Where we've been, and where we're going
The idea of local school districts collaborating, and even merging, is not new to the North Country.
We are a sparsely populated rural area, and it only makes sense that we would share our resources with one another for the greater good of our children and our communities. To that end, students in our various communities have been taking classes and participating in activities in other school districts outside of their own for years.
Ten years ago, there was even talk of making this kind of collaboration official. The idea of our small communities joining forces with each other to provide better and additional educational resources was floated as a real possibility, especially as enrollments and enrollment trends began to decline. And while good and productive conversations were had at the time, the idea did not gather enough public interest to move forward.
Fast Forward 10 years to the formation of the Connecticut River Collaboration Committee.
The Connecticut River Collaboration Committee was formed in early 2018 to explore the options available to our communities with regard to educating our children while keeping property taxes in check. The Committee began holding official meetings in March 2018. Detailed minutes from those meetings can be found here.
At their town elections in the late winter of 2018, all of our local towns voted in favor of being part of a regional conversation to discuss the future of education. Those conversations begin in April, 2018, and have continued to the present day.
Years in Discussion
Highlights and Milestones of the Planning Committee
A committee consisting of 21 members, representing one board member; one community member; and one optional member from each of our towns was formed to begin investigating the pros and cons of creating a single Interstate School District to serve the educational needs of students represented by SAU7 in New Hampshire, and the ENSU and NEK Choice districts in Vermont. The newly formed committee began meeting on the first Thursday of each month.
The Committee used the summer months to set goals and identify the work that lay ahead to thoroughly examine and investigate whether an Interstate School District could work, always keeping in mind its two agreed-upon priorities:
- Doing what is best for students; and
- Bearing in mind taxpayer considerations and related efficiencies.
It was noted from the start that significant collaboration between schools in different districts was already underway, including reciprocal agreements for high school class enrollment, combined athletic programs and the option of allowing a teacher from any of the schools to teach at another school. All these collaborations were already going on, which essentially laid the groundwork for the areas in which the committee would be looking.
During that summer, the Committee agreed that the following areas would be explored - initially - for their collaboration potential:
- Student schedules
- Student opportunities (variety of class/program offerings)
- Common curriculum
- Trade programs
- Extracurricular activities
- Information Technology and communications among the schools
- Sharing teachers and recruiting talent
- Transportation – busing
- Policy and procedures alignment
- Building utilization
- The number of SU/SAUs – the potential for consolidation into one unit
The committee was looking to determine: Could this really work? Is NOW the right time? Subcommittees were then created to investigate specific topics such as:
- Student to guidance counselor/principal/nurse/school staff ratios
- Student to teacher ratios, by class
- Course options, by school
- Building conditions
- School populations, including out of district – home schooled and private school
- Enrollment trends
- Graduation requirements for each of our three high schools
- Policy/procedure comparison via student handbooks
- Transportation – travel distance by bus route and by town
- Financials/budgets, including cost per pupil by town, and tax rate
- Student concentration, by town and class category
The real work had begun.
In the fall of 2018, the Committee began looking even deeper into the similarities - and differences - between the schools. Between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, the committee: convened 30 meetings; toured and evaluated all school facilities; spoke with students, teachers and staff for their thoughts and feedback; explored possible curriculum opportunities; identified areas of duplication between schools; and developed and analyzed three potential models.
During those months, committee members were also tasked with looking at student opportunities through collaboration, including: common curriculum, variety of classes, programs/trade, extracurriculars, and student schedules. They also looked at what is currently offered and what could be offered.
Here is what they found:
- There is keen interest in STEAM offerings (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)
- Students noted that it is difficult for small schools to maximize the potential of arts and music with such small class sizes
- Some students emphasized that their recommendations may not benefit them but might ensure future generations the best possible education
- Students did not see a specific need for additional extracurricular activities, but were rather more interested in consolidating existing offerings
- Teachers saw the value of collaboration and were already working to embrace the opportunities it provides
The general consensus of students and teachers was: Through shared resources and expanded offerings, we will better prepare our students for the future.
