Cornish and Plainfield seek to study merging middle school

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-22-2024 10:15 PM

Cornish and Plainfield voters will decide on Town Meeting Day whether their school boards should consider forming a cooperative school district and merging their middle schools.

The two districts have collaborated in recent years in an effort to control costs and attract and retain staff. They share a superintendent, special education teacher and other staff members. But as separate districts, the extent of their cooperation is limited and prevents them from leveraging combined purchasing power for larger expenses such as curricular software, transportation, payroll and building maintenance, school officials said.

“We’ve enjoyed our partnership, but administrative staff efficiency has not been as good as we’d like,” Plainfield School Board Chairwoman Jenny Ramsey said Thursday. “Everything has to be done twice because we are two districts.”

Each district this month will hold a meeting on the warrant articles.

This year, Cornish Elementary School has 135 students in grades pre-K through 8th. Tuition agreements allow Cornish students to attend high school in Windsor, Hartford or Claremont. Plainfield’s K-8 school serves 199 students and has a tuition agreement with Lebanon High School.

At a joint meeting in November, the Cornish and Plainfield school boards looked at a range of structural options available to New Hampshire schools, from a complete merger of districts to tuitioning students to neighboring towns.

Voters in Cornish and Plainfield will decide on Town Meeting Day whether to allow their school boards to create a “Cooperative School District Planning Committee,” which would “raise and appropriate $20,000 to meet the expenses of the committee,” according to the Plainfield warrant article.

A separate article asks voters whether to “create a Middle School Consolidation Study Committee to study the feasibility and advisability of jointly serving the needs of the Districts’ students with the students of the Cornish School District in grades 6-8, including the possibility of consolidating students into one school.”

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“It’s worth investigating,” Superintendent Sydney Leggett said of the possible consolidation.

If the middle schools consolidate, the building would be located in Plainfield, with the need to expand the space to accommodate Cornish students, Leggett said.

While Cornish does not want to lose its identity in a merger, it has “enjoyed a good working relationship with Plainfield and we are comfortable moving forward,” Cornish School Board Chairman Justin Ranney said. He added that smaller districts must find ways to maximize resources.

The two proposed warrant articles are distinct, meaning that a middle school consolidation committee could go forward without the creation of a district cooperative committee, and a cooperative district could be formed without combining middle schools.

Both studies would extend over at least the course of a year, if not longer.

If passed, the warrant articles would not obligate the school districts to any particular action, nor would the final recommendations of either committee.

Neither study would impact high school options, Leggett said.

“Both districts plan to continue with their current high school models.”

“Small schools are ideal, but the cost is exorbitant,” Ramsey said. The school boards hope the studies will show whether either option will “actually reduce the cost of administrative support and improve student outcomes,” she added.

Upcoming hearings and meetings will give the public a chance to learn more about the two warrant articles.

A school budget hearing is scheduled at Plainfield Elementary School on Tuesday at 5:30 pm. A hearing will be held at Cornish Elementary School on Monday, Jan. 29 at 5:30 p.m.

District meetings are scheduled at Cornish Elementary School on March 9 at 1 p.m. and at Plainfield Elementary School on March 16 at 9 a.m.

“We really hope people will come to meetings and share thoughts and ideas,” Ramsey said.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.