Strafford considers tuitioning grades 7-8, cutting Newton School to preK-6

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/24/2021 9:36:18 PM
Modified: 9/24/2021 9:36:35 PM

STRAFFORD — For the past few years, the community surrounding the Newton School has debated what to do about its middle school grades.

Now the issue is coming to a vote. On Oct. 5, Strafford will decide whether to keep its seventh- and eighth-grade students at the town’s Newton School or to cut those grades and pay tuition to send students elsewhere, as Strafford does for high school.

“I believe that the school is prepared to do whatever the town decides and that it’s going to be important for them to have sort of a mandate from the people to do whatever they’ll have to do,” Aaron Dotter, chairman of the Strafford School Board, said Friday.

An informational meeting about the issue is planned for 1 p.m. Saturday, both in person at South Strafford’s Barrett Hall and online. Ballots have been mailed to voters, and they can be returned to the town clerk by mail, dropped off at the Town Clerk’s Office or in person at the polls on Oct. 5. The polls will be open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Town Clerk’s Office.

The School Board has not taken a position on the issue but sent a nine-page mailer to residents explaining the educational and financial trade-offs and some of the history leading up to the vote.

A few years ago, in the 2018-19 school year, nine families had taken students out of the Newton School, most of them in grades seven and eight, and paid tuition to send them to Thetford Academy and The Sharon Academy, private independent schools in neighboring towns that have middle school programs.

A report released in May 2019 surveyed a cross-section of the school community and found problems with the school’s culture, including an overall lack of respect and disruptive behavior among students. After discussion of the issue at Town Meeting that March, a task force gathered that summer to assess the issues at the middle school. It presented a report to the School Board in October.

At the same time, the school’s leadership turned over, with Newton principal Greg Bagnato stepping down in June 2019. Tracy Thompson took over as interim principal and was hired to the permanent job a year later.

Under Thompson, and with the help of consultants from the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont, which specializes in middle school education, the Newton School has undertaken a rebuilding of the middle school, and enrollment has stabilized. The new model groups grades five to eight to provide larger class sizes and greater opportunities for socializing.

“The middle school education offered at Newton currently aligns with the programs, expectations and opportunities needed for a high-quality middle school,” Thompson said in a letter to the school community.

The current eighth grade at Newton has three students in it, but the other middle school grades range from nine to 13 students. The eighth grade is the last class to have substantial departures to other schools, Dotter said.

Strafford students choose their high schools, and the larger middle school programs in Thetford, Sharon, Hanover and Hartford are attractive to some families in Strafford.

But offering choice for middle school would come at a cost. Whereas Strafford would spend a little over $18,000 per pupil if it keeps its middle school in house, a financial analysis assembled by the White River Valley Supervisory Union shows that its per-pupil cost would rise to $21,500 if it pays tuition for the seventh and eighth grades.

Strafford currently sends high school students to multiple schools, in Thetford, Sharon, Hanover, Hartford, Royalton and other communities. Those schools’ tuition rates vary widely, from around $17,000 at The Sharon Academy to Hanover’s Richmond Middle School, which charges $23,500. The financial analysis uses Thetford Academy’s rate of a little less than $20,000.

The financial analysis projects that Strafford’s education tax rate would increase by about 30 cents per $100 of assessed value if the district has to pay tuition and doesn’t offset the higher cost with cuts to what would then be a preK-6 school. Such an increase would put Strafford over the state’s excess spending penalty.

That would mean that the owner of a home assessed at $300,000 would pay another $900 in education property taxes. If it implements cuts, it could keep the tax rate increase to around 6 cents, which would raise the tax bill by around $180.

But the cuts would include reducing the principal and the guidance counselor from full-time to 0.6 full-time equivalents; reducing the librarian from 0.8 to 0.4 FTE; programs in world language and outdoor education; an interventionist and a teaching position.

“It would affect the extra things like language, the opportunity to do outdoor education,” and it would increase class sizes, Dotter said.

In conversations Friday, Strafford residents said they’re just learning about the proposal now or didn’t want to discuss a subject that has divided the town.

Roz Finn, a resident for more than 40 years, said she’s concerned that the school won’t have enough students to be viable if it drops the seventh and eighth grades.

But Bob Johnston, a former longtime principal at Thetford Elementary School, said education should be the primary concern.

“If it costs a few more bucks and they have a better education somewhere else, then we should do that,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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