Also that fall, the Committee:
- Created a list of criteria for building reviews and visited every school building
- Took an inventory of all building spaces
- Made an assessment of all building conditions
Measured the travel distances to the four existing schools for the current student population
By mid winter 2019, discussions around forming an interstate district had progressed to the point where it was time to reach out to the Secretaries of Education in Vermont and New Hampshire to determine if the creation of an Interstate District would gain their support. The Committee also began looking into the mechanics of how such a merger could work given the different state laws, rules, and regulations governing school districts.
Following the forums on “Model 11”, the committee regrouped to consider the issues and concerns that had been raised by residents in the impacted towns. They also added a second model to consider alongside Model 11. Also that spring, Pittsburg voted not to join an Interstate District.
The Committee spent the balance of that spring examining the cost of build out for the two models under consideration, the impact on educators (factoring in contractual obligations, retirements, seniority, etc.), class size and projected enrollment, course and extracurricular offerings, factoring in what students said mattered most to them, the viability of consolidating the elementary level grades and the overall financial efficiencies/add-ons for each model.
At their April meeting, the Committee learned that Pittsburg would like to rejoin the discussion, and committee members voted to invite them back in.
In the summer of 2019, a good deal of time was spent studying the financials of a proposed interstate district and how each town would contribute to costs and school maintenance, etc. It was also noted that with resignations, retirements, changes in administration, and other (normal) year end activities at the schools, how much more convenient and streamlined an interstate district could be. No more competing with other area schools for high quality teachers and staff. No more duplication of personnel and effort.
The Committee also received a grant from the Tillotson foundation to help fund their work and the cost of studies and consultants.
The balance of the summer was spent looking at and talking with administrators from other interstate districts; honing the financials and curriculum; and looking into governance issues, both locally and on the state level. It was becoming clear that significant cost savings could be realized in a consolidated district.
By the fall of 2019, the Committee, having been endorsed by the Secretary(s) of Education in both states, was formally recognized as an Interstate Collaboraive Planning Committee, with a directive to continue and complete the work of preparing the necessary materials and information for a vote on whether to consolidate SAU7 in New Hampshire; and ENSU and NEK School Choice into a single district.
Over the winter of 2020, Montpelier-based Black River Design did an assessment and financial analysis of all schools in the district. As expected, some schools were in better condition than others; some needed considerable work to be brought up to acceptable standards; and some were simply ‘adequate’. But the primary question it raised was important: In a consolidated district, how will the taxpayers in one town feel about spending money to repair, maintain, and improve a building in a different town?
While acknowledging the importance of the question, the Committee continued to move forward based on its original two agreed-upon priorities set in July of 2018:
- Doing what is best for students; and
- Bearing in mind taxpayer considerations and related efficiencies.
That said, the Committee also agreed that the town of Canaan needed to “own” the investment needed to bring its buildings up to the standards of the other districts. (A bond was later passed to help make that a reality).
The Committee agreed to spend the balance of the winter of 2020 preparing for each town’s annual meeting and focusing on the following:
- Forming a sub-group to create quality standards for facilities use going forward. It was felt that this would help guide Canaan in determining what building investments were needed, and it would build credibility across the communities for what would be expected now and in the future.
- Educating Canaan voters about cost projections beyond the one-million-dollar bond and why their ownership of this is important to a positive starting point for a formal collaboration.
- Determining whether Colebrook voters would agree to put an addition onto the Colebrook school (in the event Canaan voterd not to make the needed upgrades to its school).
- Studying the feasibility of putting the high school/CTE in Canaan (in the event Canaan voters did agree to make the needed upgrades to its school)
The district annual meetings went well, generally.
- Pittsburg’s residents urged caution about committing to an Interstate District, and some expressed clearly that they were interested in a shared high school, but keeping their elementary grades in Pittsburg.
- Canaan’s residents were very supportive of the regionalization and voted to pass a one million dollar bond to bring their school up to par.
- Colebrook was supportive as well, though there were concerns about the condition of Canaan’s buildings, and confusion about closing Colebrook Academy and the financial impact that would have.
- Stewartstown’s meeting was brief. Interest was expressed about the needs outlined in the Canaan building report, and some questions remained about what kind (and how much) savings the consolidation would bring.
- In Clarksville and Columbia, the main question was about the ownership of buildings, post-consolidation, and how things would be structured.
But all in all, the idea of creating a single Interstate District was fairly well received.
The Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation awarded the Committee $85,500 to support project financial modeling, session facilitation, project management, and legal guidance. If it proves necessary, funds will also be utilized for a transportation study. The award required a 10% match from local sources, which was approved at the time of application by the involved school boards.
The Committee then asked the superintendents to create a single school staffing model for use in the financial analysis, and encouraged them to continue working together on a short-term A/B schedule for the 2020-21 school year – a cooperative model that is already partially underway that accommodates the traveling of teachers who are willing to travel between schools.
The goal of this cooperative model is to utilize existing talent, fill gaps, reduce “cannibalizing” of staff between schools and reduce unnecessary overall hiring.
By late spring, after considerable discussion, the Committee reached consensus on the number and type of financial models it would consider. Three models would be created, and if funds allowed a fourth:
- A high school and CTE at the Colebrook existing school site (which would require an addition)
- A high school and CTE at the Canaan existing site
- A high school and CTE in Stewartstown or thereabouts (which would require a new building) and, should financial analysis funds allow,
- A k-12 new building estimate
The rationale for investing in this array of financial analysis was to be able to appropriately satisfy voters’ and taxpayers’ need for enough information to make an informed decision. Without understanding the cost of a newly built school, the Committee felt it could not adequately assess the tradeoffs between one site over another.
In its May 2020 meeting, the Committee acknowledged the very real perception of some community members that there will be “winners” and “losers” if one community ended up with the school in its existing location. The Committee hoped that the increased options and benefits for students; along with the synergies and cost savings for all taxpayers, might offset any worry about winners and losers.
In their May 7th and 14th sessions, one of the Committee’s sub-groups re-opened the issue of which school configuration to model. Given the pandemic and related shifts in community and economic health; the need for a re-vote/confirmation on the Canaan bond; the overall condition of the Canaan school buildings as outlined in the Black River Design report; and the reality of future enrollment trends and state funding support, the sub-group believed it was worthwhile to consider one location for both the middle and high school at this time. (In previous discussions, this was considered a potential eventuality, perhaps happening five years post-consolidation).
At its June 2020 meeting, the Committee found itself moving closer to making a final recommendation on which model to present to voters. But there were still issues to consider:
- The Canaan bond would cover one million of the upgrades needed to bring the school up to the standards of the other schools, but it wouldn’t be enough to do everything that needs to be done.
- Colebrook would not support investing in Canaan and Canaan would likely not support investing in Colebrook. (Tuition/student funding calculations would be a primary method for this, so it is possible it will be part of the embedded cost, in any case).
- A cornerstone consideration for where to put (or how to build) the high school came in the form of information from the DOE Commissioner: there is 60% crossover in students partaking of programs/classes when the CTE center and the high school share the same campus; and 4% crossover when they do not. New Hampshire is very motivated to support this kind of crossover for workforce development reasons.
There was also one more consideration: the radically changed COVID-19 landscape (economic/health/social). In light of the changes, some of them permanent, the Committee felt it made sense to give a one campus middle school/high school (grades 7-12) another look. This model (a.k.a. ‘model 2’), in combination with “Model 11”, (now known as “Model 1”) would be the first financial analysis priorities – and this would be presented as a recommendation for the full committee’s review on June 11th.
This Committee also felt that this approach would best align with its “north star” – that being: doing what is best for students versus ‘what can we sell to the community?" By the start of summer - its second summer of study - the Committee was in agreement that:
- Having staff on one campus would allow for expanded instruction/utilization of teacher expertise across grades 7-12.
- One campus would allow for CTE to be available to students in the middle school grades.
- It was essential that it move away from the “Colebrook/Canaan” discussion, and instead regard the locations as “our schools”.
- The Articles of Agreement would outline who-pays-for-what.
- They were committed to an interstate approach, governance-wise. Mutuality/joint ownership and collaboration being the cornerstone of this project.
At its August and October 2020 meetings, the Committee worked on several items to move the recommendation forward:
- Review the "Reimagining Education" document and provide feedback to further refine it.
- Look at facilities requirements and develop an overview with cost estimates.
- Work on Articles of Agreement
- Finalize the financial consultant and project manager hiring process.
- Draft a single staffing model
- Launch a public communications plan
- Assess the viability of acquiring the rec center pool