Column: Mascoma Proposal Ignores Enrollment Trends, Taxpayers’ Limits

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The Mascoma Valley Regional School Board has consistently ignored all reasonable requests to pare down its $23.8 million renovation proposal for the high school to a level more appropriate for a small school district. Even after the voters sent them back to the drawing board in 2012 by rejecting that earlier proposal, the board forged ahead with a campaign to overwhelm and twist the arms of residents of the five district communities with a plan to build a palace, despite the tax dollars needed to make it happen.

There is no doubt that the pellet boiler proposal that will also be on the ballot is a good investment that will pay dividends in reduced operating expenses and that some repairs and improvements to the high school are necessary for comfort and safety. What is not necessary is a performing arts center and some of the classroom expansions that are included in the plan that will be voted on next Tuesday.

First, a significant expansion of classrooms at this time would be foolish. Mascoma is experiencing declining enrollment throughout the district, which will essentially negate the need for most of the additional classroom space in the plan. The fact is, the minimum of 32 square feet per student mandated by state standards was exceeded long ago, and that actual average square footage per student grows every year with the declining enrollment at Mascoma High.

According to state data, 2012 enrollment at Mascoma High was only 84 percent of the 2006 figures, dropping from 462 to 397. This is not an anomaly, but reflects a constant downward trend. State figures also indicate that enrollment in grades one through eight, those that feed the high school and will determine future enrollment, has shrunk dramatically. Extrapolating from those numbers, it’s possible that Mascoma High could see as few as 306 students by 2019 for grades 9 through 12, only 78 percent of 2012 enrollment.

It is no secret that the national birth rate has dramatically declined in recent years, meaning that enrollment in all schools can be expected to shrink for the foreseeable future. There are schools in New Hampshire and neighboring states that have expanded in recent years and now lack students to fill their grand facilities, while the taxpayers pay for the upkeep and the expansion costs. We have all heard of the recent woes of school districts wrestling with decisions about whether to lay off, furlough or cut staffing to adjust to declining enrollment.

Moreover, the performing arts center included in the renovation plan is just not appropriate for a small school district with limited resources. Small school districts around the country proudly make do with a gymnasium for multiple functions and recognize that an auditorium is simply out of reach for their budgets. Mascoma students pride themselves on what they accomplish in this environment, and the value of that should not be underestimated. What the School Board doesn’t want you to know is that Mascoma High has music and performing arts students who excel despite the limitations of the current facility and are recognized statewide. The board argues that many more would enjoy success with a performing arts center, but this is not necessarily so. Having been raised in a family of educators in schools that had to use their gymnasiums for multiple functions, I find this a hollow argument.

Last, the financial burden of supporting the proposed renovation would be too much for many in the five small towns that make up the district. This is not a wealthy area, and many would not be able to afford the relatively large jump in their taxes that would result if the bond passes. Even an additional $200 to $300 on the annual school tax bill for a moderately valued home would be a burden for many of our residents. The board seems indifferent to the situation of these residents, many of whom have faithfully supported the school district over the years. These retirees and hard-working residents are trying preserve or build retirement funds, but now worry about their nest eggs. Some have inherited property or stretched to the limit to purchase their homes and just don’t have the resources to send more tax dollars to the schools.

We all care about our district’s schoolchildren, but it is apparent that there are some who don’t seem to care about those who have built our communities and are now worried about their golden years, especially considering the tenuous financial future of our country at this time.

On Tuesday, send the School Board back to the drawing board by rejecting this proposal. Fortunately, you can still support the pellet boilers measure separately.

Malcolm Love is retired and lives in Canaan.