School board considers options for closing schools
Leland & Gray Principal Bob Thibault, left, and Windham Central Superintendent Bill Anton in a 2017 file photo.

School board considers options for closing schools

Facing declining enrollment and increased per-pupil spending, the West River Education District is exploring changes and seeking public input. Scenarios include closing schools, including Leland & Gray high school grades.

TOWNSHEND — The West River Education District (WRED) School Board is looking for public input regarding task force reports that might include removing high school students from Leland & Gray, among other possibilities.

“The West River board is engaging in some fruitful conversations about the future of the school district,” said Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) Superintendent William Anton, of which the WRED is a part.

“With declining enrollment and increasing upward pressure on a tax rate, the board understands that engaging with the public about how to structure the school district is important.”

The West River Education District School Board oversees the operation of Jamaica Village School, NewBrook Elementary School, Leland & Gray Middle/High School, and Townshend Village School.

The board consists of 11 community members from the towns it serves - Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham. The district serves one of the largest geographic areas in the state and was formed in 2016 in response to the Act 46 education reform law, which made a strong push for larger school governance.

Since February, the board has participated in monthly meetings dedicated solely to future planning. These meetings have been professionally facilitated by Les Edinson, a faculty member from the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton, Mass.

To “effectively investigate the myriad considerations/opportunities at the elementary and secondary level,” the board created two subcommittees, an Elementary Task Force and a Secondary Task Force.

The two task forces included community members, school administrators, school staff members, and board members. Their charge was to investigate and make recommendations for “programmatic improvements that align with evidence-based instructional practices, provide greater equity, and reflect community aspirations and values.” Twenty people met weekly for six weeks in April and May.

At the June 6 Long-Term Planning Board meeting, both teams presented findings to the board and public.

Edinson said the next step is to again present the reports to the community for feedback and for the board to consider all input during the summer and make a recommendation for fiscal year 2024 by September.

Elementary findings

The Elementary Task Force presented the costs and benefits of three possible elementary school configurations: three schools (the current configuration), two schools (kindergarten though fifth grade) in two locations to be determined, and two schools (one kindergarten through grade two, the other grades 3-5) in two locations to be determined.

Task Force member Lindsay Bertram noted “we're a really big district” and “very spread out,” but that every student, whether from Jamaica, Newfane, or Townshend, “is equally important.”

“We all know there's a lot of emotion in each building,” said NewBrook Elementary Principal Scotty Tabachnick, noting that the team chose to talk about the buildings in one spot but mostly to discuss solutions.

“We were trying to keep everyone's personal emotions out of the conversation and work toward finding solutions,” added Bertram.

She said teachers spoke of wanting more collaboration and said that is currently “difficult.”

Overall, consolidation appeared to provide more opportunities, although “right now there's a strong sense of community in each building” which would need to be “redeveloped” if either consolidation option is chosen, Bertram said.

In sum, she said the board felt it important to “look for small wins,” to recognize that not all people will be pleased in the end, and to find short-term solutions and maintain community centers within each town while implementing longer-term solutions.

Bertram said the long-term conversation includes a feasibility study.

Tabachnick noted about six years ago, when it was a single board, folks saw how the Newfane and Brookline fire departments regionalized in a “seamless” manner to create NewBrook Fire & Rescue, and the Newfane and Brookline schools “followed suit.”

“It really does take that shift where you kind of have to let your biases go and think about what it could be like in the future, because we would have real opportunities for efficiencies and equity that we do not have now by getting the children together or reconfiguring,” he said.

“That is a real positive thing, and I think the staff would be energized - I certainly would be energized by it - but it is hard to make those kinds of changes,” Tabachnik said.

“I just want to keep in mind that we can do this,” he continued. “This is not an impossible task. We just all need to recognize that this group is so diverse that everyone's opinions are going to be a little different [...] it really is worth it.”

He said lowering taxes could help and that he agrees that “people can really not afford to rent here.”

Another question, said Bertram, is whether Jamaica parents, who seem strongest in wanting a tuition scenario, would want to remain part of the district.

Secondary findings

Included in the scenarios here is removing all high school students from the existing Leland & Gray building in Townshend in favor of tuitioning them to other schools in the region, while leaving middle-schoolers there and potentially bringing elementary students to that site.

If a school were to be entirely closed, all five district member towns would have to agree in separate votes.

The Secondary Task Force reported on existing course options at Leland & Gray, compared programming/opportunities in relation to other schools in the area, and reported on the fiscal impact of adopting a school choice “tuitioning” program for grades 9-12 that would remove all high school students from the building and how this decision might impact members of the community.

