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Strafford keeps 7th, 8th grades in Newton School by decisive 2½-1 vote

  • Anita Onofrio lost her original ballot for the Strafford school vote and was in the Town Clerk's office on the day of the vote to get another ballot on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Assistant Town Clerk and Assistant Treasurer Regina Josler helps Onofrio. Residents are voting on whether or not to close down the seventh and eighth grades at the Newton School. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mark Shaw, of Strafford, Vt., slips his ballot into the drop box outside the Strafford Town Clerk's office on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Residents are voting on whether or not to close down the seventh and eighth grades at the Newton School. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/6/2021 9:15:44 PM
Modified: 10/6/2021 9:17:26 PM

STRAFFORD — Residents have voted decisively to keep the town’s seventh and eighth graders at Newton School.

The 331-126 vote Tuesday puts an end to a long debate, dating back to 2018, over whether the school should close its seventh and eighth grades and tuition students to larger middle school programs in other districts.

School officials had hoped for a clear direction from the public, and Tuesday’s 2½-1 ratio gave it to them.

“I would agree that the result is decisive,” Aaron Dotter, chairman of the Strafford School Board, said via email on Wednesday.

Messages left for other Strafford School Board members Wednesday were not returned.

The vote followed several years of debate and study of the Newton School’s top two grades. In 2018, the district retained a consultant to study why several students had left those grades to attend middle schools elsewhere. A pair of studies found dissatisfaction with the climate and the offerings at the school.

Strafford sent middle school students to Thetford Academy for electives and sports in the 2019-20 school year but discontinued the program the year after. Under Principal Tracy Thompson, the school has grouped grades five to eight into a middle school program that gives students more social and academic options.

The school is at the heart of the small town of around 1,100, and its struggles made for a difficult few years. Even with the new middle school program and a resounding vote affirming the school’s shape, officials have acknowledged that well-off parents might still opt to pay out of pocket to send their children elsewhere.

Strafford’s challenge followed a period of declining enrollment and consolidation in Vermont schools that has left small, standalone schools vulnerable to rising costs and fluctuating student numbers. Its enrollment fell to around 80 a few years ago, but is now at 113.

“It’s unfortunate. It’s kind of a sign of the times,” Strafford resident David Paganelli said after he placed his ballot in the drop box outside the Town Clerk’s office Tuesday evening. It’s essential for a small town to have a school, and a good one, he said.

A financial analysis showed that tuitioning the seventh and eighth graders to other schools would have cost substantially more and would have necessitated significant cuts to the program at Newton School to keep the district’s spending under the state’s excess spending threshold.

Dotter said he wasn’t sure why the vote went the way it did, but acknowledged that dropping the upper grades was the less certain path for the district.

The result also was another instance of a school district opting not to pay tuition for students, an arrangement that often results in unpredictable tuition bills.

Hanover, which for years has paid tuition to send its sixth graders to Richmond Middle School, recently set up a system under which the sixth grade is part of the middle school, which will make it easier to budget, school officials said.

And voters in Plainfield in 2015 overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to leave its agreement to send high school students to Lebanon High School and adopt school choice instead. The School Board recommended the plan, but voters expressed concern about higher costs.

Strafford voters had the option of voting by mail-in ballot and the vast majority of those who cast ballots did so by mail or by drop-off.

The Town Clerk’s Office mailed 953 ballots to residents. Of those, 452 were returned, either by mail or by hand to the clerk’s office. Of those returned ballots, eight were considered defective because the voter could not be identified, according to information from Town Clerk Lisa Bragg. Only 13 people voted in person.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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