OV task force maps out district’s future

Barry Varian lays out a plan for the future of Otter Valley during a task force meeting Monday night at the RNESU office in Brandon.
By RUSSELL JONES

After more than a year, the work of the Otter Valley Planning Task Force is nearing completion. Assigned by the OVUU school board to develop a five- to ten-year plan for the district after consolidation, the task force met Monday to put the finishing touches on a plan present to the board.

After nearly three hours of discussion, however, the task force decided they would need one more meeting to wrap things up before a community forum on April 29 will be held to review the proposal. That forum will not be a “drop-in” event, but rather the task force will look to get RSVPs from community members who want to attend and try to monitor the number of residents from each town so all towns are represented equally.

Work on the task force began in January of 2018 with the first eight months mostly involving data collection. The group, made up of school board community members from the district towns, collected all kinds of data to be used later, including doing surveys among community members at the polls last November. Once all the data was collected, the task force began formulating a plan to lead the district into the future.

“We can be proactive and have difficult conversations now, or we can wait until the enrollment drops down the road and be reactive and have those tough conversations anyway,” explained district employee Alyson Popa about the idea behind the task force.

At Monday’s meeting, each of the six task force members pitched a plan they felt was the best way for the district to move forward. Once all the ideas had been listened to, they focused on the central themes and started to work on what to present community members at the forum.

TOUGH DECISIONS

It wasn’t an easy task, but the upshot is this: the school district is faced with declining enrollments of as much as 30 percent fewer students within the next five years, which could make some of the smaller elementary schools candidates for consolidation. The task force struggled with what to do in that instance, with none of the members wanting to set specific parameters that would force a school to close.

The task force settled on the idea of setting specific numbers (both low and high) that would “trigger” a board discussion. For example, if a school reached a certain number of students (say 30 at the low end or 250 at the high end, K-6), then the school board would consider taking steps to either consolidate that school or perhaps encourage students of the larger schools to attend smaller schools.

The task force did not, however, set firm numbers that would “trigger” that discussion.

“We have to gain viability in those small schools,” board member Barry Varian said. “We need to show we’re investing in those school, making those schools viable by making strategic moves to uplift what is working well there.”

The members also discussed the possibility of moving boundaries within each town (just for school purposes) to change the enrollment numbers of the schools. That could help equal out the number of students that go to the two larger elementary schools, moving students away from Neshobe, which is nearing capacity, and towards Lothrop, which has room for over 50 more students.

“With those enrollment triggers bearing down on us,” said board member Barbara Ebling, “we are going to face difficult decisions.”

Some of the plans involved moving to a true middle school model, which would put sixth through eighth grades together, rather than having K-6 in the elementary schools and 7th-8th grades in the high school.

“What we have now is not a true middle school model,” said community member Mark Raishart. “We need a consolidated middle school.”

“People are concerned about bullying, and all the research shows a middle school model would be best,” added Naiomi Malay, a community member. “That doesn’t mean building a new building, but making OV as separate as possible; separate entrances and maybe start times, if possible.”

STATUS QUO, FOR NOW

But keeping the status quo, for the time being, was also a common refrain.

“I would advocate for no change to the present configuration of the schools,” task force chair Greg Bernhardt said. “Unless those enrollment triggers are met, at which point we may have to consolidate the small schools into one building, maybe Leicester, because it’s on Route 7.”

After three hours, the task force had not finalized a plan to present at the forum, but they had laid the groundwork.

For a start, the district will educate parents on school choice and the benefits of small schools vs. larger schools. “Some students do better at the larger schools,” Popa said. “And some thrive in the smaller school environment. With my kids, I can tell you this one would do better at a small school and this one wouldn’t, so it may not be just sending all the kids from a family to the same school.”

To that end, the district will look into prioritizing transportation so students who wanted to choose a different school would not have to spend hours on a bus to get there.

The task force also plans to set enrollment triggers, perhaps at its next meeting, that would institute a policy change to address viability on a rolling three-year average.

“Building viability among current schools builds credibility in the district,” Varian said. “After two failed bond votes, I feel that’s something we need.”

The next meeting of the task force will take place on April 24, at 6 p.m. at OVUHS. The community forum will be held on April 29, also at OVUHS. The opportunity for residents to attend that forum will soon be up on the district’s website at www.RNESU.org. The next OV school board meeting will be on Wednesday, April 3, at 6 p.m. in the OV library.

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