Unity mulls separation from Claremont-based SAU 6

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 02-21-2024 9:30 PM

UNITY — The Unity School Board is recommending voters approve an article on the annual school meeting warrant to begin the process to withdrawal from School Administrative Unit 6, which is based in Claremont.

At a public hearing Tuesday, attended by about a dozen people, School Board member Marjorie Erickson said if voters approve the article on March 16, the town would have a month to form a seven-member committee to study withdrawal and consider the options. The committee would have five members of the public and two School Board members.

“No decisions have been made,” Erickson said, emphasizing that the formation of a committee would be the first step in a two-year process before Unity could be officially out of SAU 6.

The committee would look at how withdrawal would impact the town from both a fiscal and educational standpoint, Erickson said.

Unity could conclude that it is better to stay in SAU 6, form its own SAU or appeal to join another neighboring community with its own SAU, such as Goshen or Lempster.

“It has to be a fiscally responsible decision, but right now we don’t know what that number is,” Erickson said. “It can’t be that we just want out of the SAU.”

Erickson cited several reasons why the board is recommending a committee be formed and they primarily had to do with the disparate sizes of the two communities. The city of Claremont has 1,600 students as compared to Unity, which has fewer than 100 students in a single K-8 school.

Claremont pays 92% of the SAU budget and Unity the other 8%.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

The proposed SAU 6 budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is $2.49 million.

“Right now, resources are heavily biased toward Claremont,” Erickson said. “There are many instances where the needs of Unity have been overlooked and unattended to by the SAU staff.”

Bills not paid on time — costing Unity interest and late fees — and state and federal forms that have not been completed, which can result in financial penalties, were cited as problems Unity experiences.

As another example, Erickson said curriculum development also has been focused toward Claremont and that has left Unity students on the outside looking in when it comes to some innovative programs.

“So as a board, we are looking for more equity,” Erickson said. “We want to know our needs are going to be met, our voices are going to be heard and we can carry forward with the needs of our children in a way that is consistent, fair and equitable. That is why we want to consider withdrawing from the SAU.”

Erickson also said that when the Claremont School Board was told of the upcoming vote, there was no opposition.

“They have pretty much indicated they would not miss us,” Erickson said.

Reached Wednesday, Claremont School Board members Arlene Hawkins, who is chairwoman of the SAU 6 board, and Frank Sprague declined to respond directly to the complaints by the Unity board but did say that the large difference in school populations is at the root of the tension.

Both said the Claremont/Unity union is not something recommended under state law that governs SAUs because of the large disparity in populations.

“You will find that it is far from the ideal cooperative district,” Sprague said. “It is not ideal to have hugely different populations.”

The state law recommends cooperative school districts have nearly equal populations from each community, Hawkins said.

“It is the best chance for success and meeting everyone’s needs,” Hawkins said, acknowledging that with Claremont and Unity, “it is really skewed.”

Erickson said the committee will have to propose how Unity would provide the services required by an SAU under state law, including fiscal management, human resources, curricular development and compliance with grants, both state and federal.

The committee that is formed after the school meeting vote would have to submit a report with a recommendation to the Department of Education by early fall.

If the DOE accepts the recommendation, it would go to voters in March 2025 and if approved be implemented on July 1, 2026, Erickson said.

“The committee will research and consider the financial, facilities and services impact of all options on the Unity district with all fact-finding and research culminating in a report that must be filed with the State DOE by October 2024 with a recommendation,” the school board stated in a handout at Tuesday’s hearing.

Responding to a question from a resident, Erickson said the board wants a committee with individuals who are not approaching the process with their minds made up but rather are willing to do the extensive research and work needed to determine if withdrawal makes the most sense for Unity.

Whatever decision the town makes, it would not affect its school choice for high school.

This year Unity is sending students to Claremont, Newport, Fall Mountain and Sunapee.

Breakups of SAUs into smaller districts in the Upper Valley have included Cornish’s departure from SAU 6 about seven years ago and, more recently, Croydon’s exit from SAU 43, which left Newport by itself.

In contrast, Cornish and Plainfield are now mulling a closer collaboration.

Unity’s annual school meeting begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 16, in the elementary school gym. All articles will be voted on from the floor.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.