Tuitioning is when a school district does not run a school at certain grade levels and then provides tuition money for students to choose a public or approved independent school, similar to what is happening in Stratton.

Principal Bob Thibault, who has been at Leland & Gray for six years, said the current grade 9-12 enrollment is 165 students.

After reviewing existing course offerings, Thibault said that next year, English classes will start taking place in grouped clusters of grades designed around literature and journalism.

The technology program, he explained, is one class in a lab setting with teacher support for independent studies. Also new is one social studies class's project-based cultural study of England that will include travel there planned by students.

Science, Thibault said, has a “very cool astronomy program” and grant-funded solar telescopes, while the language program includes a blossoming sister school connection in China.

Leland & Gray also offers drama, athletics, and music programs, plus a winter activities program with 11 options (including cornhole); a work-based learning and senior survival program; Journey East, a travel program for students that has endured for 20 years; and the Home program, with hands-on and “minds engaged” experiential learning.

A rope course was constructed last spring, and the physical education program offers grant-funded mountain bikes, while the shop program has a blacksmith's forge. The school also connects students with community service projects.

Thibault said the task force determined that project-based, personalized learning is the way of future learning to give students more educational options and take on real-world problems.

Accomplishing that, he said, could happen in various ways. The district already has the option of school choice through which any student may attend another public school, paying only for busing.

Acceptance is based on the receiving school's capacity and the number of applicants. In this scenario, no money leaves the district other than special education money, which follows the student.

In the tuition case, money can go to any high school that will accept the student. Private schools, such as Northfield Mount Hermon in Northfield, Mass., still require applications.

The district can decide to “designate” one particular high school or allow for a full range of options, including offering bus service. Wardsboro, Dover, and Marlboro use this option.

This option would involve closing the high school at Leland & Gray.

However, said Thibault, Leland & Gray appears to have the greatest current student participation in co-curricular activities. Statistics students have correlated students' grade point averages and have found that the fewer co-curricular activities a student participated in, the lower their grade point averages.

And that's a concern, said Thibault.

Busing could also be a problem, depending on which regional school a student chooses to attend and how far away their hometown is.

Task force studies also compared academic proficiency, personalization, degree of safety/healthiness, quality of staff, and investment priorities with other regional public schools. Large and small schools were also compared.

Leland & Gray is approaching, meeting, or exceeding the state standard in all but investment priorities, which is declining because costs continue to rise, the task forces found.

However, the state average is also declining, and only Twin Valley in Wilmington is deemed to be meeting it, but even there it is considered to be declining.

In analyzing financial implications, the task forces made certain assumptions, including a statewide tuition average; increasing busing costs by 10 percent; reducing 27.8 full-time equivalent of teachers, one administrator, and one custodian; reducing the supplies/equipment budget by two-thirds; and factoring in lost revenue from any tuition students coming in.

Those assumptions resulted in an overall savings of $4,389 - 0.03 percent of the annual school district budget.

Thibault said the only substantial savings - estimated at about $1 million - would be if all district elementary schools were to be closed and those students moved to Leland & Gray with the middle school. Such a change would require an all member-town vote.

Public reaction

“I don't think most people want to see Leland & Gray close,” said Patti Dickson of Jamaica. “People want to see dynamic change that will put us on the map, that will make people want to buy homes here. Jamaica didn't sell one home - and we're right near Stratton - during this whole big selling. The reason is they don't want their kids in these schools for some reason and you guys should find out and do something and we will all be behind you.”

Luella Strattner said, after hearing Leland & Gray's offerings to students, that she didn't understand why the school's reputation isn't more glowing.

“I just don't understand if that is the story on paper, why the reputation of the school is not at all reflective of that. [...] I think change is part of it and I don't know if a school can solve all of society's problems, which it seems we're trying to have it do, but it's definitely an issue,” she said. “My other consideration is whether or not the health of the existing building was taken into consideration.”

“Public educators are awful PR people,” answered Thibault. “I think what you're describing is a perception issue.”

He said people don't realize the programs the school offers - even those it has been offering for years.

“That's a PR problem, not a programming problem,” he said. “We just don't promote ourselves as we could [...] I would love it if we could.”

Thibault said he's entertaining the notion of inviting local real estate agents to a presentation of all the school offers so they can tell potential homebuyers and self-promote.

“We are on the right path, we are on the trajectory for improvement,” he said, citing project based learning, proficiency-based graduation requirements, and personalization.

“I think that is the future, and I think for a small school, that is how you get put on the map,” he said. “But we have to be better at telling people what we're doing.”

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