Education Transformation: City’s School Restructuring Effort Appears to Meet Key Goals
The old Lebanon junior high school building in Lebanon, N.H. is now filled with 43 apartments, the Spark Community Center and the future home of KDR Fitness Thursday, July 31, 2014.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Lebanon — When the Lebanon School District sold the old Sacred Heart School building to a Lebanon dentist and his wife in June for $415,000, it was the last of four landmark properties the district had sold off since 2012.
The sale of the 1909 building — which followed the School District’s divestiture of the former Sacred Heart convent on Hanover Street, which housed the district’s administrative offices, the School Street School and the old Lebanon Junior High School on Bank Street — marked more than the end of the district’s downsizing of its real estate holdings. It was the final step in a consolidation that eliminated three of the district’s seven schools and transformed the structure and the culture of the district’s middle and elementary school education.
The process was driven largely by the need to replace the old junior high — a 1926 building widely recognized as outdated and inadequate.
After five unsuccessful attempts to secure residents’ permission to borrow enough money to replace the junior high, city voters in 2010 approved spending $24.9 million for the construction of a new middle school, which opened in 2012 on Moulton Avenue.
While school officials were busy trying to secure approval for that project, they were also reconfiguring the school system — closing Sacred Heart, School Street and Seminary Hill schools.
Fewer buildings simplified the structure of the district’s elementary schools to two K-4s. The new Lebanon Middle School, which replaced the eighth- and ninth-grade junior high, was built to hold grades five through eight.
The changes were controversial.
The closing of neighborhood schools raised concerns about the loss of community centers, long bus rides for some students and potentially problematic grade arrangements, such as relocating some of the district’s youngest students to Hanover Street School, which is next door to the high school and its much older students.
Proponents argued that advantages, including costs savings, would result from having fewer buildings to maintain, a smaller staff to teach fewer classes and fewer administrators to manage them.
With the recent transitions in the district’s leadership — Superintendent Gail Paludi and School District Business Administrator Jim Fenn stepped down from their posts this summer — comparing earlier predictions of the benefits of consolidation with current reality is not easy.
But now that the last of the former school buildings has been sold, it’s clear the school district achieved at least some of its goals, even if the results were perhaps not as grand as some school officials had predicted.
In one respect, consolidation has paid dividends. School officials did well in estimating income from the sale of the former school buildings, and may have even slightly underestimated their value.
In 2008, district officials anticipated bringing in $1 million from the sale of the School Administrative Unit 88 office building, which was housed in the former Sacred Heart convent, and the Sacred Heart Public School and the School Street School.
The junior high sold for $800,000 in October 2013.
The four sales brought in nearly $1.9 million, which is slated to be used for future real estate needs and building projects.
For example, the School Board recently approved spending up to $525,000 to purchase a two-acre Evans Drive property neighboring Hanover Street School and Lebanon High School.
Proponents of closing Sacred Heart and School Street schools also pointed to savings from the avoidance of heating and maintenance costs.
In its 2008 annual report, the district estimated that closing Sacred Heart and School Street schools, replacing the junior high and relocating the SAU offices to the Seminary Hill school would save $100,000 in operational costs and $2 million in avoided maintenance. School officials also anticipated the new, energy-efficient middle school would reduce operating costs per square foot.
In fact, the district did save money on operations. In fiscal year 2009, which ended just before the Sacred Heart and School Street schools closed, the district spent $2.9 million in plant operations. When the new middle school opened, that portion of the budget fell to $2.7 million, according to data from the state’s Department of Education.
(Factoring in inflation, which is up by roughly 10 percent between 2008 and 2014, the real savings are even greater.)
Business Administrator Tim Ball, who replaced Fenn, said he suspected the savings came from reduced oil consumption — the new middle school is heated with wood pellets — and avoided maintenance on the closed buildings.
Closing the schools did not immediately remove them from the district’s balance sheet. In November 2012, the School Street School was the first property to be sold, followed by the former Sacred Heart convent and the junior high in 2013, and finally the Sacred Heart school building in June. Between the time of their closing and their sales, the costs of maintaining unused buildings added up. The district had to pay to keep the heat and lights on, the water and sewage flowing, the snow plowed, the fire alarm systems functioning and salaries for the custodians to continue doing the work. For example, before the sale of the former junior high, the district estimated annual maintenance costs of $100,000 for the building.
In fiscal year 2014, the district budgeted nearly $3 million to maintain and operate its buildings, which — factoring in inflation — represents continued savings from the school closings, despite rising energy costs.
Staff and Enrollment
School district officials said operating fewer buildings would require fewer staff members and increase class sizes, resulting in lower costs. Fenn, before he left his post at the end of last month, said closing School Street and Sacred Heart — where enrollment at each school had dwindled to about 90 by 2008 — did help cut costs by reducing staff size. A reduction of 20 staff positions helped cut costs by $1 million, he said .
Overall, the number of teachers in the district is down from 175 in the 2008-09 school year to 166 in 2013-14. The low point was in 2011-12, when the district employed 144 teachers.
Staffing fluctuations can be explained, in part, by variations in the elementary school population.
Overall enrollment in grades K-4 dropped from 538 to 511 between 2008-09 and 2010-11, according to data from the state Department of Education. In the last school year, 2013-14, the elementary school population has risen to 578.
Increasing enrollment has driven up class sizes. The fifth grade saw the biggest jump from 15 students per class in 2008-09 to 19 last year, which is still below the state average of 20. During the same period, the first and fourth grades saw single-digit increases while grades two and three remained the same with averages of 16 and 15 students, respectively.
In addition, retirements have helped keep costs down as more-experienced, higher-paid teachers are replaced by younger teachers who earn less. Fenn said experienced staff members continue to retire from the district in “high” numbers.
This fiscal year will be the first in which the administration of the new middle school will be at its desired level, Fenn said. A three-year phase-in allowed for a transition from a co-principal arrangement to a single principal, beginning this coming school year.
Per Pupil Costs
School officials predicted the school consolidation effort would result in a drop in per pupil costs. In 2009, School Board member Susan Donnelly said Lebanon paid about $19,000 per student per year to educate children in its elementary schools. At the time, she predicted that figure would drop to about $16,000 under the consolidation plan. The state average for elementary grades was about $12,000 per pupil that year.
In a recent telephone interview, Donnelly said “costs are much higher when you have buildings to maintain and heat.” She said eliminating buildings “would in fact decrease per student cost.”
Savings related to closing the school buildings have been difficult to pin down, in part, because the district made other changes at the same time, such as expanding kindergarten and the preschool program, both of which have affected staffing levels, Fenn said.
Per pupil costs did drop approximately $1,000 for the district’s elementary students from fiscal year 2009 to 2013. The district’s per pupil costs have not dipped as low as Donnelly predicted, however, and remain well above the state average. In fiscal year 2013, the Lebanon School District paid approximately $18,100 per pupil in the elementary grades; the state average was $13,600.
Ball, the district’s new business administrator, said the downward trend shows Lebanon is closing the gap between its per pupil costs and the state average — from a difference of $7,000 to $4,500 in four years.
Per pupil costs in Lebanon are about $3,500 higher than in Claremont, where Ball previously worked. Claremont spent about $14,600 per pupil in the elementary grades in 2012-13. Ball said the difference is due primarily to personnel costs. This past school year, the average teacher salary in Lebanon was $61,000. In Claremont, the average teacher earned $42,000.
In general, Ball said, personnel costs make up 70 percent to 75 percent of school expenditures. In comparison, building costs consistently make up less than 10 percent of the district’s annual budget.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.