Westminster West School to close in fall 2015

To the surprise of parents, tiny school removed from next year’s budget

WESTMINSTER WEST — The Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Board's budget subcommittee unanimously agreed to remove the Westminster West School from the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget.

At an Oct. 7 meeting, the three-person subcommittee discussed student population and staffing projections.

“It became clear the population of the school would be so small that it would be impractical to operate it and do it right,” says committee member Dan Axtell.

Although the WNESU board has taken no formal action, as three of the five board members serve on the budget subcommittee, the committee's decision amounts to a default board vote to consolidate schools.

“That is one thing that's just odd about this whole situation,” Axtell said: “The three people on the budget subcommittee all agreed this wasn't going to work, wouldn't be the best thing educationally for students, so in the draft budget we told our business manager to leave it out. It was not an action of the school board, just a draft budget to present to the board - but the subcommittee is a majority of the board so the budget that's going to be adopted won't have the Westminster West school in it.”

Board chair Molly Banik announced the decision at the board's Oct. 14 meeting. The school board next meets Nov. 18.

Westminster resident Peter Stamm's 6{1/2}-year-old daughter attends West West School. He says a number of parents attend school board meetings to stay current on a separate vouchers issue and were shocked to learn Oct. 14 that the Westminster West school had been defunded.

Stamm says he doesn't follow budget meetings, “nor, to my knowledge, was it brought to the attention of the residents of Westminster West that the closing of their school would be a subject discussed in those meetings."

The town's school system operates two schools: Central and Westminster West, with 184 students between them. According to Axtell, 25 students are served in two classrooms at the Westminster West School.

The budget committee's enrollment forecast for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years predicts an increase to 29 students and then a dip in fall 2017 to 19. One hundred sixty students are projected to attend the Central school.

According to the subcommittee's report, the consideration of equitable class sizes “is of particular importance to any public school district. The loss of a popular program is a loss to the whole community, but the committee believes that the educationally responsible route is to end the program rather than have the program stifle for years and serve no one very well.”

The Westminster West School, lacking its own administrative staff, essentially is a satellite of the Central School. Two teachers at Westminster West will not lose their jobs but will be transferred to the Central school, 6.7 miles away.

Axtell said some families live 10 miles away, and sympathized: “It is a very unfortunate layout here and I do blame King George III for laying it out this way in 1775.”

Stamm said that this could mean “a 40-minute bus ride for very young children, or at the least, a 40-minute round-trip drop-off for parents. The inefficiency and impracticality of such a trip for residents is yet another reason in support of local classrooms as a part of the Westminster schools.”

If parents chose an alternative to public school, the loss of students would eliminate any near-term tax benefit to Westminster residents.

But the issue rises to more than simple geography or inconvenience.

According to Stamm, “The Westminster West School has a long and illustrious history and it is unfortunate that this rich tradition is viewed by some as a liability instead of the jewel that it is - one of the too-few remaining two-room schoolhouses in the state, and nation.

“Homogeneity has been confused with equality in recent years, and the freedom of choice on which this country was founded, and which this state has exemplified, is too often forgotten,” Stamm added.

There have been previous attempts to close the school, most recently in 2009.

According to Axtell, “Historically, any time people have questioned whether it makes sense to operate [the West school] a fierce loyalty blooms up to keep the school open and I'm certain that's happening now. We don't want to have this perennial discussion, we're going to make a decision and stick with it.”

Despite saying it's his feeling that consolidation is the most responsible financial decision and the best way to ensure a quality education, he did want to express sympathy for affected families: “People are upset, understandably. I think it's very sad. I know the school is dear to many, many people. No thinking, feeling person is happy about this. It's a popular program for the people who use it. No school board wants to throw out a popular program.”

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