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Tunbridge prepares to vote on dissolving school district, splitting from Chelsea

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/5/2021 10:00:49 PM
Modified: 1/5/2021 10:00:41 PM

TUNBRIDGE — Dissolving the First Branch Unified School District could be a costly endeavor for taxpayers in Tunbridge and Chelsea if voters in the district’s two towns decide to do so.

An analysis presented by the White River Valley Supervisory Union at a meeting Monday night showed that the tax rate in Tunbridge would have been 18 cents higher per $100 of valuation this year if Tunbridge Central School was operated by a single-town district.

The rate in Chelsea would have been 20 cents higher.

The meeting, held jointly by the Tunbridge Selectboard and the First Branch district’s board, was an informational session in advance of Tunbridge’s vote on Saturday to decide whether to leave the district. About 95 different accounts logged into Zoom for the meeting, and the discussion ranged over what the vote would entail, the school district’s struggles to integrate over the past three years and a restructuring proposal that school officials said promises better opportunities for students and cost savings for taxpayers.

Polls are open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday at Tunbridge Town Hall. Voters can contact the town clerk’s office to pick up a ballot in advance.

The vote to leave the district is the result of a petition brought forward by Tunbridge resident Rob Howe, who was concerned about talk that Tunbridge Central School could be closed. First Branch took three tries to pass a budget last year, and amid the financial stress, residents discussed a wide range of options to cut costs, including closing a school.

“The bottom line was whether the campus was going to stay intact in Tunbridge,” Howe said Monday night. The school serves as an important community center, he said.

But school officials pointed out that under the district’s articles of agreement, it would have to jump through multiple hoops to close a school, to include a vote by the School Board and a vote by Tunbridge residents.

“Chelsea would not weigh in on that,” said Jamie Kinnarney, superintendent of White River Valley Supervisory Union, a 10-town administrative unit that includes Chelsea and Tunbridge.

If Tunbridge does vote Saturday to leave the district, Chelsea would have to schedule a vote of its own, then the State Board of Education would have to sign off.

While the district struggled to pass a budget last year, the supervisory union’s analysis suggests that the district’s towns have saved money as a result of forming a larger district. The current budget of just under $6.9 million is about $192,000 lower than what the two towns would have had to spend to operate their own districts. The higher spending was attributable to operating two school boards, increases in vocational tuition, changes in supervisory union assessments related to special education costs and slight increases in staffing to operate the two schools.

Residents asked whether the two schools, Tunbridge Central and Chelsea Public, which are both preK-8 schools, could continue to cooperate if the First Branch district was dissolved. Officials said there was no reason they couldn’t.

So far, though, the district hasn’t quite come together. Although its governance is shared, and some programs, such as art instruction, are shared by the two schools, little has been done to integrate them.

“We can’t even decide on a school color. We can’t even decide on a school mascot,” said Robin Amber, a Chelsea resident.

Howe said he felt the district hasn’t paid off on its promise to provide better education at a lower cost.

School Board Chairwoman Kathy Galluzzo, a Tunbridge resident, said she thinks the district has made more progress toward those goals in the past six months than in the previous couple of years after the district was created.

At a retreat last month, the board expressed unanimous support for a restructuring plan that would see Chelsea host a middle school for grades 5 to 8 and Tunbridge host grades preK-4. That plan, district officials said, would enable class sizes large enough for students to form better social and learning groups, make it easier to provide better programs, and save around $380,000 a year, mainly by reducing the number of teachers in the district.

“I feel strongly that it’s your best move,” Tunbridge Central School Principal Michael Livingston said Monday.

Two Tunbridge residents who are also educators, Anissa Morrison and Eliza Minnucci, said separately that they’d like to see the district retain its preK-8 schools. Separating the elementary- and middle-school grades creates an additional transition for students and cuts off relationships among teachers and students, said Morrison, a longtime teacher at Richmond Middle School in Hanover.

Minnucci said her family moved to Tunbridge for the K-8 school.

“I’m worried that we will not be able to achieve the promise of the merger,” she said.

But Emily Marshia, a former Chelsea and First Branch board member who is now the Global Studies teacher at Tunbridge Central, said she doesn’t see how the district steps back.

“I believed in this merger from the start in terms of it being able to provide more for students,” she said adding that students have figured it out and have been working together when they have opportunities to do so. “I think it’s time that we grown-ups in both communities take a lesson from them.”

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




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