Twin Valley High School in Wilmington will require extensive renovations.

Wilmington and Whitingham are not a unified school district, despite past failed attempts to create one. Because school districts can make financial or educational decisions that towns need to agree and vote on, moving forward with consolidation has been difficult.

In place of the unified district, board members have developed a joint agreement detailing how much each town would pay toward students’ educations, how governance would work, and how to articulate the expectations for each town.

Wilmington resident Arthur Bailey expressed concern that Wilmington taxpayers were being asked to pour $4 million into a school building in Whitingham that they wouldn’t own.

“We put money in, and Whitingham owns the building and can do what they want with it,” said Bailey.

As a taxpayer, Bailey said that he didn’t think he could support spending money on a building owned by another town.

Board members told Bailey that they would tailor the joint agreement to meet both towns’ needs.

Another member of the public said that he supported a unified district over creating a joint agreement, which he described as a “half-baked idea.”

Wilmington School Board member Douglas Swanson said that he agreed that a unified district was the better option and the board’s ultimate goal.

In the meantime, Taylor said, if they wanted the state to provide 50 percent of the funds for renovations, the towns had to meet the state’s May deadline.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #92 (Wednesday, March 16, 2011).

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