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Strafford plans to keep middle school and study its options

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/3/2020 6:29:18 PM
Modified: 2/3/2020 6:29:13 PM

Near the end of last week’s special School Board meeting, which put a temporary end to a long-running debate over how best to educate the community’s seventh- and eighth-graders, Strafford School Board member Sarah North came to an uncomfortable conclusion for a town that had fought hard against school consolidation legislation a few years earlier.

“We’ve reached a tipping point where it would be less expensive to tuition everybody out,” she said.

The controversy at The Newton School has never, on its face, revolved around money. Beginning a few years ago with the departure of several students and reaching its height last spring at Town Meeting, the debate has centered primarily on the small K-8 school’s academic offerings and overall climate.

But as they affixed numbers to budget options in preparation for Town Meeting next month, the School Board had to contend with the same financial reality that has forced schools around the state to make hard choices, including merging with neighboring districts. And the community’s discussions reveal the ways educational ideals and budgetary restraints are entangled.

At a special School Board meeting on Jan. 21, board members looked at four different budgets prepared by White River Valley Supervisory Union officials, reflecting four distinct possibilities for educating Strafford’s seventh- and eighth-graders next school year.

These options stemmed from the work of a task force that studied whether to retain the school’s seventh and eighth grades or eliminate them and pay tuition for seventh- and eighth-graders to attend other area schools. 

At another special meeting last Tuesday, the board looked at a set of three revised budgets and approved one that keeps the seventh- and eighth-graders at Newton all day by a 3-2 vote. Sarah Root, Glenn Wylie and Mica Tucker voted in favor of the budget, and Sarah North and Jeff Solsaa voted against it. The proposal also would end a partnership with Thetford Academy for afternoon electives, which would keep the budget under the state’s excess spending threshold. 

That budget will need to be approved by voters at Town Meeting.

It might not, however, be a long-term solution. The community appears split over whether to keep the upper grades in Strafford, and even those in favor of retaining the seventh and eighth grades acknowledge that success hinges on the staff’s ability to reinvent its middle school.

“There are people who want kids tuitioned out, and they’re not going to be happy,” School Board Chairwoman Sarah Root, one of three board members who voted in favor of the $3.4 million budget, said after the meeting. “But we’re set to do this. Let’s do it. And then if we can’t do it, we’ll look at other options.”

The task force’s report highlighted several research-based practices that it said the administration should prioritize in order to attract families to the school and retain them. These included managing behavior with a focus on “restorative practices,” emphasizing extracurricular activities, differentiating learning to meet individual students’ needs, adopting new educational models and giving students choice in their activities.

The impact of such strategies on the budget is unknown, and there is little wiggle room. The budget approved by the board last week represents a per pupil cost of $18,641, which is just under the state’s excess spending limit and well over the $15,900 state average tuition for secondary schools in 2019-20. It represents a 5.4% increase over last year’s spending. With enrollment expected to decline by 10-15% in the next 10 years, maintaining a workable budget for the middle school may become increasingly challenging.

“Sooner or later, there’s not going to be anything to cut to get under the cap,” White River Valley Superintendent Bruce Labs said at last week’s meeting.

After cutting the Thetford partnership, which would have cost the town an additional $40,000 per year after Thetford Academy agreed to provide transportation, the school also faces the risk of losing current students.

Through the partnership, piloted last year to address parental demands for more robust academic programming, Newton’s 17 seventh- and eighth-graders were bused to Thetford Academy for the final 90 minute block of the school day, where they chose from enrichment classes, including language, music, art, cooking, design tech and outdoor learning.

The partnership persuaded three or four families who had planned to pull their children from the seventh and eighth grades to reconsider and brought back at least one student who had left in a prior school year, according to Root. Among those who reconsidered was School Board member Jeff Solsaa.

“My child stayed here this year because we made the TA agreement,” Solsaa said at last week’s meeting.

The agreement with Thetford Academy, a private school that educates Thetford students and serves as the designated school for Strafford’s high school students, was popular with students, Newton’s interim Principal Tracy Thompson said at last week’s meeting.

“They’re pretty unanimous that they like being there and they’d like to be there more,” she said.

Along with polling middle school students, Thompson sent out a survey to their parents last week. Only four surveys came back. Two families wanted seventh- and eighth-graders to attend Thetford Academy full time, one wanted them to continue with the current partnership and one wanted them to stay at The Newton School all day, she said.

One of the major drawbacks of the partnership was scheduling and transportation. Students got back to school about 20 minutes after the buses had left, forcing parents to pick them up or make other arrangements.

Root said the Thetford program also sent a message to some people that the school couldn’t educate its own children. And while there are risks inherent in keeping the upper grades in Strafford all day, she thinks the risks involved in sending them out are just as worrisome, if not more so.

“It’s a factor that we can’t control,” she said. “It’s also public money going to a private school.”

How much the school would pay to tuition seventh- and eighth-graders out depends on a number of factors. The town could make Thetford Academy, which currently charges $19,386 in tuition, its designated middle school, or it could adopt a school choice model and let parents decide where to send their children. Other area schools include The Sharon Academy, which charges $15,933 in tuition, White River Valley School in Bethel, which charges $16,425, and Richmond Middle School, which would cost $22,000 per student. How those costs would compare with the current K-8 model also depends on enrollment.

After the Jan. 21 meeting, the School Board created a planning committee that will continue to explore long-term options for the seventh and eighth grades. The board hopes to present a plan to voters in time for town elections in November so they can create a budget for 2021-22 that reflects voters’ wishes.

It’s difficult to predict what will happen when the community has its say.

Tanya Croke, whose son is currently a sixth-grader at The Newton School, was pleased with the board’s decision last week, although she’d like to see the school offer a foreign language program.

“He would prefer to stay here,” she said.

Jane Prescott pays out of her own pocket to send her seventh-grade daughter to Crossroads Academy in Lyme because she doesn’t think The Newton School offers a challenging enough curriculum or enough extra-curricular opportunities. She thinks eliminating the seventh and eighth grades makes sense from both a financial and educational perspective.

“I think the cost to educate these kids in this building is getting really expensive,” she told the School Board.

“I want choice,” she said after the meeting. “I have always had to seek opportunities for my kids outside of town. … It’s tough being in a small town.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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